Ever wondered how someone from Southeast Asia can get to live and work illegally in the developed world?
One answer is here…lah.
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I have intermittently linked to individual EastAsia Forum articles in the past, but I should take the opportunity to introduce the full EastAsia Forum site here.
The EastAsia Forum has some very insightful pieces by some world class contributors and is highly recommended.
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The post title is shared with the great McKinsey discussion paper here that was prepared for the World Cities Summit 2018 in collaboration with the Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore.
Reviewing the footnotes there are many related publications. I am open to posting links to these too (where possible), depending on reader feedback.
There is a lot in these 44 pages to absorb. Limiting my thoughts to just one, I am always cautious about expressing certainty over the future. The report wisely (usually) offers statistical ranges, but even these need to be viewed through the lens of merely greater probability.
The report is also silent on the underlying politics, an even greater risk to the assumed certainties.
I will stop there and let you read the paper!
Those who know their modern Indonesian history will remember well that it is 20 years this week since Suharto’s regime came crashing down.
Few anticipated that in the wake of Suharto that Indonesian democracy would do as well (relatively speaking) as it has.
Furthermore, across the region democracy remains in a pretty sorry state in comparison. That’s a troubling assertion given the cracks appearing in Indonesia’s democratic fabric.
But the relationship between Indonesia and democracy has always been tense and tenuous, so perhaps that’s just characteristic of regional democracy too.
As the article in The Economist here points out, the region’s democratic weaknesses can’t easily be attributed to a lack of elections.
Indonesia and Thailand both have big elections (in size and significance respectively) coming over the horizon, so there will be no shortage of electoral excitement in the next year or so.
As for meaningful democratic advances that go with those elections…hmmm, well, maybe yes…or maybe not.
Update – After posting the above I was guided to an insightful analysis by Ed Aspinall here. I am confident in suggesting we make broadly similar claims in our respective texts, although for those interested his is a much richer and thoughtful piece of writing.
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I recently asked a dear friend what my next post here should focus on. The reply came to me as a single word – “life”.
Where to start in the context of Southeast Asia, and how to address a concept as vast and as nebulous as life itself?
Perhaps, in the same way that the topic is a single word, the response could also be in single words.
In that vein I remembered Thomas Fuller’s thoughts in the New York Times article here, where he presented life in Southeast Asia through the single word prism of impunity.
Looking at that article again there is still little I disagree with, although the Southeast Asian world he describes has moved on somewhat.
Is impunity still an apt in describing Southeast Asia? Absolutely…but also maybe not universally. Impunity continues to exist in the region, although recent events in Malaysia have shown how far and how quickly political certainties can shift.
Even so, for many Southeast Asians impunity is clearly limited to the earthly world. Many tens of millions of Southeast Asians believe their lives to be subject to the whims of spirits. These spirits usually exist in both this life and the next, so achieving impunity from their wrath requires great dedication. This dedication can be seen in countless mosques, temples, shrines, churches and rituals often unique to the region.
And so, like any half decent political scientist, in the contest between the concepts of legal and political impunity and extreme vulnerability to the whim of spirits I find myself drawn to the concept of power.
Life in Southeast Asia is, to my mind, often a contest of power. To paraphrase the words of Chairman Mao “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, but I wonder if life in Southeast Asia is shaped just as much by spirit power that acts with impunity.
Curiously visitors and locals experience this power differently. A visiting outsider may consider themselves as having impunity against (at least local) sprits, but are aware that they have a life changing vulnerability to other expressions of power. In contrast a local resident may experience and exercise power very differently in the life they enjoy, live or simply endure.
Most fascinating perhaps is to witness how this power relevancy in life switches as Southeast Asians become foreigners and foreigners become Southeast Asians through the magic of migration. Notably too, tourism seems impotent to offer all but an alluring taste of this possible reversal of power for a fragment of their life.
And so that is my take on life in Southeast Asia. I suggest just four words, namely impunity, vulnerability, spirits and power can capture life in the region.
Could any reader capture Southeast Asia in three words? Attempts are welcome.
