Triumph of Trump: such an easy headline. But one for some that recalls the arrogant populists who heralded the fascist order in Europe in the 1930s. Even if that’s underestimating the correcting power of Congress and the courts, Americans still woke up to a President who has lit a flaming brazier of hatred.

There’s a hole where my optimism used to be. It is sickening to see the media’s frenzied efforts to put lipstick on a pig, and now turn viciously on the candidate they lionized as the anti-Trump. People told the media they wanted change and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton, but these views were carefully filtered to the point where they didn’t sound credible. Meanwhile, the coffee-steeped coiffed commentariat spoke to one another in a vacuum and scrambled to explain how badly they misread the signs.

And now, reality dawns: A cavalcade of international tyrants and thugs throng to congratulate Trump; the short-sighted, narrow minded little Englanders who are engineering Brexit are crowing and preparing their hosanas for the high priest of isolationist jingoism.

Only Germany, now the world’s leading (only?) liberal society, made plain its disdain and disregard. And there’s always what’s left of the French Left. The headline in Liberation: American Psycho

Appropriate my Ass!


“I write fiction to escape the bonds of cultural constraint, and use fictional characters and situations to bore more deeply into the cultures I have inhabited and studied for the past thirty years.”

I have followed with interest the lively debate on cultural appropriation triggered by Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. Shriver’s strident defence of freely assuming other identities for the purpose of writing fiction unleashed a storm of protest from those who regard the boundaries of race, religion and gender as ring-fenced – ‘look-but-don’t-touch’, as she put it.

Should writers be afraid of what Shriver calls ‘a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers’?  If we consider the larger body of modern classical writing in the 20th century, they certainly have not. Should André Malraux have worried about portraying the tortured life of the Chinese assassin Chen in revolutionary Shanghai in his 1933 classic Man’s Fate?  When Joseph Conrad wove an adventure story around James Wait, a West Indian sailor in Nigger of the Narcissus, this was not regarded as cultural misappropriation, but as a brilliant work of fictional realism – despite the unfortunate title. Both Conrad and Malraux, to take but two examples, used their writing to bring what were then remote and different parts of the world alive in the minds of their readers, narrowing yawning cultural chasms by revealing the essential humanity of their subjects.

Similarly, I write fiction to escape the bonds of cultural constraint, and use fictional characters and situations to bore more deeply into the cultures I have inhabited and studied for the past thirty years. As a writer born in the West who has published two novels set in Indonesia and many short stories set in Southeast Asia, I have written from cultural perspectives that are plainly not my own, assumed identities for my characters that are clearly not Western, and told stories that have no bearing on the world in which I was raised in the United States and England. I did all of this without permission.

I hope my stories are at least in part transcendent, provide a form of escapism, yet also stir thematically the ideals of freedom and social justice. Most readers have told me the stories – set in remote islands, villages and cities as well as courts and palaces across Southeast Asia – offer a way to understand these various cultures and societies, and highlight the struggles within them. No one has yet wondered if my novel The Painter of Lost Souls – about a Javanese painter who becomes entangled in the struggle between secular expression and Islamic dogma – was a story I had any right to tell: I am neither a Muslim nor a painter. Likewise, no one has yet questioned my right, in Spice Garden, to narrate through the eyes of a Muslim trader and a Catholic priest the story of violent religious conflict in the Moluccan islands.

My own identity is somewhat blurred. I grew up a white male in an orthodox Anglo-Saxon setting but with my family’s origins steeped in the colonial context of the Levant. I suppose I could have ended up writing exclusively about the taunts and bullying I experienced in British schools because of my foreign name. Born in the US and brought up in Britain, I might have become obsessed with the strong sense that I would never quite be considered either an Englishman or an American. Lacking the multi-lingual skills my parents acquired from their upbringing in cosmopolitan Palestine and Egypt, I could not even take refuge in the land of my ancestors. As a passive Christian with antecedents who were both Jews and Muslims, religion for me became a basket of contradictions.

Dwelling on these issues as a writer would have made me feel more alienated, not less; and also highlight my inauthenticity in any of these areas. I therefore found security in a context so profoundly foreign that, like the migrant arriving in a place of refuge, I appropriated it as my home. This allowed me to put some distance between that and my own insecurity as I grew up in an intolerant society: it gave me a sense of perspective on how much more fortunate I actually was and made me a more useful person. As a result, I believe culture can and should be appropriated – because it makes for a less combustible society.

