Radicalism and nightlife in East Asia
In the 1990s, Brunei was not just famous in India for its oil riches, but also for its Sultan’s proximity to the extremely politically influential godman, Chandraswami. How did the extremely rich and dapper Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, come under the spell of Chandraswami, whose astrological and spiritual skills have been considered quite dodgy by more serious practitioners? While it is unclear who introduced the portly godman to the suave Sultan, it is apparent that, for a while, they enjoyed a very close relationship. Chandraswami was instrumental in hooking up the House of Fayed (owners of Harrods, London) with the Sultan and his considerable funds. For a while it kept London tabloids busy, but with the eclipse of Chandraswami, the story and the Sultan faded from the international media.
More recently, Brunei and its capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, were in the news for hosting the ASEAN meet. Located within the Sarawak province of Malaysia off the South China Sea, Brunei is a country of barely four lakh people. Bandar Seri Begawan, whose name is derived from the Hindi word ‘bhagwan’ or god, has a population of barely 74,000 inhabitants. The city has sprawling malls, which surely have a far greater capacity than this tiny population needs. Interestingly, the country does not encourage tourism so it is really intriguing why there are so many of them. The airport is not big enough to handle more than two jumbo jets at a time. During the summit, the jets of the visiting heads of state were parked at distant airfields.
Then there are the stunning mosques that put many large ones in other parts of the world to shame.
With one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia, Brunei provided the perfect backdrop to a vision of an affluent continent benefiting from increased connectivity and robust trade. The summit lost some of its sheen when President Barack Obama cancelled his trip due to the US shutdown. China benefited from his absence by launching a charm offensive. It tried to assuage the fears of the ASEAN community about its conduct in the South China Sea, where it prevents countries like India from exploring for oil despite a tie-up with Vietnam. India, like other members of ASEAN, demands the right of navigation and also a more assured policy on common issues. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who did not have a one-on-one with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, yet made his position very clear on the South China Sea issue, stating that Beijing had to resolve issues within the ASEAN framework rather than bilaterally.
The challenge for the ASEAN community is to manage China in a manner that is neither politically nor economically disruptive for them. China is a driver of growth, but with its huge manufacturing capacities can smother industries in other countries. Many in the ASEAN group for years expected the rise of China to be challenged by India, but Delhi wisely refused to join that race. India has its own share of problems and it would be suicidal for the country to get sucked into someone else’s troubles. Vietnam, for instance, had been upset with India for backing off from the commitment to explore an oil block in the South China Sea. Vietnam had stated categorically that, despite Chinese objections, India was well within its rights to explore oil, but New Delhi thought that the political and diplomatic cost of searching for uncertain oil was far more than what it
India’s quest to strike the right balance in its ties with China also depends on how well it engages with other ASEAN neighbours and how it lives up to the dominant expectations of a growing economy. The better it performs as an economy, the greater the assurance with which it can handle a highly volatile Asian region.
During his bilateral meeting with President BamBang YodhoYono in Jakarta – a city of unending traffic jams – Manmohan Singh reiterated the old civilizational links between the two countries (India and Indonesia are maritime neighbours) and how that could be the basis for more enduring ties. Six MOUs were signed between the two countries, but both leaders dwelt on the threat from religious radicalism to democratic societies. Both countries are grappling with this problem and Indonesia, which has the highest Muslim population, has served as an example of how Islam can coexist with democracy. Indonesia has done well in managing many contradictions well. The test of how well the liberal government of Indonesia is Jakarta’s nightlife. It rocks!