Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What a sweet and sour year it’s been

Many aeons ago, in a faraway place called Rimini, an Italian family invited me to join them for dinner at a local trattoria.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej holds the leash of his dog while sitting in a wheelchair at a hospital in Bangkok on February 27, 2010. Photo: AFPThai King Bhumibol Adulyadej holds the leash of his dog while sitting in a wheelchair at a hospital in Bangkok on February 27, 2010. Photo: AFP

They ordered pizza, which, believe it or not, I’d never eaten before. My first bite or two were fine, but the next had a sharp, sour taste that almost made me throw up. It was anchovy, which I disliked intensely.

Still, I did my best to nibble at a few more pieces and washed them down with gulps of cold beer. But I was glad when the pizza plates were cleared away and the sweet dessert arrived.

That’s how I feel as 2015 draws to a close.

What with racial and religious bigotry, corruption and state-sponsored disappearances, it’s hard to fight that stale year-end ennui, even while listening to Frank Sinatra. But here goes.

In parts of Southeast Asia, it has been a sweetly satisfying time, but for most it has been blighted by sour-tasting events that have rendered it a year only fools and horses would want to see repeated.

Let’s start with Malaysia and try to see how it arrived at the dismal state it is now in. After all, when its leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, came to power in 2009, he seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Sounding all the right notes, Mr Najib freed political prisoners, rescinded bans on opposition newspapers, vowed to review detention-without-trial laws, and said he’d promote ethnic harmony.

Unfortunately, not only did little happen in practice, but also race relations deteriorated – largely, it has to be said, due to internal party pressure from Malay chauvinists, which Mr Najib lacked the steel to refute.

His own image also took a hit when his political adviser and fellow philanderer Razak Baginda was charged with murdering a shared Mongolian mistress named Altantuya Shaaribuu.

As a result, when Mr Najib contested his first general election as PM in 2013, his ruling National Front coalition suffered grievous losses.

The country’s Chinese and Indian communities deserted him, so that while his government retained a majority, it lost the popular vote and the opposition won control of five state legislatures.

Mr Najib’s reaction was to hunker down and join the chauvinists, especially after he came under relentless attacks this year for alleged corruption in his role as chair of the debt-ridden 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.

Indeed, 2015 has been a year in which Malaysia’s national affairs have come second to the PM’s own battle for political survival.

Currently, in an attempt to discredit criticism, he has brazenly claimed that the thievery charges against him are part of a conspiracy by non-Malays and non-Muslims to bring down his government.

Speaking at his party’s general assembly last week, Mr Najib said that if his party was defeated, “this country will be ruled by those who are against the Islamic struggle and those who reject the fight for Malays”.

Actually, if it was defeated, the country would be ruled – as it is now in five of its states, including economically vibrant Penang and Selangor – by a multi-racial coalition much like Mr Najib’s own National Front. But the PM has turned sectarian and given up on Malaysian Chinese and Indians, and instead reached out to the fundamentalist Islamic Party, saying it should join him to build “a perfect Malaysia”.

It would only be perfect for those who want sharia law and who lobby for the introduction of punishments like whipping, amputation of limbs and the stoning to death of women.

Meanwhile, over in the country formerly known as Siam, the trend from bad to worse is perhaps best epitomised by yet another white-out in the pages of The International New York Times on December 15.

Thailand’s military junta, led by the self-appointed PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha, is ever more obsessed with dialling back human rights and curtailing public debate.

Last week, US ambassador Glyn Davies was placed under investigation for criticising the hefty jail terms meted out to alleged critics of the monarchy by secret military trials.

British ambassador Mark Kent was also lambasted for noting how a protest against corruption in the military was swiftly crushed, while one outside the United States embassy was tacitly encouraged.

Then, on December 14, a Thai citizen was charged with insulting a dog belonging to the royal household. He could face 25 years in jail.

You may ask, “What next?” Do not.

Given the sinking Thai economy and the growing dissension within the military due to maladministration and corruption, no one has a clue what will happen next, except that it will not be very pleasant.

This may be an appropriate moment to turn to Cambodia where events over the past year may also have distressed liberal democrats, but at least they have been better in terms of social stability and press freedom.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen will visit Bangkok this week and may give General Prayut a few tips on how better to deliver an iron fist in a velvet glove. In many ways, Hun Sen brings to mind that strange advice in The Kama Sutra: “Eating many eggs fried in butter then immersed in honey will make the member hard for the whole night.”

He is just hard the whole damn time. Look at how he has emasculated his critics and recently activated an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, the opposition leader.

Well, let’s stop here, and instead of recalling more unsavoury tastes from Brunei, Laos and Vietnam, let’s note that democratic Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines have shown a sweeter side over the past year.

As, too, did Myanmar, where the incoming new leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has an agenda full of bullets being bitten, cronies and former generals being assuaged, and Muslims being Trumped.

So perhaps we should look forward to 2016 with guarded optimism, while partaking of some pizza from all the new outlets – but no anchovies, please.