ISBN 978 967 18505 0 3 Edition of 500
Printed in Malaysia
This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition, Look East Gone West, a solo exhibition by Ho Rui An, held at A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, from 26 September to 24 October 2020.
Ho Rui An and A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, would like to thank the following individuals for their support and contributions to this publication and exhibition: ARTFACTORY Carol Chan Varigonda Kesava Chandra Fahmi Fadzli Hitomi Hasegawa Fang-Tze Hsu Farish A. Noor James and Mihou Jack Rahel Joseph Sharaad Kuttan Lee Weng Choy Sheau Yun Lim Kishore Mahbubani Shelagh Mahbubani Noriza Zakaria Okawara Kenta Seah Ming Yan Bertrand Simon Soon June Tan Kenneth Tay Mark Teh Darynn Wee Bing Hao Wong Wong Tay Sy Yap Seok Hui Yee I-Lann Supported by
Curator Kathleen Ditzig Exhibition Build-up and Production Huak Huak Sdn Bhd Design Kenta.Works Photography Damien Khoo Printer Unico Services Published by A+ Works of Art d6-G-8 d6 Trade Center 801 Jalan Sentul 51000 Kuala Lumpur Malaysia +60 18 333 3399 email@example.com www.aplusart.asia Facebook/Instagram: @aplusart.asia
ISBN 978 967 18505 0 3 Edition of 500 Printed in Malaysia ÂŠ 2020 A+ Works of Art. Individual artist and individual authors. All rights reserved. A+ Works of Art, the artist, curator, writers, contributors and exhibition supporters shall not be held liable for any damages, disputes, loss, injury or inconvenience arising in connection with the contents of this publication. All articles and illustrations contained in this catalogue are subject to copyright law. Any use beyond the narrow limits defined by copyright law, and without the express permission of the publisher is forbidden and will be prosecuted. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
A+ Works of Art is a contemporary art gallery based in Kuala Lumpur, with a geographic focus on Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Founded in 2017 by Joshua Lim, the gallery presents a wide range of contemporary practices, from painting to performance, drawing, sculpture, new media art, photography, video and installation. Its exhibitions have showcased diverse themes and approaches, including material experimentation and global conversations on social issues. Collaboration is key to the ethos of A+ Works of Art. Since its opening, the gallery has worked with artists, curators, writers, collectors, galleries and partners from within the region and beyond, and continues to look out for new collaborations.
Sleights of Hand and Monstrous Bodies By Kathleen Ditzig
6 Exhibition Views A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur
Look East Gone West: A Private Dialogue
14 Inventory of the Unmiraculous in Asia (2018– ) 28
Look at the Record:
The Burden of “Asia”:
Decolonising Our Inherited Geographies and Epistemologies By Farish A. Noor 42 Artist Profile
Interview with Kishore Mahbubani 44 List of Works
33 Asia the Unmiraculous (2018– ) and Student Bodies (2019)
Sleights of Hand and Monstrous Bodies By Kathleen Ditzig
1 — Thatcher is known as the architect of Britain’s turn to neoliberalism from 1979. Her policies privatised public assets and facilitated foreign direct investment and freer trade. Alongside Ronald Reagan (US president, 1981–89), her policy and foreign relations have become emblematic of neoliberalism.
In 1985, Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of the United Kingdom looked East and visited Malaysia. Her visit was the first time a prime minister of the United Kingdom visited Malaysia after its independence in 1965. The title of Ho Rui An’s first solo exhibition in Southeast Asia, Look East Gone West, is adapted from a speech Thatcher gave during this visit, which the artist reads as emblematic of an emergent global neoliberal system of rethinking the role of government and the economy in regulating society and everyday life. Neoliberalism is the system that Thatcher has come to represent. 1 It is also considered the current world order that is in crisis and is often criticised for endangering democracy, workers’ rights and sovereign nations’ right to self-determination. Neoliberalism emphasises economic growth over political ideology and allows the market to dictate social, political and environmental agendas. It reverses the welfare model of governance in favour of government policy based on a social Darwinism defined by global competition, efficiency and profitability. In her quoted speech, Thatcher attempted to persuade Mahathir of their nations’ similarities: as participants in this neoliberal world order, as members of international 2
Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, as oil and gas exporters and finally, as outward-looking nations keen on foreign investment. Thatcher went so far as to praise Mahathir for his “Malaysia Inc.” governing model that makes a business of government. Most memorably, she reminded Mahathir: “although, Prime Minister, you may sometimes look East and sometimes may travel East, if you look far enough East and travel far enough East, you always come to the West!” Like the visit itself, the speech was the culmination of a standoff between the UK and Malaysia over economic policies. 2 Co-opting this expression, Look East Gone West is centred on two key artworks, Asia the Unmiraculous (2018– ) and Student Bodies (2019), that play to the irony of this expression. The works unpack the racialised imaginaries of the East and the West that defined discourses around the rise of Asian nation-states in a neoliberal world order. 3 Asia the Unmiraculous is a lecture and video installation that considers the 1997 Asian financial crisis against the East Asian “miracle” that preceded it. 4 The 1997–98 Asian financial crisis began in Thailand when the baht was unpegged from the US dollar, leading to its devaluation and flights of
2 — In October 1981, Mahathir announced the Buy British Last policy. A response to the British government charging higher fees for overseas students and a perceived lack of British support for Mahathir’s New Economic Policy, the policy sought to deprioritise British goods and services. In early 1982, Mahathir launched his Look East policy with the aim of learning from Japan’s experience of managing its economic growth in a globalised marketplace and emergent neoliberal world order. The policy was not necessarily a nationalistic or anti-Western policy. Mahathir would explain that the conditions were to level the playing field and ensure that Malaysians shared in the benefits of free trade. A series of diplomatic trips and a grant to Malaysian students to study in Britain led to a cooling of these tensions and by April 1983, Mahathir withdrew his policy directive following a visit to London and a meeting with Thatcher. However, it wasn’t until her visit in 1985 that Britain and Malaysia were considered reconciled. Buy British Last and the subsequent diplomacy between Britain and Malaysia have been read as a historical turn in their relations and a case study in how Malaysia was able to demand more equal or fairer treatment as a nation-state through economic measures. See Sunora Sagi & Azlizan Mat Enh, “Buy British Last Policy (1981– 1983): British Reactions and Implication towards Malaysia and Britain in Short-Term Bilateral Relations,” e-Bangi 12, no. 3 (2017).
3 — The line of inquiry that these two works engage with informs a series of artworks and texts which are bookended by the work DASH (2016–18), and the essay “Technocratic Magic in the Contagion Economy,” published in e-flux journal in June 2020. These works theorise “crisis” and unpack the impact it has on everyday life through a reading of how histories of colonial racialisation extend into contemporary forms of governance. The historical period that these works cover spans the modernisation of Asia in the colonial period and the current COVID-19 global pandemic that has brought on a global economic recession. See Ho Rui An, “Technocratic Magic in the Contagion Economy,” e-flux journal 110 (June 2020). 4 — Eight countries in East Asia — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia — were considered as part of the “East Asian miracle” because of their economies’ dramatic growth between 1965 and 1990. These countries were able to, simultaneously and significantly, reduce poverty and income inequality, while dramatically raising their GDP. 5 — See https:// stateofmotion.sg/2019/ about/.
