A letter from Pakistan

Pakistan Monument, Islamabad.

The past two months of the end of this year have been incredibly busy and kept my mind and heart way too occupied from any writing or even “unwritten” moments of self-reflections. But no amounts of exhaustion or other circumstances shall prevent me from penning down anything about my latest overseas trip – the first-ever one to South Asia – in which I have just returned from a week-long visit to the two cities of Lahore and the capital Islamabad in Pakistan.

Since the last time that I published a blog post (in mid-October), I had been on multiple airborne work trips, one after another, prior to coming to Pakistan. Given the vast and complicated archipelagic landscape of Indonesia, most of my work trips have required air transportation as the main mode of getting around the country.

In October, I attended the 2nd Archipelagic and Island States Forum (AIS) held in the city of Manado in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi Province. Initiated by the Government of Indonesia, the forum now formally has 21 member states signed to the Manado Joint Declaration of 2017. Given the perceived decline of multilateralism on numerous global issues these days, this forum is now seen as a much needed multilateral platform for discussing solutions to mitigate rapid climate change affecting these member states most peculiarly. Next year, the forum will be held at the presidential level, which may (and only may) demonstrate a clearer willpower of the governments of these member states to translate the forum’s commitments into more concrete regulatory, as opposed to eventful, actions against rapid climate change.

Between November and December, I paid two visits to the border areas of Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The first visit took place in Oesilo, a rural village district in Oe-Cusse Special Administrative Region, Timor-Leste. Challenging terrain, isolation and harsh climate conditions make Oesilo perhaps one of the most poverty-ridden, remote and “left behind” parts of Timor-Leste. This was part of a UN-led senior official mission to this district, which was notably also attended by Norway’s Ambassador to Indonesia and Timor-Leste and UNDP Indonesia’s Resident Representative. My second visit took place in the same border areas, in addition to another rural village (Napan) in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara Province, for the purpose of conducting quarterly field survey data collection.

Straight from Timor-Leste, I arrived in Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab Province with a physical mind still fixated at an outdoor temperature range from 32 to 36 degree celsius. Upon landing and walking out of the plane during midnight in Allama Iqbal International Airport, named after one of Pakistan’s national poets, I found Lahore to be surprisingly cold and foggy (around 5 celsius degrees), in spite of a local person having jokingly emphasized that I got “Norwegian blood” to cope with the weather.

Pakistan is a hidden gem compared to some of its other South Asian neighbouring countries, which either fall into the categories of: 1) being more well-known tourist destinations (India with 10.56 million foreign arrivals in 2019 and Sri Lanka with 1.6 million foreign arrivals so far in 2019), or 2) rising sub-regional economic powerhouses (Bangladesh, see #1 and #2). While official tourism statistics of Pakistan are yet to be revealed for 2019, the number of foreign arrivals this year is optimistically speculated to be around 1.2 million. Yet, for 2018 Pakistan’s Tourism Development Corporation disclosed that the number of foreigners visiting the country on tourist visas was at a meager 17,823 people. At present, only five countries in the world are eligible for visa-free entry into Pakistan. Figure 1 below shows the number of arrivals for international tourism in South Asian countries over time:

Source: World Bank (2019).

In spite of the untapped beauty of Pakistan for tourism, especially its Northern Areas (see Gilgit-Baltistan), the country together with Afghanistan has nevertheless overall suffered from the “curse of geography“, politically and economically speaking. Both internal and external security threats and wars have partly detached vast amounts of resources and policy focus away from necessary investments into productive sectors key to development, such as human capital (education and health) and more global value chains-integrated and large-scale exports industries. Instead, such threats have partly justified for a prolonged military rule and its deep benevolent influence over the country’s civilian politics and long-awaited democratization ever since independence in 1947.

A placard seen in central Islamabad saying “Hero of the Nation”. At the time of my visit to Islamabad, Pakistan’s Supreme Court had just given the death sentence to former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The court decision irked some groups, including the army.