We live in an iconoclastic age where everything is questioned and the norms and values we once respected are being up-ended.  Much has been written about how this stems from the frustration of those who feel shut out, abandoned and let down by globalisation. It is hard to disagree with this as a generalisation, but there’s a more insidious impulse. For in a world where everyone has a voice, where millions of people in just a few seconds can read the tiniest brain-fart, there is a frantic, existential desire to stand out and be noticed. It seems to me that part of the problem is that indignant displays of prejudice and outrage easily grab and gain attention in an era when the megaphone has been replaced by instantly broadcast social media. As a result, boundaries proliferate: no-go areas emerge, differentiation becomes packaged and commoditized, tragedy and misfortune become trajectories to wealth and fame.

Perhaps a story I wrote some years ago about the behaviour of the elderly Thai-Chinese residents of a retirement home in Bangkok could earn me multiple levels of opprobrium in the modern context. My description of the impact of modern urban growth on traditional family values might be seen today as encroaching on the privacy of the elderly and impugning the tradition of filial piety.

The writer struggling to rise above conflict and cut through human confusion is often victimized, either for not taking sides or for telling inconvenient truths. Albert Camus once said that writing is ‘a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings’. I strongly agree with Lionel Shriver that ‘even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.’ Who has the right to decree that culture and gender must be fenced-off areas? Shouldn’t any serious writing be allowed to trespass aggressively, so long as people’s identities are respected? Isn’t it more fraught to proscribe or deny such voices? To put my response in another, more inappropriate way: Appropriate my ass!

First published in Asia Literary Review, 18th October 2016

Hard Power Prevails in Southeast Asia

So far, 2016 has been a terrible year for advocates of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia. The military has tightened its grip on power in Thailand, a draconian security law is back in force in Malaysia, Cambodia is entering a vicious vortex of political violence, and in the Philippines a popular strongman president has turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of suspected criminals since he was elected in May.

Admittedly, set against the rise of populist demagogues demanding law and order at the expense of freedom and rights elsewhere in the world, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Joko Widodo in Indonesia could be seen as exemplary models of leadership in emerging democracies. Yet as they consolidate power, both leaders have revealed a troubling insensitivity to human rights concerns and a tendency to accommodate vested interests.

What this tells us is that we cannot take for granted the trajectory of political development in the region. The concentration of power and the protection of narrow elite interests remains a prevailing consideration of government, no matter how they were elected.

Of course, this is precisely the reason legions of voters in Europe and the U.S. have become disillusioned and are rejecting established parties and their leaders. The challenge for the people of Southeast Asia is that it is hard to register their concerns: freedom of expression and popular sovereignty remain bridled and constrained.

Although social media widely broadcasts calls for change and accountability, these demands mostly fall like spent bullets on the tough armour that strong, overly centralized states have adapted to modern democratic norms.

Eroding democratic space

On Aug. 7, millions of Thai voters will be offered a chance to vote for a new constitution they know next to nothing about because the military government has all but banned campaigning and open debate about a draft charter that dilutes rights and allows for individuals to rise to political office without being elected. Even if voters reject the constitution, which is doubtful given voter apathy and ignorance, the military is set to remain in power with the freedom to simply write its own set of rules.

The articulate and popular Cambodian activist Kem Ley was a vocal critic of corruption and cronyism in his country: in mid-July, he as gunned down as he drank his morning coffee in the middle of Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing a growing chorus for change after more than 30 years in power. More than 100,000 people thronged to Kem Lay’s funeral in the capital. But rather than yield to change, Hun Sen, it is feared, will use intimidation and violence to cling to power.

Malaysia is perhaps the most glaring example of the troubled politics that is eroding democratic space in the region. Prime Minister Najib Razak came to power in 2009 promising reforms of the authoritarian clamps on freedom in the country; he also vowed to forge a “One Malaysia” out of the country’s divided racial and religious communities. But when his legitimacy was called into question after revelations that billions of dollars were misused or went missing from a development fund he managed, Najib veered sharply off the path of reform and began shoring up his position using the tools of despotism and division.

A tough new security law that comes into force in August allows Malaysians to be detained without charge on the word of a police inspector, and for the government to suspend all basic rights in designated security zones, ostensibly to combat terrorism. Yet the government itself has provided a conducive environment for the incubation of violent extremism by supporting a conservative Islamic agenda in a bid to undermine and divide the opposition.

To be sure, there has been measurable democratic progress in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. People in these countries freely chose their leaders and broadly approve of the policies they are pursuing. Outwardly, Widodo in Indonesia and Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte in the Philippines have projected their close links with the people, reflecting their wishes for more humble, hardworking leadership that addresses popular concerns about tackling corruption and running a government for all.

But the reality is that those who go up against the entrenched self-interest of established oligarchy in Southeast Asia either have to accommodate these interests or face removal at the hand of undemocratic forces.