capital that further sank the value of the Indonesian that accompanies it, Ho extends the metaphor of the rupiah, South Korean won and Malaysian ringgit. (in)visible hand of the market/government to the The cascading effect of the crisis marked the end of magical “sleight of hand” borrowed from the movies, the East Asian miracle and exposed states’ inability thus drawing an equivalence between the overreach to regulate the forces of globalisation and fend off of the IMF and magic. the influence of international actors like the IMF. Accompanying the live performance is a video In a denial of the failings of neoliberalism, the same installation that restages and expands the experiensystem that Thatcher’s speech alluded to, the crisis tial argumentation of the performance. It includes a was blamed on crony capitalism and framed as a flaw reconstruction of a space along the lines of a corporate of Asian developmentalism. Assistance from the IMF lounge with the same furniture featured in the permeant to tide governments over the “crisis” came at formance. On the table, the model of the hand floats the cost of sovereignty. above a selection of books and magazines written First co-commissioned for the 12th Gwangju between the sixties and nineties on the Asian mirBiennale (2018) and the group exhibition The Breathing acle. Mounted on the wall is a wallpaper featuring of Maps at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media an inverted photograph of the horizon as captured (2018), Asia the Unmiraculous grew out of research from the Chinese-operated Port of Piraeus, as well as undertaken by Ho over two years across Thailand, fourteen posters recounting the narrative described South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. Focusing in the lecture, designed and framed in the style of on the contestation between neoliberalism and devel- storefront real estate listings. From the outset, the exopmentalism that was obscured by the “Asianisation” perience of entering this immersive space to view the of the miracle and the 1997 Asian video documentation of the perfinancial crisis, Ho pivots the narformance playing on two screens Ho pivots the rative underlining his performance might recall the waiting room of around the metaphor of the “hand,” a financial advisor or a realtor’s narrative underlining bringing together what Kishore office. The references to the Port his performance around Mahbubani describes in his interof Piraeus as well as the staging the metaphor of the view (in this publication and in of a corporate lounge underscore hand, bringing borrowing from the words of the the contemporary stakes of Ho’s together “the invisible Nobel Prize-winning economist lecture. While the lecture unpacks Amartya Sen): “the invisible hand the Asian financial crisis of 1997, hand of free markets of free markets and the visible hand its arguments remain relevant toand the visible hand of good governance.” day in light of the speculative rise of good governance.” As a lecture-performance, Asia of an oft-reported “Asian century”. the Unmiraculous reworks the aesThe second work presented in thetics of the magic show and the the exhibition, Student Bodies, is “big ideas” talk best exemplified by the TED talk fran- a film essay that examines the fraught history of chise—the latter arguably being a capitalist form of capitalist modernity and radical culture in East and the magic show that presents messianic narratives for Southeast Asia through the figure of the student body. the productive consumer to realise their best poten- Commissioned by the Asian Film Archive, Singapore, tial. Ho’s stage set draws upon the look of corporate for the exhibition A Fear of Monsters (2019), 5 Student furniture and includes modernist office lounge chairs Bodies narrates the transformation of the student and a specially fabricated coffee table, from which a body in the region—from the students of Satsuma magnetically levitated model of a disembodied hand and Choshu in Bakumatsu-era Japan, who were the emerges as both a literal magic trick and a culmina- first students from the country to study in the West, tion of the lecture’s narrative arc. The hand model is to the dead student protester on the streets and to based on the hand of the former managing director the technocrat-student as an embodiment of the of the IMF, Michel Camdessus. It can be interpreted neoliberal state. Extending the narrative drawn in as the “invisible hand” of the IMF literally made visi- Asia the Unmiraculous, the film looks to cinema and ble. In the lecture, Ho edits footage of the signing of a co-opts the horror genre to narrate the evolution of loan agreement between Camdessus and Indonesian the student body through Asia’s modern history and president Suharto in 1998 into a sequence extract- ultimately its devolution into a monstrosity under a ed from the Hollywood film Mission: Impossible III global capitalist system built on the commodification (2006), framing the fabricated hand as a product of of education and the necessary suppression of student “covert” technology featured in the film. Through the movements. Where in Asia the Unmiraculous Ho could interplay between his speech and the visual montage be described as an orator, the orator in Student Bodies 3
is the film itself. The medium of cinema and history It bears noting that Ho’s essays as artworks are narrates this (d)evolution through discordant sounds not fictions but argued through historical case studdeveloped with sound designer Zai Tang. The subtitles ies and facts. They assume an academic rigour that of the film make the monstrous utterances legible is often missing in the art world. In this respect, it and reveal them to be the words of key protagonists is important to note that Ho read Anthropology at of this history: Thatcher, Mahathir, Shintaro Ishihara Columbia University, during which he studied with and Lawrence Summers, among others. the anthropologist Rosalind C. Morris whose work In considering Ho’s Student Bodies and Asia the remains a key source of inspiration for him. Ho’s triUnmiraculous, it is apparent that the essay is a pro- angulation of his own practice is thus not limited to ductive space from which Ho’s practice challenges, the remit of art but rather employs the sphere of art develops and arguably innovates the very episte- and the productive artistic licenses afforded to artists mology of art. The essays upon which Ho builds his to produce theoretical arguments about contemporary performances and installations are sociopolitical com- society and history. mentaries argued through the metaphors of the “hand” In bringing these voices and discursive trajectories in Asia the Unmiraculous and the “body” of the student together, Ho’s research mediates between the difin Student Bodies. As essays that unfold through the fering perspectives and positions that have evolved immediacy of performance and the flickering cine- out of the political, if not moral stakes, of defining matic screen, both works operate through sleights Asian developmentalism in a global age of neoliberof hand, turns of phrase and the compelling affect alism. The ability to bring different voices together of Hollywood. They linguistically seduce as much through editorial intervention, pastiche (in text or as they educate, breaking down the complexity of a film), a formal panel of speakers or a workshop is an financial crisis into the lived experience of a magic important facet of Ho’s practice. 6 Ho’s approach of trick that makes you, the viewer, uncomfortable as mediating polarising rhetorics through different forthe implied equivocation made mats speaks to an artistic practice between the magician and the bent on using performance and technocrat begins to settle in. In Ho’s own words speech to deepen our understandBy extension, this publication ing of complex issues, regardless of “the institutional and the exhibition it accompanies, whether we engage with his work parameters that tend is an expansion of this essayistic as an audience viewing an exhibito govern academia” practice. The collection of texts tion or performance, a reader of an led to him favouring includes “Look East Gone West: essay or a participant in a workthe art world as a A Private Dialogue,” a pastiche shop. This publication should of excerpts from speeches and therefore be read as an extension “place to devise new published writings by Thatcher, of this practice of producing and critical frameworks” Mahathir and Ishihara that imagmobilising texts across mediums and preferring the ines a fictional discussion between to put into “affect” important hisrole of the artist over the torical narratives that challenge these three figures, fleshing out academic. the historical negotiations and the contemporary. interplay between definitions of In Ho’s own words, “the insticapitalist development from the tutional parameters that tend to “East” (as represented by the Malaysian Mahathir and govern academia” led to him favouring the art world Japanese Ishihara) and those from the “West” (by as a “place to devise new critical frameworks” and the British Thatcher). Also included is an interview preferring the role of the artist over the academic. 7 between the artist and Kishore Mahbubani, a former As ironic as that may sound—given that art is often diplomat from Singapore and the author of several critiqued for being flaky, ambivalent to the real world, canonical texts on the “rise” of Asia. The interview a last frontier of neoliberal capitalism and a facilitator discusses the latter’s diplomatic experience, the Asian of the fictional flows of capital—it is characteristic of a financial crisis and global governance amidst con- new generation of artists who have grown up through temporary geopolitical shifts, situating Mahbubani’s the booms and busts, the rise and now seeming fall rhetoric, which can be deliberately provocative, with- of neoliberalism, and thus seek to use the art world in a broader historical trajectory. The publication as a space to critique the larger economic systems ends with an impassioned plea by historian Farish that their very critique is embedded in. In this regard, A. Noor to critically engage with the global histories Ho’s practice is an incisive inerrogation of the hypocof colonialism and neocolonialism that have formed risies of a prevailing world system that regulates na“Southeast Asia.” tion-states as much as everyday life. His employment 4
Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
6 — In 2017, while on residency at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore developing DASH, Ho organised a panel that brought together Aaron Maniam, a former Deputy Director of the Singapore government’s Strategic Policy Office, and Stephanie Chok, a vocal social activist with experiences volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME). Titled Who Speaks the Smart Nation?, the panel moderated by Ho addressed, among other issues, the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers as it pursues profit and continued growth. As part of his research for Asia the Unmiraculous, Ho organised Money Media Magic, a reading group series at Tentacles Art Space, Bangkok, which lasted from 2017 to 2019. 7 — Quoted from author’s conversation with Ho Rui An, September 2020. 8 — Philipp Schönthaler, Portrait of the Manager As a Young Author: On Storytelling, Business, and Literature, trans. Amanda DeMarco (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 4. 9 — Suhail Malik, “On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art: Exit not Escape” (lecture, Artists Space, New York, May 3, 2013).
of pop culture in the form of edited montages from movies and archival material, his co-option of forms like the “big ideas” talk or the horror film, are appropriations of narrative methods used by corporations and individuals in the free market. Philipp Schönthaler’s Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author: On Storytelling, Business, and Literature illustrates a history of storytelling as a form of corporate communication in which narrative is a way of regulating our approach to complexity and “a medium of knowledge” that provides a highly accessible form of communication with a low threshold for connection. 8 This mould of neoliberal consumption is often also observed in the art world. This has informed Suhail Malik’s critique of contemporary art’s attractiveness to those hypocritically “seeking egress from conventional power structures” while “systematically depriving its actors of any real agency in the world.” 9 He thus calls for art to make a decisive exit from contemporary art. Ho’s practice in many ways answers Malik’s call and addresses an existential crisis of contemporary art today. His artistic production synthesises and operationalises existing narratives and forms of symbolic value as a way to critique the system they buttress. If narratives and their management of complexity is the means of producing knowledge, it is also the grease on the wheels of the mechanism that produces capital. Ho’s embedded critique, where narrative mediums such as the soundtrack of the horror film are literally the message, takes control of this mechanism
Ho’s tongue-incheek interventions show how this narrative can be productively hacked, pastiched, manipulated and used against itself to produce new forms of literacy, awareness and thus, agency.