In 2018, Pakistan’s military spending reached 4% of its GDP at US$11.4 billion, the highest level since 2004 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The same institute declared Pakistan as among the top 10 countries with the highest “military burden” (defined as military expenditure as a share of GDP). Figure 2 below shows how Pakistan’s military spending as a share of its GDP has historically fluctuated by major wars and conflicts involving the country: either directly, including the wars with India in 1965 and 1971 (in which the 1971 war ended up with the birth of Bangladesh) or indirectly, most notably the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War. During the latter war, Pakistan was not only pressured by the influx of Afghan refugees, but also went through a phase of “islamisation” of its own internal politics during the notorious rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. This happened in conjuncture with Pakistan’s backing of the Afghan mujahideens against the Soviet Union. It was during this period that Pakistan, while renamed as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1973, slowly but steadily allegedly abandoned the more secular vision of statehood of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (see #1, #2), seen as Pakistan’s founding father and champion of the rights of the Indian sub-continent’s Muslims during British colonial rule.

Source: World Bank (2019).

Pakistan’s army recently agreed to freeze its spending share of GDP in the upcoming fiscal year of 2020 after Prime Minister Imran Khan managed to clinch a US$6 billion bailout deal with the IMF in early July this year. This deal became the IMF’s 13th bailout for Pakistan, which is battling with unmanageable high public debt levels and weak economic growth.

Given the necessity of any aspiring top politician or lawmaker in the country to strike a delicate balance with the army and its loyalists in society, elections have seemingly turned into occasions for any Pakistani government to resort to excessive budgetary spending, as opposed to exercising greater accountability, particularly in the areas of defense, government payrolls and pensions, and subsidies (e.g. see “Pakistan, Politics and Political Business Cycles” by Gernot Sieg and Irem Batool). As of September 2019, Pakistan’s gross public debt (the sum of gross domestic debt, gross external debt, and IMF debt) as a share of its GDP had galloped at 78.6% according to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBoP). This is far beyond the country’s own set target of managing a public debt-to-GDP ratio below 60% (as defined by the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act of 2005), which also happens to be the ceiling used for eurozone member states (as defined by the Stability and Growth Pact). Accompanied by other unfavourable trends, including rupee depreciation and low government net revenue, Pakistan’s Minister of Finance Asad Umar recently admitted that the risks of bankruptcy are running high. For Pakistan, this is neither the first nor likely the last time.

My first serious encounter with Pakistan was during a job recruitment round with The Economist a few years ago. Beside an hour of preparing some macroeconomic data in spreadsheets, I was additionally asked to spend another hour writing a report analysing (i) the upside and downside risks of the overall outlook of Pakistan’s economy, (ii) various issues facing the economy and (iii) whether and why an IMF bailout is likely or not. This task was nothing less but intimidatingly challenging, as my knowledge about Pakistan was extremely limited prior to this task. Usually, when people seek to nurture a genuine interest or expertise on South Asia, India tends to be the predominant choice or starting point. This has more or less happened in similar fashion among plentiful scholars of Southeast Asia, in terms of how many of those have been attracted to the study of Indonesia as their main base of knowledge on Southeast Asia.

I had quite a few classmates of Pakistani origin while attending school in Norway. At present, there are about 38 000 Norwegian Pakistanis living in Norway according to Statistics Norway, comprising about 4% of Norway’s total immigrant population (roughly 950 000 people, which is almost 1/5 of Norway’s total population). Coincidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Norwegian-Pakistani to have arrived in Norway. Norwegian-Pakistanis were among the earliest non-Western immigrant groups to have come to Norway, starting from the late 1970s. In those years, Norway was just about to enjoy its first major economic boom since World War II. Until the early 1980s, Norway was one of Europe’s poorest countries. Many Norwegian-Pakistanis arrived as labour migrants before eventually venturing into owning businesses or becoming top politicians, benefiting Norway’s local economy and society remarkably. The voting (and generally political) participation of Norwegian-Pakistanis has been fairly impressive over time: around 61% of Norwegian-Pakistanis voted during the 2017 parliamentary election compared to the national average of 63%.

Overview of Lahore’s Old Town seen from one of the minarets of Wazir Khan Mosque.

