The international community had high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi

Is there still hope for Myanmar?

On November 8th 2015, I witnessed history in the making.

It was a humid day in Yangon and the streets were clogged with people waiting to hear the momentous result of the first democratic election in two and a half decades. The energy in the air was undeniable as citizens anticipated the country’s fate, but beyond the crowd and cheer, I followed the allure of a street side cart. Big mistake. The fried chicken rice I ordered would be responsible for nearly three days of agonizing diarrhoea and vomiting.

The hastily cooked rice tasted flawless at the time; street food can be deceptive like that. In hindsight, this could have been a premonition of the lingering disappointment and despair for the newly elected leader and former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, not a peace-maker

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ascended to her election victory after fifteen years in house arrest for her political activism against a brutal military dictatorship.  

The house arrest was an (unsuccessful) attempt to suppress her influence and leadership, but Aung San Suu Kyi continued to demonstrate her dedication to democracy and commitment to the country. The world had high hopes for Myanmar after a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy but unsurprisingly, the military held on to the keys to power, controlling the country’s resources and securing 25 per cent of parliamentary seats under the constitution.

In the early days of The Lady’s leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first mark as the de facto leader of the country by refusing to acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya at the hands of an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign by the military. This position would be largely unchanging in the coming years but the international community remained hopeful.

Aung San Suu Kyi echoed the claims of her Buddhist-majority supporters, refused to welcome a United Nations Fact Finding Mission and defended the military’s use of violence against the ‘illegal immigrants’. She was flaunting her political prowess domestically but in exchange, Aung San Suu Kyi pivoted from her dedication to human rights.

Today, the Rohingya remain unidentified and stateless, and almost 700,000  have fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. Without any concrete plans to address flagrant human rights abuses and obvious ethnic cleansing, Aung San Suu Kyi was revoked of the Ambassador of Conscience Award for her refusal to speak out against the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslim minorities.

The skeleton is out of the closet

The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded a year-long investigation into allegations of human rights violations in August 2018. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to welcome the fact-finding committee into the country, but after witness testimonies and verified evidence from neighbouring Bangladesh, the report recommends:

  • The United Nations Security Council should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to undergo an investigation into allegations of genocide
  • The Security Council is urged to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and penalize those most responsible for crimes with travel bans and a freeze on assets.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi and her government should pivot governmental policy on the Rohingya immediately, as an act of omission is also considered an atrocity

With growing evidence to depict genocidal intent and ethnic cleansing, the future of democracy in Myanmar is questionable and bleak.

During the historic election in 2015, I wrote about Myanmar’s young voters who were optimistic at the thought of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election. Three years later, the sentiment around the world is drastically different, and as the Washington Post describes, Myanmar’s dreams for democracy are more like a ‘nightmarish reality’.

Recently, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced intentions to welcome back its first group of refugees from Bangladesh, but UN agencies are sceptical, stating that Rohingya families should return to what’s left of their former villages when they feel it is safe to do so.

International pressure and coercion through diplomacy and sanctions has incentivised the country towards democracy in the past and may prompt the government to prioritise the human dignity and rights of its ethnic minorities. Recognition of Rohingya citizenship, an end to the nationwide ethnic conflict, and a guarantee of economic, social and cultural rights for all people are long overdue.

In the case of ongoing crime, international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court may be the only hope of attaining justice for the Rohingya and holding Myanmar’s military leaders accountable for the alleged crime of genocide.


Korean migrant workers remain unfairly treated

The sour reality of Korean migrant workers

Visa holders and migrant workers in Australia are vulnerable in the workplace due to a number of factors. On July 1st 2018, Australia’s minimum wage was raised by 3.5 cents – from $18.29 an hour to $18.93 an hour. While a small, forward step for many, a silent immigrant working class remain left behind…

Unfair Wages Remains a Reality for Korean Visa Holders

Sue* opens the door with weary-eyes, but the wrinkles around her eyes are overshadowed by her bright and youthful smile.

Sue is 59 years old and at home, she likes to wear matching tracksuits and keeps her hair short and neat. The immigrant from Korea rents out a small bedroom in the Asian dominated suburb of Eastwood. She chose the sublet room for its close proximity to the Korean restaurant where she has worked for over nine months.