of capital production and reverses its gears through counternarratives hinged together through a geopoetics refigured by a word, an image, a hand. Across an ecology of art works spanning film, performance and installation, Ho’s practice breaks from earlier generations of artistic practices based on representational discourse. His narratives are not merely illustrative, but also perform public pedagogy, specifically one that comes out of a longer history of the lecture. Works such as Asia the Unmiraculous and Student Bodies have exited the categorical prism of the “art object” and function as forms of public thought, with multiple narrative lives and routes of circulation within and beyond the world of art. It is this ambiguity of being within and taking leave of art that makes Ho’s practice so compelling and significant today. As we head into a post-Covid-19 world still bartering in the historical zero-sum game of neoliberal competition and consumption, still going on about the “fall of the West” and the rise of the “Asian century” in the time of a global crisis, Look East Gone West brings out the contemporary stakes of the historical divide between East and West, and how this separation within the narrative of globalism is an artificial and problematic dichotomy. Ho’s tonguein-cheek interventions show how this narrative can be productively hacked, pastiched, manipulated and used against itself to produce new forms of literacy, awareness and thus, agency. Sometimes, like in the case of Thatcher’s speech that inspired this exhibition, a well-deployed pun might very well do the trick. •
Kathleen Ditzig is a curator and researcher based in Singapore. Her work examines art as an exceptional site and system of speaking to power. Her art-historical research has been published in Southeast of Now (NUS Press, 2017) and presented at international academic conferences and platforms. Other than being featured in artist catalogues, her writing has been published by Artforum, OSMOS Magazine, Art Agenda, Art Review Asia and Flash Art, and in books such as Perhaps It Is High Time For A Xenoarchitecture To Match (Sternberg, 2018). She recently curated As The West Slept (World Trade Center, 2019) as part of Performa 2019 and was assistant curator to Ute Meta Bauer for the exhibition Spring of Democracy (2020), commissioned by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation.
Look East Gone West â€“ Ho Rui An
Look East Gone West â€“ Ho Rui An
10 Look East Gone West â€“ Ho Rui An
Look East Gone West: A Private Dialogue
MARGARET THATCHER: Prime Minister, Britain and Malaysia have a lot to offer each other in trade. Many of our companies are keen to do more business with Malaysia and I shall be doing my very best to convince you of all the merits of our companies in particular—not on the basis of sentiment, just on the basis of performance—and I am sure you will find that good. A few years ago, some of our less robust spirits shuddered when they heard you exhorting your businessmen to look East. You told me this afternoon that “look East” did not mean “buy only from the East”. You also told me you would like to see more British investment here. I was delighted to hear it. With the evidence which you provided this afternoon that British industry is really welcome here, I am sure that British business will want to invest in the opportunities Malaysia offers and although, Prime Minister, you may sometimes look East and sometimes may travel East, if you look far enough East and travel far enough East, you always come to the West! 1 MAHATHIR MOHAMAD: Malaysia’s Look East policy does not mean that we want Malaysians to be Japanese. We do not mean that Malaysians should eat maki sushi and shabu shabu and wear kimonos. It does not mean we should per se buy Japanese or sell Japanese. It does not mean the awarding per se of contracts to Japanese. It is not an invitation to
arrogance or insensitive behaviour. What it means is that we must learn the reasons and the factors for Japanese success in modernisation: a good work ethic, social consciousness, honesty and discipline, a strong sense of social purpose and community orientation, good management techniques, Japan Incorporated, sogoshoshas, aggressive salesmanship and so on. I have explained that Malaysia’s present economic goals are not dissimilar from the targets that Japan set for herself in the 1960s, namely high speed growth through increase in productive capacity, greater industrial production and production of exports. 2 SHINTARO ISHIHARA: Prime Minister Mahathir is absolutely right when he says Asia has a generosity of spirit that welcomes anybody. We are not exclusionist, unlike the West, which resorts to tough political measures. European and U.S. companies that make a real effort to enter Asian markets will not be turned away, and the efficient ones will do well, I think. But Western executives who have the old mentality of threatening retaliation by their governments or who belittle local conditions and customs as “backward” are in for trouble. Admittedly, Japan has to open its markets wider, but Europeans are very hypocritical about access, shrilly demanding greater liberalization while blandly ignoring their own constraints. The EU has removed trade barriers
among members but is shaping up as an economic bloc closed to outsiders, just like NAFTA. 3 THATCHER: The danger of increasing protectionism is one which should concern us all. Regional trading arrangements and blocs, and today there are 85 trading blocs, of which the two largest are the European Union and NAFTA, are acceptable as long as they are a spur towards lowering worldwide tariffs, rather than part of a movement towards competing protectionist trade blocs. The GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) was founded so that all might share in the benefits of free trade by operating on the same terms. It created a common status to which all countries could aspire. Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status was originally intended to be the norm, but with the number of trade blocs which now exist, offering more favourable treatment for those within them, I am afraid that MFN has come to represent something closer to the least favoured trading position which a country outside the bloc system can achieve. Our task is to strengthen and extend the GATT and to restore its integrity. So long as the trade highways of the world are free, businesses in small countries have the same opportunities to compete as those in large countries. We have still to convince popular opinion in Europe, the United States and even parts of Asia, that opening markets to foreign goods and services raises living standards and generates jobs.
We still have to win the argument that just as economic and political freedom go together, so too do open trade and international harmony. 4 MAHATHIR: At the same time that the West demands that Asian countries open their markets and stresses the undesirability of economic blocs, it has strengthened its blocs. We have had more than twenty years of creeping protectionism. President Bill Clinton himself stated that while the developing countries have been reducing their trade barriers, twenty of the twentyfour countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have been raising theirs. Voluntary export restraints are now negotiated virtually as a matter of course, trade sanctions against friendly countries are openly talked about, and politicians shamelessly ask other nations to buy so much of this or that product… or else. Even respected economists advocate managed trade as legitimate. Increasingly, issues like health, the environment and human rights are being added to the international trade agendas. Western leaders talk of open regionalism while manning the barricades to keep others out. With the conclusion of the GATT negotiations there is now pressure to impose upon the developing countries “social clauses” that appear to reflect humanitarian concerns in the developed West but will certainly reduce or destroy the developing countries’ competitiveness. Obviously, if they cannot compete, industrialisation will lose momentum and there will be massive unemployment. For us in East Asia, this is a matter of economic life and death, yet we are mere bystanders, watching as others cynically quarrel over trifles. Given that these decisions will determine our future, shouldn’t we empower ourselves to fight for our national and regional interests and for the good of the entire world? 5 ISHIHARA: Japanese popular songs are sung throughout East and Southeast Asia,
12 Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
a phenomenon similar to the impact of American pop music on Japan after World War II. We hummed the Top Ten tunes, became fascinated with the American way of life and created a U.S.-style mass-consumption society. What’s the source of Japan’s new dynamism? On the surface, it is our high-tech culture and lifestyle. The mainspring, of course, is our industrial technology, in which we are ahead even of the Americans. Technological breakthroughs have always been the agent of change, whether in the Stone, Bronze, or Computer ages. Technology gives rise to civilization, upon which, in time, culture thrives. Nations decline when they self-indulgently let lifestyles become more important than workmanship and neglect their industrial and technological base. That is the lesson of history. 6 THATCHER: The plain fact is that imbalanced patterns in our trade with Japan have persisted for at least a decade now. This cannot continue without threatening the breakdown of the free trading system. I welcome the measures which your Government has taken during the past twelve months to dismantle some important barriers to trade. I hope that your market will become progressively more open to imports, especially of manufactured goods. What we are looking for are financial and economic policies which will lead to a steady increase in Japanese imports of manufactures. Your trading partners are watching the position closely. You will understand if I say that we are bound to judge by results. Trade friction is rarely the fault of one party alone. Japanese export successes come from the skill, flexibility and adaptability of Japanese industry. We must match your performance. It is sometimes said in Japan that foreign companies could easily sell more here if only they would try harder. We have tried hard. We will try even harder. But the strenuous sales efforts in Japan by some UK industries who have been highly successful in other
markets have resulted in meagre successes here. I will give you some examples of comparative results by our top exporters in important sectors for British industry… 7 ISHIHARA: There is nothing evil about a surplus. We admire a company that makes a profit or a household that ends the month with a bit left over. A country is in basically the same situation, except that money is the lifeblood of the international economy and if too much accumulates in one country, the effect is like that of an embolism in the human body. Japan is recycling the surplus by providing huge amounts of official development assistance and direct investment overseas. More than 10 million tourists go abroad yearly and their shopping sprees are the stuff retailers dream of. Only Japan has the surplus capital to lend large amounts at low interest rates. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has praised our performance. 8 MAHATHIR: When our currency plummeted and when our stock market plummeted, we quickly adopted, like the most obedient of sheep, all the prescribed measures. The Western press called this formula “the IMF without the IMF”— massive increases in interest rates, massive cuts in government expenditures, massive contraction in credit. Then, like absolute idiots, we wondered why our currency was subjected to continued attack. And having cut off our lower legs, like absolute idiots, we wondered why our economy was dropping to its knees. Please do not assume that we in Asia are always stupid. I must admit that many of us are indeed stupid, incredibly stupid sometimes. If I were to list all the stupid things I have done, it would take all day. But please do give us a little credit. We can be stupid some of the time. We can be stupid a lot of the time. But please do not expect us to be stupid all the time. If you do not understand some of the apparently stupid things we have done, you might now and again do well to
do a little more work and improve your ability to understand, rather than to assume that we are just stupid. 9 THATCHER: I think that we are, apart from Japan, a comparatively large investor in Malaysia. I think that because of the slight matrimonial difficulties which we might have had for a short time, which are now over, that investment policy may have faltered. I hope that it will now resume, because I do believe that there is a natural propensity to work together. We know one another’s administrative ways and customs and we believe in the same fundamental economic principles, and I hope therefore that investment will resume its former upward path. 10 MAHATHIR: Malaysians are by nature sentimental, and they value friendship and common history even though some episodes may not be palatable to them. The lesson that they have been forced to take to heart is that the world really cares very little for sentiments. Over and over again this lesson has been hammered into our heads. Indeed even now we are being
taught that sentiments, friendship, past associations and the rest have very little to do with the relationship between nations or groups of nations. In other words we live in a pragmatic and rather calculating world and Malaysians, like everyone else, must appreciate and apply pragmatism if they are to prosper or, at least, to survive. 11
1 — Margaret Thatcher, “Speech at dinner given by Malaysian Prime Minister (Dr Mahathir)” (speech, Kuala Lumpur, April 5, 1985).