Lahore today is one of the most ancient cities to be found in the Indian sub-continent, with at least a 2,000-year-long culturally rich and proud history behind it. This was quite evident by my visits to some of the city’s historical sites, especially those built during the Mughal era, including the Badshahi Mosque (completed in 1673 AD and today the second largest mosque in Pakistan); Wazir Khan Mosque (completed in 1644 AD); Lahore Fort (a citadel first built in 1566 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 20 hectares). The Mughal era was a time in which Islamic art, architecture, literature and philosophy in particular flourished throughout the Indian sub-continent.

As I walked around in the rusty street alleys of Lahore’s Old Town, or more formally known as the Walled City of Lahore, I kept whispering to myself that I was “walking back in history”. You know that you’ve entered the old town once seeing a few high brick entrance gates surrounding it, including the Delhi Gate, built in the direction toward today’s New Delhi in India. The several entrance gates that I observed, pointing in the direction of other major cities of the Indian sub-continent generally symbolise Lahore’s historic reputation as a more open and tolerant place for business, commerce, faiths and ideas.

A “haveli” balcony seen in Lahore’s Old Town, Pakistan.

It is not often that I have the chance to randomly pass by an old brown-wooden haveli (a traditional townhouse or mansion), where people have been living since the 16th century. The experience from strolling around the old town was a combination of the following: The atmosphere of the city’s cold and smoggy breeze. The habit of having to watch out for some load-carrying cattle or male motorbike drivers rushing to pass through tiny crowds of pedestrians (including myself) while transporting goods. The sight of the busy and diligent fruits, beans and roti (flatbread) vendors. Seeing people wearing the comfortably iconic and elegant salwar kameez (a typical Pakistani everyday dress) while covered in their thick and long cotton scarves throughout their bodies against the cold weather and air pollution. This was a side of Pakistan that I found to be incredibly genuine.

Delhi Gate entrance into Lahore’s Old Town.

I spoke with an elderly couple who warmly received me throughout my stay in Lahore. I learn the most from speaking with locals, especially the elderly who must have lived through important events in world history. They were born in the years dominated by the violent partition of India in 1947. The aunt was born in Lahore right after the birth of Pakistan, while the uncle in Rawalpindi (near today’s capital Islamabad) of British India.

Taken inside Lahore’s Army Museum.

The Punjab Province saw some of the bloodiest scenes of communal violence and cleansing in the years leading up to the 1947 partition. The city of Lahore was not an exception. In fact, the fate of Lahore (as well as the city Amritsar in today’s Indian side of Punjab) was at the heart of the contentious border demarcation for the partition, completed in less than a month under the pen of Britain’s Sir Cyril Radcliffe. In the end, this diverse province – which is also home to some of the holiest pilgrimage sites of the Sikhs – was split into two between a Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, despite its people sharing similar languages and cuisines even till this day.

The borders were largely marked on the grounds of religious belonging in the manner of fatally conflating ethnic with religious identities. In the final years of Britain’s grip on the Indian sub-continent, both Lahore and Amritsar were considered to be relatively diverse by their religious composition according to Britain’s census from 1941: in Lahore, 61% were Muslim, 17% Hindu, 18% Sikh and 4% Christian. In Amritsar, 47% were Muslim and 51% Hindu or Sikh. Given Lahore’s long-standing status as a renowned hub for education, business, culture and religious diversity of the Indian sub-continent, it witnessed widespread killings among formerly peaceful compatriots in their claim of the city during the lead up to Britain’s final announcement of Lahore as belonging to Pakistan.

But given my non-existent Urdu skills beyond “Salam aleikum” (an Islamic phrase of greeting), I did not ask the elderly couple too many complicated questions regarding their memories of the past. I simply asked each one of them: How does society today compare with the past in Pakistan? The aunt made the following point, which the uncle shared as well:

“In terms of living standards, today’s Pakistan is better. But life used to be more simple and better in some other aspects. In the past, people used to be nicer to each other. The people-to-people relations were better. For example, these days, many schoolchildren don’t bother showing respect to the teacher anymore. People are now more rude to each other.”

This observation didn’t surprise me, as I personally believe that it’s a shared phenomenon around the world. These days, we have overall become so attached to our materialistic desires. Is having a desire necessarily bad? Not always. At the end of the day, we do have a righteous need to cover our basic material needs. But a desire turns into greed once it starts altering the way we view and treat each other, where human dignity is evaluated on the basis of the size of the money purse.

