Asia's Broken Lives
Crises Teach Graduates New Lessons
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 30, 1998; Page A1
SEOUL – It was early evening at the Dusk Hof, a dark little bar near Sogang University, and a few of the "pre-unemployed," as South Korean college students call themselves these days, nursed cheap draft beers at a table in the back.
"Everyone's red-eyed from physical or emotional exhaustion, stress and depression," said Park Hyang Rim, 23, who has taken the winter semester off to postpone her graduation into a barren job market. "I'm very worried that I might be stuck without a job for life."
South Korean students are deferring graduation, scrambling to get a spot in the military, borrowing money to get unwanted graduate degrees, emigrating – anything to avoid graduating into a work force with no place for them. Almost 2 million workers have been laid off this year, and college students see the job market backed up like a clogged drain for years to come.
"Finding a job is harder than pulling a star out of the sky," said Cho Eun Young, a Korean member of Asia's battered Class of '99.
College students from Jakarta to Tokyo are entering the meanest job market on record as Asia's worst economic year in modern history draws to a close. Tens of millions of once-comfortable lives are heavy with hardship. Many of Asia's poor are poorer, and its middle-class has been hollowed out as a region that once seemed to sprout unlimited wealth and jobs continues to bleed both.
But not all the changes are necessarily bad. In Indonesia, students say they are invigorated by the end of the 32-year reign of former president Suharto and a growing sense of people power. In Japan, crumbling respect for "Japan Inc." has left college students feeling, as would-be magazine editor Youichi Matsuda said, "less societal pressure to be a dark-suited company man."
Whether it is opening doors or slamming them shut, what is increasingly clear is that the 1998 Asian economic crisis is shifting into a 1999 Asian identity crisis. As stock markets and currencies show signs of stabilizing, the economic crisis is giving way to even more urgent social and political crises that are reshaping Asia.
Nations are now picking through the economic devastation, confronting fundamental questions: What should be salvaged from the old Asian way, and what must be discarded? How much more like the West will Asia's markets and politics become? What will be the legacy of this calamity?
The Class of '99 embodies the coming change. Indonesian students, outraged at their autocratic government, are risking their lives on a democratic future. Japanese students say that the day their economy started falling apart, some Japanese lives started to improve. Despite record unemployment, the economic crisis has forced openings in the economy and more foreign competition, resulting in more diverse job opportunities for many Japanese students.
South Korean students fear their careers will be irreversibly stalled between the dismantling of the old Korea, dominated by a handful of huge conglomerates guided by the state, and the rise of a new, more market-oriented South Korea.
Many Asian students believe the economic crisis has also proven that Asia needs a new direction on social welfare, much the way the United States found its New Deal after the Great Depression. For too long, they believe, Asia's poor have been the burden of extended families or the step-children of aid programs funded by foreigners.
"In other countries, even poor people have an apartment, school for their children. In Indonesia, the poor live in the street. Maybe they have food for today but not for tomorrow," said Glory Padmashanty, who will soon graduate from Trisakti University in Jakarta. "I want that to change, and for that to happen, we have to do a lot of work because we are talking about changing a whole system."
"The financial crisis is but a prelude," said Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. "Asia is once again in the midst of a major transformation."
Building a Democracy First
The blood was still warm; Alwi Assegaff will never forget that. Crouched on the white tile steps of the main building at Trisakti University, Assegaff drew his fingers through the bloody puddle where one of his classmates – a cheerful 20-year-old who wanted to be a pilot – had died minutes before from a bullet through the heart.
Four students died last May in that violent campus rally against the Indonesian government's handling of the nation's economy. Just as the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State University in 1970 shook a generation of American youth, the bloodshed at Trisakti shattered Indonesian youth's trust in their government.
"I was so sad and angry," said Assegaff, 22, who still feels the sensation of blood on his fingertips. "It made me realize that I have to fight for the people of this country, fight to give them a voice in government. I have to be a member of parliament. If not me, who else?"
On a steamy equatorial day last month, Assegaff mourned his dead classmates at a Jakarta cemetery. Bus loads of other students crowded around graves marked with the national flag as Muslim prayers carried across the grassy expanse. Sobbing softly, the girlfriend of one of the dead took shade from the noon heat under a huge red umbrella.
"We don't want to waste their lives," said Assegaff, a round-faced, rather disheveled economics major. "We are going to speak loudly until we have democratic and free elections. Before, we just watched. Now we see that we must fight."
As he spoke, an ambulance and soldiers carrying rifles stood by in the parking lot and military helicopters thumped overhead. This year, students stopped being witnesses to their nation's growing pains; the economic crisis enveloping all of Asia turned them into revolutionaries under government surveillance.
More thoughtful than radical, Assegaff said his eyes were forced open by the financial crisis that exposed Indonesia's political rot. There was always a sad gap between the relatively few with cars and college educations and the masses who couldn't afford proper food and medicine. But the number of desperately poor exploded when the economy collapsed.
"That is not supposed to happen in a country rich with all these natural resources," Assegaff said. "As long as it was getting a little bit better each year, we went along."