THATCHER: Prime Minister, may I say that I do differ with you about sentiment. I am not sure whether it is that I differ because you are Malaysian and I am British. I think it is much more fundamental than that. I think it is because you are a man and I am a woman! So maybe sentiment means a little bit more in my life than it may perhaps in yours, but I do think sentiment counts. I do think when you finish talking about common interests, mutual trade, further investments, increasing technology and progress, there is a little bit of room for sentiment and I do think it exists between Britain and Malaysia, though for us Malaysia is a particular friend: an independent country which has a special place in our hearts. 12 •
3 — Shintaro Ishihara, “A New International Order,” trans. Frank Baldwin, in The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995), 50–1.
2 — Mahathir Mohamad, “The Second Opening of Japan,” in The Sun Also Sets: Lessons in ‘Looking East’, ed. Jomo K.S. (Kuala Lumpur: INSAN, 1985), 408–9.
4 — Thatcher, “Asia: Challenges of the 21st Century” (speech, Asia Society, Hong Kong, October 21, 1994). 5 — Mahathir, “Asia on the Move,” in The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century, 45–6. 6 — Ishihara, The Japan That Can Say No, trans. Frank Baldwin (London: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 56–7. 7 — Thatcher, “Speech at Japan Press Club” (speech, Tokyo, September 21, 1982). 8 — Ishihara, “Asia is Watching,” trans. Frank Baldwin, in The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century, 57. 9 — Mahathir, “Asia’s Road to Recovery: The Challenge of Pragmatism” (World Economic Forum, Singapore, October 10, 1999). 10 — Thatcher, “Speech to Malaysian Institute of Public Administration (INTAN)” (speech, Kuala Lumpur, April 6, 1985).
Margaret Thatcher was the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom and its longest-serving. Her eleven-year tenure (1979–90) was marked by her uncompromising politics based on defending the free market through privatisation, deregulation and reduced government spending. Now collectively known as Thatcherism, her ideas have come to shape an entire generation of British and global politics.
Mahathir Mohamad is a Malaysian statesman who served as the prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and from 2018 to 2020. During his first tenure, he oversaw the industrialisation of the Malaysian economy under his concept of Malaysia Inc. that advocated for government involvement in business. At the time of his resignation in 2020, he was the world’s oldest serving state leader.
Shintaro Ishihara is a Japanese politician and author who was governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012. His 1989 bestseller The Japan That Can Say No, co-authored with Sony chairman Akio Morita, called for Japan to be more assertive in managing US-Japan relations. In 1994, he co-authored with Mahathir The Asia That Can Say No, which was translated into English and published the following year as The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century.
11 — Mahathir, “The Official Dinner in Honour of the Rt Hon. Margaret Thatcher” (speech, Kuala Lumpur, April 5, 1985). 12 — Thatcher, “Speech at dinner given by Malaysian Prime Minister (Dr Mahathir).”
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Look at the Record: Interview with Kishore Mahbubani
HO RUI AN: Let’s start with your first book Can Asians Think? (1998), which was also my first point of engagement with your work. The book was published in 1998 in the middle of the financial crisis. This was also the so-called lost decade of Japan. Yet in the book you projected optimism for Asia. What accounted for that optimism amidst the doom and gloom of that historical moment? KISHORE MAHBUBANI: The optimism came from a longer perspective. If you look at the history of the world over the past two thousand years, from the year one to the year 1820, as the British historian Angus Maddison has documented, the two largest economies of the world were always those of China and India. It’s only in the last two hundred years that Europe and North America have taken off. So it’s very clear that the past two hundred years have been a major historical aberration, and all aberrations come to a natural end. The reason why the West didn’t notice this big shift was because of a curious accident of history: it chose to go to sleep at precisely the moment China and India decided to wake up. China woke up in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. India woke up in the 1990s. And at the same time, you had the end of the Cold War and with that, a sense of triumphalism in the West. The belief, which was best captured in the essay by Francis Fukuyama, was that the West had reached the end of
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history. This meant that the West no longer had to change or adapt and could just carry on on autopilot. The essay by Fukuyama did a lot of brain damage to the West by putting the West to sleep at precisely the moment when Asia was waking up. So even though Can Asians Think? came out in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis, it reflected an effort on my part throughout the 1990s to tell the West that they can no longer behave in such a condescending way towards the rest of the world, because now the rest of the world is not going to sit back and listen to lectures from them anymore. HO: How was the reception of the book in 1998? MAHBUBANI: I think the West was very resistant to its arguments at that time. The one critical year that formulated my perspectives was the one-year sabbatical I took with Harvard University as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs from September 1991 to June 1992. It was quite a shock to see the incredible arrogance and complacency of the Western intellectuals. They had a very condescending view of the rest of the world and assumed that the West would continue to remain the superior civilisation that would give advice to the rest of the world to follow. One of my most provocative essays in Can Asians Think? is about the preaching by the West on human rights, freedom
of speech and so on. What I’ve done consistently is to document Western double standards in all these areas. HO: Between 1997 and 1998 you were in the foreign ministry and then you went to the United Nations to be the Singaporean representative. I’m wondering what the general atmosphere was at that time. Was there a sense, among the skeptics of the East Asian miracle, of the vindication of the so-called neoliberal Washington consensus? Or was there any sense at all that this crisis wasn’t just a specifically Asian crisis, but actually symptomatic of a broader crisis in global capitalism that would hit economies in the US and Europe a decade later in 2008?
that time by calling for the abandoning of state control for free markets, no more subsidies and less borrowing. However, I noticed that your views have changed over the years, because in your later books, you criticised Western governments for placing too much faith in the so-called invisible hand of the free market. I’m wondering where was the turning point for you in the trajectory you took from Can Asians Think? to your most recent Has China Won? (2020).