So it was with Thaksin Shinawatra, the first popularly-elected prime minister of Thailand, who devised policies to deliver social and financial security to millions of Thais living in poor rural areas. But this great leveling exercise, much-needed in a country where the top 10% of families control more than 50% of the wealth, upset the rich elites who control the vast majority of wealth and are mostly clustered in Bangkok around a conservative palace establishment. So Thaksin was removed.

After two military coups and a succession of unelected governments over the past decade, Thaksin remains wildly popular in rural north and northeastern Thailand, and his political party wins every reasonably fair election, yet he is barred from returning to the country and democracy has been suspended.

Will the same fate befall Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, where the powerful military has retreated from the political arena but still holds the constitutional keys that would allow her to assume full executive power? Can Duterte continue insisting that he is listening to the “murmurings of the people” if he depends on the largesse and political clout of powerful oligarchs to stay in power?

Judging from the trajectory of Widodo’s presidency over the past two years, it is hard to stay the course as a populist leader without succumbing to vested interests and sliding on reforms.

The small city mayor who campaigned on a platform of clean, hard working government faced the reality of power in Indonesia almost as soon as he was elected. On his watch so far, the once powerful anti-corruption agency has been cowed, a coterie of conservative former generals stack key positions in his cabinet, and ministers determined to pursue investor-friendly reforms have been removed and replaced with people more amenable to vested interests.

The path of reform in Indonesia is littered with trade-offs that well-meaning leaders like Widodo and his predecessor Bambang Yudhoyono were forced to make with conservatives in order to survive. Most glaring of all was Widodo’s appointment to a powerful cabinet position in July of retired General Wiranto. A former armed forces commander under President Soeharto, a United Nations tribunal indicted Wiranto for crimes against humanity after he presided over the deaths of as many as 2,000 civilians in East Timor when the Indonesian army withdrew in 1999.

Gaping void

The inability of elected leaders to execute the changes voters want speaks to the gaping void between popular aspirations and the political reality that persists in Southeast Asia. Social and economic empowerment and the remarkable penetration of social media in the region has nevertheless opened people’s eyes to the folly of leaders governing using archaic practices designed to sustain the power and privilege of the few.

What is missing is an effective platform for mobilizing these forces for change and then rallying together at election time. Regressive governments of this region can rely on societies that are still divided by class, race and religion. They harness crude nationalism and jingoism to keep the international community at bay. The answer is for people in these countries to seize the initiative and forge popular movements that unite weak progressive civil society groups and enlightened political actors. This has started happening in Thailand, but has a long way to go in Malaysia.

In Myanmar last November, voters demonstrated the power of the ballot box in demanding change. Cambodians are likely to do the same in local elections next year. There is hope, but the price will be high as those wielding hard power will not go without a fight.

First published in Asia Nikkei Review, 1 August 2016

The World Gone Mad


Many baby boomers like me probably feel the same way: the world wasn’t quite the way it is now back in the 1980s when we launched our soaring careers.Sure, there was war, injustice and the perpetual folly of man. We battled apartheid, inequality and hunger, and then cheered the end of the Cold War and therefore the end of history. Violent extremism when it first intruded on our comfortable global existence seemed manageable, containable. That’s why we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We elected Obama and got Osama: Bham!

What were we thinking? Not far enough ahead, apparently. Comes ISIS with its cost-effective brand of terror – anyone with a grudge, a smartphone and a weapon wreaking havoc in random places on random people. Come the reckless demagogues supported by legions of the neglected and resentful, building walls and stockpiling hate and weapons to keep out others, shaking all our assumptions about the seamless world of free trade and open borders.

Emerging from this vortex of evil and hatred ghastly ghouls, once only the imagined characters of DC and Marvel comics populate the headlines with unimaginable deeds supported by blatant lies and tyranny. What they consider inconvenient details, we once called norms and values.

And so, nearing the end of our careers, the world we thought we were making a better place, the values we struggled to strengthen, the future we assumed we were building for our children – all that seems the biggest lie of all. ‘You see madness, as you know, is like gravity,’ quips the Joker, one of the comic world’s finest villains: ‘All it takes is a little push!’

Thoughts on Brexit


When I arrived in London as a migrant from the United States in 1966, racial prejudice and inequality was prevalent even in the school playground where someone with a foreign name was taunted and called a ‘wog’. The England I left as a professional journalist in the mid-1980s was at last shedding bigotry and prejudice as British society adjusted to the new global norms of freely moving people and equal opportunity.

On recent visits back to the UK, I have been impressed by the remarkable accommodation of diversity and recognition of difference. Whether it’s the Bulgarian property agent, the Polish plumber or the Czech bus driver; England at the start of the second millennium embraced – even celebrated – pluralism, and left behind the obstinate small mindedness that used to mean no one bothered asking how my Greek name was pronounced properly.

