Down the Malay Barrier 7.

Singapore is a microscopic island-country.  It should be poverty-stricken: it’s tiny and has no natural resources.  In fact, it is very prosperous.  It has a great port and it is located at one end of the Malacca Straits, a major world shipping channel between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.  Need fuel or repairs or supplies?  Stop in Singapore.  Picking up or dropping off a cargo for anywhere in Southeast Asia?  Stop in Singapore.  Business generates profits (ka-ching!) and those profits mean that Singapore is a good place to borrow money.  So, you’ve got a good idea for a pot plantation on a remote island or a new textile factory in Bangladesh or a TS brothel on Soi Cowboy?  Stop in Singapore.  These “core” businesses than send out local shock-waves.  What that means is that there are sky-scrapers, office buildings, and slums all over the place.  However, you can’t build these without construction workers.

In contrast, Bangladesh is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of poor people.  The “surplus” population is shoved off to work abroad in Malaysia, the Persian Gulf, and Singapore.  Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers abroad then send home part of their pay to the wife or mother back home.  These are called “remittances.”  The remittances help keep afloat the national economy.  At the same time, Karl Marx mistakenly described religion as “the opiate of the people.”  Truth is, sometimes it is the “speed” of the people.  A lot of miserable Bangladeshis have embraced radical Islam.  This scares the government of Bangladesh, so it locks up a lot of the leaders.

Singapore’s population is 74% of Chinese descent, 13.4% of Malay descent, 9.2% of Indian descent, and 3.3% of other descent.  About 15 percent of the population is Muslim.  In short, it is a Chinese island with a bunch of non-Chinese.  Most Muslims are immigrant laborers.

Sometime in the week of 17-24 January 2016, Singapore deported 27 men back to their home country of Bangladesh.[1]  The police in Singapore had suspected the men of being involved with Islamic militants.  They were all members of the same “study group”[2] that had turned to Islamic radicalism.  Singapore announced that the men were linked to Al Qaeda and/or ISIS, and that they had been planning terrorist attacks in Bangladesh.

The government of Bangladesh then charged 14 of the men as terrorists.  The other 13 were released to their families (whose addresses were, no doubt, noted for future reference).  The police said that the men held radical Islamist beliefs, but they hadn’t broken any law in Singapore.[3]  However, the government press release insisted that the accused were not affiliated with either Al Qaeda or ISIS.  They were just, you know, ordinary Islamist fanatics.  Possibly, the government suggested, they were linked to the opposition parties.  (Wink, wink.)  Nor were the men planning a terrorist act inside Bangladesh.  Nor had they been “radicalized” while they were in Bangladesh.  Instead, they had become radicalized while in Singapore.[4]

Singapore is a golden link in a chain of prosperity, poverty, and migration in South-East Asia.   That chain is now under stress.

[1] Julfikar Ali Manik, “Terrorism Charges Filed in Bangladesh Against 14 Men,” NYT, 24 January 2016.

[2] Probably they weren’t debating “what would Mohammad drive?”

[3] So, in Singapore you can be arrested and deported because the cops don’t like the look on your face.  Bear this in mind when you’re making vacation plans.  Still, see Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952).

[4] I still can’t give blood to the Red Cross because I was in France when there was an epidemic of “mad cow disease” and I might be a carrier.  (Certainly would explain the teaching evaluations.)  Same thing goes for the idea that Muslims had been radicalized in Bangladesh.  If people start thinking that Bangladeshi = suicide bomber, then no more labor permits for Bangladeshis.  No more remittances.  The whole country sinks even before global warming goes to work.

Down the Malay Barrier 6.

As the world measures these things, Bangladesh ranks 6th in population and 92nd in land area.  So, it is really crowded.  It has large natural gas reserves, both on- and off-shore, as well as a good deal of coal.  Otherwise it lacks natural resources beyond the rich soil that supports more than 40 percent of the population.  How is an environmentally-precarious, over-populated country that has scarce natural resources supposed to pay its way in the world and to raise the living standards of its people?

Bangladesh lives from its exports.  First and foremost, it exports cloth and ready-made clothing.  Better than 80 percent of the country’s exports in any given year are textiles or ready-made clothes bound for markets in Europe (60 percent) or North America (40 percent).  In 2013, Bangladesh had about 5,000 garment factories that employed 4 million people.  Most of these were women.[1]

Mostly they had moved as girls from rural villages in search of a better life.  One worker, profiled briefly in the New York Times, dropped out of school and left her village for the city when she was twelve.  She got a job in a garment factory, sitting at a little table and working a sewing machine for long hours turning out jeans too big for any Bangladeshi to wear.  She got paid $30 a month.  Modest enough, but it made a huge difference in the life of her family.  Most of it went for food, ending the danger of hunger.  She married and had a child.  She and her husband both worked.  Their earnings allowed them to rent a room for themselves, while sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other tenants.  Steady work allowed the parents to invest great hopes in their child: “I wanted people to say ‘Look, although his mother worked for a garment factory, her son is well educated and has a good job.”[2]

In a larger context, the story of Bangladesh is the story of the last quarter century of economic progress in the Developing World.  In 1990, 1.9 billion people (36 percent of the world’s population) earned less than $2.00 a day; by 2016, “only” 734 million people (10 percent of the world’s population) earned less than $2.00 a day.  Roughly, that means that 2.4 billion people who would have earned less than $2.00 a day, now earn more.

