Ever willing to challenge nanny staters, just before Christmas I travelled to Bangkok to advise regional consumer organisations on coordinating to promote the sensible regulation of nicotine vaping as an alternative to deadly ciggies. As in Australia, South-East Asian governments deny mounting scientific evidence that vaping has far less health risks than smoking, helps smokers to quit and doesn’t re-normalise smoking. Regional advocates contend with obstinate politicians and bureaucrats who ban first and ask questions later.
The fee for my Bangkok work will cover an unfortunate legal dispute with a well-known public health personage. It’s doubtful, however, that this chap will appreciate the irony of my settling with him by supporting a cause he and fellow public health prohibitionists passionately abhor. But I did.
A first-time visitor to Bangkok, I was entranced by the sights, sounds and smells of its street life and food. Luxury hotels rise incongruously over run-down tenements and amazing cat’s cradles of dodgy power-lines. While most don’t do it easy, Thais are always ready to smile and make the most of what they have – something which we Australians don’t do enough. After several days, I concluded half of Bangkok’s inner urban population works in massage parlours (presumably all legitimate businesses, but I didn’t dare find out!), and the other half runs food stalls or are security guards and parking attendants, stopping traffic with red flags when cars emerge from the driveways in their charge.
Work done, I had a free sight-seeing day. Half of it, however, was spent in taxis (very affordable, even if the air-con is unreliable) from and to my Sukhumvit hotel just a few clicks from the city centre: Bangkok traffic is so bad that main roads become massive car parks. Still, crawling through its streets is a great way to observe daily Bangkok life, its shops and markets, while envying the swarms of traffic-jumping motor-bikes revving away at every traffic light. It’s colourful, very human chaos.
Despite traffic snarls truncating the day, a tuk-tuk took me to be willingly ripped off for a tailboat trip around Bangkok’s canals: slums, relatively affluent houses and ornate temples cheek-by-jowl, floating markets, and the foetid smell of stagnant water mingling with succulent cooking odours. Not to mention the tailboat itself, with its flower-garlanded bows and long outboard propeller shaft driven by an unmuffled car engine. Then, with time running short, an hour at the magnificent, huge Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho temple, a huge gilded figure smiling down serenely and beatifically on his puny human visitors. Just seeing this Buddha made the heat, humidity and traffic worthwhile.
From Bangkok to Singapore. The Lee dynasty’s city-state is chalk to Bangkok’s cheese. From the moment you alight at Changi airport and are whisked down a sleek, smooth motorway, you’re among affluence. Singapore’s astonishing success is a reminder that British colonisation, bringing a common language, stable democratic institutions, liberal trade and economic investment, was far from the despicable thing the anti-imperialist Left claims. Mixed with the Chinese flair for business, British colonialism and British culture helped make Singapore an enviable economic powerhouse today.
Singapore’s so neat and ordered. One can’t help but feel that, like the Yes, Minister hospital with no patients, people are pesky nuisances to perfection-seeking planners and politicians. But any society that can increase its GDP per capita by 1,100 per cent since 1960 has a lot going for it. They say Singapore is authoritarian: yet if the price of a little authoritarianism is such prosperity, I’m all for it.
With a deep interest in the fall of Singapore, I visited the underground bunker in the Fort Canning Hill where, with their backs to the sea and water cut off, British and Australian generals under the ineffectual Arthur Percival decided to surrender to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. The unbearable sadness of the bunker’s conference room, where over 100,000 Imperial troops were condemned to barbaric Nipponese captivity, brought me almost to tears. The tour guide remarked to me that the bunker was like the Cabinet War Rooms in London, but I disagreed. The Cabinet War Rooms were where eventual victory was crafted, I replied sadly, but this bunker symbolises the hopelessness of catastrophic defeat, and the futility of war.
My Singapore visit coincided with the anniversary of the start of the disastrous Malayan campaign in 1941. Struggling with the heat and oppressive humidity, I got an impression of the hostile climate our raw AIF boys endured in those dark days. Their valour and courage, despite their commanding general Gordon Bennett’s pathetic leadership and his deserting them post-surrender, deserves our utmost respect.
Bangkok is lively and poor but gloriously chaotic. Singapore is lively and affluent but regimented and heavily regulated. When it comes to government, however, if only Australia was a little more Singapore and a little less Thailand. Australia in 2018 cries out for stable government and political leaders with the decisiveness, vision and ability to inspire like Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, a figure still held in reverence by Singaporeans years after his death. That won’t happen for Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten.
Remarkably, however, one thing unites these predominantly Buddhist cultures: a love of garish, over-the-top Christmas kitsch, right down to the nauseating sounds of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You in every lift. Everyone, it seems, loves a holiday!