Tsunami

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Tsunami by Anatoly Kurchatkin, translated by Arch Tait.

Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.

Early in the story, the Russian protagonist Radislav and his female companion at that moment, a child of the Soviet-era aristocracy, are walking past one of Bangkok’s royal parks when they chance upon a group of people practicing a “ballet of a kind he had never seen before.” Radislav admits to his friend Nellie, “I don’t feel I’m in a faraway foreign country. I feel this is where I belong.” The response is quick:

“Of course you do,” Nellie replied briskly. “We are an imperial people. Citizens of the former Soviet Union. For us Asian faces are part of our family. The whole world is our home. I’m speaking from experience. It doesn’t matter where you travel, everywhere feels like home.”

Kurchatkin’s entertaining use of dialogue both keeps the story moving along and imbues an additional psychological depth to the musings of the Russian and Thai characters. The reader might be reminded of other great Russian writers who centered philosophical insights not in the actions or events of the plot, but in the mouths of the characters themselves. The more vocal the characters are, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from their chatty interactions. Sometimes these discussions are on heavier topics, while other dialogue is more lighthearted.

For example, in one scene, Radislav and Nellie are being chaperoned by their Thai friend Tony, when Tony learns of a lovers’ spat between the two Russians:

“Ah, I expect Rad just doesn’t like the fact that I’m European,” Nellie responded.
Tony, taking his hands off the wheel, and turning to face her periodically, protested.
“No, Nellie, you are not European. I would say you are a Thai woman. You only look European, but inside you are Thai.”
“Well, in that case Rad doesn’t like the fact that I’m a Thai,” she persisted.
Tony’s unfailing smile showed signs of reproach.
“Rad, what you have done to Nellie?” he asked. “I think you have made her sad.”
Rad was left with no option but to respond.
“Nellie is a Russian woman, Tony, and a Russian woman is probably a mixture of European and Thai. It is a dangerous mixture.” He had wanted to say “explosive” but did not know the word in English.

The above quotations also highlight one of the leitmotifs of this story. The protagonist Radislav hints at… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of Tsuami by Anatoly Kurchatkin originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Thai memorial stamps of 2014 Tsunami for this re-post goes to Mark Jochim and his A Stamp A Day blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Hidden Words Hidden Worlds

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum.

The crisis of recent months between the majority Buddhist Burmese and minority Islamic group calling themselves Rohingya serves as a reminder that Myanmar (Burma) is not a unified country in the sense of one nation, one state. The central government’s overreaction to an increase in Islamic radicalization in some rural areas by the brutal expulsion of 600,000-plus souls across the border into Bangladesh—though violent and tragic—should not be mistaken as unique in Myanmar’s history.

Stretching back at least seventy years to Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the various conflicts between the majority ethnic Burman along the central Irrawaddy valley down to the delta and the hundred or so different ethnolinguistic groups that populate the republic’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand attest even more vividly to disunity. The response to the Rohingya crisis is not without precedent. Wave the compass in the direction of northeast Myanmar and another ferocious struggle comes into purview between the central government and the Kachin peoples. Despite valid steps toward democratization—maybe less valid toward political liberalization—these types of communal conflicts have never not been an empirical reality for independent Myanmar. This cruel misalignment between majority-versus-minority aspiration is well documented both inside and outside Myanmar.

Less well documented are those perspectives that often never make their presence felt outside the smaller linguistic communities in Myanmar. The literary anthology Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum, is a fascinating reversal to the usual absence of non-Burman viewpoints. The short stories gathered here are an eclectic mix by fourteen different authors. The writers are… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of edited book by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Rakhine Hills for this re-post goes to the talented DG-Photography via a post by Nada Haensel in Destinations Magazine. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Liberalism Lite

Is Singapore a liberal democracy or a social democracy?

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days — not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian”. To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy — that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity — is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised — or rejected — in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy”. After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is — because of its rejection of many liberal tenets — not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit at top of this re-post is a screenshot from Episode 6 of 宇宙よりも遠い場所 via reviewer Guan Zhen Tan at Mothership.sg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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Malay Sketches

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches.

Exploring identity in a multi-ethnic community through fiction can be a sensitive subject. The importance people place on identity is often a prickly topic these days—especially in multi-religious, multiracial communities like that of Singapore’s five and a half million citizens. In November 2017, the Singaporean Institute of Policy Studies presented evidence that for the first time more Singaporeans identify with the city-state than with their own ethnic lineage. The remaining half of survey respondents, however, still felt a “simultaneous” identity of both Singaporean and racial heritage.

Yet these statistics only go so far in understanding the subject’s sensitivity for many people. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches is a short story collection that achieves a balance between the sensitive nature of analyzing race and ethnicity from the perspective of a minority and a playful inventiveness by making the discussion seem lighthearted. First published in 2012 by Ethos Books, it be will released early in 2018 for the international market by the new imprint Gaudy Boy.

In ethnically-Chinese dominated Singapore, Aflian’s perspective in these short stories is valuable for investigating the daily lives of those individuals who may not fit the stereotypical, Chinese-looking Singaporean. Alfian, who is himself a Singaporean Muslim of mixed Hakka, Javanese, and Minangkabau descent, is a creative interpreter of Singapore’s unique society for outsiders.

In total, Malay Sketches contains forty-eight stories. Some stories are… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Singaporean Islamic Hub for this re-post goes to this 32cravenfan. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Too Much Democracy

Despite appearances, something is missing at the heart of Thai democracy.

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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When The Future Comes Too Soon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s When The Future Comes Too Soon.

For those who had been living under Western imperialism in Asia, the sudden loss of presumed superiority in almost all things political, social, and cultural of the European colonial powers after Japan’s sudden attack in late 1941 was a seminal event. Japan’s own, often violent, experiment in colonial administration that immediately took its place, lasting through to the summer of 1945, and its attempts at pan-Asianism reinforced for the many that the “civilizing” project need not demand colonial masters from abroad.

As many historical studies have argued, this changed the course of colonialism in Asia. In fiction, however, this perspective of former colonial subjects (as opposed to the colonials themselves) living through the daily trials brought about by the tumultuous events of the Second World War, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, has been less well explored.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novel When the Future Comes Too Soon is an important corrective—as well as an exciting read—on the subject. The story follows Mei Foong, a Malaysian-Chinese wife and mother, as her family attempt survival during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya.

A picturesque scene of colonial Malaya is developed throughout the novel. Its richness brings the reader closer to the baju styled garb, the sleeping barlay raised platforms of Malayan homes, the Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese dialects of Malayan Chinese, the Kempeitai secret police of Japan, the betel nut chewing of commoners, the local parang machetes of workers, the official British Resident, the hardwood chengai of the tropics, and an innumerable number of traditional honorifics and kinship terms of multilingual Malaya. The protagonist Mei Foong’s interactions in this world are colorful.

The struggle of multiethnic Malaya is paralleled in the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Malaysian jungle for this re-post goes to this Leo from FWallpapers. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Notes of a Crocodile

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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