HONG KONG: ‘In the Middle of the Future’

Photo by Morning Chou / Morning's Studio.
Photo by Morning Chou / Morning’s Studio.

South China Morning Post Columnist Alice Wu’s take on the new book  IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUTURE: TOM PLATE ON ASIA (Marshall Cavendish International, Asia, Singapore 2014):

Alice Wu writes: “Once upon a time, before the turn of the century, while studying under and working for my university professor and life mentor Tom Plate, I learned that my world view is skewed. Those of us who were brought up in the Western world are, for one, too eurocentric, and two, too self-absorbed.
Washington looks at Asia not from across the Pacific, but across the Atlantic, through Europe. And, of course, there to share the blame is the Western media, which as former Straits Times chief editor Cheong Yip Seng (now an editorial adviser to SCMP Publishers) wrote in a review of Plate’s latest book, In the Middle of the Future, is “so pervasive, it shapes the Asian view of Asia”.

Plate is a pioneer of writing about Asia from the American-Pacific perspective and had the audacity to call Samuel Huntington’s “clashing civilisations” world views “misguided” and “abhorrent”. Plate taught his students (and readers) to compensate for their blind spots by correcting their observational position; then, the parallax becomes glaringly apparent.

That basically sums up his most important work of the past two decades – he taught and practised what he preached. That, and the fact that although it took almost two decades for Washington to “pivot” to Asia, Plate has been calling for it since 1996.

At a breakfast meeting with some of Hong Kong’s finest intellectual and international business leaders three weeks ago, Plate blurted out: “So, what do you all think about the Japan situation?”

“No one is worried about Japan,” one said. “It’s just the usual stuff,” another remarked. “Why do you ask?” asked one thoughtful woman. I was stumped, thinking: “Uh-oh. I’m definitely missing something here.”

And the truth is, I was. I had forgotten what the professor taught me.

It’s easy to develop tunnel vision. It’s easy to be so absorbed in Hong Kong’s day-to-day crises that you fail to notice what’s going on outside, or just brush things off as “the usual”. And it’s easy to see only the next ideal holiday spots when we see acronyms like “Apec” and “Asean”.

But as cosmopolitan dwellers in “Asia’s world city”, we cannot be blind to the geopolitical tectonic shifts that are happening around us.

Three weeks ago, we were saying: “What about Japan? Six of my friends just took a vacation there!” Two weeks later, we are reading disturbing developments over the East China Sea. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands isn’t a new flashpoint, and neither is the South China Sea.

But, if we were paying attention, Plate – and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew – were talking about the need for regional restraint and co-operation back in 1996.

We have to scan landscapes far beyond Victoria Harbour. We have to recalibrate our viewfinders. And, if we go by Plate’s timeline, that the dawn of the Asian Century began here, in this city, on July 1, 1997, then we have no choice. We’re smack bang in the middle of it.”

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA. This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as World vision on Monday 1 December.

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