Suddenly all that progress seems like a fanciful dream. Brexit heralds the return of the cold hard stares at foreigners and ‘why-don’t-you-go-back-to-your-own-country’ taunts I vividly recall as a teenager growing up among ‘snowcem’-clad semi-detached homes and vinyl-roofed Ford Granadas in the North London suburbs.

For all the talk of independence day, this is no return to the mythical Arthurian realm, British pluck and a ploughman’s lunch; it’s the victory of the lager louts. The referendum showed plainly enough that a great mass of people don’t share the aspirations of comfy armchair internationalists and globally mobile professionals; they feel locked out of the Shard, the Gherkin, and other symbols of Global London.

So break out the woad, pan along those austere white cliffs, hide the muesli and quinoa. If the long forgotten satirical magazine Punch was still publishing, the Brexit cover might depict a red-faced John Bull, his slobbering bull dog straining at the leash and lunging for a plate of roast beef swimming in gravy.

Bye bye ‘Cool Britannia’: Welcome to Little England!

The Malaysia That Could Be

Shortly after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1991 as newly-appointed bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review I was introduced to a Malaysian journalist then working for the Singapore Straits Times. We worked in a country well known for its disdain for the foreign media; and we were particular targets because our publications were deemed by the government to be biased against or even hostile to Malaysia.


Partly because of the common challenges we faced, but perhaps mostly because we enjoyed eating nasi kandar and roti canai at street side stalls in Kuala Lumpur or on the many out-station reporting trips we took together, we became good friends.

A quarter of a century later my close friend Kalimullah Hassan is no longer a journalist – neither am I. Our beloved profession has been much affected by the decline of advertising revenues and the rise of social media. But Kali, as all his friends know him, remains as passionate and concerned about his country as he was when we drove for long hours around rural constituencies in out of the way parts of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu covering by-elections.

So when I read ‘The Malaysia That Could Be’, his newly published collection of columns and recollections, many of those earnest discussions and arguments we had over steaming cups of teh tarik in the 1990s came flooding back to me. There is his great pride in Malaysia’s ethnic diversity, his deep concern about the divisive racist rhetoric of contested politics and the corrosive impact of patronage and corruption in high places.

Like many of us who have lived or worked in Malaysia, whether we are Malaysian or not, what we see today is a nation once proud of its institutional integrity and ethnic diversity, now threatened by a deterioration of the probity and quality of governance and sharply polarized communal tendencies.

For Kali, the country is on a slippery slope. “Intolerance is growing and there is no firm guiding hand, no leadership to lead us back to the right path,” he writes in the introduction. In a bitter post-script to this collection of columns he wrote for The New Straits Times when he was Group Editor from 2004-7, he bemoans the erosion of ethnic and religious tolerance and the rise of chauvinistic right wing politicians who have replaced the narrative of renewal and reform with the rhetoric of bigotry and racism.

The book, which is privately published, is unashamedly a romantic yearning for the Malaysia of yesteryear, with endearing sketches of his hometown of Kroh along the Thai Malaysian border, where he grew up the son of immigrant Indian Muslim parents. He loves to describe ordinary Malaysians living modestly and uncomplainingly in rural splendour – ‘the rich cultural diversity, the beauty of the different cultures, the picture postcard scenery’. This strengthens his belief ‘ that Malaysia is wonderful its people marvellous.’

How right he is that ‘if you want to see Malaysia as Malaysia is and as it should be’, then celebrating the Harvest Festival in Sabah is exactly the place to be.

The postscript to the book is where Kali’s expresses deep disappointment and where he falls victim perhaps to bitterness that is sometimes hard to read. Like Kali I was extremely optimistic about Malaysia during the years when Abdullah Badawi was Prime Minister. As much as Mahathir Mohamad helped develop and modernise Malaysia, he was a complex, uncompromising man with deeply ingrained prejudices that made it hard to feel welcome as a foreigner, or safe as a journalist.

Abdullah was a charming breath of fresh air, a man of high moral caliber and moderate views. As Kali notes, his long years in the political wilderness left him neither bitter nor vindictive. When he was thrust into power after Mahathir’s surprise resignation in 2003, Abdullah set about the uphill task of restoring institutional integrity and dignity to the office of Prime Minister and was genuinely committed to reform and renewal.

I was drawn to him and his fresh faced, well educated advisors. Abdullah and his inner circle, which included Kali, made you feel there was hope for a democratic Malaysia. He was indeed “a decent man… who tried, in his own way, to make the country a more decent place to live in”. But as Kali reveals, there was tremendous pressure on Abdullah to move in the other direction, not least because instead of going quietly into retirement, Mahathir was critical of his successor, whom he considered weak and ineffective.