“Most days, I work nine AM to nine PM. It’s mostly standing all day, but I do get to sit down and eat lunch between three or four PM when there are no customers. Korean customers eat sporadically,” she explains in her native Korean language.

When Sue first arrived in Australia, she worked for her sister’s restaurant where conditions were easier, but after the store shut down, she began her search for alternative employment.   

An ad for ‘kitchen hand’ was listed in an online forum Hojunara, and like many young and old immigrants from Korea, it’s the first point of reference. Sue had worked in a variety of hospitality roles in Korea so she was hardly nervous when the small business owner invited her to start working.

“The hours are more or less the same as Korea, and the work conditions are also similar. But, here I’m getting paid better,” says Sue.

By ‘better’, she is referring to her pay rate of $16 per hour, less than the minimum wage.  

I know lots of Australians get paid something like $20 to $25 an hour but I can’t find a role like that if I can’t speak good English and everywhere here is the same.

With only a verbal agreement of wages and working hours, Sue’s employer remains exempt from complying with minimum wages, superannuation contributions or overtime rates. Employee benefits such as annual leave are out of the question, and for most Korean owned and operated restaurants, penalty rates for public holiday hours rarely apply.

Immigrant workers reluctant to seek help for fear of visa cancellations

Australia plays host to a largely silent class of immigrant workers that remain vulnerable to exploitation and are unprotected from the law. The ‘cash-in-hand’ arrangement is not a foreign concept for those on a Working Holiday Visa, 457 Visa or recent arrivals to Australia, who get paid less than the minimum wage, but many are reluctant to seek help for a perceived fear of a visa cancellation.

A range of educational and multi-language resources are available online, as well as an Anonymous Reporting tool for all employers and employees on the Government’s Fair Work website. A spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman says that despite the available resources, a lack of awareness of rights and available resources contributes to persistent underpayment of Korean visa-holders.

“We know that fears of visa cancellation may prevent many visa holders, including Korean nationals, from seeking workplace help from us.”

“A person’s temporary visa will not be cancelled if they had an entitlement to work as part of their visa, believe they have been exploited at work, have reported their circumstances to us and are actively assisting us in an investigation..”, explained a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.  

Businesses continue to underpay immigrant workers

Reports of underpaid migrant workers began to surface in 2016, prompting a government report into ‘The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders’. Despite the enforcement of large fines on businesses and agents caught exploiting immigrant workers, underpaid workers are still in demand. According to a recent audit by Unions NSW, approximately four out of five jobs that target Chinese, Korean, and Spanish speakers, were advertised with illegal wages.

In 2016, The Fair Work Ombudsman launched a Korean Australian Engagement Strategy, to raise awareness amongst business leaders and stakeholders in the Korean community to educate Korean employers and employees about Australian workplace laws.

“We are also actively seeking to dispel the myth that it’s OK to pay migrant and visa holders a ‘going rate’ that undercuts the lawful minimum wage rates that apply in Australia,” said a spokesperson for the Fair Work Ombudsman.

According to Sue, tax evasion is a common occurrence among small Korean businesses and interlinked with unfair wages.

“Store owners only go to Korean tax agents who know the Australian laws very well. They don’t have to declare how much staff they have or how much earn and pay. It’s expected everywhere you go,” she says.  

Sue dreams to apply for a new job in Aged Care. She hopes her current situation is only temporary, but many remain in her situation.

“I am learning English in my room every day so I can be hired to work with an Australian company. That’s what I’m saving up and waiting for these days…” she said.

*Names have been changed for this story. 

Streetwear label speaks up about gender inequality

Every dollar we spend is a monetary vote, demonstrating demand and indicating what we deem valuable. From plastic bottles to cotton T-shirts – what we choose to consume has short and long-term impacts on the lives of people.

LISNUP is a modern streetwear label that goes beyond the latest trends. Instead, each item gives consumers an opportunity to donate a part of the cost to a charity of their choice.

Adam Khafif, founder of LISNUP, started the streetwear line at age 15 with a vision to rally people to ‘listen up’ and support the issues of the day. Today, his social enterprise inspires a fashion-forward and social media literate generation to pay attention to issues such as human trafficking, youth homelessness, and gender inequality.

Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 1.49.04 pm

“The current logo is inspired by Basquiat, who said ‘I cross out words so you will see them more. The fact that they’re obscured makes you want to read them.’ I felt this fits perfectly with what I’m trying to accomplish – making people pay attention in one way or another.”

LISNUP takes a spin on the social enterprise model – giving consumers the option to select where their money is invested.

“The point of LISNUP is that each person takes away something different, from both the message and the mission. I choose nonprofits that each focus on a different cause to allow for a more personalized experience for the buyer.”

For Adam, the collaboration between a message and a design is an organic process that cannot be forced. In some instances, it can take up to two years to conceptualise the right design to pair with an issue, and every message on a LISNUP collaboration is personal to Adam.

“Usually, a theme, a lyric or a quote will sit in my head for a while before I work on it. I never want to force a message or force a process… Over time I think of different messages and different visuals, and try to pair them up in my head…,” explained Adam.

Hype and street cred are important currencies for fashion designers and streetwear enthusiasts but for Adam, his streetwear designs involve a conversation about complex issues of the day.

“I chose streetwear because I saw fashion as music… It’s a blank canvas, the same as a beat, and it’s up to the designer to write to it.

A shirt is a track, with endless possibilities. You can sing on it or rap on it, you can choose to put out a meaningful message or you can put out something that just sounds good.

Introducing ‘Career Woman’:

‘Career Woman’ is LISNUP’s most recent collab. On the canvas of a blue Champion crewneck, a pop art image of a crying woman is depicted with the text “what do I need to do to get paid like a man?”

The idea presented itself as Adam witnessed his wife’s ongoing battle for fair wages and realised the breadth and depth of gender inequality.

I’m married to an incredible journalist/entrepreneur and I’ve seen the Hell that she goes through trying to get paid fairly, so it’s definitely been at top of mind the last few years…” he said.

CW_ 1

The career woman line first caught my eye on Instagram for its bold colours and exclusivity, the caption stating “The only way to get access to this new piece is to DM @Adamkhafif on IG for the password.”

So I reached out to him (#fangirl) and here’s what Adam had to say about the Career Woman line:

It’s a full-circle concept…

Champion sweaters, popular in the 90s, made a comeback into pop culture through a series of versatile collaborations with coveted streetwear brands such as Supreme, Vetements, Undefeated and A Bathing Ape. The iconic logo has since been revived, picked up by icons Chance the Rapper and Kylie Jenner.

Adam strategically aligned his message with the Champion brand, recalling his childhood home where his parents’ closet was stocked with Champion sweaters.

Since pop art gives off a retro feel, using a brand that gives off a similar nostalgia just adds to the full-circle concept,” he said.

With a multi-layered message

When Adam commissioned his idea to artist Kara Underwood, he noticed the ‘whiteness’ of historic pop art and the lack of mainstream pop art pieces that represent minorities.

The first version was unimpressive, and by that I mean, it looked like every other pop art piece: white.

After discussions with his wife, exploring how factors like race and sexual orientation can affect gender discrimination, the design was iterated to feature an ethnically ambiguous character.

The layers are my favourite part of the design…As a male, it’s easy for me to put a feminist quote on a shirt and sell a buttload, but it’s different to actually understand the layers and understand that even in gender discrimination, not all women are treated equally,” he explained.

“Depending on ethnicity, minority women make roughly 15% less than white women. The design wouldn’t be complete without recognizing the inequality across the board.”

It’s actually a simple problem

👨🏼= 10
👨🏾 = 7
👩🏼= 8 💰
👩🏾= 6.5 💰

Another eye-catching element of Career Woman is in the effective use of emojis to simply explain the problem and appeal to a social media savvy generation.

I think younger people are actually more in tune with social issues because everything today is about being PC and they didn’t have as much time to grow up conditioned to think a certain way about masculinity or race, etc. They were basically born on social media… it’s so much more dynamic,” he explains.

Food for thought: Gender Inequality in Australia

Across the world, women consistently earn less than men and are concentrated in the lowest-paid and least secure forms of work. In Australia, the gender pay gap is below the global average of 23 per cent, but the reality of the difference still exists. Here’s a quick snapshot of key stats from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 report on gender equality:


In Australia, the wage gap is 15.3 per cent – that means for every one dollar a male makes, a woman makes 15 per cent less (based on the average full-time weekly wage).

