Monthly Archives: April, 2017


A Prince in exile: The mystery behind Kim Jong Nam’s assassination

Tess Styles

Society and culture | East Asia


The departure hall was abuzz with the familiar clamour of excited tourists, impatient business-people and frantic parents all hustling to get to the front of the check-in queue. As I dropped off my bags and shuffled through security, I noticed nothing amiss about 13 February at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Little did I know that Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, had been assassinated in the very same room only hours earlier.

Amidst the usual morning airport bustle, two unlikely young women had seized the portly 45-year old from behind, smothering his face with a cloth containing the lethal VX nerve agent, before releasing him and blending seamlessly back into the crowd.

Jong Nam stumbled to the terminal’s help desk and was rushed to hospital soon after. He died in the ambulance en route. Only the next day was his identity and the significance of this very public assassination revealed.

So, who really was Kim Jong Nam, and why was he killed?

Just over a decade ago, Jong Nam was expected to become North Korea’s next Supreme Leader. His father Kim Jong Il, former leader of North Korea, doted on his eldest son and appeared to be grooming him for the leadership. He allegedly once sat the young Jong Nam at his desk and told him: “this is the place where you will one day give orders”.

However, Jong Nam was never fully accepted by his family. The product of an affair between Jong Il and married actress Song Hye Rim, his illegitimate birth was kept secret due to the disapproval of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea’s dictatorship. Consequently, Jong Nam spent much of his childhood in solitude and later completed his education in Switzerland.

In his absence, Jong Il bore two other sons – Jong Chul and Jong Un – with his second mistress and acting first lady, Ko Yong Hui. As the distance between Jong Nam and the North Korean regime grew, Jong Un became the father’s favourite of the three (Jong Chul was ‘no good because he is like a little girl’).

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Jong Nam’s extravagant overseas lifestyle and penchant for Macau’s casinos and nightlife earned him a reputation as North Korea’s first international playboy. Any chance of Jong Nam taking up his father’s mantle vanished in 2001, when he was arrested for traveling to Japan (to visit Tokyo Disneyland) with a forged passport under the name Pang Xiong – fat bear.

Effectively exiled after this embarrassing incident, Jong Nam spent the last few years of his life living incognito between residences in Macau, Singapore and Beijing. And then he was assassinated – in the middle of Malaysia’s busiest airport. Naturally, we have questions.

For instance, what motivated the actions of the two women who now face execution if charged with Jong Nam’s murder? Video footage shows Indonesian nightclub hostess Siti Aisyah, 25, celebrating her birthday just the night before Jong Nam’s death. Both she and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, claim they thought they were participating in a harmless reality television prank. New reports even suggest that they are human trafficking victims.

In any case, whoever orchestrated Jong Nam’s death is yet to confess. Perhaps, in a Game of Thrones-esque move, Kim Jong Un decided to do away with the potential threat to his crown. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the dictator has ordered a hit on a family member, nor is it the first time that Jong Nam has been the target.

Furthermore, North Korea is known to stockpile VX, a banned substance used in chemical warfare and considered a weapon of mass destruction. The implications of North Korea possessing such a deadly weapon are evident.

Of course, Kim Jong Un denies allegations that he had anything to do with his brother’s death, initially suggesting that the whole incident was a just hoax by the Malaysian government.

Prior to Jong Nam’s death, Malaysia shared strong diplomatic ties with North Korea, being the only country whose citizens could enter the rogue nation without a visa. However, tensions between the two countries escalated after North Korea expelled Malaysia’s ambassador and then banned all Malaysians in the country from leaving.

So, what does all this mean for the rest of us?

Last week, North Korea’s UN ambassador accused South Korea and the United States of orchestrating the murder ‘to tarnish the North’s image’. He also stated that North Korea would respond by bolstering its defences and capacity to ‘pre-emptive[ly] strike with a nuclear force’.


Let’s hope that like its failed missile launch on Wednesday, North Korea’s explosive threats will simply fizzle out.