MAHBUBANI: You are right that my thinking has changed over time. My thinking was very much affected by the situations I was in. “The Ten Commandments” was a result of the five years I spent as the Singapore ambassador to the UN in the 1980s MAHBUBANI: Not at all. I would say the and that was during the peak of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, when Western reaction to the Asian financial there was still among many developing crisis was full of schadenfreude. There countries a great reluctance to open was the sense of happiness that this up their economies. For example, they East Asian miracle story, which was believed that foreign direct investment spoken about by the World Bank in the mid-1990s, had blown up. And they said, (FDI) was an evil thing because Western capitalists would come in to exploit “You see!” I’m so glad you mention the poor. However, Singapore’s the 2008–09 crisis. There was such experience and the experience of the a contrast between how the Western East Asian tigers and then subsequently countries handled the crisis when it that of China’s was that foreign direct applied to them and when it applied to investment is a good thing, because the Asian countries. For example, when it brings in capital, technology, access the banks were failing in Indonesia, the to markets and so on. So for countries reaction of the West in the form of IMF that are poor, FDI provides a very quick advice was: “You cannot rescue failing ladder to ascend the ladder banks. You must let them fail.” And of economic development. yet, in the 2008-09 crisis, when banks But I also have to emphasise that like Citibank and Goldman Sachs got you got to have an intelligent form of into trouble, what happened? The Fed opening up and liberalisation. The state and Treasury rescued them. So if you still needs to play a role from time to talk to the Indonesians, they will point time. It doesn’t mean the state must out the double standards. This was be completely disarmed and give up also a wake-up call to many in Asia who everything. As the Nobel Prize-winning learned that they had to stop relying on economist Amartya Sen has said, for the West to give them answers on what countries to succeed, you need the to do. invisible hand of free markets and the visible hand of good governance. HO: In 1990, you wrote a list of You must balance the two. ten commandments for developing countries. In this text that was later HO: Today, we are seeing that in many published in Can Asians Think?, you parts of the world there has been pushed back against the dominant a backlash against globalisation, to currents in developmental theory at
which your book Has the West Lost it? (2018) can be read as a response. Interestingly, many of these populist, anti-global movements are happening in the West. You’ve described Has the West Lost it? as a gift to the West. I also notice that the word “gift” is something that frequently appears in your books. You’ve talked about the gifts that the West has given to the rest of the world, may it be the intellectual tradition of liberalism or the idea of free trade. More recently, you’ve called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a gift that the rest of the world is now giving back to America. In a sense you seem to describe a kind of tribute system where everyone benefits. But the logic of the gift that underlies this system is clearly being tested in the present political moment, where many of these populist, anti-global movements see in this gift economy only the free ridership of the developing world. In fact, in Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the entire world has been free riding on America. But interestingly, on many occasions, you have also called on China and India to play a bigger role on the international stage; and to that end, is it fair to say that you share the same premise as some of these movements? MAHBUBANI: I’m glad you emphasised the concept of gift, because to be brutally objective, there is no doubt that Western societies had succeeded first in destroying feudalism and introducing modern developed societies where, as they say, everyone from the commoner to the king has equal rights. Many of the Western ideas in this dimension were thus very important and very liberating and in due course also liberated Asia. So in my book The New Asian Hemisphere (2008), I talk about how the seven pillars of Western wisdom were a gift to Asia and that Asian success is due to the West. Many people like to portray me as anti-Western, but I’m not antiWestern. I actually acknowledge that it was the West that woke up Asia, but I also say that now that Asia has woken up, they have to change and adapt.
So Trump is half right in saying that America has been very generous to the rest of the world by keeping its markets open and allowing China to grow and develop and so on. But where Trump is wrong is in blaming China, India and the developing world for America’s problems. Because America’s problems are the result of American complacency and the failure to realise that they have to adjust and adapt to this world. In fact, the whole concept of creative destruction is a Western concept. Of course you’re going to get creative destruction if China suddenly injects 800 million new workers into the global capitalist system. So it’s quite natural that lots of American workers have lost their jobs and that’s where the American elite should have done something. This is not rocket science. You got to try and retrain them, and the state must come in and play a role; but in a place like America, you have to also overcome this terrible hurdle of ideology. The Americans have grown to worship the markets so much that they don’t realise the important role of government. Ronald Reagan created this problem when he said that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” And frankly now, for many of these crises, government is the solution. If you have a financial crisis, as you saw in 2008–09, government should be the solution. If you have a COVID-19 crisis, government has to be the solution. But unfortunately, as a result of ideology, the government in America— not so much in Europe, I would say— has been very badly weakened. And if you have very weak and demoralised public servants, and that is the exact opposite of the direction that China has gone, you find that they are incapable of dealing with all these crises that have happened. HO: During the Asian financial crisis, the prevailing discourse mobilised the figure of corruption to discredit the models of economic growth that has been behind the so-called East
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Asian miracle. With the financial crisis in 2008, you see this reading being applied onto economies in the West instead, and this has persisted in the political discourse right now in both the US and Europe, though in Europe it seems like it’s targeted less at each country’s government than at the European Union. Would you read in this discursive attachment to corruption right now in the West as indicative of a shift in the way they understand their own systems? MAHBUBANI: One provocative point I make in Has China Won? is that you have corruption in China and you have corruption in America. The difference is that in China the corruption is illegal, while in America, it is legal. And it’s legal because in America you can be a large company, use your money to get congressmen elected and, after the congressman is elected, use him to pass legislation that benefits the company. For example, one of the biggest purchasers of pharmaceutical products is the Veterans Agency, and amazingly, whenever they buy a product, they cannot negotiate the price with the companies. That’s corruption, absolute corruption! But it’s legal! This is what is so puzzling about the American system: they’ve created a whole series of problems from which it is very hard to disentangle themselves from. I would say that it’s thus ironic that you have the American Department of Justice investigating corruption in Malaysia. Because if you are an objective social scientist, corruption in the United States is actually higher than Malaysia, because the amount of money that is transferred in one way or another to benefit the large companies is amazing. HO: Let’s bring the conversation to Malaysia, to push a little further on the question of corruption. You mentioned in The ASEAN Miracle (2017) that for all the political scandal that was happening in Malaysia in the past few years, the country still maintained high economic growth rates. What does that say about the relationship between political corruption and the economic
growth? Does corruption have no bearing upon the economy? MAHBUBANI: One of the hardest things to discuss is that there is corruption and there is corruption. Let me contrast two leaders who are regarded as corrupt, dictatorial, third-world leaders. One is Mobutu of Zaire and the other is Suharto of Indonesia. In theory, both are military dictators and both got very wealthy. But there’s one very fundamental difference between the two. Mobutu took everything. He didn’t build schools. He didn’t build hospitals. He didn’t build clinics. He didn’t build highways. And he did not improve the standard of living of the poor. Right? By contrast, Suharto built schools, hospitals, clinics and highways and, in fact, really improved the conditions in Indonesia. That’s why one of the most miraculous transitions of recent times was the transition in Indonesia, from the thirty years of dictatorial rule by Suharto to a very successful democracy within ten years. And the reason why you had a successful democratic transition in Indonesia is because Suharto laid the foundations for an Indonesia to emerge; whereas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the successor to Zaire, it’s a complete rape of the country. But this is very hard to discuss, because you give the impression that some degree of corruption is okay. All I’m saying is look at the record, look at what happened in the country, how it evolved and what’s happened to it. At the end of the day, you have to acknowledge, and this is what I acknowledge in my book The ASEAN Miracle, that the thirty years of Suharto’s rule did improve the living standards of the Indonesian people. Significantly. HO: In the case of Malaysia, could one perhaps connect the 1MDB scandal back to what happened in the aftermath of Asian financial crisis? As we know, among the economies battered by the crisis, Malaysia was unique in not taking on the so-called “bitter pill” of the IMF
and even went as far as to reinstate capital controls. That period also saw Mahathir concentrate much power under his office, especially through his control of the Ministry of Finance. Do you think this had created the conditions that led to the corruption scandal of Najib almost twenty years later? MAHBUBANI: The story is much more complicated. If the system that Dr. Mahathir created was corrupt, his immediate successor should have been corrupt, but Badawi wasn’t. Badawi was, as you know, one of the most honest prime ministers Malaysia has had. Unfortunately, he was removed by Dr. Mahathir. So I think Dr. Mahathir is a very interesting figure and very, very difficult to fathom, because he’s done a lot of good for Malaysia. No doubt, you won’t have this “Malaysia Boleh” attitude without his contribution. But at the same time, I think he’s also destabilised his successors. And so that has also created a problem for Malaysia. Frankly, at the end of the day, my view is that this is something that Malaysians have to solve themselves. I’m optimistic for Malaysia, because by and large, they have a working state system that is generally improving the living standards of the people, maybe more slowly than it could have, but if you look at it over a thirty-to-forty-year period, very few countries can match Malaysia’s track record. HO: I would like to return to the subject of liberalisation and turn to the more specific question of financial liberalisation. Many economists who advocate the free movement of goods and labour argue that there is something fundamentally different about free capital mobility. In recent years, we’ve also seen multilateral financial institutions like the IMF or the European Central Bank coming under fire. Remarkably, Margaret Thatcher, the figurehead of neoliberalism herself, was a prominent sceptic of the European monetary union, as she believed that it would cause the United Kingdom to lose sovereignty.
