The Karaoke Room in the Land of the Morning Calm

The author is an attorney working for the Supreme Court. She is also secretary of the Court’s Manila Bay Advisory Committee, which was created to evaluate government agencies’ compliance with the Court’s 2008 decision ordering them to rehabilitate Manila Bay. This piece was published in the October 4, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Inside this particular karaoke room I met quite a few memorable individuals. There was the young Nepalese weather forecaster who asked me one night if “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a Filipino composition. On another occasion, a group of Afghans could not find any songs familiar to them so they decided to play their own music from someone’s mobile phone. The passion with which they danced and sang showed how homesick they were. On my last trip there, the room was transformed into a farewell party for Filipinos leaving the next day. They were NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) employees from different departments who chose to sing “Leaving On A Jet Plane” in unison.

The karaoke room is located at the sprawling International Cooperation Center in the new part of Seoul. It has been hosting people from all over the world as part of the Korean government’s efforts to reach out and give training and aid to so-called “emerging” countries. Its slogan for global cooperation is “Making the World Better Together.” Trainings offer a wide range, from urban planning to ASEAN trade and forensic investigation. Last month, there was also a pilot program involving local government executives from various Philippine cities and provinces.

The older generation, however, may remember that South Korea used to be very different from its present role as philanthropist. There was a time, long before Samsung and Hyundai’s global presence was felt and before K-pop had an international fan base, when South Korea was at the bottom of the economic ladder. It was one of the poorest countries after the war that divided Korea in the 1950s. United Nations troops, including more than 7,000 Filipino soldiers, had to help defend South Korea from attacks from North Koreans. South Koreans are thus justifiably proud that from an aid recipient and war-torn land, their country is now a recognized aid donor following its remarkable growth in the 1970s.

I had the good fortune to listen to the Korean experience and witness Korea’s hospitality, upon invitation to a program for government officials and employees. For three weeks, the Korean International Cooperation Agency or KOICA was home to 19 delegates from 11 countries invited to participate in a training course on environmental protection policy. The program was an excellent opportunity to see how South Korea’s advanced technology was being put to use in solid and liquid waste management and air and water quality monitoring.

As the lone participant from the Philippines and from the judiciary, I wondered how I would be able to contribute well to the discourse as most of the civil servants invited were technical experts from their home countries’ ministries of environment. During the country report session, I discussed the vital role of courts in ensuring that environmental cases such as the clean-up of Manila Bay are prioritized by the government. After I talked about the philosophy behind developments in the Court in the area of environmental protection, a discussion on environmental justice ensued. The other delegates agreed that environmental justice was a key issue. They further noted that the consumption levels of developed nations at the expense of developing nations was a common concern among our countries. My admiration for my classmates’ expertise thus also became an appreciation for where they came from and how their experiences mirrored ours in some ways. Rebecca from Uganda bemoaned how their good laws were useless because of low enforcement. Ahmed from Egypt showed photos of nature’s marvels that could only be found in his country, while Jean from Cote D’ Ivoire said that his ministry lacked sufficient funds for their waste management projects. Mohamed from Tunisia asked me to show a previous Powerpoint slide again and requested that I talk more about the curious-looking Philippine tarsier.

Quite an unforgettable moment came during a group presentation, when a delegate began discussing his view on “the myth of climate change.” This stoked an intense debate in the group and peaked with Dania from Ecuador becoming emotional. She said that the delegate’s mindset reminded her of the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, with the poorer countries getting the short end of the stick.

Aside from provoking passionate discussions, the program enabled us to see Korea’s foray into green technologies and it efforts to build a “resource-circulated society.” It was a well-rounded lecture-and-study visit course and the Korean experience in the area of environmental management, to KOICA’s credit, was presented from different perspectives. The program did not always just accentuate the positive. A speaker on water quality management noted that while Korea excelled in its model of economic growth, it belatedly realized that the quality of life of its citizens suffered as a result of its rapid industrialization. Another lecturer, a staunch Korean environmentalist, commented sadly that a law that prohibited the use of paper cups and bags was abrogated after successful lobbying by paper producers. It was clear that on one side were those supportive of the current administration’s environmental management policies, while on the other, there were those who doubted that the government was doing its best in striking a balance between growth and environmental considerations.

The sharing of cultures and the experiences, both good and bad, of governance in Korea and its guest countries, was an enriching and fruitful exercise. Perhaps in the future, another group from the same 11 countries can report on the best environmental protection practices their respective governments have adopted and the weaknesses they have overcome since our program’s conclusion. If KOICA graciously opens its doors again, I recommend a quick visit to its karaoke room to break the ice and foster global friendships. Heated debates over kimchi are optional.

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