I think I have mentioned previously that as an Australian, I believe that our country should make more of an effort to reach out to and engage with our closest neighbours, rather than waiting for them to engage with us, on our terms. Part of this then is making more of an effort to pay attention to and understand the politics of the region.
Now, I have to confess here, while I have made the choice to sniff out more works describing the politics of South East Asia, my interest is not entirely purely academic. Some of it is motivated by what I think is probably the same kind of things that drive (and I hate to say it but it’’s true) gossip hounds to go after celebrities. I just want to stick my nose in. Except my target isn’t the rich and famous but the rich and horrifically corrupt.
My main target of interest? The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Just WHAT was going on there? What the hell was Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Najib Razak fucking doing? Was he trying to one-up Indonesia’s General Suharto in the dirty-rotten-scoundrels embezzlement competition (There’s another story that we just never seem to hear about.)
I want to know more.
So I picked up Michael Vatikiotis’ book Blood and Silk and gave that a shot. Vatikiotis worked for and edited the Far Eastern Economic Review, and has worked for years in the region, so I figured he might have a pretty good idea what’s going on.
One thing that stood out right from the get-go is that this is not an optimistic book. Don’t get me wrong, Vatikiotis has nothing but praise for the people in the region and their cultures. But their governments are a completely different matter. Much of the region seems to be struggling with democracy and to work out why you need to look at their more recent history.
In the first part of the book, Power, Vatikiotis give us a political history of the region, giving us the context of the countries’ political systems, and why “demi-democracy” seems to be the prevailing state. Even though the wealth of most of these counties has grown since the 1980’s, along with the level of education, the openness of their democracies has not caught up; possibly linked to a lack of institutional integrity. In the second part, Conflict, Vatikiotis goes on to addresses what he considers the most urgent concerns facing this part of the globe. And it’s not terribly optimistic. Personally, I think a whole other book could be written on the role of China in this region in the next few decades, although the Middle East certainly has a vested interest as well. The amount of money flowing through this region, both historically and in more modern times, has not done anything to help stability.
Fitting for someone who was taking a less than purely academic interest, Blood and Silk is not a purely academic book. It’s very obvious the Vatikiotis is not telling this from a detached perspective; you feel like he’s across the table from you, sharing a drink or two, as tells you about all the times he met certain figures when working at the Far Eastern Economic Review. (The bit about the Thai crown prince’s pet poodle that got commissioned as an air force officer was surprisingly hilarious) While this makes the book very engaging, it also makes its structure a little scattershot. So while informative, it’s no reference book.
Overall, this is a good introduction to the political complexity of the region — provided you take into consideration that fact that it’s only one man’s observations. And not only did I get some insight into the drama behind the 1MDB scandal, but it gave me a couple of more leads to follow as well.
Which I should probably approach more seriously.
For Bingo, this is Money. For the hundreds of millions Razak channelled to his personal accounts.