Being a civilized man of polite moderation, it is true that Abdullah lacked the venom and spite to effectively emasculate his opponents. Kali documents incidents he was witness to where Abdullah refused to use his executive power to influence the courts, or bridle the media. On taking office he told the judges, as Kali wrote at the time: ‘that they must preserve the independence of the judiciary and act without fear and favour.’ These affectionately crafted vignettes are among the most valuable in the book, as Abdullah’s premiership is not widely written about.

All that sense of hope and idealism seems like a distant memory today, as Kali would have it. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, in his view, has turned the clock back and failed to fulfill his promise of reform. “The Chinese have become more defensive and exclusive than ever; the Christians feel they are constantly under siege; the Malay Muslims, among the poorest in society, fear losing political power; the Indians continue to feel marginalised.”

Kali’s parting shot drives at the heart of what ails Malaysia today, which to my mind is the dangerous erosion of ethnic and religious harmony. He is right that Malaysians have always been conscious of the racial divide, and that there have always been bigots and racists in their midst; neither Singapore nor Malaysia can escape the colonial confection of polarised pluralism. But he has a point when he writes that in Malaysia today ‘the spirit of family and oneness is remembered only by the aged.’

‘The Malaysia That Could Be’ was published privately in Malaysia in March and sold out within weeks of its initial print run with all the proceeds donated to charity. Copies of the book are available from the author.


Cairo – A Memory

Fifty years ago I lived in Cairo, enrolled as a student at the American University of Cairo and took these photographs.

The AUC campus was at that time situated in an old pasha’s palace in the downtown Bab al Louq area, just off the famous Tahrir Square.   I lived nearby on Shariah El Falaky in the AUC Dorm, a drab lemon-coloured building with high walls that from outside looked rather like a prison.

Outside, the city was a dazzling whirlpool of life, a frenzy of melon seed sellers, garbage pickers and juice dispensers, of young street boys in rags forever asking you the time; of dowdy office clerks staring at shop window displays of shoes.  The pungent smell of decaying citrus and human odour pervaded the air.  The cries of the street sellers harmonized with the honking of horns and the periodic bray of a street donkey.

Through these streets I prowled with an old Russian Zenit camera, at the time the most affordable SLR, packed with Tri X Film that I kept in the Dorm fridge.

The Khan el Khalili Bazaar is still there, where copper pots are still beaten; Felukas still ply the Nile, and the Boab still pick their noses in Bab el Louk.

But like these pictures, much of the charm I knew has faded.

Cairo2 Cairo3 Cairo4 Cairo

Pluralism Imperiled in Southeast Asia



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Southeast Asia’s diverse peoples have coexisted more or less peacefully for centuries using traditional forms of cultural accommodation and modern forms of segregation imposed from outside.

Both have been loosely defined as forms of pluralism – a term that denotes the ability of people of different ethnic groups and faiths to live side-by side, even if separately.

Of late, however, these established patterns of social tolerance and stability have been subject to strain. Across the region, conflicts between different groups of people with long traditions of peaceful coexistence are increasingly common.

Just in the past year, Christian communities that never had problems with neighbouring Muslims saw their churches burned in Indonesia; Muslims who have lived and worked as citizens in Buddhist majority Myanmar were deprived of the right to vote or sit in parliament. In Malaysia, Christians were told they couldn’t use the Malay word for God and non-Muslims are finding themselves increasingly subject to conservative Muslim restraints on behavior.

The problem is that pluralism, with its comforting notion of togetherness even without integration, is being replaced by identity politics, where lines of race and religion are clearly drawn and used as battle lines to secure and protect political power. This in turn is generating tension, and at times violence.

The implications of this unravelling of pluralism for stability in Southeast Asia are grave. The probability of violent ethnic and religious conflict along communal fault lines increases; the opportunities for radicals to sow religiously inspired hatred and spread violent extremism proliferate.

Most of the nation states in Southeast Asia allow freedom of worship and recognise ethnic diversity to varying degrees.

Indonesia with its Muslim majority guarantees freedom of faith in the constitution, as does Malaysia. Both countries avoided embracing Islamic statehood to avoid alienating non-Muslims. Similarly, Thailand is a majority Buddhist nation, but provides legal and constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion.

Worryingly these legal and constitutional safeguards are being steadily eroded.

In Indonesia, the constitutional right to freedom of worship is countered in many places by bureaucratic injunctions on establishing places of worship. In Malaysia, there are concerted efforts to impose the criminal code under Islamic Sharia Law.

