Monday, December 29, 2008


Samuel Huntington: An Appreciation
(as published in the Bangkok Post, December 30, 2008)


Published: 30/12/2008 at 12:00 AM

Studying the Clash of Civilisations in a seminar with Samuel Huntington shortly after his influential 1996 book was published was an exercise in trying to detect an underlying order on a slippery and sometimes outright uncooperative reality. As such, there was lots of argument and debate, but the clashing was never less than civil. The soft-spoken professor would put forward strident ideas with an impish grin until someone in the small seminar, usually from somewhere far from Harvard, would disagree. The professor would listen attentively, take notes and continue the discussion.

What I would like to say as an appreciation of Sam Huntington, who passed away on December 24, is that he was an excellent teacher, not because he taught at Harvard for half a century and wrote many books but because he was such a good listener. No matter how senior he was or supremely knowledgeable about world politics before his students were even born, he was willing to consider new ideas, to discuss and digest them, if only to fine-tune his arguments with inclusions and counter-arguments.

We spent many an afternoon in his office arguing the pros and cons of what to some seemed like a cookie-cutter view of the world. When he advocated expanding Nato right up to the borders of Russia, I strongly disagreed, citing his own arguments about the natural boundaries between civilisations, Western and Orthodox in this case, urging him to view the problem as it might appear to the Russians.

We had similar disagreements about China, Japan and Thailand. Why is Japan a civilisation in its own right, while Korea or Vietnam or Thailand are not? What about rifts within civilisations, clashes among Muslims or Hindus or Christians responsible for heartbreak comparable to the "bloody borders" between civilisations?

The professor never got defensive, it seemed he never stopped grinning. He would hear you out, all the while jotting your ideas on his notepad, and he would incorporate some of it in what he had to say next.

His most famous book, like any book, is composed of words frozen in time. It is easy to disagree with many passages in a think-piece as provocative as Clash, perhaps even disagree with the book's entire premise, but what the snapshot of the printed work fails to capture is the restless mind in motion of the author, a good scholar and teacher, who continued to work on ideas put forward in the text with sufficient humility to let go of things that really didn't work and build on things that did.

That's not to say the seminal issues about culture, identity and the future of mankind raised in Clash were settled any easier in discussion than in the final draft of a book.

This was driven home to me a few years later when I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and co-hosted a discussion with Dr Surin Pitsuwan at a lecture hall packed with dozens of ambassadors, some from countries in conflict.

"What's your take on the Clash of Civilisations?" I asked.

"Let's not get into that now," the former foreign minister, in semi-retirement at the time, said good-naturedly. "We'll never get to the end of it."

Dr Surin, who holds a degree from Harvard, is no stranger to Professor Huntington's ideas, but as a Thai Muslim who had been educated in America and served as foreign minister of a predominantly Buddhist country, his life is an affirmation of cross-cultural negotiation and peace-building. One might say the very concept of civilisational clash is an affront to the kind of civilisation synthesis that has characterised his own remarkable career, from AFS exchange student to secretary-general of Asean.

An armchair analyst and a roving diplomat not only experience the world in significantly different ways, but by need talk about it differently. For one, setting the terms of intellectual debate with bold pronouncements and startling new paradigms is the height of achievement, while minding one's words and finding common ground is the lifeblood of the other.

Professor Huntington's insights and prejudices have travelled far considering their roots are hard to separate from a cloistered intellectual life centered around Harvard Square with summers in Martha's Vineyard. The "culture" of Huntington's world is not only indelibly American, but echoes peculiar Boston-area values of conservatism and tradition; a quilt-work of distinct neighborhoods distinguished by economic class and ethnic origin.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a population of about 100,000, has racial demographics typical of America as a whole mapped into a jigsaw puzzle of rich and poor neighbourhoods, ethnic clustering and tight-knit enclaves. Might not half a century in such an environment have led Mr Huntington to see the larger, largely imagined world in similarly bundled terms?

An American expatriate writer in Thailand once pointed out that one enjoyed greater access to the world media in Bangkok than in Boston, especially in terms of cable television and newspapers. Boston is indeed parochial and insular in contrast to Bangkok - a messy, overflowing, dynamic, tolerant and cosmopolitan city if there ever was one - and one suspects that if a book on the clash of civilisations were to be written in the heart of Bangkok it would be a differently book, lacking the conceptual quilt of discreet cultures so prominent in Clash of Civilisations.

The true value of Clash, an oft-cited work translated into dozens of languages is not to be found so much in the book itself as in the quality of discussion prompted by its tentative and sometimes over-reaching text, itself an expansion of an article knocking down claims made by Francis Fukuyama regarding the "end of history". Despite its arbitrary appointment of civilisation zones, reminiscent of the bizarre world-map in the board game of Risk, Clash is a compelling corrective to the supposed triumph and centrality of Western ideals.