Pitiful as that advance may seem to many Western observers lounging in a Starbuck’s, it’s the difference between acute hunger—and the vulnerabilities to disease that malnutrition brings—and a full belly.  There haven’t been famines in the West since the Irish potato famine of the 1840s or the famines attending Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War.  They remained all too common in South Asia into recent times.[3]

Furthermore, economic progress gave the government the means to launch previously-unknown social programs: better health care and basic education (especially for girls).  However, like other Western amenities, unemployment insurance will have to wait for better times.

Now the Covid-19 economic slump has dried up global markets for ready-to-wear.  It has led to a million Bangladeshi textile workers being laid-off.  Shoved back toward poverty.

[1] https://oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/4368/Ready-made_garments_in_Bangladesh:_No_longer_a_forgotten_sector.html, and Elizabeth Paton, “Garment Workers Are Facing Ruin,” NYT, 2 April 2020.

[2] Maria Abi-Habib, “Millions Had Risen Out of Poverty.  Coronavirus Is Pulling Them Back,” NYT, 30 April 2020.

[3] See, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh_famine_of_1974

Down the Malay Barrier 4.

The Ganges River flows across most of northern India, draining the Himalaya Range.  Near its eastern/lower end it is joined by the Brahmaputra River.  Then the mighty river flows into the head of the Bay of Bengal.[1]  Along the way, the rivers carry immense mounts of earth.[2]  When the river approaches the waters of the bay, it slows down and the silt gets deposited along the shores.  This has created a huge delta.  Actually, it is the biggest delta in the world.  It is more than 200 miles across at its widest point and covers more than 40,000 square miles.  Bigger than the Nile delta, or the Mississippi delta, or the Amazon delta, or the Google delta.  Like other great deltas, the flow of water-born sediment has pushed the delta out toward the sea.  Over time, the delta has advanced an estimated 250 miles to the south.

The silt is rich in minerals and nutrients, so that the soil that builds up is excellent farm land.  With the river and many streams close at hand, it is easy to irrigate the land.  The soil is so rich that between 125 and 145 million people live in the delta.  (That is two-thirds of the population of Bangladesh.)  That works out to about 520 people per square mile.[3]  They grow rice, tea, and sisal.[4]

In addition to the human beings, the islands are inhabited by deer, pythons, eagles, crocodiles, elephants, woodpeckers, leopards, and some Bengal tigers (which occasionally invade villages for take-out).

The delta is not one big mass of land.  It is a maze of islands separated by rivers and streams.  The many islands are connected by “traditional” wooden ferry boats, rather than by bridges.[5]  Most of the delta is between 30 feet above sea-level and sea-level.  Indeed, if global warming caused enough of the polar ice pack to melt to raise the sea-levels everywhere by 20 inches, then 6 million delta residents would lose their homes and land.

The delta gets a lot of rain.  The monsoons drop from 59 to 79 inches of rain on the western part of the delta and from 79 to 118 inches in the eastern part.  All that rain is one of the things that makes rice-farming possible.  The run-off causes streams and rivers to rise.

Lying at the head of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges delta is the frequent target of tropical cyclones.  In the Atlantic these are known as hurricanes.  High winds (typically about 80 miles per hour), lots of rain, and big storm surges (water pushed ashore by the storm).  Tropical cyclones start in the south of the Bay of Bengal, then move northward toward the head of the bay at the Ganges delta.  This shoves a lot of water from deep water toward shallow water.  When it reaches shore it is called a storm surge.  Another problem is that the Ganges delta is densely populated (compared to the Jersey shore during hurricane season).  If they get a big storm, the water level suddenly rises, and many people drown.

What we see here is human beings living at the edge of two great natural physical processes.  The river has created a land that can support many people.  The monsoons of the Bay of Bengal make farming possible, but the cyclones push back the line of safe settlement.

[1] Bengal is in north-eastern India, so the Bay of Bengal is on the eastern side of the Indian sub-continent.

[2] Also, the remains of dead people who were cremated upriver and cast into the stream.

[3] The population density of Conshohocken, PA, is about 13,000/square mile.  However, Conshy is purely residential while the Ganges delta is mostly devoted to farm land.  So the concentration of people in farm villages is much greater than it sounds.

[4] Sisal is a fiber used to make twine.  I bought a roll in the Dollar General to tie up a bunch of small branches that had come down in the yard for trash day and to attach gingerbread cookies to the Christmas tree.

[5] If you read the New York Times, the ferries are overloaded all the time, and capsize all the time, and lots of passengers drown all the time.