In Cities of the Hot Zone the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper Greg Sheridan shares tales of his travels through the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hanoi, Saigon, Hong Kong and Jakarta. He includes interviews with prime ministers, presidents and other politicians in each of the countries as well as academics and religious leaders, along with observations of general life in the cities. Like my own wife, Sheridan’s wife was born in Malaysia and he obviously has a very strong love and long experience in South-East Asia. Many of his descriptions of Malaysia and Singapore brought knowing laughter from both my wife and I, especially the comments on the asian love of acronyms and other language oddities.
However, a central theme throughout the book is a search for an indication of future direction, both cultural and economic, of the countries, especially in relation to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. A number of different perspectives are presented, from the moderate progressive Islam propounded by Dr Mahathir, to the wild anti-american conspiracy theories of religion based political parties, like PAS. Sheridan attributes some of the anti-american perspectives to Western media, most notably the New York Times. I have not read many articles from the said paper, but I can’t help but wonder if some of these criticisms are influenced by the fact that the NYT is a competitor to the New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch (News Ltd) owned paper like The Australian.
Another aspect of Sheridan’s writing that I found slightly puzzling was his preoccupation with his Irish descent and Catholocism. I haven’t noticed any discrimination against those of Irish descent in Australia over the past 30 years (okay, apart from Irish jokes, but they were directed at people in Ireland). Apart from those quibbles and the odd bit of dodgy editing, Cities of the Hot Zone, is a very interesting read.
2 responses to “Cities of the Hot Zone”
You’re right re Sheridan’s Cities of the Hot Zone, whilst an interesting read (and being a Sotheast Asian ‘inpat’ for some time), his somewhat inward looking Catholicism does permeate his thinking and writing. But I would expect nothing less of Sheridan, the man is conservative in every sense of the word and ‘I gotta tell ya’, not the best writer when it comes to flowing prose.
Interestingly, he loves name-dropping and to think he counts Christopher Koch as a good friend (not that this is odd, but the two are polar opposities when it comes to talent and politics, still, that Irish connection). His love of Karim Raslan is odd add Raslan’s books (Ceritalah) and columns never mention Sheridan much less does he seem him as a good or close personal friend.
Most irritating are his assumptions of middle class Asian modernity and that this is somehow the be all and end all of development in Asia. Not a mention of the damaged environment (SEAs environment is a one off dividend which is fast being exhausted as you know) and only passing mention of the dislocation such development causes. Hanoi’s only fault, well apart from being a city of unreconstructed reds, is that it isn’t modern or developed enough for Sheridan’s tastes, therefore, it doesn’t rank as well with sterile environments like Singapore and to a lesser extend KL.
But of course the underlying assumption is that Hanoi or more broadly the Vietnamese are doing something wrong because they are not yet modern nor yet living in a city characterised by modernity; Starbacks (which Saigon has), maccas and what not. The answer to this lack of modernity – bad communists. True to a point, but it lacks a real understanding of recent Vietnamese history and more broadly, not everyone in Asia wants to be modern in the Western sense, some can cope quite well thank you without Starbucks and pre-clad Hooker or BLL construction.
Whilst I too laughed at the absurdities he so well captures of fads and fadism in SEA, the book is otherwise lacking in a real understanding of people of the ground and their daily lives, which according to his modernity principle, isn’t a concern once you become middle class!?! Of course, middle class concerns and struggles are not articulated in his tome nor a concern for those who see themselves as middle class but yearn for something more.
Thanks for your comments, which are very interesting. Thinking about modern Australian society, it would not surprise me that Sheridan, and many other Australians, would hold a middle class “all mod cons” as the goal for people across the world. Living in Sydney, it seems that “aspirational consumerism” has become the purpose of many people’s lives – we work so that we can buy and would rather a government that promises low interest rates than the truth. Ross Gittens, of the Sydney Morning Herald, has some very interesting comments on this. The funny thing is that Sydneysiders are pretending to be rich, but would still claim to be battlers. I will not comment on other Australian locations because the seem a lot milder than here (apart from the Gold Coast) and it’s been a decade since I lived interstate.
Based upon my experiences and observations, I feel that aspirational consumerism is also in the nature of many in the Chinese communities of Australia and Asia. Many Chinese work hard so that they, and their children, can have status goods such as jewellery, expensive cars, houses, attend top schools and get prestige (and well paying jobs), rather than so that they have more time to relax and “enjoy life”. Perhaps this is a major difference between the Chinese communities in SE Asian countries and the other inhabitants, who are often called lazy in comparison.
While the government in Singapore calls for it’s people need to relax more and have a life outside work, ours says we must work harder. It’s one reason I like to visit Europe!
There’s a lot more I could say about the topic – but I’ll leave it at that for now.