Business World, 24 May 2015


Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” is the tale I share with my students to welcome the Christmas break. A little girl, clad in rags, blue with cold, and ravaged by hunger, was hawking matches to passing churchgoers and townspeople on a New Year’s Eve. Winter ruled in its near-arctic majesty. The little girl ambled along, one foot unshod, having lost a shoe when sideswiped by a speeding carriage and a little tyke made off with it. She could see and smell the roast from the window in every home. She dared not go home herself because she hadn’t sold a match and her father would beat her up if she came home empty-handed. At her wits’ end, she started striking the matches which gave her fleeting mirages of love and warmth. On the first day of the year, the townspeople found her cold and dead.

How such a tableau of utter wretchedness was painted by a forebear of a nation synonymous with order, reverence for rules and social compassion is a source of fascination. Wrote G. Keillor for National Geographic about Danes in 1998: “People stand on the curb and wait for the red light to change, even if it’s 2 a.m., and there’s not a car in sight. The red light is part of the system: You cross against it and you are showing disdain for your countrymen.” To parody a famous quote inspired by that other Danish original, existentialism, “You and the rules are one.”

How could the townspeople — forebears of this remarkable community — be so blind to the fate of the little girl? Were they of the same DNA as the Danes of today? I found a hint in the same account by G. Keillor: “I feel sheepish waiting for the red light, so I cross, and several times I discovered that Danish drivers don’t slow down for jaywalkers. They don’t see you in the crosswalk because you’re not supposed to be there.” The townspeople could not see the tragedy unfolding in their midst because it was an utter incongruity. We do not see with our eyes; we see with our cerebral cortex. Not being part of the nexus of cortical expectations, the little girl and her silent scream were invisible. But Denmark today owes much to this selective blindness.

Denmark in the 18th century was poor and survival in the harsh Norse land was precarious. What stood between extinction and the community was order and cooperation — everyone doing his/her part in the grand survival project. Adults work together like ants in the summer to store food and, yes, matches and fuelwood for the family in winter. The little match girl’s father defied this order; he opted to be a guitar-lugging grasshopper, a wastrel who forced his little girl to earn the family’s provenance. He and his strain must be neutralized. The little girl, bearer of his strain, sadly had to go too. And Hans Christian Anderson was not about to slight this covenant by giving the little girl a fairy tale out. Verily, the sin of the parent visited on the child. But biology at the edge has no regard for contemporary sensitivity.

Nor did the Danes stop at blindsightedness as countermeasure. For most of its modern history, Denmark, like most other European nations, employed a royal government executioner called a skarpretter (headsman) to chop the heads off sowers of disorder. The death penalty was finally abolished only in 1978 when affluence had become commonplace. The result is that Denmark today is a highly ordered society of rule-reverent citizens, poised like a ferromagnet’s coherent electron spins, to accomplish great things.

And Joko Widodo? Over the deafening howl of protest from the West, the Indonesian President ordered on April 30 the execution of eight convicted drug traffickers. “This is our legal sovereignty,” he asserted defiantly. “Don’t ask me again.”

The spin favored in the West is reflected by Elisabeth Pisani, writing in The New Yorker: “Widodo, however, is far too weak politically to have hesitated over these issues. He desperately needed to signal his strength at home, and he could most easily do that through the crack of the firing squad. He doesn’t give a fig how it sounds to the rest of the world.” If you don’t bow to the West’s bidding, you are weak, if not in the head then in the polls. Thankfully, Widodo has Indonesia’s good in mind.

Indonesia is a poor economy on the rise. Its most important asset is a people pulling together in the same direction. It cannot afford its social fabric being rent by foreign subversives, ISIS or drug runners. The enforcement of its laws — however harsh — is, at this stage, necessary to erect the rule of law without which catch-up sputters as it does in the Philippines. Evolutionary biology or economics tells us that a Denmark-like cooperative polity cannot emerge on the soil of pervasive forgiveness of malfeasance. The adoption by less developed countries of the affluent West’s ethical standards increasingly privileging individual over community rights may actually hinder their capacity for social coherence and economic catch-up. The acclaimed — albeit controversial — volume Kicking Away the Ladder argues that the now affluent West has anathemized economic paths which they themselves took when they were poor — thus “kicking the ladder” for late-comers. The same may be truer of ethical and even social standards.

I attended a National Academy of Science and Technology roundtable on the health hazards of using antibiotics in meat production while writing this. Something seemed oddly missing amid the technical analyses: the standards used were largely OECD where the problem has long ago moved to overdose and obesity. Most Filipinos outside Dasmariñas Village are faced not with nutritional overdose but with massive nutritional deficiency. At the moment, our children will be better served with “more” protein than with “less but Brussels-compliant” protein.

Widodo has weighed in on this fateful debate. I salute him and am proud to be of the same race.