The sound of thunder

The Spectre of Comparisons
February 19, 1999

With another geography (glimpsed in references to Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore) tugging at his consciousness, Benedict Anderson, who was banned from Suharto's Indonesia, re-examines Southeast Asia's modern past "as we listen, to borrow from Satyajit Ray, for the roll of distant thunder up ahead".

For thunder, read the " Reformasi !" chant reverberating through Malaysia in the grip of a lurid sex trial, its constant bickering with Singapore, the mob anger that brought down Suharto, rumbles of protest in repressed Burma, Cambodia's rulers playing footsie with relics of the bloodstained Khmer Rouge, or a storm of corruption allegations in Thailand - and it becomes clear that this is a region in waiting.

It has known a spectacular boom and a resounding bust, and is now trying to pick up the pieces, political even more than economic. But far from being clothed in antiquity, Southeast Asia was a patchwork of colonies deriving homogeneity from scholastic interest and importance from cold war expediency.

The region does not cohere culturally, but it did convert a domino into a global presence by launching the Association of South East Asian Nations, and it did gallop ahead, replacing huts with skyscrapers in less than a generation. The achievement commands respect, and would have done so even more if many of its premises had not turned out to be hollow and if easy money had not generated a crass consumerism that passes for westernisation.

How the money was made and its effect on the region's psychology are not Anderson's central concerns. But they are not ignored in a work that goes beyond his earlier classic, Imagined Communities , to explore permanent civilisational forces, blending broad themes of nationhood and identity with detailed studies of individual societies in another triumph of political incorrectness.

The title is a translation of "el demonio de las comparaciones", a phrase that occurs in the novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by the Filipino patriot Jose Rizal, executed by the Spanish in 1896. An American or European who describes Asia as a figment of the West's imagination ("People in western countries believe in the massive existence of 'Asians', but very few people in 'Asia' share this curious idea") is bound to raise Asian hackles. Anderson adds insult to the injury of claiming that only Dutch colonials forced the wandering sons of the Yellow Emperor, who had defined themselves until then according to dialect, into the straitjacket of a Chinese label, by referring to Deng Xiaoping as "the Machiavelli of Peking" and to "the Lee Kuan Yew despotism".

Ambivalent about the past, taking miracle growth for granted, astounded when their house of cards crashed, Southeast Asia's elite - many of whose members do not even hear the thunder - may not like their skeletons dragged out of the cupboard. But wounded amour-propre can draw comfort from Anderson's contention that the politics of ethnicity, reflected in mounting tension and turmoil, is a colonial legacy and not endemic in local cultures. Anderson examines the conceptual formulation of nationhood in the theoretical essays in which are embedded his core studies of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, the countries he knows best.

Southeast Asia has suffered drastic upheavals since this book went to press. Many myths have been exploded. As countries are racked by dissent, Anderson's hard-headed look at the politics of accommodation and the economics of politics has little time for the familiar waffling about Confucian communitarianism as the source of the boom. Much more realistic is his view that, thanks to the cold war and closeness to Japan, "Southeast Asia was the only region in the world in which the two most powerful national economies were deeply and on the whole cooperatively committed for four decades". As for the bust, regional regimes brought it upon themselves by squandering the years of plenty "in a largely short-sighted, profligate, and even antipatriotic manner".

Not many analysts pepper their erudition with such forthright verdicts and pungent comments. Malaysian independence was "the last large British imperial garage sale"; and colonialism "dreamed of incipient nationalism before nationalists themselves came into historical existence".

This analysis should be read widely because the prosperity of Europe and America depends to a large extent on the region's recovery. The Spectre of Comparisons should also be compulsory reading for politicians and public servants who influence decisions and shape Southeast Asia's destiny, so that they can better anticipate, understand and interpret the still mystifying but no longer so distant roll of thunder up ahead.

Sunanda Datta-Ray is editorial consultant, The Straits Times , and former editor, The Statesman , Calcutta.

The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World

Author - Benedict Anderson
ISBN - 1 85984 184 8
Publisher - Verso
Price - £13.00
Pages - 374

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