As the reports on the POTUS’ tantrums leak out of the White House into the news, political observers in Southeast Asia (where such behaviour is in general anathema) are either bemused or disdainful, but ultimately wary. It is as if a caricature has come to life, Tinseltown manifesting in the here-and-now of trans-Pacific reality.
But why should we in Asia care about what happens over there?
Nobody here could honestly deny that the USA’s influence, good or bad, is globally pervasive. Southeast Asia historically is particularly vulnerable to American political mood swings. When those with power and authority lie shamelessly, commensurate suffering follows for any within their sphere of influence.
Democrats too have shamelessly manipulated politics in the past. Lyndon Johnson presided over a largely liberal administration yet was not above the odd fabrication. He ended up escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam into a full-fledged war – aided and abetted by his Republican Secretary of Defense McNamara, who himself was not above promulgating untruths about the Vietnam war. And there were the cover-ups about Cambodia. Though people may still argue about the extent CIA involvement in the ‘coup’ of 1965 in Indonesia, the evidence that they were involved has now been in the public domain for years.
In Southeast Asia, millions of people died during these events.
In Southeast Asia we are very familiar with such tactics. That this is happening in Washington D.C. is an ill omen.
More spectacularly in recent times, the previous Republican President, George W. Bush, launched a misinformed and thus ill-conceived war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda that upset the delicate balance of global politics, locking much of SEA into a persistent pattern of deadly, running skirmishes with fundamentalist terrorists. Then, based on the pretext of what turned out to be completely fabricated intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction, Bush proceeded to drag the West into a war of attrition with Sadam Hussein’s Iraq. Now we have the Syrian situation and ISIL. The fruit of lies.
It is profoundly disturbing, as a citizen of the fourth most populous country in the world, to hear the trusted Counselor to the President of the USA, Kellyanne Conway, make a complete fool of herself with the “Alternative Facts” debacle, and then go on to Tweet her support of the Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s petulant romp of a first press conference, praising him for “hitting back”. Apparently the White House has declared war on the media. The caricature is propagating itself.
But the caricature is no longer funny. Despite childish manipulations and gross ‘alternative facts’ being a trademark of the current POTUS’ election campaign, the repercussions of such behaviour are different when you are actually in office. The art of shameless political lying has reached an all time high - or low if you prefer. Mr. Spicer’s near tantrum, choreographed or not, allowed him to escape the briefing room without actually addressing more important issues, such as the massive women’s protest march in DC and all over the nation; nor did he take any questions. The motto might as well be “We’ll tell you what to think and print”.
It’s crude propaganda, disinformation and distraction. Clearly this new administration has thrown the doors to that arsenal wide open in the hope of subduing any media opposition. In Southeast Asia we are very familiar with such tactics. That this is happening in Washington D.C. is an ill omen. Here in Indonesia, we had 32 years of overt censorship under Soeharto. In the course of that censorship journalists were arrested, beaten and some even ‘disappeared’.
If the time comes when ‘alternative facts’ are not simply offered up as different points of view but are enforced as the truth, we here in Asia who still believe in democracy will be praying that the American people will resist.
The struggle to establish independent, fair journalism and transparency plays an important part in the ongoing effort to establish democracy in Asian nations. There is quite the spectrum of ‘freedom of the press’ in Asia. The PRC’s obsessive control over all information and social media in China sits at the near opposite extreme to India’s plethora of daringly outspoken media. But the times they are a-changing: even in India lately there have been moves to gag opposition in the media, and violence has not been excluded. In this ongoing battle for freedom of the press, the inspirational role and support of Western media organisations of one kind or the other cannot be ignored.
Putting aside any portents of real challenges to the First Amendment in the US constitution, democratic movements across Asia are already faced with a starker reality. At the moment, powerful political and/or military elites in countries like India, Thailand, and Indonesia are seeking to push back the current of democracy that has been gathering strength for the last couple of decades. Ironically, the more overtly repressive regimes like those of Myanmar and China are barricading themselves in with the tools of capitalist economy.
The real logic of Trump’s attitude to Asia is nothing if not obscure to people on this side of the Pacific. Aside from being a largely theatrical gesture, what does ripping up the Trans Pacific Partnership really accomplish for the American people who voted for him? Even China, which stands to gain far greater influence in the region as the U.S. puts up its barriers, seems to be confused as to what Trump wants. In a bizarre twist in Sino-U.S. political history, early last December Henry Kissinger emerged and visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing, apparently to be a conduit of sorts to Trump.
Here in Asia, as seasoned Asia political observer Michael Vatikiotis points out, the fact that the far-right in the U.S. and Europe are energetically engaged in reshaping the world order could have a tremendous impact on the survival of democracy. Given the historical context, a crude, mendacious US administration can only make things worse.
Deception and dissemblance, the merging of business and politics, are already methods of choice for the elites in these repressive regimes. Trump’s glossing of the conflict of interest that his businesses pose will be nothing short of encouragement to the legions of corruptors that suck these countries dry. Already in Indonesia the Speaker of the House Setya Novanto, who recently was the object of investigation into his alleged attempt to extort nearly 2 billion dollars out of Freeport Mining, claims personal ties to Trump. Trump’s Indonesian business associate Harry Tanoe is reportedly interested in running for office here. Trump’s branding is going to be applied Bali Nirwana Resort, which was built over vociferous protests from Balinese and has basically trampled over local religious and cultural tenets - all glossed over by the original developers.
Across the Straits, reform minded Malaysians worry that Trump will stop the investigations into the huge 1MDB scandal that has embroiled his golfing buddy, Prime Minister Najib.
If the time comes when ‘alternative facts’ are not simply offered up as different points of view but are enforced as the truth, we here in Asia who still believe in democracy will be praying that the American people will resist. Western media has often been a powerful force in the events that have unfolded in our countries – sometimes to our detriment, at others to our benefit. If the ‘alternative facts’ become their staple, we will be left only with the detriment. We can only hope that this attack on the freedom of the press has the effect of consolidating the American media, giving it fresh motivation and vigour to fight for the truth.