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 😉