In fact, you yourself have suggested that Greece would be better off outside the Eurozone, because then they would regain control over monetary policy. Given this, what do you think is the future of multilateralism when it comes to finance? MAHBUBANI: The big lesson we learnt from the 1997-98 financial crisis is that it is a good thing to open up and liberalise your trade in goods, but be very careful about liberalising your financial sector. At the end of the day, you got to pay the bill if you borrow too many US dollars. So I think the reason why many of the Asian countries didn’t suffer so much in the 2008–09 financial crisis is the lesson they learnt in 1997–98 to not make yourself vulnerable. But on the question of multilateralism in the financial sector, the important thing is to have a multilateral organisation that is responsive to the needs of the 193 countries in the world and not just the richest countries. Unfortunately, one of the biggest anachronisms of our time is that there is still a rule that says you must be European to become the head of the IMF and American to become the head of the World Bank. That disqualifies ninety percent of the world population from running these two organisations. As their relative share of the global economy declined, the Europeans were supposed to reduce their voting shares in the IMF and the World Bank, but they refused to do so. They fought tooth and nail against it. But the Europeans and the Americans, by clinging on to what I call ancient, feudal privileges, ended up crippling these institutions. Of course, this means that countries like China and India must also step up and take on greater responsibilities for these organisations. At some point, it’ll be good for all the non-European, nonAmerican countries to agree on a single candidate to run the IMF. For example, the best candidate in the world to run the IMF would be a Singaporean called Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
HO: An idea that became quite widely discussed in the wake of the Asian financial crisis was establishing a regional development fund. Today, China has come up with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Do you foresee regional institutions like the AIIB displacing the role of the World Bank and the IMF in time to come? MAHBUBANI: When it comes to the AIIB and the Belt and Road initiative, I think these are all instruments that should be supported because they reduce the reliance of poorer countries on the IMF and the World Bank. I documented in my book The Great Convergence (2013) how the US Treasury used the World Bank to bully African countries that could not resist because they needed the World Bank. But today, if the World Bank says no to an African country, the latter will just go to China and probably get a better deal than what the World Bank can offer. HO: I’m wondering if you see any similarities between China’s leadership on this front and the role that Japan was playing in the 1990s when it was also advocating certain forms of regionalism. Something that I’ve also been looking at is Japan’s position as the emerging superpower in the 1980s and the similarities with China’s situation today. There was also a trade war that happened between the US and Japan during the 1980s, and interestingly when Trump started waging the trade war against China, he invoked Reagan’s use of tariffs against Japan. Do you see similar points of comparison? MAHBUBANI: The similarity is that as soon as a country appears to become very successful and challenges America’s economic domination of the world, the United States reacts very angrily and will try to bring it down. The United States was very successful in bringing Japan down with the Plaza Accords by getting Japan to revalue the yen and as a consequence, Japanese industries became less competitive. They were also forced to
accept compulsory restrictions on the export of Japanese cars. Some people in America think that what they succeeded with Japan they can do with China. But the difference is that China is a much bigger country. And the Japanese have always wanted to be a member of the Western club. They want to be accepted as a Western member. China has no such desire at all. In that sense, China has got greater what I call cultural self-confidence. It doesn’t have any desire to be approved by the West. So it’ll be much more harder for America to try and bring down China. The other difference between Japan and China is that when the Japanese were very rich and very powerful, they should have proposed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the ASEAN countries allowing them access to the Japanese market and so build up Japanese influence in the region, but the Japanese didn’t have the boldness or the courage or the imagination to do that. By contrast, China did. So when China proposed an FTA with ASEAN, it was a big shock to the Japanese. The Japanese said, “What? We thought we were the most successful country and we’ve had longer ties with ASEAN. How did China beat us to it?”
And sure enough, the Japanese came in second after China. They will have a very, very difficult time adjusting to the return of China; but it’ll be wiser to remember that, as Ezra Vogel always says, Japan and China have lived as neighbours for two thousand years and only fought for fifty. HO: You have spoken about global governance as something distinct from a global government. In The Great Convergence, you suggest that the G7 is already, for all intents and purposes, somewhat like a global government. How do you see both global governance and global government playing out in the world today? MAHBUBANI: There is a big difference between global governance and global government. And I’m still very much in favour of global governance, not global government. Global government will not happen anytime soon, certainly not in my lifetime. For global government to come about, nation-states will have to surrender their sovereignty and accept the authority of a higher body, just as we individuals accept the authority of our government. Nationstates are the most powerful actors on the international scene. They won’t
give up their sovereignty. This is why Brexit happened. The British people were not happy to give up even partial sovereignty to the European Union. By contrast, stronger global governance is highly plausible. Under global governance, nation-states don’t give up their sovereignty. Instead, they abide by a common set of rules they have agreed to after lengthy consultation and negotiation, like the laws of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Similarly, the rules prescribed by UN bodies like the WHO and the WTO are rules agreed to through international negotiations. Since we live in a small and interdependent world, travelling on the same boat, we should be strengthening such institutions of global governance like the WHO and the WTO. Sadly, the Western states, led by the US, have been weakening these institutions, as I have documented in The Great Convergence. The West has been clearly unwise in doing this. With only 12% of the world’s population, and as the world’s most affluent people, they have the most to lose in undermining global governance. They should make a massive U-turn and do the opposite instead. •
A veteran diplomat, student of philosophy, and author of eight books, Kishore Mahbubani is currently a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Mahbubani is also a former president of the UN Security Council (Jan 2001, May 2002) and the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (2004–2017). Mahbubani writes and speaks prolifically on the rise of Asia, geopolitics and global governance. His eight books and articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs have earned him global recognition as “the muse of the Asian century.” He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in October 2019. His latest book, Has China Won?, was released in March 2020. More information can be found on www.mahbubani.net.
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Asia the Unmiraculous 2018 –
Photo: Yasuhiro Tani Courtesy of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media
Asia the Unmiraculous 2018 –
Photo: Yasuhiro Tani Courtesy of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media
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Student Bodies 2019
36 Look East Gone West â€“ Ho Rui An
Student Bodies 2019
38 Look East Gone West â€“ Ho Rui An
The Burden of “Asia”: Decolonising Our Inherited Geographies and Epistemologies By Farish A. Noor
That Asia, Asians and things Asiatic exist is a some- The Long Shadow of the Nineteenth Century: what banal fact that does not require lengthy delibera- Colonialism and the Discursive Construction tion. The question, however, is this: If Asia and Asians of Southeast Asia exist, how are we to understand these concepts and That Southeast Asians today see themselves as things, and how are these concepts and things located Southeast Asians is one of the legacies of the colonial in the wider framework of human knowledge and encounter; for prior to the arrival of the European epistemology? The cynic may respond to this ques- colonial companies and armies of the eighteenth tion by stating the obvious, and by noting that there century, the people of the region did not regard really isn’t much point to deliberating how things themselves as being southeast of anything. The reexist in the world for the reason that they simply are. gion was then known by many other names such After all, there are mountains and hills, valleys and as Nusantara and Suvarnabhumi, though these local rivers aplenty, so why should we interrogate these vocabularies would eventually be eclipsed by the nominal objects any further? But the fact remains hegemony of a Western-centric political geography that what constitutes a mountain in one country may later. K. N. Chaudhuri’s (1990) work gives us a vivid amount to little more than a hill in another (and this impression of what life might have been like in and happens to be true, you can look it up) and thus fall- across the vast expanse of Asia prior to the era of ing back on a bedrock of bare facts does not address Western colonialism. He talks about an Asia that was the question we have posed. polynuclear and polycentred, where a string of Asian Our concern here is Asia and “Asian-ness,” and polities were constantly engaged in trade, migration how the geopolitical subsets of Asia—such as “South and movement across a borderless Asia that had yet Asia,” “Southeast Asia,” “East Asia” and so on—came to be divided according to the compartmentalising about in the first place. Straight off the bat allow me logic of Western colonial capitalism—the result of to state clearly that this has been an abiding concern the mercantilist revolution and the emergence of the of mine throughout my academic career, as a “South- singular Westphalian state in Europe. east Asianist” who studies, teaches and writes about All of this was set to change by the eighteenth centhis nominal construct called “Southeast Asia.” But tury as Western colonialism made its impact on this if we are to talk and write and teach about Southeast part of the world—first in the form of colonial comAsia, surely we ought to begin with the foundation- panies that enjoyed the advantage of capital leverage, al question of how the idea of Southeast Asia came and later in the form of colonial armies that enjoyed about. the advantage of technological-military superiority. 39