According to the report, 47 per cent of the workforce in 2018 are women but across the private and public sector, women are over-represented in low-paid, part-time roles and remain under-represented in leadership positions. Astonishingly, Australian women will also have to work an extra 56 days a year to earn the same pay as men for doing the same work.

In light of the current wage disparity, the average superannuation balance for women at retirement (aged 60-64) is 42.0% lower than those for men. When we add this up, Australian women who reach retirement will have an average of $113,660 less superannuation than the average male. 

*Read more about sex discrimination in the workplace here and show LISNUP some love here.

Money on my mind: Visiting North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

Eyes are on Singapore as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepare to hold a historic meeting on June 12. It’s anticipated that discussions between the two leaders will touch on nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Trump wants the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons but the way forward may be economically charged. It could be wishful thinking but many are hoping for real, lasting change…

A visit to North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

If money could talk, the coins and currencies in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones would testify to the potential for change in the world’s most reclusive nation.

Last year, I visited the northernmost province of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where I was exposed to commune farms and hillside livelihoods close to the border of China. People warned it would be like stepping into a time machine. And in some ways, it was like I had stepped out of the busyness of the metropolis world I knew, into rural 1960s Korea.

IMG_0047On the last day, we crossed into Rajin Sombong (Rason), a Special Economic Zone in the DPRK and the change was immediately visible.

Dirt roads gave way to stretches of concrete paths and locals wore fancier coats than their comrades in other parts of the country. Its roadside buildings were taller and wider, and wait, did I just see a taxi?

Competing taxi companies are big business in Rason, which also explains the few petrol stations we saw across the Special Economic Zone. We weaved past factories, not empty after the United Nations economic sanctions, and noticed the Emperor Casino, valued at $64 million, catering to affluent Chinese tourists.

The difference in living standards between Rason and its neighbouring provinces was profound but it sparked a degree of hope and curiosity during my visit. Foreign investment may just be the vehicle for change in a country ravaged by the worst drought in 16 years, and burdened by a struggling population.

“Welcome to this special economic zone, It’s a lot more free-er here” said our tour guide.

What’s so ‘special’ about Special Economic Zones?

Development in NKA Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has ‘special’ rules, concessions and benefits for trade. Foreign-owned companies can set up shop in these zones, along with any production facilities that can help it attract the foreign investment it needs.

DPRK’s leader Kim Jong-un began experimenting with a dozen SEZs in 2013 to foster economic development. The area of Rason, short for Rajin-Sonbong, was the first type of Special Economic Zone to be set up in 1991.

The Special Economic Zone is similar to China back in the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping began experimenting with foreign investment before opening the country up to the world. Unlike its Chinese brethren, SEZs in North Korea has largely been a means of containing foreign investment from the rest of the country.

Associate Professor in International Relations and Comparative Politics, Justin Hastings says SEZs benefit locals by enabling a means of income, taking home what’s left after the government’s cut of the pie.

Streets of North Korea“Locals can see how enterprises work and have the chance to interact with non-North Koreans. Although the government tries to minimise that as much as possible, a couple of locals are benefiting and you can argue that it’s better than nothing,” he said.

“We tend to think of North Korea as isolated, but the country can be fairly encouraging of foreign business because they want your money and investment. Informally, North Koreans want to develop – they want to learn how to play the market and build companies that will function. Foreign investment is a learning process to do that,” said Prof. Hastings.

According to Prof. Hastings, the best case scenario from SEZs is to see the spread of foreign investment across the country, in hopes it will lead to internal development.

Despite his hopes that foreign investment will help the local population, Prof. Hastings says realistically, foreign investment alone is unlikely to cause a major sea change.

As Kim Jong-un continues to pivot and prioritise economic development, tomorrow’s meeting with President Trump will either propel North Korea’s economic development or add to the existing pressure from UN sanctions. One can only hope.

*Read more about my trip to North Korea last April or view more travel stories here.

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asian-australian identity

Does my surname sound too Asian?

It all started with Dad. At some point during high school, as my primary guardian, he began signing my school papers with ‘Young’ instead of ‘Yang’.My dad was always a joker and in the nonchalant manner in which he spoke about the name change, it seemed almost like a normal thing to do.  I didn’t concern myself much with the difference between his last name and mine – until the anomaly became a permanent alteration.