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The Internet: A culture-making machine

Keeley Adams

Society and culture | East Asia


Just like the cool new fifth-grader who’s caught the most Pokémon in the playground, the internet is undoubtedly the most popular and powerful new force in mass media. Today, the internet is not only a new social and technological development, but also a culture-making machine, especially in the Asia Pacific.

Throughout the years, mass media has evolved from newspapers, radio and television into what is certainly an era of the internet. Here, you can learn almost anything: from how to tie a shoelace to how to build an igloo. But is the internet capable of forming new cultures entirely? K-pop would certainly indicate so.

Just like the broad definition of culture itself, ‘internet culture’ is now being used to describe the new ways the internet is connecting people with common beliefs, hobbies and interests all around the world. Today it is far more common for younger generations to spend more time watching content online than on a television screen. With over 4 billion views per day being racked up on YouTube, the internet is certainly the go-to place to spread information to mass audiences.

Take the popular YouTube channel ‘Eat Your Kimchi’ run by a Canadian couple who have lived in South Korea for over 8 years. The pair often post K-pop (Korean pop music) discussion videos online where their tremendous fan base – over a million subscribers – of both Korean and Western origin can come together and connect. In its beginnings, K-pop appeared as if it would only amount to a national trend. But by 2009, K-pop was quickly forming a new sub-culture in both the United States and many European countries.

An indication of the power of internet culture for countries in the Asia Pacific region was shown by the unexpected phenomenon that was ‘Gangnam Style’. Arguably the most famous K-pop song and most viewed video on YouTube to date, there is hardly a Seoul – pardon the pun - in both Asia and the West who hasn’t been exposed to the wacky dance moves and aesthetics of the music video. Other K-pop music videos regularly obtain between 10-30 million views, and often you can hear one or two English words sown between the Korean lyrics in order to appeal to their newfound Western audiences.

K-pop is unquestionably a new craze that has been made possible through the power of the internet and its ‘culture-making machine’. While K-pop may have been an essential part of modern South Korean culture, the widespread audience online has created a new sub-culture in both Asian and Western countries. Even the Australian National University has a K-pop society and a dance club, with regular meetings and Korean movie nights. These two clubs get together weekly to appreciate and imitate South Korean cinema, dance-styles and cultural attributes that they have learnt through K-pop.

The internet is unpredictable, especially in Asia, and while the current definition of ‘internet-culture’ is sure to change over time, what is known is that the internet has provided communities of people in both Western and Asian countries with the ability to come together and celebrate their shared love of both old and new cultures from all across the world. K-pop is one of many examples of modern sub-cultures made possible by the internet, with its head-bobbing beat and colourful music videos that many in our own nation have come to identify with.

While the majority of Asian culture has been spread via trade and globalisation, the internet now allows an instantaneous mode of communication that has the ability to inform us of the past and create new, modern sub-cultures that can be viewed and appreciated world-wide.

Without the internet and its culture-making machine, K-pop would never have generated such interest. And no K-pop fan outside South Korea would exist.

‘Internet culture’ is for everyone, and if you can’t find a place within it? Make one.

K-pop certainly did.

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Thailand’s sexy problem

Jordi Rudd Hughes

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Bangkok is a hedonist’s paradise. Cheap food, luxury hotels and a rampant sex trade are fuelled by local lust and foreign adventurism. But this all comes at a cost.

Roaring tunes, bright lights and scantly clad women assaulted my senses as I walked down ‘Soi Cowboy’ last July. The world of go-go bars, massage parlours and street girls is disparate to quaint Canberra. On the surface it appeared harmless; jovial workers solicited and chatted with the diverse group of revellers enjoying late night debauchery.

[caption id="attachment_5801" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Image: Roger Price, Flickr[/caption]

But the industry has significant problems. Its status as a prosperous yet illegal grey industry means regulation is difficult. As a result, 200,000-300,000 sex workers are at risk of exploitation and Sexually Transmissible Infections.

Thailand’s foreign minister has recently vowed to eradicate the industry, and instead aims to capture the tourist market, worth 10% of the economy, with its beaches and temples.

