Wednesday, November 13th, 2002
LET’S GO CANADA
The Washington Post reports this week that overall visa applications to the U.S have dropped by 30 percent in the past two months. The article entitled “Visa Disarray and Delay” points to bureaucratic logjams and a “let’s get tough” culture, which are significantly slowing down the flow of visitors, business people and foreign students to the United States.
International students who had previously been admitted to U.S. universities are currently in a “visa-limbo” waiting for decisions, and are now looking elsewhere. European universities are perceived as the biggest beneficiaries of a possible move away from the United States. Despite language difficulties for most foreign students, institutions in Scandinavia, Germany and France are very active (and successful) in promotion and recruitment. And of course in the U.K. and Ireland, institutions are experiencing record levels of interest and enrolments of international students.
One month since a coalition of conservative religious parties won enough seats in the Pakistan national election to place third among parties in the Pakistani parliament, there have been statements threatening education of women in the country. The coalition’s vice-president, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, said the alliance would “abolish coeducation, and set up separate universities for girls.”
While statements from fundamental religious elements often make sensational news (Jerry Falwell in the U.S. is a Western example) they need to be understood as to whether they carry any real persuasion among the wider population. The six-party religious alliance (MMA) has its power base in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan provinces, which make up less than 15% of the total population in the country. These provinces border on Afghanistan, and historically exhibit extremely macho-oriented perspectives and culture, yet have little to do with the reputable Pakistani academic institutions in the major cities of Karachi and Lahore and very little (if any) influence on education in the more secular aspects of Pakistani society. The religious parties make grabby headlines, but that’s a long way off from real education reform.
Is it safe to travel now? Not if you read, listen and pay attention to “travel advisories” from Western governments. Even as traditionally a safe destination as Singapore has been listed with a warning by U.S., British and Australian officials.
It used to be that most of these travel advisories did not affect many Westerners. It used to be they were for countries few wanted to travel to. But now, post-September 11 and post-Bali bombing, travel advisories have warned against travel to such traditional Asian tourist destinations as Thailand, Malaysia and yes, even Singapore. Is this action too extreme? Raymond Bonner, writing this week in the New York Times ponders:
“After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, no European government advised its citizens not to travel to the United States. Several of the hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, lived and plotted in Hamburg, yet no one has issued a travel warning against going to that northern German city. With a semi- authoritarian government, Singapore is probably as safe, if not safer, than Hamburg, or most cities in the world. Far from warning people to stay away after the Sept. 11 attacks, America’s leaders encouraged Americans to travel to New York, to support tourism, in a show of patriotic solidarity, and many world leaders did that.”
Bonner’s questions highlight the mystification regarding travel and subsequent fear and anxiety. By the very act of getting on a plane and going to a very different place (such as Asia) there is a certain amount of adventure and risk. All travellers must recognize this reality. But travellers also benefit from the perspective of being on the ground and gaining first-hand knowledge and experience. Anyone who has been to Singapore quickly realizes it is much safer than most Western cities of similar size.
It’s true that foreign missions are under a great deal of pressure to act with extreme caution when issuing travel advisories. The recent criticism of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, that his government did not forewarn its citizens about potential problems in Bali, reflects the tough spot politicians and bureaucrats find themselves in. Their inclination (and policy) is to say stay away, rather than be seen as indecisive.
As Raymond Bonner writes, “If there are no terrorist attacks, few people will criticize a government for issuing a warning, diplomats say. But if there is an attack, and the government has not protected itself by issuing a warning, there will be a high price to pay, they say.”
Over the Counter will return next week.