| An early skirmish
Never having joined the tourist throngs in Bali, though familiar enough with Denpasar’s ornate temple-like Ngurah Rai airport which serves the island, I had no idea of the racist restrictions imposed by the Sari club which was bombed on October 12. Like Paddy’s Irish bar opposite, it was “where the world comes to play” and “surfy girls followed surfy boys into the bathrooms to get naughty”. Another aficionado waxes lyrical on the internet. The Sari was “the finest international vortex of hedonism and decadence in the whole wide world”. It was also “the United Nations of drunken, sweaty, sex-crazed glory, and it was all in fantastic fun”.
Fun for whom' When the shock and horror wear off, it might be considered that those who bombed the Sari and Paddy’s were driven by festering xenophobic rage.
We think of Bali as Hinduism’s last haven in southeast Asia. Apparently, the idyll also harboured shades of the Bengal Club in the heyday of the raj, albeit a much coarser version. It replicated the “Dogs and Natives Not Allowed” ethic that once stung nationalist izzat from Shanghai to Johannesburg, and provoked a Bombay hotelier to exclude dogs and South Africans from his bar.
It was not just Bali’s Kuta beach, noted for its sunset, surfers and shopping, that Australian backpackers monopolized on their epic journeys to Europe and back. Reportedly, no locals (read Asians) save servitors could cross the threshold of the Sari club unless escorted or invited by a foreigner (read white). If so, no prizes for guessing the kind of Asian guest a macho Australian fullback on the prowl would invite.
A Chinese-Singaporean colleague would not accompany me once to a popular bar because, he said, only Angmos (whites) went there. The only locals were sarong-party girls, smart young women on the make who have few inhibitions about dropping their sarongs for their Angmo escorts. He reminded me of provincial Englishmen grumbling in the Fifties about American troops being overpaid, over-sexed and over here. As Pascal said of Cleopatra’s nose, small things like a social slight or sexual jealousy can influence the course of history.
All this strengthens my foreboding that Samuel P. Huntington was wrong. Perish the thought, but if ever there is a global clash, it will be sparked by race rather than religion. For, things have not changed much since Jawaharlal Nehru’s bitter comment on the global pecking order with White Anglo-Saxon Protestants at the top, Latins following and then, after a long gap, brown and yellow Asians. Black Africans brought up the rear.
Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian cleric accused of links with southeast Asia’s allegedly terrorist Jemaah Islamiah group, may have fronted for Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front for jihad against the United States of America and Israel. Of two local outfits, Darul Islam, with millions of followers, is supposedly committed to a global cali-phate. The more mi-litant Laskar Jihad, whose 15,000 members include veterans of Afghanistan and Pakistan, has announced its dissolution. But Indonesia’s two largest and most influential Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, have both condemned the bombing.
The Muslim response is therefore mixed. But I would not be surprised if they all respond in the same Asian rather than only Muslim way to the Sari’s exclusiveness. A large overlap between the two identities could explain why virtually no Asian country supports George W. Bush on Iraq — not even Malaysia, which angrily rejects any suggestion of sympathizing with al Qaida, or viscerally anti-Saddam Hussein Saudi Arabia.
No one suggests that the militant Abu Sayyaf group organized the mass demonstration outside Manila’s US embassy immediately after the bombing. Far from being terrorists or religious fundamentalists, the demonstrators were ordinary Muslim Filipino men and women who object to American troops in their country and to Bush’s policies as they affect Muslims elsewhere.
I am not surprised to learn that Indonesians owned both Paddy’s and the Sari. Many Asian landlords, shopkeepers and managements prefer Western clients. They are reputed to be big spenders. Their snob value impresses and attracts the richest Asians. Once word about the two dives got round, every Caucasian in the region made a beeline for them. The casualty list provides tragic confirmation of this race concentration. A couple of South Korean fatalities do not change the image of a paradise that was notorious as a place where whites — mainly Australian males — could let their hair down.
Colour has been banished from polite conversation as the Soviets believed they had banished god. But what has been swept under the carpet at the personal level erupts in public friction with American air marshals and police accused of racial profiling. Witness the fate of Bob Rajcoomar, a 54-year-old Florida doctor of Indian descent and former American army major, who was yanked from his seat on the Atlanta-Philadelphia flight, handcuffed, and thrown into jail on landing. The reason: he had “watch- ed too closely” while the marshals grappled with an “unruly” passenger.
Organizations as far apart as the International Cricket Council and the United Nations general assembly are often split along race lines. But it’s not always a simple question of black and white. Nehru would have been outraged to learn that Loy Henderson, the American ambassador, believed him to be “constitutionally unhappy” unless leading a global union of coloured peoples. Nehru would have been equally upset at an American suggestion that as many black diplomats as possible should be posted to India.
Bhagat Singh Thind — the Sikh immigrant who famously petitioned for US citizenship claiming to be “a descendant of the Aryans of India, belonging to the Caucasian race (and, therefore) white” — reflected the paradox. So did Rabindranath Tagore’s comment after a brush with San Francisco immigration that Christ Himself would have been banned because “He would not have the necessary money and secondly He would be an Asiatic.”
As Taya Zinkin, a civil servant’s journalist wife, once wrote, India identifies colonialism only with conflicts of colour. It sees no colonial exploitation when both parties are of the same hue. It was not only political expediency, therefore, that prompted Nehru and his daughter to gloss over the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Neither seemed as heinous to them as Britain’s invasion of Egypt. No wonder India would not condemn Saddam when he gobbled up Kuwait.
Everyone likes to believe that government decisions are founded on dispassionate assessments of the national interest leavened by ethics. But those who lead governments are flesh and blood. They must rely on group conditioning and personal experience. This was apparent when Commonwealth leaders confronted the problem of racist bullying in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Australia’s John Howard was more conscious of the racist-populist challenge he faced at home, while South Africa’s Tsabo Mbeki could not forget his nation’s long and painful battle against apartheid.
Mounting immigration pressure — with the European Union, the US and Australia under siege by hordes of Asians, legal and illegal — exposes the great divide even more poignantly. Would Canberra have been as unsympathetic if flaxen-haired Scandinavians instead of Iraqis and Afghans had sought asylum'
If conflict does not materialize along these fault lines, it will be partly because of economic and political dependence, partly because of disunity in the coloured camp, and partly because, like the Japanese, all Asians and Africans want to be “honorary whites”. But resentment continues to simmer. Now, one hears that local victims and journalists are being discriminated against in Bali, which may not have become the focus of the world’s media if the bombing had not been seen as particularly Australia’s tragedy. There is a sense, too, of Australia’s insufficient sympathy for Indonesia’s own suffering. Buckingham Palace’s flag flew at halfmast only for the Australian dead.
Bali could be an early skirmish in the battle of the future.