As someone with origins from Vietnam – another developing country whose society is rapidly becoming more money-driven in every possible aspect – I have myself witnessed too much of what the aunt in Lahore precisely described about today’s Pakistan. Despite that Vietnam proudly hails itself as a socialist country, bribery (beyond the universal health coverage) is often (note: not always) the route to get a decent treatment in most public hospitals or medical clinics; bribery to get a senior (or even junior) position in the government, public and private sector; bribery to have a research funding disbursed on time; bribery to become the head of a university; bribery to be promoted to full professorship; bribery to become a teacher in a township; bribery to have your master thesis approved; and so on. Corruption these days manifests itself like an ethos, despite being so detrimental to the social mobility of any nation.

While private hospitals, clinics, schools or insurance companies may not always necessarily provide better solutions when compared to their public alternatives, my own anecdotal observations in Vietnam suggest that they are much preferred among people regardless of their true quality (e.g. see case studies with similar observations from India on why the poor in particular mistrust public health clinics and schools in the book “Poor Economics” (2011) by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo).

The aunt continued to lament the many social ills of today’s Pakistan. “I miss the old Pakistan. In the past, corruption wasn’t as bad as today. There is no justice in Pakistan anymore”, she said. “Everything is about money now – and so expensive. Hospital, school, you name it”, she continued. I kept sitting still as to listen. What I admire the most about this elderly couple is that they carry these viewpoints while living under quite upper middle-class conditions in the Pakistani society. There exist many other privileged people who either show no concern for the ethically wrong directions of their own society or show complete disdain for those less fortunate.

The elderly couple has traveled to most of the world’s continents. Their children, a son and a daughter, hold university degrees from abroad in accounting and computer science. While the couple continues to live through their peaceful days in Lahore, their children and grandchildren have for now settled in Australia and the United States, respectively. To this regard, the couple raised the issue of “brain drain” among the brilliant minds of Pakistan today:

“There is a huge problem with brain drain in Pakistan today. Once they earn their degrees, they all leave the country. What to do? They will only come back once there are good opportunities back home in Pakistan.”

I pointed out to them that India is seemingly struggling with the same issue of brain drain, despite that the country is home to some of the world’s emerging hubs for business and innovation in the ICT sector (Bangalore and Hyderabad). On the other hand, China has experienced “reverse brain drain” in recent years due to a combination of push-and-pull factors: one, being the stricter immigration and employment policies implemented by many developed country governments, and second being the impression that the employment and start-up environments in China are improving. But this is not to argue that China is in any way ready to shrug off the issue of brain drain, especially the kinds that are sector-specific.

Taken in one of the busy markets (or “bazaar”) in Lahore’s Old Town.

Discussions and studies led by scholars and policymakers on the role of China in Pakistan have mostly been serious (#1, #2), yet at times also speculative and lacking in goodwill. The Chinese presence was quite evident even before I had physically landed in Pakistan. On my evening plane trip to Lahore, I was asked at least 3 to 4 times by a Pakistani man seated next to me about whether or not I was Chinese. In the immigration declaration form, there was a separate section to be filled by Chinese citizens involved in any infrastructure projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

“Long live Pak-China Friendship” Seen in Lahore, Pakistan.

Most foreigners residing in Pakistan live in the capital Islamabad. Hence, I was surprised to see many non-Pakistanis on the Bangkok-Lahore flight route, despite that there was a separate Bangkok-Islamabad route by the same airline with a similar departure time. When speaking to a few other locals of Lahore, they all confirmed that the influx of foreigners – mostly Chinese people – into Lahore is a very recent trend. The city is less used to foreign visitors compared to Islamabad, though the tide is changing.