UPDATE – At the top of this post I referred to a ‘dear friend”. Such is her personality that “dear” should be replaced with “brilliant, wise, funny, adorable, amazing and lovely”. I hope she can forgive me for my initial oversight 😉
…some 4,500 years ago according to the story here.
Now you know, although I cannot imagine easily that centuries of cumulative academic study can be accurately condensed into a single short news item.
Interesting conclusion though. I will post again on this topic later.
Image of Flores, Indonesia
In a number of earlier posts I have touched on some topics around Southeast Asia’s distant past.
Revisiting that theme was prompted by the thought provoking article here.
A one sentence summary of the article is that our understanding of the role and prominence of Asia in human evolutionary history is changing…again.
A couple of points I would make in response.
One point is the article’s reference to the cave art of Sulawesi being potentially the oldest in the world. I guess I will never see that art in person, but I will put a visit on my lifetime wish list. I have visited the ancient Aboriginal rock art at Mootawingee in Australia and that is something I will never forget.
Another point I would make (again) is that the article reminds us just how recent and arbitary our modern political boundaries are. These delineations are not reasonably undersood as a contest btween Asian history v Southeast Asian history or Indonesian history v Malaysia, this is our history.
And yet that concept is hard work. A sense of self built on national identity makes knowing our identity easier for us, in the same way that football team colours make it easier for us to identify us and them.
But these ancient people (or often, like Flores hobbits, maybe people) challenge us. Is their history our history or theirs alone? Is any greater understanding of this era a journey into the past as cultural insiders or outsiders?
Perhaps the answer rests on whether we can draw a sufficiently clear link from this past to our national identity.
An interpretation founded on the existence (or not) of this link would trap us in the constraints of our contemporary political realities, but sadly that may just be inescapable.
Contrary to my earlier commitment, I want to make a single Thailand post about the City of Angels, Bangkok.
Reference the article here, never again in your life will you read a better description of how Bangkok can utterly overwhelm your senses and capture your soul.
I have lived, loved and lost in Bangkok to extremes I have nowhere else on earth, and the article above electrified those memories.
No life can be truly lived until at least a fraction has been lived in Bangkok.
I have long been interested in how memories of significant events live and die among populations. This is important, because these memories are not neutral, and carry values, fears, hopes and expectations that are often transmitted to future generations.
I suspect few events are more significant, and traumatic, for survivors than major natural disasters. Perhaps the most significant in Southeast Asia in living memory was the December 26 2004 tsunami, but there are already adults with no memory of that event.
As result, what I term “peak memory”, the time when the biggest percentage of adults with a distinct memory of that disaster, has already passed. Taking as a starting point the age of memory for a child as being five years old, that would mean for 13 years after the event new adults would have a memory of the event, but from that time (in this case the year 2017) the total percentage with memory will diminish more adults emerge with no memory of the event and those with a memory of the event pass on.
Nevertheless it will be a long time into the future before nobody has direct experience of the event. Noting again the selection of the age of first memory at five years old, and assuming nobody who experienced that event lives beyond 100 years of age, direct memory of the December 26 2004 tsunami will collectively die in around 2099.
This timeframe may also be understood by looking at historical examples.
My grandfather, who died in 1992, was born in 1907. As a result, he undoubtedly met someone who remembered, and possibly heard, the Krakatoa explosion (see here) just 24 years before his birth. What is far less likely is that he met someone who remembered the Tambora eruption (see here) some 92 years before he was born.
That would suggest peak memory of Tambora lasted from 1815 to around 1828, and direct memory ended in about 1900, several years before his birth. If, however, a 5 year old encountered one of the last of those with direct memory of Tambora then that (then) 5 year old could have carried that shared memory through to around 1995.
In contrast, the Krakatoa eruption, which now seems an impossibly distant 135 years ago, would have existed as a peak memory until 1898, a direct memory until 1978 and will possibly endure as a shared experience until 2073.
And the December 26 2004 tsunami? Well, as mentioned above peak memory would have ended less than two weeks ago and direct memory will pass around 2099, but personal knowledge of someone who lived through that time will linger until possibly the year 2194.
Those memories can indeed experience a long life.