Loosening teachers’ yokes
In Japan, a silent crisis is slowly creeping into its education system, now gripped by unsustainable workloads, inadequate support, and limited resources.
Concerned for the welfare of teachers, the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) presented seven demands to the government including more time for lesson preparations, smaller class sizes along with a trimmed curriculum; and a legal overhaul of all policies that hinder adequate support for teachers.
“While the Education Ministry does not understand the reality of educators working in schools, it determines policies, which is a problem,” said JTU president Takimoto Tsukasa during their national assembly last Jan. 23. “Dedicated educators work so hard they have ‘work-life unbalance.’”
The JTU’s calls were spurred in part by an internal survey showing that Japanese teachers were working an average of 11 hours a day. This tracked with a 2023 survey by the country’s education ministry, which showed that teachers were working more than 95 hours in overtime every month – way above health standard limits of 80 hours a month.
These numbers place teachers at a constant risk of “karoshi,” or death from overwork. In 2016, a junior high school teacher died of a stroke after working 137 hours of overtime in the month prior to his death, and an even more grueling 155 hours the month before that. A district court later granted his family 83 million yen (US$574,000) in damages after ruling that the city failed to manage his hours properly.
These dismal conditions are already turning off Japanese young people from pursuing a career in teaching, reported South China Morning Post. Beyond the taxing hours, public high school teachers in Japan earn an average of 400,000 yen (US$3,000) a month, which has not kept up with inflation. Plus, they are only paid a flat rate of 4 percent for overtime regardless of their workload.
Japan also spent less on education compared to other developing countries: in 2020, the East Asian country allocated 4.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to primary to tertiary educational institutions while OECD countries spent 5.1 percent of GDP on average.
No immunity from ‘white supremacy’
The alarming new case of a 16-year-old Singaporean student who identified as a “white supremacist” was proof that much still needed to be done to curb racism and radicalization in the multiracial country.
This was the view of both Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) as well as experts who said the student’s case called for public vigilance and government attention before it becomes a full-blown trend among the youth.
“While far-right extremist ideologies have not gained a significant foothold in Singapore, the cases of these two youths serve as a reminder that Singaporeans are not immune to such ideologies, and that there is a need to maintain vigilance,” the ISD said on Jan. 24.
The fact that Singapore has a second case “means that this space needs continued attention, awareness and timely intervention to prevent untoward incidents,” said Kalicharan Veera Singam, a senior analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
Shashi Jayakumar, executive director for SJK Geostrategic Advisory, also urged Singapore to consider the “de-radicalization model,” where the youth are taught psychosocial, life, and coping skills as they navigate complex questions about their identity.
Singaporean authorities issued a restriction order in January 2024 on the student who, despite being of Chinese ethnicity, identified as a white supremacist and expressed desires to attack minorities overseas.
It’s the second time the ISD used such measures following a similar case in 2020 involving another 16-year-old who harbored hostility towards Muslims.
These cases, Kalicharan said, showed how “extremism and extremists can come from any segment of our society, regardless of their racial and religious background.”
While the appeal of white supremacy among Singaporean youth may be “counterintuitive,” he said, its anti-Arab, anti-LGBTQI sentiments are broad enough to resonate with people of non-white backgrounds.
The city-state has sought to strengthen its legal framework on racial harmony, said Southeast Asian scholars Terence Chong and Khairulanwar Zaini. These include the repeal of its colonial-era Sedition Act and efforts to give stronger teeth to Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code criminalizing racist and religious hate speech; and moves to pass an Omnibus Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act to consolidate all laws related to racial issues.
Guarding against Islamophobia
Pakistan President Arif Alvi’s renewed call to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to show a united front against Islamophobia has put a spotlight anew on the surge in anti-Muslim hate across the world, particularly amid the Israel-Hamas war.
During a meeting with the outgoing ambassador of Tajikistan to Pakistan Ismatullo Nasredin, Alvi highlighted the need for Muslim-majority nations to tackle this global issue collectively.
This is not the first time that Arif or other Pakistani leaders have appealed to the 57-country-strong OIC – which acts as a collective voice for the Muslim world – to address this problem.
In July 2023, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif asked the OIC to build “legal and political deterrence against the rising incidents of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia,” reported Arab News.
Since the Oct. 7, 2023 attack by militant group Hamas on Israel and the retaliatory siege by Israel on Gaza Strip, Pakistan has doubled down on its calls, saying the deteriorating human rights situation in Muslim-majority Palestine where thousands have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were among the biggest challenges confronting the Muslim world.
Experts, however, believe that the violence in Palestine is also closely linked with Islamophobia. Corey Saylor, research and advocacy director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), noted that while Islamophobia has always been baked into Western society, the primary driving factor recently has really been “the genocide that’s going on in Gaza.”
This was especially true in the United States, which has recorded an “alarming rise” in anti-Muslim incidents since the Gaza conflict began. According to the CAIR, there was a 178 percent increase of complaints in the final quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022.
Beyond the U.S. and Europe, Islamophobia has spread to other parts of the world. “Today, it’s gone global,” said John Esposito, a professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, warns that Islamophobia has
Even Asia, home to several Muslim-majority countries, is also not immune to Islamophobia. Pakistan is especially wary of its neighbor India, which is accused of using the Israel-Palestine conflict to fan nationalist, anti-Muslim sentiments there.
Elsewhere in the region, Myanmar has been accused of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya Muslim population.
Side by side with a global spike in Islamophobia is a growing antisemitic hate, stoked by the Gaza conflict.
A regional scourge
In Southeast Asia, a deadly cocktail of technology and weakened rule of law is “supercharging” criminal networks in the region, prompting a U.N. expert to call on the region’s governments to act swiftly before they become too powerful.
U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s regional representative Jeremy Douglas said this could prove especially dangerous for vulnerable governments like those in the Mekong subregion (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), where drug smuggling and financial scams run rampant.
“If the absence of rule of law in the places where these businesses are operating is not addressed, then we’re going to see these criminal operations continue to grow, to metastasize. They will have greater global reach and an increased ability to defraud people or worse in other parts of the world,” he told U.N. News on Jan. 26.
Douglas’ comments follow the publication of a new UNODC report detailing how Southeast Asian casinos are fast becoming the convergence point for multiple crimes: cryptocurrency fraud, money laundering, human trafficking, and telecommunications scams.
The report cited Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines as the most at-risk, being “loosely regulated and (having) highly vulnerable jurisdictions.”
These criminal operations have also become hotbeds of gross human rights violations, particularly in Cambodia and conflict-riven Myanmar. At least 220,000 people are believed to have been trafficked in both countries and then held in scamming compounds in the casinos.
A separate analysis by the UNODC last year estimated that the scam industry “is earning crime groups the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars, with profits rivaling the GDP of some countries in the region.”
This problem is not lost on the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who last year issued its first ever declaration promising to crack down on such cybercrime hubs.
But there are “considerable implementation problems,” lamented University of South Wales, Canberra professor Mark Turner. Among others, cross-border cooperation among ASEAN nations has historically proved difficult because of the lack of standardized legislation, protocol and extradition agreements, he said.
Other countries have also expressed alarm over this issue, with the United Kingdom even declaring sanctions against individuals and firms allegedly involved in Southeast Asia’s “scam farms.” Interpol also launched major operations against trafficking “hot spots” in 27 countries whose victims were brought in and out of the region as forced labor, VOA reported.