This isn’t the best option.

The sex industry is incredibly valuable to both the Thai economy and the livelihoods of the Thai people. Regulation, therefore, is a superior option. A crackdown on the industry would result in a decline of tourists, burdening an already struggling economy.

Health related issues are also a huge stain on the industry. HIV prevalence in female sex workers is estimated to be between 3-20 per cent, with young people, migrants and those in urban areas at greater risk of transmission. STIs like syphilis are herpes are also common. Risks are not only isolated to workers; customers are at risk as well.

Recent police raids have highlighted the presence of underage prostitutes in various Bangkok brothels. These girls are predominantly victims of human trafficking from neighbouring countries or rural areas. They are forced or coerced into lives of prostitution to escape poverty. They are not subject to labour protections and often live in extremely adverse conditions imprisoned by debt-bondage (working to pay off travel/board debts).

Thailand’s sex industry is worth between 2 – 14 per cent of its GDP and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods depend on it. The government receives substantial revenue from venue licensing fees and rampant corruption. World Outreach International estimates 4.2 million men have come to Thailand purely for sex services every year.

Due to the inherent risk and the stigma surrounding the profession, workers earn an average of US$800 a month, over double the national average. Rural families of sex workers receive US$300 million a year in remittances as a result, exceeding the budgets of some aid programs.

Prostitution’s illegality means the government cannot effectively regulate the industry. STI prevention programs are self-regulated by venues, and HIV testing is only required every three months. Workers can easily skip testing and return to work, while freelance sex workers are not subject to any testing. Legalisation and regulation of the industry would improve these practices.

It is true that sex tourism fuels demand for prostitution services and thus promotes trafficking. The UN has cited corruption as a ‘large barrier’ in its fight against human trafficking.  Regulating the industry will reduce corruption and trafficking, but will not eradicate this problem completely. It is a moral dilemma that the government must contemplate. The immense economic benefit that the industry brings to its workers, their families and the government must be considered as well.

[caption id="attachment_5811" align="aligncenter" width="419"] Image: Matt Greenfield, Flickr[/caption]

The government can better protect workers from exploitation by providing them with legal status. The UN has reported that workplace protections are not followed in the sex industry, and as a result ‘workplace conditions, OH&S and workers’ rights (are) being ignored.’ Legalisation of the industry will allow for more effective regulation. Employers will have to improve the conditions and safety of workers. Additionally, workers will be given the opportunity to unionise, giving them collective bargaining powers against employers.

There is an immense economic benefit to legalising the sex industry. In 2003, when Thailand considered legalising prostitution, the National Economic and Social Development think tank estimated the industry to be worth US$1.2 billion a year to the government. Thailand is currently experiencing limited economic prosperity and growing the tax base through regulation would help the nation tackle problems like human trafficking, corruption and its poor health record.

I want Bangkok to continue being a crazy utopia of indulgence; it’s a refreshing break from the real world. However, when I next enjoy the atmosphere of the city’s thriving precincts, it would be very satisfying to see a flourishing, regulated industry with a working population that is better protected.

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Stress, study and suicide: Why Singaporean students are suffering

Evangeline Kinajil-Barfield

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


For many, Singapore represents the modern face of Southeast Asia. Held as a global hub of commerce, culture and tourism, the city-state also boasts the world’s best education system, according to a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study.

It would be then almost unbelievable to think that this contemporary education system could be a “pressure cooker” of toxic cultural beliefs that are harming the nation’s students.

For most Singaporean students, academic success holds an essential place in their lives. For these students and their families, school is not only a place to grow and socialize – but an institution where academic achievement is king and capital for guaranteeing the best future possible.

Beginning as early as kindergarten, Singaporean children are groomed to practice and perform exceptionally. While most five year olds would be playing outdoors, many Singaporean children have already begun enrichment activities to ensure they surpass their fellow classmates.