Bills recently passed by the Myanmar parliament will likely make it illegal for a Muslim to take more than one wife, for a Buddhist to convert to Islam and greatly curb interfaith marriage.

Ethnic diversity is officially embraced and celebrated in all the nation states of Southeast Asia, but the practical arrangements often involve degrees of inequality and prejudice.

Unity and diversity underpins the basis of the state in Indonesia, but it was only in the past two decades that ethnic Chinese won the right to officially use the Chinese language and form their own social and political associations.

Malaysia has long had ethnically defined political parties, but the Indian and Chinese minorities are not accorded the same economic privileges as the Muslim Malay majority. Thailand defines all of its citizens as Thais speaking Thai.

Some space is given to Muslim Malays and hill tribe minorities to speak their languages and follow their customs, but administrative and political autonomy is denied to the Malays of the Deep South, which is the key driver of a violent conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people in the past decade.

Vietnam and Laos have battled their highland minorities but of late reached accommodation with them and introduced more tolerant policies. Myanmar recognises 135 different ethnic groups, but does not recognise the Muslim Rohingya of Rakhine State who are stateless.

The opening of political space and broadening of popular sovereignty accompanying slow moving reform across the region has had a mixed impact on levels of tolerance and integration.

Democracy and decentralisation has tended to sharpen the boundaries of faith and identity rather than blur them. This is perhaps because political parties appeal to issues of race and religion to garner votes rather than presenting platforms based on inclusive social and economic development.

In the recent Myanmar election, for example, a radical Buddhist nationalist movement, Ma Ba Tha, promoted the military backed ruling party using anti-Muslim rhetoric.

When around 200,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in mid 2015 to call for investigation of a government corruption scandal, the government said the protest movement, known as ‘Bersih’, wasn’t representative because most of the protestors were Indian and Chinese. A government-backed counter protest stirred up racial tension prompting the Chinese ambassador to visit Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown area and call for tolerance.

This erosion of pluralism doesn’t just risk the outbreak of violent conflict; it also obstructs the development of mature democratic societies where citizens have equal opportunities.

The disenfranchisement of around one million Rohingya in Myanmar stands out, but there are growing concerns about the future for ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia, who find themselves increasingly marginalised and unable to contribute fully to their nation’s development. Many are simply leaving as a result. Intermarriage with Malays, though not illegal, involves obligatory conversion to Islam.

More alarming is the polarisation along religious lines.

Southeast Asia’s 600 million people are roughly equally divided between Theravada Buddhists and primarily Sunni Muslims. The mass movement of Muslim Rohingya out of Rakhine State – an estimated 70,000 have left in the past two years – could herald an alarming trend towards migration to escape the threat of sectarian violence. The recent attacks on Christian churches in Aceh Singkil displaced close to 10,000 people in a matter of weeks.

Segregation is common in areas affected by religious tension. A vicious religious conflict in Indonesia’s Maluku province, which ended in 2001, has left Christians and Muslims living apart. As a result fear and prejudice prevails. In the aftermath of the Aceh Singkil church burnings in October, it took some effort by community leaders in Maluku to halt a Christian backlash against Muslims.

Is there a way to stop this deterioration of the plural fabric of Southeast Asian societies? Is a sectarian, segregated future avoidable?

The original definition of pluralism is derived from the work of a British colonial official John Furnivall. He observed members of different ethnic communities artificially thrown together by the colonial economy ‘mixing but not combining’ in the market places of Rangoon and Jakarta.

“Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways,” Furnivall wrote. “As individuals they meet, but only in the marketplace in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, within the same political unit.”

The colonial powers used strict lines of racial division to control exploited populations, thus bequeathing the region disintegrated societies at the birth of modern nationhood. Modern Malaysia and Myanmar remain prisoners of this colonial legacy of pluralism, which helps explain some of the contemporary social pathology and how it is manipulated.

It remains all too easy for aspiring power holders to tug on these arcane social strictures to cement their grip on power.

The Malays in Malaysia are constantly being told by their leaders that they are threatened by non-Malay races, that they must seek protection from their government – just as the colonial rulers offered privilege and protection to the Malays to keep them from bonding with Chinese and Indian labourers and questioning the colonial order. This is very much old pluralism in a new guise.

But there is another, modern meaning of pluralism, that has more positive implications for social integration. This assumes that the democratic process creates a better understanding between different communities by empowering them at the ballot box thus ensuring their interests are heard and represented.

There is no doubt for example that the Muslim Moro of Mindanao in the southern Philippines have grown less restive and feel they have more dignity after being granted a form of autonomy that allows them to elect their own Governor, as in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the former Free Aceh Movement now leads an autonomous elected government.

