Dr. M’s troubling protest appearance

Mahathir Mohamed joined the giant protest rally in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, August 29. His presence elicited big cheers from the youthful protesters who want to topple the government of Najib Razak, which is failing to answer massive charges of corruption. But the rank and file of the movement known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay, should not cheer “Dr. M”. They should be insisting he answer some pretty tough questions.

Najib Razak, the prime minister, has admitted to receiving $700 million worth of financial transfers to his personal bank account from unnamed donors from the Middle East. He seems to think this is perfectly fine. Imagine if British prime minister David Cameron had been found to have accepted $700 million from unnamed donors in the US. He would have resigned in disgrace immediately. Continue reading “Dr. M’s troubling protest appearance”

Mad monks: a history

Oren Samet, an independent journalist in Bangkok, writes that the rise of a powerful, xenophobic and politicized movement of Buddhist monks in Myanmar may be aligned with the government, but it is not their creature. He reports that the monks are now using their clout to not just stir anti-Muslim sentiment, but also to oppose real-estate projects near Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda.

Although Buddhist monks are meant to remove themselves from worldly affairs, in Myanmar they have always played a prominent role in politics. My unpublished manuscript*, The Story of Bagan, explains how the Buddhist sangha (church, or community) came to underpin and then undermine the legitimacy of Myanmar’s earliest dynasty of kings. Continue reading “Mad monks: a history”

Japan rocks!



A fun trip to Tokyo – staying here, and eating here – was anchored around Summer Sonic, one of Japan’s two big summer music festivals. It offered two days of rock’n’roll, punk blues, R&B (Pharell Williams headlined), electronic dance music and New Orleans brass funk. But the most fun was discovering crazy Japanese bands.

Only in Japan could something like Babymetal exist: think Metallica meets Hello Kitty. Backed by heavy metal musicians in cartoonish monster costumes, three teenage girls (“Su-metal”, “Yuimetal” and “Moametal”) sing, scream and dance in Lolita-styled red and black skirts. Continue reading “Japan rocks!”

Battle Royale

9781421565989Published in 1999, made into a laughably bad movie in 2000, condemned by the National Diet (Japan’s parliament) for its portrayal of crazed murdurous school children, turned into an overnight bestseller in Japan…and now, finally, made available in English translation, the novel Battle Royale is notorious for its everyone-against-everyone nihilism.

And it is awesome. Pure pulp gold. I tore through this nearly 800-page doorstopper within three days. Continue reading “Battle Royale”

Ghost Money

B00YL0UXHK.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SL500_Literature can attempt to make some sense of, or give shape to, events that are beyond human comprehension. Crime fiction does so by following a single, small event – a kidnapping, a disappearance, a murder – that unravels through the greater narrative.

Andrew Nette attempts this in Ghost Money, his detective story about Max Quinlan, an ex-cop-turned-P.I. from Melbourne, who accepts a case to find a wealthy Australian missing in Cambodia. Set in 1996, shortly after the United Nations-led elections that were meant to restore stability, Quinlan’s search leads him into criminal syndicates whose power stems from the rump Khmer Rouge movement. The man he is looking for may or may not have gotten his hands on a horde of gold bullion shot down in an American plane trying to extract it from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Continue reading “Ghost Money”

Cambodia’s military patrons and Cowgirl X

In my latest pulp thriller, Cowgirl X, my protagonist, Val Benson, gets caught in the machinations of a Cambodian tycoon with ambitions to foment rebellion and carve out his own fiefdom.

This may seem unlikely, but in fact this sort of thing is a legitimate concern. The Diplomat, a respected online journal about politics and security in Asia, has published an article by war correspondent Luke Hunt titled “Cambodia’s Well-Heeled Military Patrons”. He describes oknya – tycoon cronies – who, with only a little bit of imagination, could look like my fictional bad guy, Son Cheng. Continue reading “Cambodia’s military patrons and Cowgirl X”


It’s not fashionable for liberal journalists from the West to say nice things about Singapore. The country’s uptight, humorless approach to criticism, and the elite’s readiness to use the judicial system to crush dissidence, are well known. My employer is among those media groups that have buckled under legal threats by no less a plaintiff than the family of the late Lee Kuan Yew.

There are other objections to Singapore: the city is plastic and artificial. There is a doziness in many of its people that make you wonder sometimes how the place ever got where it has. This may be a side-effect of a nanny state. Life for most people is safe and stable, if not luxurious.

I could go on in this vein – and plenty of other people have. But every country has its flaws and stupidities. Few have achieved anything comparable to the Lion City, which today celebrates its 50th anniversary. Continue reading “Singapore”

The Devotion of Suspect X

Unknown-1My wife related to me the bizarre narrative from the Chinese translation of a Japanese mystery novel she was reading. I happened to have recently finished a mystery by a Japanese writer translated into English. Of course it turns out we had been reading the same author: Keigo Higashino.

Higashino is a superstar in Japan. He deserves to be one everywhere else. The Devotion of Suspect X is a taught and tightly written detective story. A woman murders a thuggish ex-husband; a nerdy neighbor helps her cover up the crime; the detective, and the reader, faces a mystery not of a killing but of a motive. A chess match of wits ensues that makes for compulsive page-turning. Continue reading “The Devotion of Suspect X”