China’s One Belt One Road Initiative is made big and visible in Pakistan: from the random Chinese-infused street billboards to underpasses named after Chinese cities. The message was clear: “Long Live the Pak-China Friendship!”. My impression from the locals that I spoke with is that public opinion on the role of China is at best divided. If critical, then such opinions focused largely on the seemingly lack of technology and other knowledge transfer between the Chinese contractors and local counterparts. At times, the argument on the need of hiring more local workers was also raised. Another aunt who warmly received me when I was in Islamabad noted: “In spite of all, the Chinese have helped Pakistan a lot”. Somehow, the undertone of whatever opinions expressed to me about the role of China in Pakistan bore such a similar sentiment of gratitude in burden: if not the Chinese, then who else?

“Beijing Underpass” seen in the capital Islamabad.

Beside high government debt, excessive external borrowing and volatile foreign direct investment inflows (FDI) are also adding pressure on Pakistan’s public finances. Citing the IMF, Bloomberg recently reported that Pakistan is scheduled to to repay in total US$6.7 billion-worth of commercial loans to China by 2022. In comparison, as part of the US$6 billion bailout deal secured from the IMF this summer, Pakistan is due to repay $2.8 billion to the IMF by 2022.

China is by far Pakistan’s main source for FDI. Between July and November 2019, Chinese FDI outflows into Pakistan was at US$654 million according to the SBoP. In 2018, FDI inflows into Pakistan reached US$2.3 billion, a weak growth by 5.1% from the previous year according to UNCTAD. Construction, power and oil & gas are the most heavily invested sectors by foreign countries into Pakistan. But in 2019, while FDI inflows grew by 18.7% between July and November, FDI inflows are expected to overall contract by around 26% from the previous year according to the SBoP.

At the time that I wrote a country trade brief for Pakistan in late 2015, Pakistan’s FDI inflows had contracted sharply by 53.6% from the previous year. Back then, I cited the security risks from internal sectarian conflicts and terrorism, as well as more chronic and structural risks involving corruption, weak infrastructure and power shortages as making up the main reasons behind Pakistan’s unstable and overall weak FDI inflows in comparison to other South Asian countries. I have yet to figure out the reasons behind the disparities found in the statistics on Pakistan’s FDI provided by UNCTAD and the State Bank of Pakistan (e.g. Santander Bank seems to find the UNCTAD figures more reliable to its investors).

On the other hand, Pakistan is far more reliant on remittances from overseas. It is estimated that roughly 8 million Pakistanis live overseas. In July-November 2019, the SBoP reported that work remittances into Pakistan amounted to around US$9.3 billion, ranging between a whooping 6.5-7.5% of GDP (#1, #2). Figure 3 below show how remittances as a share of GDP is substantially higher in Pakistan compared to the world average:

Source: World Bank (2019).

I spent only a full one day in the capital Islamabad, after having traveled for around 5 hours by bus from Lahore. I was looking forward to look over the bus window in order to observe the transition of landscape on the road: from Lahore’s fertile and green crop fields to the sight of the steepy mountains and plateaus of the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area. But sadly, the fog and smog of Pakistan’s cold winter season made this quite difficult.

Faisal Mosque in the capital Islamabad, Pakistan

In Islamabad, I was warmly received by a family where some of its members also happen to be working in the UN in Pakistan. One of them even recognized a few names of my current colleagues in UN in Indonesia. “Our world is small”, he told me. Due to limitations in time, I hurriedly visited the most important symbolic landmarks of Pakistan in the capital, including: the Faisal Mosque (the largest mosque in Pakistan and located in the middle of the stunningly green Margalla Hills); Margalla Hills (offering a beautiful overview of the entire capital); Pakistan Monument (a symbol of Pakistan’s 4 official provinces); as well as areas hosting various state institutions and the government.

Upon returning home from Pakistan for Christmas, I immediately decided to watch two BBC documentaries on the partition of 1947 in order to understand how Pakistan was created (#1, #2). I promise to also enlighten myself with more scholarly work beyond those documentaries. Given my longer stay in Lahore, I’ve also decided to spend some more time reading “Amritsar to Lahore“, a book by Stephen Alter depicting stories of boundaries being transcended while not rejecting the reality of lasting legacies made from divided lands and people. One thing certain: Pakistanis are a proud people. “By the way, we are not terrorist. We are good people”, the elderly aunt from Lahore would tell and remind me while on our way to a museum. Rest assured, we live in a small world where we are much more alike than believed.


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