The world’s highest railway bridge, an Indonesian presidential hopeful and assessing Asia’s strategies for combatting a declining population.
Many Italian Americans whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life are now trying to return to the Old Country. “We have grown exponentially in the past few years,” says Marco Permunian, founder of Italian Citizenship Assistance (ica), an agency that specialises in helping US residents to navigate Italian citizenship law. According to Permunian, a lawyer who was raised in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region, there has been a fivefold increase in requests for ica’s services since 2016.
Foreign nationals can apply for Italian citizenship through the principle of jure sanguinis (right of blood), which means that they must prove a direct, unbroken lineage with an Italian citizen. There is no generation limit, as long as the ancestor who was born in Italy did not lose their Italian citizenship before the next person in the line was born. There are practical advantages to being Italian: a passport from the country allows its holders to live and work anywhere in the European Union, with access to healthcare and education – not to mention the nation’s celebrated lifestyle.
Permunian says that sociopolitical turmoil in the US in recent years has led many of its citizens to apply. In March the Italian consulate in New York had a waiting list of 3,700 applications. ica offers various services to help these Americans with their bids, including translation services and record searches. Lessons in how to affect the perfect amount of sprezzatura – the nonchalant charm mastered by many Italians – are not offered as standard.
Former governor of Jakarta and Indonesian presidential hopeful
Anies Baswedan is one of the frontrunners to replace Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s president in next February’s election. Here he sits down with monocle and looks ahead at the vote’s most pressing issues.
What are the main priorities of Indonesia’s voters today?
The rule of law, a good education for their kids and an equal share. Our provinces are rich in minerals, for example, but they have some of our highest poverty rates.
What role is religion likely to play in the next election?
We don’t know yet. Our campaign is based on programmes and policies. But when someone votes for a candidate because they like his hair, well, that’s their right. There are people who have said that they voted for me because of the mole on my face. I put religion alongside all of those subjective reasons.
What international role should Indonesia play?
We should be more active and assertive. We are the world’s fourth-largest country; we should not be a passive player in the global arena. International relationships go beyond trade and investment. We have a responsibility as global citizens to play a part in ensuring international peace and stability.
How would you handle the rivalry between China and the US?
We would seek balance. We wouldn’t like to see one side dominating the other. We want to maintain closeness to both countries, not just one, on an equal footing.
In a valley in northwest India, the world’s highest railway bridge is nearing completion. At 1.3km long and 359 metres high (29 metres higher than the Eiffel Tower), the Chenab Bridge is a feat of engineering and, some say, intimidation. When completed, it will link India’s contested Jammu and Kashmir region with the rest of the country, providing a bridge for its people, as well as for the vast numbers of soldiers and arms that New Delhi pours into the territory.
The work of 300 engineers and 1,300 workers using 28,660 megatonnes of steel, the bridge will reduce the need for the government to transport equipment and personnel by air or via National Highway 44, which weaves through the Himalayas and is often closed in the winter because of extreme weather. The bridge will be able to withstand high-intensity blasts, magnitude-eight earthquakes, 266km/h winds and temperatures of minus 10c to 40c. Politicians such as India’s railways minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, have hailed it as a boon for the economy but many Kashmiris remain sceptical: they see it as an instrument for increasing militarisation of Kashmir and its northern border with China, where the world’s two most-populous nations are engaged in a tense stand-off.
Naomi Xu Elegant explores the strategies that some Asian countries are employing to arrest population decline.
Falling birth rates are a global phenomenon but the problem is especially pronounced in economically advanced east and southeast Asian countries. While the global total fertility rate (tfr) – the average number of children born per woman – is about 2.3, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore all have significantly lower fertility levels. Here’s a rundown of how governments in a region where schools are closing and nursing homes can’t open quickly enough, are attempting to turn the tide.
TFR in 2022: 0.78
Since becoming president last spring, Yoon Suk-yeol has established a committee on South Korea’s population problem and is more than tripling payments for newborn babies to 1m won (€720) per child every month by 2024. In 2020 the city of Busan started offering discounts on taxi fares for pregnant women and new mothers; last year, Seoul distributed vouchers worth 2m won (€1,440) to parents of newborns. But money might not be the issue. Yoon, who has five dogs, three cats and no children, said that the government had spent about €190bn in the past 16 years trying to encourage people to have more babies; in that time, South Korea’s birth rate has fallen to become the world’s lowest. Housing costs, exorbitant spending on tutors and a patriarchal society with little room for women to pursue both a career and a family must all be tackled.
TFR in 2022: 1.05
In February, Singaporean government minister Indranee Rajah blamed 2022’s record-low birth rate on the fact that it was the lunar calendar’s tiger year, traditionally associated with lower births among Chinese, the country’s largest ethnic population. Indeed, fewer children are typically born in tiger years, while a spike in births tends to occur during years of the dragon. The next of these is 2024 but, in case superstition proves insufficient, Singapore has announced new benefits for parents, including tax relief, expanded paternity leave and a “baby bonus cash gift” of up to sg$13,000 (€9,108) for parents of newborns.
TFR in 2022: 1.18
Less than 10 years ago, China’s one-child policy meant that having a second baby could result in fines, career penalties and social stigma. Now childbearing is rewarded with cash, tax cuts and larger apartments. The city of Shenzhen offers payments that increase in value with every new child; a first baby will net a family 7,500 yuan (€1,022), while a third will net 19,000 yuan (€2,588). In Hong Kong, where the birth rate is even lower than on the mainland, the government has increased the annual child allowance to hk$130,000 (€15,686) per child. In 2022 a patriotic Beijing-based technology company announced that its employees would receive extra paid leave and bonuses of up to 90,000 yuan (€12,257) for having children.
TFR in 2022: 1.3
Though Japan’s birth rate started plummeting in the 1970s, those of its regional peers are now declining even faster. Nonetheless, the country’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, declared in January that the country is “standing on the verge of whether it can continue to function”. The government is offering ¥1m (€6,926) per child for families to relocate from Tokyo to other parts of the country, hoping that more young people living outside the capital will counteract the effects of a rapidly ageing population. One success story is Nagi, a town with a birth rate that is significantly higher than the national average, thanks to generous stipends, free medical care for children and other benefits. The fertility miracle has become a tourist attraction; Nagi now charges out-of-towners an entrance fee.
Images: Alamy, Getty Images. Illustrator: Seda Demiriz