In time, the whole of Asia was subdivided into neat blocs, and the term Southeast Asia was already in use by the second half of the nineteenth century as seen in the works of writers like Frank Vincent (1874). With colonialism came colonial capitalism, and its attendant modalities of knowledge-seeking and knowledge-building. Cohn (1996) has shown how the colonisation of Asia would never have succeeded without the use of knowledge systems that sought to identify, name and categorise the lands and peoples that came under colonial rule. More often than not, such work was left in the hands of colonial capitalists like John Crawfurd (1820) who were not only servants of their respective countries but also the militarised colonial companies they worked for, such as the East India Company. By the nineteenth century, men like Crawfurd busied themselves with the task of re-ordering the world of Southeast Asia according to their own political-economic-ideological templates, often with a heavy dose of pseudo-scientific theories of racial difference thrown in as well. Local Asian understandings of place and belonging, space and habitus were discarded in favour of a geopolitical and geostrategic understanding of political territoriality where places were reduced to colonies (to be defended) and peoples reduced to “races” (to be exploited and policed). Hirshman’s (1986) research into the mechanics of colonial race politics has pointed to the unsavoury alliance between colonial capitalism, Western scientific racism and imperial ambitions that led to the reimagining of Southeast Asia as it came to be known. We cannot, therefore, speak and write about Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians without understanding and acknowledging the impact that colonialism has had on this part of the world, as it has had on the rest of Asia and Africa. Edward Said (1978), Rana Kabbani (1988) and Basil Davidson’s (1992) critiques of Orientalism are as relevant to us today as they were when they first appeared. We still live in the long shadow of the nineteenth century, as the inheritors of an infernal colonial project. The task of historical recovery, as Soedjatmoko (1965) has argued, remains with us still. Unmasking the Ordinary: Restating the Humanity of Southeast Asians One of the greatest ironies of the colonial encounter is that the end of colonialism rarely, if ever, lead to a radical decolonisation of the lands and minds that came under colonial control. One simply has to look at the map of Asia today in order to see how the political boundaries of states from West Asia to East Asia were all set by the nineteenth century, built upon the foundations of a colonial geography. While it is
40 Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
We cannot, true that the flags of the colonial powers are gone, as are the colonial armies and gunboats, the legacy of therefore, Empire lives on in the epistemologies, geographies speak and and vocabularies we have inherited from the past. write about One particularly interesting aspect of the linSoutheast gering colonial legacy is how the notion of Asian Asia and “uniqueness” has latterly been appropriated by Asians themselves, and can be seen in the manner in which Southeast postcolonial Asians today never seem to tire from Asians self-exoticisation and the reproduction of colonial without stereotypes. Instances of such reappropriation can be understand- seen in the tourist ads that continue to sell the idea ing and of an “exotic” Asia, in the manner in which Asian acknowlfood and cuisines are often represented as “special” and “unique,” and of course in the manner in which edging the Asians often ascribe their success to a host of almost impact that metaphysical “Asian values” that remain nebulous colonialism and thus far have not been distilled into pills or has had on liquid form. These mysterious values were used to this part of explain the so-called Asian economic miracle of the the world, past century. Though in the course of doing so, less as it has had attention was paid to the manner in which the postcolonial economies of Asia knowingly and wilfully on the rest committed themselves to the workings of a global of Asia and capitalist system that was premised upon the ideoAfrica. logical foundations of a wholly secular, materialist form of liberal capitalism concocted by the financial wizards of Wall Street and not the sages of Asia. In so many ways, the “Asian values” debate of the 1980s and 1990s was a non-debate to begin with. For despite all the talk of Asian particularity, uniqueness and specificity, the fact remains that by the 1990s Southeast Asia and East Asia were almost fully integrated into the global market system. Notwithstanding all the talk and hype about “Asian values” and respect for local knowledge, traditions and customs, precious little of that local knowledge and tradition was put to use as huge swathes of Asia were mowed down for the construction of dams, highways, industrial parks and commercial farming. With these contradictions and ironies starkly before us, the question arises as to what can be done and how can we progress? What has been lost in this two-century-long (some might say longer) pantomime of Othering and exoticising the other is the basic humanity of Asians; as rational beings endowed with economic, political and cultural agency. The trap of self-exoticisation is that it lures us into the happy land of an essentialised understanding of ourselves that is pregnant with Orientalist clichés and stereotypes that should have been buried with the casket of colonialism. Undoing this mental burden is not an easy or straightforward task, and it requires us to decolonise our minds as well as the bodies and spaces that
we inhabit. Returning to the painful genesis of the concept of Southeast Asia might be a start, as we remind ourselves that the region only came into its own, as a singular nominal object, as a result of the gunboat policies of the colonial era. As “Southeast Asia” emerged, so was it ripped out of the wider fabric of a wider, fluid and dynamic Asia that Chaudhuri has written about, and in the course of this rupture divorced from the rest of Asia. Interrogating our past involves a keen and sustained interrogation of the vocabularies and geographies that we use today, and this means taking into account the disruptive impact that colonialism and Empire has had on our part of the world. It also means becoming aware of how we have inadvertently replicated and reproduced the very same structures of knowledge and knowing that were once the tools of empire-building. The very least we can do is to admit to ourselves that there has never been a clean, neat rupture from the past and that, as postcolonial subjects today, we inhabit a world that was shaped, for better or worse, by the forces of Empire. This doesn’t mean that decolonisation is a hopeless enterprise to begin with, but it does mean that that the things we need to decolonise are not simply “out there” in the world but also within us, shaping the way we look at the world we live in here and now. Southeast Asia, as a region and a concept, is here to stay, and it is our lot as well as Southeast Asians. But this idea need not be a burden to us forever, as long as we are prepared to address its problematic and painful genesis, and its messy entanglements with power. Unchaining ourselves does not mean depriving us of a place to call our home, but may well open up new vistas where new vocabularies and geographies may be recalled and reactivated. But for that to happen, we need to wake up first. Please. Wake up. •
Bibliography Chaudhuri, K. N. Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Crawfurd, John. History of the Indian Archipelago, Containing an Account of the Manners, Arts, Languages, Religions, Institutions and Commerce of Its Inhabitants. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1820. Davidson, Basil. The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State. London: James Currey, 1992. Hirshman, Charles. “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology.” Sociological Forum 1, no. 2 (1986): 330–61. Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of the Orient. London: Pandora-Harper Collins, 1988. Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Vintage Books, 1978. Soedjatmoko. An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965. Vincent, Frank. The Land of the White Elephant: Sights and Scenes in South-Eastern Asia; A Personal Narrative of Travel and Adventure in Farther India, Embracing the Countries of Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Cochin-China. New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1874.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the School of History (SoH), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). His recent works include Data Collecting in 19th Century Colonial Southeast Asia (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) and Before the Pivot: America’s Encounters with Southeast Asia 1800–1900 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).
Artist Profile Ho Rui An is an artist and writer working in the intersections of contemporary art, cinema, performance and theory. Working primarily across the mediums of lecture, essay and film, he probes into the ways by which images are produced, circulate and disappear within contexts of globalism and governance. He has presented projects at the Asian Art Biennial (2019), Gwang ju Biennale (2018), Jakarta Biennale (2017), Sharjah Biennial (2017), Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014), Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2018), Haus de Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2017), Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Manila (2017), NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2017) and Para Site, Hong Kong (2015). In 2019, he was awarded the International Film Critics’ (FIPRESCI) Prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany. In 2018, he was a fellow of the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm.
