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Thursday, 14 June 2018

Feral twins: strange visitations on the Malay Peninsula

It all started in March 2014 when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared en-route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. This year, the search for the aeroplane, which had carried 227 passengers and 12 crew, was finally called off. Estimates had it ending up in the Indian Ocean but no trace of it has ever reliably been recovered. Only four months after that disappearance, MH17, another Malaysia Airline plane, this time flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was spectacularly shot down by a missile fired from the ground as it was flying over Ukraine. The 283 passengers and 15 crew became casualties of hostilities between Russian-backed fighters and the government of the country over sovereignty of parts of the European nation. Their mortal remains were strewn across fields in the countryside amid the refuse of the disintegrated aircraft.

Then, in February 2017, Kim Jong-Nam, Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, was killed by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The murder is still being investigated by Malaysian authorities.

About a year later, we saw surprising eventualities on the Malaysian political front involving a pair of strange characters, when Mahathir Mohamad was elected president in a national poll contested by several parties. The ruling party, which had been in power since emancipation from British rule in the 1950s, was for the first time in the country’s history displaced by a rival. In the wake of the poll, Mahathir’s former rival, Anwar Ibrahim, has been freed from prison, where he had been sent having been convicted for a second time on trumped-up sodomy charges. It had been Mahathir himself who had first accused Ibrahim of what is still considered by law in Malaysia to be a crime. Ibrahim looks set to take over as president of the country at some point in the next couple of years.

Such dramatic events presaged something equally strange in the shape of the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Here, there is scope for more sudden reversals in direction as weirdness emerges in Singapore, the tiny city-state located at the very tip of the Malay Peninsula.

The despot and the demagogue appear to be made precisely for one another. Each possesses a gargantuan ego fuelled by a sycophantic media (Fox News, in Trump’s case). But if anyone can come to grips with the thorny issue of the DPRK it has to be someone as unhinged and unpredictable as Trump. Whatever sceptical residents in neighbouring countries such as China and Japan think about the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, they will all have been deeply interested in every small detail relating to the event.

It is yet to be seen whether it will lead to a lasting solution to the uncomfortable military stalemate that characterises the divide between south and north on that other Asian peninsula, where the two Koreas snuggle close together like a ying and a yang. What is certain is that in recent years there have been an astonishing number of very odd things happening in a small part of Southeast Asia that in normal times evades any special mark of distinction.

Apart from its surprising cuisine! On Monday, having used part of the holiday to see the new Star Wars film (a movie made for the age of Trump if ever there was one) I ate an early dinner at a restaurant in Newtown here in Sydney with a friend, and ordered a curry chicken dish that tasted like the kind of fusion you get in a multiethnic country like Malaysia. It contained intriguing spices but was also rather sweet, offering both a complicated gustatory experience as well as the comfort of something unchallenging and familiar. It was served in a bowl And there was a separate plate with steamed rice that had been moulded into the immediately-recognisable shape of a heart. The dish was relatively cheap.

If everything goes well, then the Trump-Kim negotiations will lead to equally positive outcomes. Outcomes that people throughout the region, where there is still so much poor government, even today, can talk about with unalloyed pleasure as they discuss the news around the kitchen table of an evening.

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