Huntington's ideas shaped discussion, and continue to shape discussion, not because he nailed the argument but because he raised it.

It takes only a glance at the day's headlines to realise that culture and identity continue to unite and divide the world in unpredictable ways, and borders are often the scene for conflict, because culture can be a font of inclusive harmony, or exclusive antipathy, depending on where you stand and how you look at it.


Thursday, December 18, 2008


(first published as "Heed the poor as democracy starts from the ground up" in the Bangkok Post, December 17, 2008)

Thailand has taken a small but significant step on the road to normalcy after a long period of instability and intense factional struggle.

Newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva certainly has his work cut out for him, but he brings to the job a mannered civility that has been sorely lacking in recent Bangkok dust-ups. As such, his elite overseas education is both asset and liability depending on which Western values he draws from; will it be a cool, condescending noblesse oblige or democracy in the more egalitarian sense of the word, recognizing the equal rights and equal worth of all citizens?

After seeing the country immobilized with invective, wobbling close to the brink, moderate, common sense voices are needed to restore balance and order; if they succeed, things will start looking better than they have for a long time.

Abhisit, like US president-elect Barack Obama, strikes a public pose that is rare in the rough and tumble world of politics. From the personal one might infer potential political strengths; a calm, collected and humble leader is just what a rife-torn country needs to reach out across the political divide and reduce the bitter factionalism that has almost made the country ungovernable.

Abhisit, again like Obama, is youthful, well-spoken and well-educated, but has a modest record in terms of accomplishment outside of academia and remains untried. Yet at this critical juncture in history, when the global economy teeters, when massive unemployment looms and communal tensions flare, new leaders are not granted much of a grace period; they must learn to ride in the saddle.

Both men face challenges that would be daunting to even the most seasoned politico, which might explain why both men find themselves surrounded by seasoned politicos, not all of whom are savory or deserving of emulation.

But as the example of Abraham Lincoln shows, sometimes a leader has no choice but to embrace rivals. Lincoln was one of a kind and very much a product of his era, not unlike his accomplished Thai contemporary King Mongkut. But even a century and a half later, lessons can be drawn from the life of great men whose passion for justice helped end slavery in both America and Siam.

As illustrated in Doris Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," a popular book which has had a marked influence on Obama team-building, Lincoln pulled it off because he was humble when necessary but never lost sight of his humanitarian mission and steadfast political values. The humility with which "Honest Abe" listened to his erstwhile rivals had a great healing effect and the strategy is applicable even to those born of the silver spoon.

An unexpected but so far efficacious example of embracing a rival has already been accomplished in Thailand with the unusual case of Abhisit foe-turned-ally Newin Chidchob. If the energies of rural power broker of mixed repute can be tapped for the common good, if a meaningful partnership can develop that is not about sharing the spoils but sharing the burden, then the differences, not just between urban and rural rivals but between the city and countryside can effectively be bridged.

Everyone's life story has something to teach; the challenge for the urbane Abhisit is to encourage the better impulses of homespun, self-made men such as Newin, without compromising core civic values.

Newin has already offered some sage advice. "If the Democrats can perform in a way that wins over the hearts of the people in Isan," the Buriram politico reportedly told his new allies, "the people there will soon forget Thaksin."

While observing grass-roots campaigning in rural Isan during the run-up to Thaksin's first big electoral victory, I noticed village women folk clamoring for Abhisit's poster, asking for copies at every stop. When I enquired about this they said they liked him because he was "handsome," and considered his local proxy to be a decent man, but would vote instead for Thaksin's local proxy because he was wealthier and more in a position to "influence" things.

This is not a question of voter ignorance in Isan, it's the way democracy, an imperfect but generally worthwhile system, works. Voting for someone based on looks or because of a perceived ability to deliver the goods is not the height of intellectual sophistication, but it can be found everywhere; physical charm was vital to the success of both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan and both Bush Sr. and Jr. all racked in votes on promises of handouts in the form of tax cuts.

Thai author Khamsing Srinawk wrote incisively about the cavalier vote-buying techniques of politicians trawling impoverished Isan nearly half a century ago, citing the gift of one rubber slipper, and the promise of a second one to be delivered upon a certain electoral result. In Thailand's chronically impoverished Northeast, the vulnerability of poor and marginalized people hasn't changed much since. People take what they can today because, in their experience, the generosity of those who seek to rule in their name is contingent and doesn't last for long.

Thai politics has never been short of strange alliances, and unexpected twists and turns are the norm, but the polarity has now reversed for the better. Still it will take much forbearance to restore confidence in the country, not just on the part of investors and tourists but among the divided populace itself.

If Abhisit wants to heal the deep-rooted political malaise facing the nation he would do well to devote himself to the needs of the most down-trodden, for true democracy starts at the ground up.