At the dining table one evening, my dad informed the family he had legally changed his last name to ‘Young’.  My grandmother also lived with us at the time but instead of responding with confusion, she only laughed when my dad mocked the surname ‘Yang’.

w_ dadHe explained his new name made him sound ‘less Asian’ — especially when paired with his white-sounding first name, Earl. Dad had moved to Australia from Korea at a time when being Asian was more of condition than a cultural inheritance. As a labourer, he spent his early working years representing a coloured minority and to this day, he enjoys every opportunity to accentuate his Aussie accent.

Dad speaks English as well as the next white Australian and he’s competent at a variety of skilled and strategic jobs. So why not shift a few letters in his surname and be seen as equals — he thought — at least on paper? It was a radical, but ingenious move. And one that he encouraged me to consider “for the sake of my future” once I turned 18.

Attempting to bypass career stereotypes with my fake surname

My surname only started to become a practical hindrance in my early university years, when job applications and career decisions came to play. With each resume and cover letter I crafted, I became more acutely aware of my ‘Asianness’ and through an innocent shifting of two little letters, I attempted to erase the striking orientality from my name.

At university, I yearned to become a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I coveted were few and far between. There was a plethora of Asians who were bankers, accountants or lawyers but in areas of public life, it seemed Asian names didn’t get a chance to shine.

A name is like a map, a blueprint to where we’re headed and who we’re meant to be in this world.

professional identity as an asian australian

A change in my Gmail setting was all it took to rid of my Asian last name and the career stereotypes that accompanied it. Like Dad, I was curious to see how far a last name like ‘Young’ could take me but before I knew it, I’d submitted more than a dozen job application with my partly-fake last name.

As I applied for writing internships at newspapers and different marketing departments, my adjusted surname gave me the reassurance that I had an equal chance at a role and least an unsuccessful application had nothing to do with my ethnicity.

I wanted to relieve the burden of superseding the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV. I double, triple, quadruple checked each sentence because, with a last name like ‘Yang’, I assumed even an iota of error was unforgivable. The simple act of signing off as ‘Shona Young’ meant I no longer felt the need to prove myself with flawlessly crafted emails and exceptional English. This is what being white must feel like, I thought. With two or more emails signed off as ‘Shona Young’, I began to grow accustomed to the effect my Anglo pen-name had on my shy Korean self.

Job hunts as an Asian AustralianI hung on to my ‘fake’ surname until the end of university, when I came clean the moment I landed my first part-time job in the marketing department of a small technology company. They didn’t seem to notice the inconsistency of my surname on my email signature and my financial documents. The official paperwork was completed and from payslips to business cards and company email addresses, once again my real name was on full display.

Only this time around, I had an opportunity to build it up with my own hard work. Each blog post I’d written for the company was penned with ‘Shona Yang’ and my every milestone was congratulated. I may not be able to change my ethnicity, but I found myself carving out a new future beyond just an Asian name. Like many others, it was the chance I had waited for.

Asian-Australians are still underrepresented

In recent years, there has been a growing number of Asian-Australians surfacing in prominent positions; some with a surname that is more difficult to pronounce than others.

There is still a long way to go for an Asian-Australian however, who remain underrepresented in public forums, on screens and in leadership positions. According to this year’s Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership by the Human Rights Commission, professionals from a non-European or Indigenous background only account for 5 percent of leadership positions amongst Australia’s ASX 200 companies.

Only 2.7 percent of non-Europeans currently occupy C-level positions and it’s safe to say that cultural diversity and equal representation is yet to be a common occurrence in Australia’s public and corporate realms.

Asian australians

Unlike my Dad, I could never justify a complete change in my name. Now, after having worked alongside talented men and women with Asian last names and a growing body of work I can call my own, I have reverted my Gmail signature and LinkedIn profiles back to ‘Shona Yang’. There are times when I still wonder whether I am being judged by my name, but I’m also starting to see the unique privilege that comes with it. It is a heritage, a pillar of my identity and a chance to resist stereotypes that are still pervasive in our society. As for my Dad — for better or worse — his name remains Earl Young.