Perhaps the best way to preserve the peace and ensure prosperity in a region so defined by diversity is to promote the new definition of pluralism at the expense of the old. Togetherness and a common sense of national identity needs to replace notions of divide and rule as well as exploitation instilled by colonial systems of rule.

However, pluralistic politics needs the modern tools and institutions of democracy to prevent political parties and their leaders seeking refuge in the cloistered catacombs of identity. This means that political parties need inclusive programs; election campaigns need strict codes of conduct, and leaders need to represent all their people, not just some

As for the situation today: sadly if John Furnivall were alive, he would recognise many of the characteristics of pluralism as he first defined it in the 1930s.

[First Posted on New Mandala 18th December 2015]

Paradise Unspoilt

As an unseasonably hot sun set in Ubud last night there were mixed views about how badly the annual Writers & Readers Festival had been affected – or damaged – by the organiser’s decision to cancel scheduled events discussing ‘1965’; the generic term referring to the mass killings that year. Some decried the decision, taken, it was said, due to pressure from the police. Others questioned the motives for the cancellations. In the end, however, two things happened: there was plenty of discussion about the mass killings of 1965, and a great deal of healthy debate about the state of freedom in Indonesia.



These were important and useful discussions, which were not just indulged in by a mainly elitist, white-outsider audience. Senior Indonesian journalist Endy Bayuni said in his opening keynote address that for the past seventeen years Indonesia had been free, but recent trends suggested this may no longer be true. Another influential Indonesian journalist, Andreas Harsono, warned of increasing pressure to forbid any public discussion about events of the past.

In Ubud, form triumphed over substance, as only the only sessions cancelled were those with ‘1965’ somewhere in their title. My own session on ‘the persistence on memory’ focused on recollections of the killings. In another session, Galuh Wandita, Indonesia’s foremost expert in transitional justice, made an urgent, moving plea, stressing the need for some kind of truth and reconciliation. No more sweeping things under the carpet, she said. ‘We can’t even sit on the carpet because it is so lumpy!’

Later, at an informal lunchtime talk given by Dutch author Saskia Wieringa about her novel, Crocodile Hole, victims of 1965 embraced a young woman who broke down and wept. Her grandfather had been a victim. Between sobs she spoke of the stigma of silence that has given her sleepless nights. ‘It is time to stop using fear as a tool to control our emotions,’ she said, as police and intelligence agents hovered on the edge of the venue, unsure what to do. They were further befuddled when approached by a prominent Indonesian lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis, who asked them if it were illegal for people to read or discuss matters of interest – over lunch, in private. The confused-looking police simply gave up, and beat a retreat after photographing the scene.

Other discussions and events over the five day festival also lent urgency to the opening day’s warnings about censorship. Papuan journalist Aprilla Wayar bravely declared that the current Indonesian government is preparing to introduce even stricter controls for reporters in Papua. Galuh Wandita warned of the impunity that is ‘creeping back across the border’ in East Timor, where she says there are no programmes organized to help victims of violence.

Meanwhile, for East Timorese filmmaker Francisca Maia, her short film Decisions – about the torture of a young Timorese girl at the hands of Indonesian police during the occupation – brought home again the importance of recounting the tragedies of the past.

‘It’s a big setback, but not the end of the road,’ said Endy Bayuni of the censorship evident not just in Ubud but in other parts of Indonesia at this moment in time.

‘We have the tools to fight through legal action,’ insisted Harsono. ‘Don’t be fearful. Be brave.’

We heard brave words, too, from others who face persecution around the world: from Hyeonseo Lee, who fled the ‘ridiculous state’ of North Korea; from Anchee Minn who fled China under Mao after almost denouncing her own mother; and from Palestinian playwright Nathalie Handal who painfully described how even love is occupied in the occupied territories of Palestine where ‘everyday is a lifetime’.

None of us in Ubud this year were really intimidated by the cancellation of certain programmes. And what about those who boycotted or pulled out of the festival as a result of the decision? In my view, they lost their voice, and made it easier for the increasingly conservative Indonesian ruling establishment to play divide and rule.

I was left thinking about the words of a young Indonesian poet, Tia Setiadi: ‘Sometimes, to enjoy poetry you need to close your eyes, allowing the sounds of your soul to connect to the sounds outside you.’ We did that this year in Ubud: we closed our eyes to the actions of fearful, small-minded people who would use fear as a weapon. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om.

(First published on the site ‘Ubud Now and Then’ on 2 November 2015)


Indonesia’s Forgotten Genocide

Fear of the future explains failure to grapple with the past.

With each passing year, the memories of violent death dim the way that old photographs lose their colour.