Heightened awareness of the greed and repression of his government has made Assegaff pledge himself to creating a better Indonesia. He is exhilarated by the momentum toward a future where far more people participate in political and economic decision-making. He and others believe that Asia's murky, closed, and connections-driven way of doing business is shifting more toward the open and bottom-line-driven practices of America and Europe.
"Suharto's family controlled even the freeways and the electricity while poor people couldn't afford food," Assegaff said. "People need a voice in government and students need to make sure they get it."
Asia's economic crisis has turned Indonesia's Class of '99 from a privileged group aiming for office jobs in Jakarta's skyscrapers to political activists dodging rubber bullets under highway overpasses. Students who never thought twice about capitalism or democracy or social safety nets now hold daily meetings to discuss them.
The krismon – as the financial crisis is called here – started all this. When the Indonesian currency, the rupiah, lost 80 percent of its value over the period of a year, it sparked a popular revolt against then-President Suharto. Since his forced exit, the rupiah has climbed halfway back. But banks still aren't lending and businesses are still folding. Today, about one in seven workers is jobless.
Education Minister Juwono Sudarsono estimates that only 20 percent of the Class of '99 will have jobs when they graduate in March. And they are the privileged class here; only about 5 percent of Indonesians earn a college degree.
"I am changed," said Endy Sagita, his jeans and shirt rumpled from sleeping overnight on the floor of a campus building. "I used to spend weekends at the best cafes in town. Now money is harder to earn and even if I had it, I wouldn't feel right doing that."
Sagita looked tired and dazed as he sat on the ground outside the student government office with some classmates. The night before several of them had joined a "demo," as everyone calls street protests here. It was all routine – marches in the street and calls for fair presidential elections – until nightfall. Then soldiers in riot gear moved in, and suddenly the student to the left of Sagita stopped short and fell backward.
"There was a bullet hole in his forehead, right between his eyes," said Sagita, who helped drag the student's body – his eyes wide open – aside to wait for an ambulance. "We had mineral water; they had guns."
"Since May I am getting used to the tear gas and the sound of bullets," Sagita said. "I have become more serious. I feel closer to God. I am conscious of being nice to my family. I want to leave them in the morning with a good memory in case I get killed that day."
Discovering Foreign Employers
Japan and Indonesia are each a chain of islands in Asia; that may be the end of the similarities. Instead of tanks parked outside looted stores in Jakarta, limousines idle in front of boutiques in Tokyo, where seeing a movie costs more than millions of Indonesians earn in a month. But even rich Japan is plagued by bankruptcies and debt. And its economic plunge is also stirring significant change.
As Youichi Matsuda, 21, sat on an outdoor bench in Harajuku, the epicenter of Tokyo's hip youth culture, he talked about what the Japanese recession has meant for him and the rest of the Class of '99.
The nation's bureaucrats have lost prestige as they are increasingly blamed for the recession, and even the biggest companies no longer guarantee cachet and employment for life. That has made it okay, even preferable, to work for a small company, to take a chance on a start-up venture or to try a foreign firm.
"It is easier to go a different way," Matsuda said, as one Mariah Carey hit after another pulsated out of the HMV music store. "I wasn't made to be a cog in a wheel, and now it's easier not to be." Matsuda clomps off to job interviews in chalk white, square-toed platform shoes and leopard-print bell-bottoms.
Proof of achievement in Japan for decades has been a business card that said Mitsubishi or Toyota or any of Japan's other platinum-plated companies – or better yet, the ultra-elite Ministry of Finance. But, as Akihiko Tanaka, a scholar at Tokyo University, said, "The one old yardstick [of success] has been destroyed. Now people can find yardsticks that suit themselves."
Those yardsticks increasingly have foreign names, such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and IBM, which offer advancement based more on merit than age, often better pay and more opportunity for innovation. Even two or three years ago, many of America's top firms could not recruit a single person from elite Japanese universities; now American firms top surveys of the most sought-after jobs.
"I got interested in American firms when I saw Yamaichi Securities go bankrupt in front of my eyes," said Hiroyuki Shigemasa, 23, a Sophia University senior who was working in the same building with the century-old trading company when it collapsed last year. In April, Shigemasa will start working in risk management for the American firm J.P. Morgan.
"Some still don't want to work at American firms, which are seen as thinking nothing of firing people. ... I think there are more important things than having employment for life," said Shigemasa – for starters, he said, $10,000 to $15,000 more in salary and more responsibility sooner.
The unprecedented foreign competition for the nation's twentysomething brainpower has forced many Japanese companies to blow the cobwebs out of their traditional practices. They have revamped the way they hire people, what they look for, and how they use young talent.
Firms such as giant Hitachi Ltd. suddenly find themselves in the position of bidding hard for top Japanese talent, such as Daisuke Fukutani.
Fukutani, 21, has it all: A soon-to-be graduate of Tokyo University, he's a computer engineering jock whose idea of fun is deconstructing the Y2K bug and thinking of ways to improve 24-hour banking technology.
Fukutani was attracted to foreign consulting firms, such as Arthur Andersen & Co., which were paying a lot more, and he liked the idea that Japan's increasingly deregulated economy was giving him new opportunities.