[caption id="attachment_5766" align="aligncenter" width="256"] From Kindergarten, many Singaporean children begin CCAs to prepare for primary school.[/caption]

This ferocious competition continues until a student graduates, often with parental support. This “support” normally consists of extra tuition and co-curricular activities, known as CCAs.

In 2014, it was reported that a OECD survey had found that at fifteen years old, the average Singaporean student was spending approximately 9.4 hours on homework every week – nearly double that of the global average of five.

These 9.4 hours seem minuscule compared to what students complete in exam periods, with some only sleeping three hours a night.

What is more alarming, in this modern education system, is that students have been suffering far worse than just exhaustion and sickness for nearly two decades.

In 2001, the New Straits Times reported on the suicide of primary school student Lysher Loh. A cheerful young child and a “top student” by all accounts, Lysher committed suicide by jumping from her fifth-floor apartment window in the face of mounting academic stress.

She was ten.

This horrifying incident was preceded by a survey undertaken by Singapore Press, which found that in 2000, students aged between ten and twelve were more afraid of examinations than of their parents’ dying.

If these unsettling findings do not highlight how insidious these academic environments have become, the fact that they continue across Southeast Asia should.

[caption id="attachment_5773" align="aligncenter" width="533"] These stress laden academic environments are not only isolated to Singapore but can be found across Southeast Asia. Image from Miltos Gikas[/caption]

On the 22nd of March 2016, the South China Morning Post reported that twenty-two students had committed suicide in Hong Kong since the start of the academic year. The average suicide rate in previous years was twenty-three.

But what is it about these stress-laden environments that is causing such strain on Asian students and how can they be remedied?

For one, the competitive nature of Singaporean schools plays a substantial role. Judged strictly on their marks, students are often pressured to compete with one another for academic dominance.

The constant examination of students’ performance also increases the pressure on the youth. A prime example is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). These exams determine whether a student may proceed to high school and, if so, what stream of classes they are allowed to participate in.

The limitations of this form of education can easily be seen. Children as young as twelve are faced with academic testing that essentially determines the course of their education, and in many aspects their future.

[caption id="attachment_5782" align="aligncenter" width="468"] Singaporean students face constant examination of their academic performance from an early age. Image from Richard Lee.[/caption]

Although, in recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to address this system, it is the underlying cultural beliefs that exist in the Singaporean psyche that are the key to ending this “pressure cooker” environment.

The Mandarin Chinese concept of Kiasu, or the extreme fear of losing, is not only tremendously important to Singaporean students, but also to their parents.

It is this idea of Kiasu that leads families to pressure their children towards achieving academic greatness, not only to allow them to have the best opportunities possible, but to bring a sense of pride to their families.

Kiasu, however, is not the only traditional ideal that continues to plague modern Singapore. Within Singapore and throughout Asia, there still exists a stigma around mental illness, thus stopping many students from speaking out and seeking help.

Even in the most modern Asian countries, the importance of mental health remains overlooked and clouded with shame. For many, to have a mental illness is to be seen as weak.

To change cultural ideals, especially ones so deeply ingrained as Kiasu, demands years of purposeful re-education.

Whether this is through greater awareness on the part of the parents about their children’s mental health or communication between mental health services and Singaporean youth.

Although many families and teachers only want the best for these young students, this relentless environment of competition is not only stealing away the chance for these children to enjoy school, but in some cases, their lives.

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How far I’ll go: Moana and Wayfinding

Jade Boyle

Society and culture | Pacific


Could Moana engage younger generations of Islanders and non-Islanders to the art of Wayfinding? The 2016 film starring Pacific Islanders Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is about a young Islander girl, Moana, who hopes to save her dying island; by stealing a canoe, sailing across the ocean and returning the heart of Te Fiti. To do this, Moana learns how to wayfind; a skill that continues to be taught in the Pacific.

