No westerner will ever be more of an 'Asia expert' than Asians themselves

There is also a lack of questioning received wisdom and narratives in the West

People wait for a Light Rail Transit train at a station, during a lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng
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Not long into the New Year and all eyes appear to be, once again, on Asia.

The announcement that US president-elect Joe Biden will appoint Kurt Campbell, who was assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under Barack Obama, as his Indo-Pacific “co-ordinator” and right-hand man for the region made waves. With Brexit done, the UK is increasingly looking east and seems likely to join a key trade pact: the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. Meanwhile, the EU has recently signed a major investment deal with China, causing much debate about who had the most to gain from it.

For North America and Europe to enjoy success from any of these moves, one thing will be necessary: both continents must cast off the airs of moral and cultural superiority to which their inhabitants are prone, and instead approach the countries of the Indo-Pacific as equal partners and on their own very varied terms.

Two recent stories indicate the extent to which this is not just a matter for leaders to navigate; local populations, often exoticised and rendered not fully adult by a variety of stereotypes in the West, are far more aware of being patronised by outsiders with neo-colonialist mindsets than might be imagined by their sterotypers.

In Malaysia there has been uproar over an interview with a hopelessly out-of-touch and privileged Dutch designer, who said that she was “on a crusade” to ensure that the baju kurung, the traditional clothing worn by Malay women, “doesn’t disappear”. She wanted “to see Malays dressing beautifully again,” she continued, to the ire of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who pointed out that the majority of Malaysian women dress in “baju” either every day for work or, at the very least, on special occasions, such as Eid or weddings. Even the country’s queen put up a post on Instagram showing how traditional attire is celebrated in response.

Two women take photos under the Chinese New Year lantern decorations at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. Malaysian authorities imposed tighter restrictions on movement to try to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Women take photos under the Chinese New Year lantern decorations at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on January 16. AP

In neighbouring Indonesia, an American woman has caused fury on social media with a thread about the benefits of moving to Bali during the pandemic, citing the low cost of living and the “elevated lifestyle” she and her partner were enjoying. “Would you enjoy it if suddenly an influx of foreigners established themselves as the new upper class in your country, playing out their privilege of still being connected financially to a wealthier place and bragging about how… dirt cheap labour finally affords them luxuries?” was one of the politer responses on Twitter.

These incidents are instructive because the anger at Westerners acting in a condescending manner doesn’t frequently boil over so publicly. Politeness – and the reality of white privilege – sometimes hide what people really feel. I remember a meeting between Malaysian researchers and a British journalist who had written a hefty book about China, during which everyone was very attentive to our British guest. He probably left believing we were all impressed by him. Afterwards, however, one of the researchers dismissed him to me as “yet another ang moh [white man] who thinks he knows everything about China” – which, given the writer neither spoke Chinese nor had lived in the country long-term, was not an unreasonable characterisation.

A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) collects a nasal swap sample from a passenger at a drive-thru testing center for Covid-19 in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Malaysia, which yesterday suspended democracy for the first time in half a century to fight the pandemic, placed most of the country under some form of lockdown for two weeks as it intensifies efforts to quell the surge in coronavirus infections. Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg
A health worker collects a sample from a passenger at a drive-through testing centre for Covid-19 in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, on January 13. Bloomberg

There is also a lack of questioning received wisdom and narratives in the West, where people take their own centrality in world affairs not only for granted but as being part of the natural order of things. Many make no effort to imagine themselves in others’ shoes. As one top diplomat from the region remarked to me: “They tell us this is the Far East. East of what? It’s not the Far East to us!”

This Eurocentric approach is evident not only in the mostly Western-headquartered international media, but in academia. Distinguished professors such as Amitav Acharya have long called for the discipline of International Relations to be “decolonised” and replaced with a “Global IR”, “that captures the full range of ideas, approaches and experiences of both Western and non-Western societies”.

I agree with Professor Acharya, but he may have his work cut out – not least because non-Western voices still do not have the same access to global platforms. A welcome crop of books published on Southeast Asia and China last autumn is a case in point. Some were outstanding, but all the high-profile ones were written by Caucasians. The authors aren’t to blame for that, of course. But there are plenty of Southeast Asians more than capable of writing about their own region for an international audience. Why weren’t they asked?

This, though, is the type of point to which many Western opinion-formers are oblivious. In 2010, I interviewed the late Princeton academic Bernard Lewis for a British magazine that referred to Professor Lewis as “our greatest living expert on Islam”. It clearly did not occur to the editors that others – some Muslim scholars perhaps – might take issue with that accolade.

Going back to my original points about forthcoming engagements by North America and Europe with the Indo-Pacific, the former must be sure to take into account the sense of self held by countries in the latter region. As C Raja Mohan of the National University of Singapore wrote in an essay in Foreign Policy last week: "In Asia, nationalism is not only considered a virtue but is deeply entrenched in politics, society and intellectual traditions thanks to the living memory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century." Washington's conviction that "it had the answers for the challenges of state building in the region", he said, has "inevitably triggered deep resentment."

Malaysia’s former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad once said that while his country had achieved independence from colonial rule, Malaysians still needed to undergo a “decolonisation of the mind”. On the evidence thus far, that is a process many Americans and Europeans would benefit from, too. Talking down from an out-of-date perch of primacy that was always a presumption won’t cut it anymore – as they may find the peoples of Asia will let them know.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National