(Having gone on my first long leave since I began work last November, it’s a good time to reflect on where I am at now.)
So the stars aligned: the night we arrived in Malé was the same night that the China-Malé Friendship Bridge was inaugurated. Four years in the making, the Bridge is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).1 Even though my mum and I missed the grand fireworks display, I was beyond thrilled to directly witness whatever small part I could of the world-shaping movement that was the BRI, even if that meant just waiting around to see the Chinese convoy drive past.
How far I have come. Back in JC, I took KI primarily because I did not want to read up on current affairs. I did not want to chase the news, to monitor the latest developments, to hew to this mad world. And now, look where I am.
No wonder then that I am surprised to find myself enjoying this job. Last month, I attended a seminar on the ‘Transformation of Saudi Arabia’. When the seminar ended, I thought to myself: this was fascinating. Moments later, I thought: I can’t believe I’m getting paid to learn these things.
It’s an unnerving feeling. At a Litigation Conference I attended at 2015, a Jessup mooter once told a few of us that she sometimes marveled that she was being paid to lawyer.
“Do y’all not feel that way?” she asked us.
We stared at her incredulously.
I never imagined I would ever echo what she said. But that was a lifetime ago.
Whereas in this life, I have yet to encounter the existential ‘what-am-I-doing-with-my-life’ questions that I had grappled with since I was a trainee lawyer. Even when I lose half a day filling in Istana’s security forms or when I lose sleep to capture a conversation, the angst is tempered, unlike the wrecking vanity of rushing out affidavits to meet court deadlines for a case I do not want to fight on behalf of a client whom I do not like.
As I told an intern, it helps to step back, to remember that the weekends we burn like dogs2 are means to the larger ends of gleaning truths about, and making friends in, a complex world. In the same vein, like how I defended the Trump-Kim Summit to my parents, US$12 million is a small price to pay for enlarging our tiny red dot on the world map.3
The work I did the last few months sharpened the big picture for me. I had the privilege of co-writing a few pieces on developments around the world. It was a privilege, because such opportunities are rare for desk officers, because it revealed to me the value of the relationships and the meetings that we so painstakingly engineer, and because it forced me to sift through, analyse, and distill the deluge of information out there. It made me think about how the world works.
And the world is an intriguing place. I had begun to realise this during my travels; I now say this without reservation. The more I learn about history, international relations, and geopolitics, the more fascinated I become.
What gives me pause is the nature of this fascination. I have three concerns.
Overworldly vs Otherworldly
First, this work seems too worldly. I vividly remember my childhood fighting imaginary enemies, my first love for SFF, and my unwavering belief that there must be more than this world. So at first blush, my newfound interest in the affairs of this world is jarring to my roots. This is not just all in my head. In February, after returning from my first proper work trip, going for weekday Mass felt like a detox.
But this was a disjunct I had reconciled even before I accepted the job offer. In short, to be in the world but not of the world (Jn 17:14-16)—this was the way I interpreted the call for me to nurture an “incarnational spirituality”. I just have to work harder at the ‘not of the world’ bit to balance out how ‘in the world’ I have become.
Temptation to be Machiavellian
Second, I am skirting the Machiavellian. Again, I had intuited this concern even before I took the job. I had feared that I would see all my relationships through only realpolitik and power plays, that I would regress to an old self who had once strategized who he wanted in his project group, planned who he should sit with (hey, seating plans sounds like what I do now), and systematically severed ties (oh, this sounds familiar too) with a clique he wanted to dissociate from.
I don’t disavow that manipulative side of me. After all, even Jesus counseled his disciples to be wise as serpents (Mt 10:16). But in the same breath, He told us to be innocent as doves too. This is why, especially after internalizing JP2’s personalistic norm,4 I rein in my Machiavellian tendencies at most times.5 But while working on a piece about Yemen, I was ashamed to realise that I had been riveted more by the political intrigue than the humanitarian situation. Suffering became a mere statistic in my analysis. That made me think: Do the game theories of diplomacy numb me to the personal narratives of the chess pieces that we play with? If a day comes when compassion and patriotism diverged, would I take the path less traveled?
That leads me to what is perhaps my most fundamental concern.
Doubt in the Westphalian Order
Third, I don’t buy into the Westphalian order. I don’t buy into the primacy of self-interest that realpolitik is based on, for the simple fact that it is too damned selfish. In its essence, the concept of sovereignty seems diametrically opposed to Jesus’ injunction to love thy enemy.
I get it though. The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War. The Westphalian model is a far superior alternative to imperialism. And as Hannah Arendt pointed out, human rights are empty talk without the institutions of a nation-state to enforce them. This is our global world order, and as Bilahari often admonishes, we have to take the world as it is. Even the European Union is too much of an ideal to withstand the insularity of national loyalty.
This time, therefore, the gulf between the values I profess and the world I live in seems unbridgeable. Is change the only answer? But what do I change? Myself? My job? The world?
For now, I can be patient with these tensions for I am not in any invidious position to make a moral difference. But these are not questions that I can live some distant day into the answer, and I should prepare for the reckoning when it arrives.
1. As with China’s other BRI projects, the Sinamale Bridge divided locals. Some argued that it was a key infrastructural development; others said that it was a waste of money and a way for China to debt-trap Maldives. The Bridge cost US$224.2 million, 57.5% of which is funded by the Chinese as foreign aid, 36.1% of which is on preferential loan, and 6.4% of which is from the Maldivians.
2. With my poor sense of direction and spatial awareness, staffing is probably my weakest suit. Staffing utterly drains me.
3. Marketing experts said the publicity generated from hosting the summit could be worth more than 10 times the cost to the “tiny Southeast Asian city-state”.
4. The ‘personalistic norm’ provides that the only proper attitude to a person is love. In other words, we love persons and use things, not the other way round.
5. Except maybe while playing Werewolves. Then I unleash that side fully :D