But Hitachi won out, courting Fukutani with a lucrative offer of two years of intensive post-graduate computer education. Still, that doesn't mean the marriage will last forever; he doesn't rule out switching to a new firm somewhere down the road – something his father's generation rarely did.
Some here dismiss Fukutani's enthusiasm as mere youthful optimism. They believe the changes to Japan's economy have been little more than cosmetic. All the talk about foreign firms, cheaper taxis in a deregulated economy and bigger homes because of falling land prices doesn't mean much if the unemployment rate continues to climb, businesses keep going bankrupt and a sense of gloom keeps dragging the nation down.
Last week, unemployment officially hit a record 4.4 percent – shocking in a country where joblessness had been virtually unknown. Japan's unemployment rate now matches that of the United States, where the same figure is considered quite low.
Often, the economic downturn in Japan has been harsher to women than to men: Men land jobs more easily and are not given pink slips as often, and many women are being channeled into low-paying, part-time work. But for well educated, career-track women, prospects are improving.
In a noticeable switch, company recruiters are emphasizing more substantial jobs for women and offering perks to women such as foreign postings that were previously reserved for men. Companies trying to survive no longer can afford to ignore the talent of half the work force, or to pay salaries for college-educated women to make tea and photocopies.
"I was repeatedly told by companies that there will be no tea pouring. They said, 'Relax, you won't have to do that,' " said Hiromi Ikuta, who will work as an investment adviser for a Japanese securities company when she graduates from Aoyama University this spring. "That will make it easier for me to judged on my abilities."
The recession also has been a boon for professions that have been underappreciated in cash-driven Japan: social work and nonprofit work. Some see this as part of the so-called "moral correction" from the workaholic, shopaholic 1980s.
"I don't care so much about pay. I want mental satisfaction," said Masamichi Yamashita, 21, a senior at Aoyama University who wants a career in nonprofit work. "That is different from my parents' generation. My parents say I should find a good-paying, steady job. They had to do that, they had no other options. But I do."
The Dusk Hof bar in Seoul has a "M*A*S*H" motif: The floor is covered with beach sand and olive-drab sandbags piled here and there in the style of machine-gun nests. In this scene out of the hit American TV show about the Korean War, students fret that for the first time since that war young people's lives have completely stalled, put on hold until this calamity passes.
Park Hyang Rim, 23, said the feeling is devastating. "I feel like I'm being chased – chased by time and the younger, brighter undergrad students who will become my competitors."
So Park spends days and nights studying English and computer technology to enhance her job prospects. Even though the economy is showing its first signs of improvement, she has no confidence that the job of her dreams is waiting just beyond the next set of encouraging economic statistics.
While nearly a hundred small and medium-sized businesses were going bankrupt daily at the beginning of 1998, South Korea's giant conglomerates, called chaebol, still have not begun the massive layoffs that are expected. Next year, even more workers will be out on the street.
Some students are coping with the economic crisis by lowering their sights, grabbing any paycheck they can find. Others are trying to find an entrepreneurial niche in an economy in need of new life. Young men are scrambling for a spot in the military; service is mandatory, but most men used to postpone it for as long as possible. Last year, half the applicants to the marines and navy were accepted. But now, because so many people are applying, the acceptance rate is down to 1 in 20.
Tens of thousands have dropped out of college because they, or their parents, don't have the money to pay tuition right now. Others have temporarily left school not because of money, but to avoid the shame and wounded pride of graduating into nothingness. In a nation that already has perhaps more PhDs per capita than any other country, some students are entering doctoral studies they cannot really afford or do not really want because they don't know what else to do.
Other college students are making plans to emigrate, using any family connection they can think of to get to the United States. But American green cards are hard to come by, so many travel to Australia, Canada, Japan and other countries where than can get work for short stints.
Some graduating students have threatened to sue the government. The legal grounds: a stolen future. "We know it would be almost impossible to win a trial, but this is a life-and-death matter to the students," a student at Korea University said. "It may seem like we're throwing an egg against a brick wall, but at least we would have made our point."
South Korea is still a male-dominated society that places great emphasis on a woman's youth and looks, which makes things even harder for female college graduates. In some cases, a woman who is 25 is considered too old to hire, even for secretarial work. The few newspaper want ads in South Korea these days tend to call specifically for males in their twenties, and job-placement agencies have largely stopped taking applications from women.
"Some girls say they just want to get married, because they really don't have any alternative," said Lim Ji Yeon of Ehwa University. "It's embarrassing to sit at home after spending so much money on our education, so we joke about how we have to land a decent guy pretty soon."
"All we do is worry, worry. It's so depressing," Lim said. "Why us? Why did it have to happen right before we graduated?"
If only they were the class of '98, they might have had a foothold in a company. Or maybe even the class of 2000 would seem like the beginning of something. But right now the Class of '99 is feeling that they are in graduation robes at just the wrong time.
"We cannot fight this battle just by sitting around blaming the government," said Cho Eun Young, of Sunchon University. "We must think up solutions and demand the government and society do the same."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company