It’s now been 50 long years since that night in Jakarta on 30 September when seven Indonesian army officers including six generals were slaughtered by rebel troops, unleashing an orgy of violence across much of Java and Bali where it still remains unclear if more or less than a million people died.

The victims were for the most part ordinary Indonesians from towns and villages across Java and Bali, killed cruelly and without mercy, usually cudgeled or strangled in the middle of the night, on the merest hint of communist sympathy.

Most would have joined some communist party organised activities – with a membership of at least three million, it was one of the largest political parties in the country and had the tacit backing of President Sukarno, the nation’s founder. Many of the victims were educated, as it was believed that intellectuals were prone to communism sympathies. You faced death merely if you wore spectacles.

For three long decades, the victims suffered in silence. Every year to mark the attempted coup on 30 September, President Soeharto’s New Order government showed a dramatic reconstruction of the events on that fateful night which portrayed the murdered generals as heroes, and the communist plotters as brutal killers, staying silent on the mass killings that followed.

There was hope for a reckoning of the past after 1998, when Indonesia threw off the authoritarian yoke and finally embraced the democratic system envisaged by the country’s founding fathers.

But liberal democracy has proven a weak tool for either justice or reconciliation in Indonesia. The media’s ability to chronicle Indonesia’s tragic past has not resulted in a collective commitment to establishing the truth or holding those responsible accountable.

Instead, the victims have been tortured further – promised some form of recognition in the form of a national apology, only to be told that the killings were justified by an aggressive conservative establishment that continues to stand by its anti-communist beliefs three decades after communism collapsed.

When he was President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed a National Human Rights Commission report into the killings. The voluminous report recommended action to provide redress to the victims. Yudhoyono contemplated a national apology, but met with fierce resistance from within the ranks of the military and the Islamic establishment, whose members carried out many of the killings.

Perhaps this was a vain hope; Yudhoyono’s own father in law, Sarwo Edhie, was the Special Forces General ordered to initiate the crackdown on communists and their sympathisers. To make matters worse, before the end of his Presidential term, Yudhoyono mulled a proposal to make Sarwo Edhie a national hero.
There was renewed hope that Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly elected last year and with no links to the old conservative establishment, would finally address the issue. Contemplating an apology for human rights abuses was one of the many vague promises he made as he rode to power. But as the 50th anniversary approaches, his officials say the President has more pressing issues of social and economic development to attend to.

The army remains a strong pillar of the establishment and seems unwilling to make amends for its bloody past. Indeed, there is still anger in military circles about the alleged communist involvement in the deaths of the generals. “We are victims too,” one former military officer once told me.

Neither do the Islamic organisations implicated in carrying out the killings want their role highlighted by any move to apologise for the past. News of Joko Widodo’s decision not to issue an apology this year came after a meeting with Muhammadiya, the country’s second largest Muslim organisation.

Behind the excuses, the disappointment and the failure to address what the rest of the world considers a forgotten genocide, lies a profound fear of the future. “What did the Communists want?” asked a conservative figure at one meeting to discuss reconciliation during Yudhoyono’s administration. “They wanted land reform.” Then he asked: “Do we have land reform today?”

Fear of social change in a society still plagued by inequality perhaps explains why anti-communists protests still happen each time political leaders contemplate addressing the mass killings. The poverty rate may have halved in the last 15 years, but income distribution has become much more unequal; about 40 per cent of the country’s 250 million people still live on less than $2 per day

Threats to social cohesion could also be a factor preventing accountability. Javanese society in 1965 was composed of a more balanced mixture of Christian and Muslim communities; the communist party made gains in the Christian community, and anti-communist sentiment found root among Muslims.

It is no secret that much of the actual killing was carried out by Muslim youth gangs and militia, encouraged and armed by the army. Afterwards many Christians converted to Islam to escape suspicion and further harassment. The legacy of accelerated Islamicisation since then has weakened the traditional cultural mechanisms for maintaining harmony between faiths, and religious conflict is on the rise.

Opening up these old wounds, many Indonesians argue, will only highlight modern inequalities and reinforce social divisions that already frequently result in conflict. So why rock the boat?

The old photographs may fade and the images of death and immense suffering on such a massive scale all but physically disappear, but the collective social trauma lives on in the Indonesian psyche. It appears in the creative works of writers like Leila Chudori and Laksmi Pamuntjak who were born just before or after the killings. It has been vividly expressed by some of the actors themselves – both killers and their victims – in the films of Joshua Oppenheimer.

What photographs hide is how people feel; deep down many Indonesians feel ashamed about a period in their history they can’t erase. This dark spot on the past clouds their vision of the future.

First published in New Mandala, 29 September, 2015