Wayfinding is the art of sailing a boat using only your senses and worldly knowledge. Moana specifically uses star navigation in the film, using her hands she measures the angles between the star and the horizon to determine her latitude. Voyagers had also memorised star maps; learning where the stars rose and set, and identifying as many as 220 stars. Outside of the film, wayfinders also used other techniques to find their way. Birds can indicate nearby islands, as seen when they fly from one island to gather food, and return home to feed their young. Some very skilled wayfinders can lie in the hull of a canoe and feel the wave patterns, which indicates the direction the canoe is sailing in. Using these skills, wayfinders had travelled over a third of the earth’s surface, using the wind, the waves, and the stars as their maps and compass to find islands from Hawai’i to New Zealand.

[caption id="attachment_5728" align="alignnone" width="1763"] A Double Hulled Vaka moored off the coast of Rarotonga. One example of an ocean-going vessel utilised by wayfinders in their exploration of the Pacific[/caption]

So, where does Moana fit in all of this? The film also features a different kind of star power, as a variety of successful Pacific Islanders, from musicians such as South Pacific Fusion band Te Vaka to actors Jemaine Clement and Rachel House. Combined with Disney greats John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life), Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and the popular Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, the film was given serious street credit; and has been the subject of great debate in the Pacific.

While the film has most definitely caught the attention of Pacific Islanders and non-Islanders alike, raking in over $635 million worldwide, problems over representations of Maui and the Pacific have arisen. In the Pacific, the demi-god Maui is a defender of the oppressed; his stories of stealing fire, fishing islands out of the ocean and beating monsters, as referred to in the Moana song “Your Welcome” are stories of freeing the oppressed. It is uncharacteristic of Maui to brag about these achievements. Furthermore, the key source of Maui’s mana that made these achievements possible, is missing in the film; the Goddess Hina. She is Maui’s counterpart, and none of the Disney female characters could take her place, as they lacked her sheer power. It is debated that because of Hina’s absence, Maui’s character traits had to be changed to reflect this, presenting him as comedic sidekick instead of the hero he is.

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The film has also been accused of depicting the Pacific as an exotic escape, continuing the tropes of the Islands brought on by colonialism. As the film depicts Tahitian drumming, Samoan outfits, tattoos, and Fijian music all on Moana’s home island, the film has also been accused of misrepresenting the diversity of cultures within the Pacific, and of profiting off Islander culture. Moreover, for people, and particularly children, who don’t know much about the Pacific, Moana could be the first time they are exposed to Islander cultures. Therefore, misunderstandings could occur about who Maui is, and the diversity of Pacific Islander cultures; despite the “Oceanic Story Trust” that Disney created to consult with experts of the Pacific, to make Moana as culturally authentic as possible.

But, could Moana’s success be an indicator that younger people are interested in learning more about wayfinding and the Pacific? The National Education Association (NEA) has suggested using Moana as a source for students from Kindergarten to Year 12 to learn about the Pacific. The Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region (TPS) has also created an educators guide to using Moana as a source to explore other subjects like science, language, and mathematics.

Beyond the silver screen, there are groups that are boosting awareness about the different techniques and types of wayfinding, such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in Hawai’i. PVS had initiated a return expedition from Hawai’i to Tahiti in a 20-metre canoe known as the Hōkūleʻa in 1976. This expedition proved that wayfinding was not only a skill, but Islanders were travelling to new islands with a purpose, not finding them by accident. Furthermore, various other non-profit organisations in the Pacific are also promoting and protecting different types of Pacific Islander voyaging in their own countries like Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

While it’s still too early to tell what kind of course Moana has charted, one can only hope it is a positive way forward.

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Carry on doctor: Vietnam

Robin Spurr

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Had I been told I would be spending 48 hours in a Vietnamese hospital during my travels, I would have refused to leave Australia. But, I survived the experience, and now am only horrified by my preconceptions.

Sprawled on my bedroom floor in the hotel, strategically placed between bed and bathroom, my room-mate walked in and trod on me. It was at this point I admitted that I needed medical help. For six hours, I had played a humiliating game of musical chairs and heads down thumbs up, with the toilet, and wasn’t winning.

But I did not want to go to hospital in Vietnam.

