AN AUSTRALIAN IN ASIA: Cities of the Hot Zone
by Greg Sheridan
Allen & Unwin. Rec Price: $29.95
As Foreign Editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan has travelled extensively through South East Asia, and has grown to love these countries and their people.
At one level, Cities of the Hot Zone is a travelogue: an account of a holiday by Sheridan’s family of five to the capitals of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Hong Kong and Singapore, where his wife was born.
It starts slowly, as the Sheridan family leaves Sydney and tries to settle into an apartment in Kuala Lumpur. But it becomes very interesting, as Greg describes his encounters with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Kuala Lumpur, and other cities.
At a deeper level, it is a most informative record of a cultural and intellectual encounter between an Australian journalist who loves people and is open to everyone, but knows the human condition and can see through the party line, usually spun by some government official who thinks he can get away with it.
I found Cities of the Hot Zone particularly informative for its pen pictures of people – vignettes giving a deep insight into the national culture.
Outstanding among these are those of Malaysia, where we are introduced to an Islamic leader, Professor Jaafar bin Mohamad, Dr Mahathir Mohamad (then Malaysian Prime Minister), his Western-educated daughter, Marina Mahathir, Zainar Anwar (who runs an organisation called Sisters in Islam, which is critical of attempts to impose Sharia law), and Wan Aziza wan Ismail, wife of the imprisoned former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.
From all this, the reader obtains a far better picture of the complexities of Malaysian society, and particularly the differences between moderate and fundamentalist Islam, which lie at the heart of the struggle for the future of this fascinating land.
It also helps to explain the apparently irascible anti-Western and anti-Australian comments by Dr Mahathir. He may, indeed, believe them; but they are almost mandatory in the context of repeated attempts by fundamentalists in his political opposition, the PAS, to portray him as pro-Western and therefore anti-Islam.
At the end of it, one comes away with the very strong view that Dr Mahathir has done immense good for his country, and that his legacy to Malaysia has been overwhelmingly positive.
Interestingly, Greg Sheridan suggests that the inner strength of Singapore derives more from the strength and cohesion of its family life, than from ethnic Chinese considerations.
He worries that the impact of wealth may end up undoing the fragile thread which holds society together.
Again, readers will enjoy his descriptions of the contrast between Hanoi, austere capital of Communist Vietnam, and free-wheeling Saigon (officially renamed by its conquerors Ho Chi Minh City, but hardly anyone uses the new name).
What emerges from this is the yawning gap between the Communist cadres who run the system (generally poorly), and the people who are trying to get on with their lives, despite the system.
This book is appropriately subtitled “a South-East Asian adventure”. It is not merely a family adventure, but describes a deeper engagement with the diverse cultures of the region of which Australia is a part. It is immensely enjoyable and informative.