42 Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
SOLO EXHIBITIONS 2020 Look East Gone West, A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2018 Sun, Sweat, Skirt, Fan, Centre A, Vancouver, Canada BIENNALES & GROUP EXHIBITIONS 2020 Diagonal, Magician Space, Beijing, China Who is Gazing?, Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris, France Back to Art, A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Solidarity Spores, Asia Culture Center, Gwangju, South Korea 2019 As the West Slept, Silver Art Projects, New York, USA BOOCHOA, Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan Phantom Plane, Cyberpunk in the Year of the Future, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong Factories, Machines, and the Poet’s Words: Echoes of the Realities in Art, 798 Art Zone, Beijing, China Asian Art Biennial: The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea, Taichung, Taiwan Fieldwork, PHOTOFAIRS | Insights, Shanghai, China Deep Sounding – History As Multiple Narratives, daadgalerie, Berlin, Germany Chinafrika. under construction, Kunstraum des Konfuzius-Institut Nürnberg-Erlangen, Nuremberg, Germany SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan Southern Constellations: The Poetics of the Non-Aligned, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana, Slovenia State of Motion 2019: A Fear of Monsters, Asian Film Archive, Singapore
2018 The Breathing of Maps, Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, Japan Shine on Me, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Germany UnAuthorised Medium, Framer Framed, Amsterdam, The Netherlands Gwangju Biennale: Imagined Borders, South Korea Building Code Violations III – Special Economic Zone, Long March Space, Beijing, China Two houses: Politics and histories in the contemporary art collections of John Chia and Yeap Lam Yang, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore Yinchuan Biennale: Starting from the Desert: Ecologies on the Edge, China This Site is Under Revolution, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Russia Outside the Palace of Heavenly Purity, bitforms gallery, New York, USA Take Me (I’m Yours), Villa Médicis – Académie de France à Rome, Italy Omnipresence, The Kitchen, New York, USA Trade Markings, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
2017 Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, Salonul de proiecte, Bucharest, Romania Jakarta Biennale: JIWA, Indonesia Take Me (I’m Yours), Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy Sharjah Biennial: Tamawuj, Act II, Beirut, Lebanon Invisible Cities, Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas Contemporary and the Moving Image Archive for Contemporary Art (Hong Kong), Dallas, USA SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now, The National Art Center, Tokyo, and Mori Art Museum, Japan The Conundrum of Imagination: On the Paradigm of Exploration and Discovery, Leopold Museum, Vienna, Austria Modes of Liaisons, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Thailand A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, Beijing Commune, China Almost There, Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, Manila, The Philippines The Making of an Institution, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore 2016 From Bandung to Berlin: If all the moons aligned, SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, Germany Public Spirits, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland Qidian, Zendai Zhujiajiao Art Museum, Shanghai, China Trans-Pacific Transmissions: Video Art Across the Pacific, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Canada Frontier Imaginaries: The Life of Lines, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, Australia
2015 Filter Bubble, LUMA/ Westbau, Zürich, Switzerland What It Is About When It Is About Nothing, Mizuma Gallery, Singapore A Luxury We Cannot Afford, Para Site, Hong Kong Take Me (I’m Yours), Monnaie de Paris, France On Sweat, Paper, and Porcelain, Hessel Museum of Art and CCS Bard Galleries, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Whorled Explorations, Kochi, India Countershadows: tactics in evasion, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore Fieldworks: Animal Habitats in Contemporary Art, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, Ireland The Part In The Story Where A Part Becomes A Part of Something Else, Witte de With, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Poetry will be made by all!, LUMA/Westbau, Zürich, Switzerland 2013 Tara’s 10 Years – Views of 20 Artists, agnès b. Headquarters, Paris, France 2012 Someone Singing Like Calling Your Name, Saamlung Gallery, Hong Kong
PERFORMANCES 2020 Asia the Unmiraculous, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand 2019 Asia the Unmiraculous, Asia in Resonance, Japan Foundation Asia Center, Tokyo, Japan Solar: A Meltdown, Translocal: Festival Postkolonialer Perspektiven, Schauspiel Köln, Germany 2018 Tropicopolitan Objects, The Arts House, Singapore Solar: A Meltdown, Theatertreffen, Berlin, Germany Solar: A Meltdown, Onassis Fast Forward Festival 5, Athens, Greece 2017 DASH, Project Space Art Jameel, Dubai, United Arab Emirates Solar: A Meltdown, SPIELART Festival, Munich, Germany Tropicopolitan Objects, Veem House for Performance, Amsterdam, The Netherlands DASH, Five Arts Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Opening Draft, The O.P.E.N., Singapore International Festival of the Arts DASH, The Showroom, London, UK Solar: A Meltdown, SPRING Festival, Utrecht, The Netherlands DASH, Haus de Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany DASH, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore 2016 Screen Green, Antenna Space, Shanghai, China Solar: A Meltdown, NUS Museum, Singapore Solar: A Meltdown, TPAM Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, Japan
SCREENINGS 2020 A+ Online Festival of Video Art, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2019 Architectures of Education, Nottingham Contemporary, UK San Diego Asian Film Festival, USA Dharamshala International Film Festival, India Lange Nacht des politischen Kurzfilms, CinéMayence, Mainz, Germany Long Night Screening, Plugin Future, Guangzhou, China International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany Following the oil, Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, United Arab Emirates 2014 Singapore Short Cuts, National Museum of Singapore 2012 Sapporo International Short Film Festival, Sapporo, Japan Sintok Singapore Film Festival, Tokyo, Japan 2010 Cairo Video Festival, Medrar for Contemporary Art, Cairo, Egypt 2009 Singapore Short Cuts, National Museum of Singapore
PUBLISHED WORK 2020 “Contemporaneity’s Bubble.” Perspectives Magazine, National Gallery Singapore, July 17, 2020. “Technocratic Magic in the Contagion Economy.” e-flux journal 110 (June 2020). 2019 “Afterdeath.” In An Exhibition Always Hides Another Exhibition: Texts on Hans Ulrich Obrist, 77–81. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019. “Migration Figures: Moving, Translating, Counting.” In COUNTING. Bangkok: Bangkok CityCity Gallery, 2019. “A Cinema of Ambience and the Remains of History: Notes from Thailand.” In State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters, edited by Kathleen Ditzig, 111–18. Singapore: Asian Film Archive, 2019. 2018 “Crisis and Contingency at the Dashboard.” e-flux journal 90 (April 2018). 2017 “An Expanded Cinema and the Spills of Capital.” In Place. Labour.Capital., edited by Ute Meta Bauer and Anca Rujoiu, 168–71. Singapore: NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, 2017. Spectacular Liberal Exception. Singapore: The Substation, 2017.
2016 “Solar: A Meltdown.” MARG: The KochiMuziris Biennale (December 2016–March 2017): 100–3. “Dash, Crash, Dash: Horizon Scanners, Black Swans and Capital’s Futurecraft.” In Frontier Imaginaries Edition No1 FRONTIER, edited by Vivian Ziherl, 111–27. Amsterdam: Frontier Imaginaries, 2016. “Photographies of Trees.” Antennae 36 (Summer 2016): 64–80. “An Accident: Two Views from the Dashboard.” In Concrete Island, edited by Kenneth Tay and Luca Lum, 60–9. Singapore: NUS Museum, 2016. 2015 “Outside the World Interior or the Light on the Writing Desk.” Stationary 1 (2015): 126–39. 2013 “Outing Cinema: Four Short Films by Ho Tzu Nyen.” In Pythagoras, 21–4. Singapore: Michael Janssen Singapore, 2013. “The Orient that May or May not Arrive: Yang Fudong’s The Fifth Night.” In Yang Fudong, edited by Philippe Pirotte and Beatrix Ruf, 135–38. Zürich: JRP-Ringier, 2013. “Dwelling in the OffModern.” In There Can Be No Better World, edited by Joselina Cruz, 13–27. Manila: Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, 2013. “From Gong Li to Ming Wong, or from the Face that Does Nothing to the Face that Does Too Much.” In Corridors, No. 1: Solitude, edited by Michael Lee, 44–9. Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2013. “Structures, Narratives and Mediations: A Conversation Between Genevieve Chua and Ho Rui An.” In Disappearing Moon, 62–4. Singapore: Singapore International Foundation & British Council, 2013.
2012 “Documenting Affect: Yangtze Scribbler, Jalan Jati and All the Lines Flow Out.” Cinémathèque Quarterly 5 (October– December 2012): 24–39. 2011 Several Islands. Singapore: The Substation, 2011. CURATION 2017 For Lack Of A Better Word (Exhibition & Performance), The O.P.E.N., Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2014 89plus in Singapore and Southeast Asia: Commentary (Conference), The O.P.E.N., Singapore International Festival of the Arts 89plus in Singapore and Southeast Asia: Local / Knowledge (Conference), The O.P.E.N., Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2013 The Artist, the Book and the Crowd (Exhibition), The Substation Gallery, Singapore
AWARDS & SCHOLARSHIPS 2019 International Film Critics’ Prize (FIPRESCI Prize), International Competition, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany 2014 NAC Arts Scholarship (Postgraduate), National Arts Council, Singapore 2011 Loke Cheng-Kim Foundation Scholarship, Singapore RESIDENCIES & FELLOWSHIPS 2018 DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm, Germany 2017 Tentacles Art Space, Bangkok, Thailand 2016 NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore Theaterformen, Braunschweig, Germany 2014 LUMA/Westbau, Zürich, Switzerland 2013 Tara Oceans Polar Circle Expedition
List of Works
Asia the Unmiraculous 2018 – Lecture and video installation with digital prints on backlit film mounted on LED-illuminated acrylic, wallpaper, books and magnetically levitated hand model
Inventory of the Unmiraculous in Asia 2018 – Digital prints on backlit film mounted on LED-illuminated acrylic 67 × 50 cm each
Student Bodies 2019 HD video 26’ 30”
44 Look East Gone West – Ho Rui An
This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition, Look East Gone West, a solo exhibition by Ho Rui An, held at A+ Works of Art,...
Published on Oct 23, 2020
This catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition, Look East Gone West, a solo exhibition by Ho Rui An, held at A+ Works of Art,...