I pictured over-crowded hallways, filled with loud noises and bad smells, and questionable cleanliness. I woke up the next day, without the faintest idea how I’d passed out, and couldn’t feel my hands or feet.

Fast-forward two hours, I am in hospital, foreign words flying over me. I’m being spun over onto my front (none-the-wiser) having my shorts pulled up. Flailing weekly, and mumbling a language even I didn’t understand, a needle was put in my bottom. This woke me up. If the bright lights, magnified by the clean white walls and off-blue, glittery lino hadn’t already.

[caption id="attachment_5630" align="alignnone" width="235"] TMP's writer Robin Spurr upon admission to hospital[/caption]

Soon, I had the first of seven drips in one hand, a pot of Cháo (rice soup) in the other, and was being wheeled out of the emergency room. The journey was short, if slightly bumpy, over cracked tiling. The first stop was an X-ray, where my interfering necklace was shoved into my mouth. Then was the ultra-sound, where I looked affectionately, if dazed, at my swollen insides.

I was by no means alone here. New friends and old came to distract me. The Vietnamese students and staff from An Giang University (AGU), gave me so much support when we had only just met. Even other visitors to hospital were quick to offer me advice and assistance. Despite the language barrier, the kind intentions were felt.

The doctors and nurses were approachable. As I became more hydrated, I became more helpful, miming what did/didn’t hurt. This communication was largely successful, aside from one confusion.

Small pots had been pushed coyly in my direction. Having only ever peed into these, I assumed that was what was wanted, especially as my offerings were accepted. It wasn’t until we got Google translate out, that confusion cleared. The nurse’s phone repeatedly shouted; “s**t…S**T!”. I laughed; dehydration making me hysterical. I could be of no service in this department, having taken enough costive medicine to block up a drain.

It wasn’t until leaving I found out what illness I’d had; gleaned by the translation of my supervisor from AGU and me Googling my pick n’ mix bag of medicine (including a veterinary grade muscle support for cows). I had a strong bought of Gastroenteritis --“Gastro”, a tummy bug. Which annoyed me, as it didn’t exactly capture the experience; a tummy bug on steroids.

Writing a Trip-Advisor review about my time in hospital, I would probably give it a solid 4/5. It defied my expectations. Guilty at my reluctance to be treated, which had made me more ill, I reconsidered my preconceptions.

Returning home, everyone’s reaction to me being hospitalised were the same; horror.

But my time on the ward showed me that we need better education about countries harshly labelled “third world”. Our view of ‘abroad’ encourages us to believe our standards are above all others. As I learnt, hospitals everywhere will treat everyone to the best of their abilities.

Even in my dehydrated state, I remember being put at the front of queues, and given a private room. Was this cultural courtesy favouring guests, or a need to give me a positive outlook on the medical service to take back home? I received a level of care equal to the NHS in the UK (in its current state, probably better), even if it was a little rough around the edges.

I cannot deny who I was might have played a part. I was a Caucasian traveller in a private hospital. The CIA World Factbook defines density of doctors/population as 1.19/1,000 and hospital bed density as 2/1000 in Vietnam (compared with 2.81 /1,000 and 2.9 beds/1,000 in the UK). This would make hospitals crowded and understaffed as I expected. But not where I was.

My two-day stay, including my medicine, food, treatment and transport to and from hospital came to A$ 100. That seemed cheap (especially with health insurance). But for many locals, that would be a month’s wages (approximately A$168), and would mean a stay in a public hospital, which is not free. As researcher on healthcare in Vietnam, Quan Hoang, argues “Be rich or don’t be sick.” This is where the scare-stories have stemmed from.

Development is needed in Vietnam’s healthcare, particularly in the public sector, to protect people from the ‘medical poverty trap’ that Vong describes. But it also needs support from the outside world; not tearing down by fussy tourists.

I will never let my preconceptions make me ill again. It won’t stop me travelling. I will just pack more Imodium and painkillers and hope that the St Christopher my mum gave me (in desperation) will save my iffy immune system from future travel drama.

If not, I will head straight to hospital.

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