There is a saying in the East—the nail that sticks out gets hammered; the bamboo shoots that grow tall are the first to get cut. Travel through the region that begins in the Arakanese jungles of Myanmar, stretching till Japan’s farthest shores, and you will meet people embodying East Asia’s unspoken rule, nodding wisely, not talking loudly.
They comply out of the implicit Faustian bargain in the region’s social contract —do as you are told; don’t ask questions; and your rice bowl will be full. But what if you prefer a burger? What if you want to eat with a fork and a knife, and not chopsticks? That’s when you become that nail sticking out; that tall bamboo shoot. Then, challenging the leader becomes a seditious act. You are defying the Confucian compact of trusting the leaders who are then expected to make wise decisions. And so the hammer comes out; the sharp, shining parang (the Malay machete) is unsheathed.
East Asians may appear docile, obediently working in assembly lines, singing company songs or toiling in emerald paddy fields. But that’s because they know what happens if they speak out: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who imagined and memorized a quartet of novels while in the Indonesian gulag, Buru island, where they would not let him write; the Nobel laureate dissident-turned-president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, who died this year; Anwar Ibrahim, beaten and jailed in Malaysia, but who continues to speak out; the late Joshua Jeyaretnam, who challenged the Singapore model; Aung San Suu Kyi, who stubbornly clings to her beliefs, shaming the Myanmarese junta; the late Corazon Aquino, who carried her slain husband’s baton, securing democracy in the Philippines.
One chronicler recorded these events and interpreted this fascinating region for 63 years—the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER). It is poignant to use the past tense in describing the magazine—it will continue to appear till December. But then it will be part of history, no longer its witness.
FEER was born in 1946, emerging from the post-War debris. Its founder, a Viennese Jew called Eric Halpern, presciently sensed what multinationals would realize decades later—the commonalities in this heterogeneity, and the region’s energy, which would help it leapfrog over others. FEER’s reporters made the region’s wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) understandable, in the era of the Vietnam War.
By the mid-1980s, FEER became part of the Dow Jones group (now part of News Corp.), which also publishes The Wall Street Journal, with which Mint has an editorial partnership. My own disclosure: I was the magazine’s regional economics correspondent, reporting out of Singapore, Hong Kong and other Asian capitals during the tumultuous Asian economic crisis. Later, from London, I continued to write for it, about South-East Asia and India.
The 1997-98 economic debacle forced one major transformation: In 2004, from being a punchy weekly, it shrank in size, publishing essays 10 times a year. But with advertising collapsing during the current global meltdown, and the attractive market segment of expatriate and English-speaking elite of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong evaporating, FEER succumbed.
FEER is—or was—special because it stared back at Asia’s businesses and politicians at a time when few journalists in the region could speak truth to power —not because they weren’t brave, but because they knew the consequences of taking on the system and lacked publishers who’d back them. Some of FEER’s foreign correspondents were tried, jailed, expelled, harassed or followed; some were accused of lese majeste, sedition, contempt of court and defamation; its editors fined, its issues banned, its editions photocopied and distributed without advertising, denying FEER both an audience and a revenue base. And each time, FEER’s editors—Derek Davies, Philip Bowring and now Hugo Restall—personified Hemingway’s view of courage —grace under pressure: defending themselves in courts, paying fines and carrying on publishing without fear. Leaders resented the magazine because it would not bow or kowtow. An invading army might march in, but Nayan Chanda, who was later my editor, would continue to type his story till the North Vietnamese switched off power supply. Unfazed by the malarial jungle, Nate Thayer would not give up looking for Pol Pot. With calm forbearance, Bertil Lintner would bring the Myanmarese story to the world. Ian Buruma would cast light on culture, revealing nuances the region’s elite often preferred leaving unsaid. FEER’s intrepid financial reporters would figure out who hid what assets where, disciplining the markets. I remember the sleepless week in Jakarta when the Suharto regime tottered: Margot Cohen talking to people on the streets, John McBeth checking on troop movements, Michael Vatikiotis chasing politicians and academics, while I was with Anastasia Fanny Lioe in Glodok and Tangerang, where Chinese-owned shops and malls were burnt and ransacked, prompting ethnic Chinese people and capital to flee.
Businesses fail, economies collapse, and nothing is forever. But an era has ended.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com