The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor

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Cultural Authenticity. Bangkok, Thailand.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia)

The Nattakan Transportation Company bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok wasn’t a pleasant experience for many fellow passengers, mostly due to a very demanding group of Americans who spent the time complaining dumb these people were and then shouting the same question repeatedly, not because they didn’t understand the driver’s reply, but because he wasn’t giving them the answer they wanted.

Border between Cambodia and ThailandLater at immigration at the Cambodia-Thai border, one of them deliberately, with the urging of another of the party, cut a queue some of us had been waiting in for a long hot sweaty while, then pretended she didn’t understand the queuing system, and bitched loudly how unreasonable people could be. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they took their aggressive self-righteousness with them on a mini-bus they’d badgered the company for.
mini-bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, ThailandI felt very sorry for a French couple with two young children who were waiting patiently and quietly for things to come together.

On the next bus after the border, we had two very lovely Spanish guys and one German who chatted about how long they’d been on the road, and a couple from Shanghai who explained alot about modern Chinese culture in the big city – how money was not scarce but prestige was, and so Louis Vuitton and Hermes were now too common for the arms of the truly rich and more exclusive brands were sought. We parted, very sadly, when we arrived at Khaosan in Bangkok.

Many complain about how touristy Bangkok has become, how polluted with backpackers, so that it is no longer an authentic Thai city, but merely one set up for tourists.

Who cares? I’d say, somewhat deprived traveller that I am, come, let’s check out all that cheap plentiful delicious street food!

My first stop after a whole day of travelling without a bite to eat (on account of having no more US$ or Thai baht) was Sukhumvit Soi 38:
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
pad thai, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
satay, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand
mango sticky rice, street food, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Bangkok, Thailand

Because I’d known Bangkok quite well in the past, I was happy to stay a while longer to get re-acquainted and to hoover up the culinary delights of the City That Never Sleeps.

Breakfast:
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
sugar on toast, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
soft-boiled egg in a coffee cup, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandglass of iced Thai coffee, On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok, Thailandtraditional breakfast of sugar on toast, steamed soft white bread with kaya, soft-boiled eggs, and a mug of iced Thai coffee at ออน ล๊อก หยุ่น On Lok Yun, 72 Charoen Krung Road;

toast and grilled bananas, street food, Bangkok, Thailandon a random street, a charcoal grill topped with toast and bananas;

Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
ข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandข้าวเหนียวดำสังขยา khao neow dam sang kaya (black sticky rice with egg custard / kaya and coconut milk) wrapped in a banana leaf, at the Silom Soi 20 market;

roast chicken, white chicken, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
vats of curry, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
bananas, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailand
strawberries, Silom Soi 20 market, Bangkok, Thailandand a range of other cooked food, and fruits at the Silom Soi 20 market – the cooked food might be consumed for breakfast, or kept for lunch.

For lunch:
Bangkok, Thailand
Green Chilli restaurant, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandGreen Chilli, Section 2, Soi 38, No. 126 in Chatuchak Market, was run by Ann, an ex-Thai Airways public relations officer. No-MSG in the food, she assured me, a choice of organic brown rice, and all the raw fresh vegetables I could eat.

Afternoon snacks just anywhere along a street in Bangkok:
street snack, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailandcrispy shredded coconut rolls

Khanom Buang, Soi Convent, Bangkok, Thailandkhanom buang (crispy Thai crepes with shredded coconut and gooey meringue) on Soi Convent.

And as is necessary when navigating the crowds and the narrow indoor sois at Chatuchak Wholesale Market, something very cold:
Hale's Blue Boy, Bangkok, Thailand
Hale's Blue Boy syrup with basil seeds, Bangkok, ThailandHale’s Blue Boy with “frog eggs” (sadly, actually just seeds of the ocimum basilicum or sweet basil),

famous chatuchak coconut ice-cream. Bangkok, Thailandthe original famous Chatuchak Market coconut ice-cream, and

coconut ice-cream with free "toppings", Bangkok, Thailandone of the many stalls that has jumped on the coconut ice-cream bandwagon, this one distinguishing itself by inviting customers to help themselves to the “toppings”.

iced teh tarik man, Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, ThailandA twirling iced teh tarik man at Chatuchak Market who drew a large crowd with his tea-mixing dance.

And for dinner, perhaps something from Talad Rot Fai?
salt baked fish, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
horseshoe crabs, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailandsalt-baked fish and, yeeeuurrr, horseshoe crabs which I refused to even contemplate since we already drain them of blue blood.

people eating on a street, Bangkok, ThailandIn the chapter of his book, The Authenticity Hoax: Culture is for Tourists, Andrew Potter, who is more serious about such matters, argues that in effect even if the Thais had retained their ethnic dresses and never built anything more than a hut, they would still fail to be authentic.

Hello Kitty shop, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, Thailand
Beer House, Talad Rot Fai, Bangkok, ThailandThere has been the idea, throughout human history, on possibly all continents, that a particular society should be internally homogeneous in traditional art forms, festivals, language etc. Yet, history has shown that all living societies continually change as they interact with other societies in trade, marriage, warfare.

Ronald McDonald says sawadeekup, Bangkok, ThailandSo when one seeks, artificially, to preserve these things, they become inauthentic since the real society has moved on. And even if it had not, the fact that tourists had travelled just to see these things, and the fact that the audience isn’t indigenous means that the act or event is divorced from its historical and cultural significance and has in fact turned into ” museum piece” to be gawked at.

Thai King's birthday light-up. Bangkok, Thailand
yellow "Long Live The King" t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
tak bat, morning alms, monk blessing, Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand
please offer the seat to those in need, Bangkok, Thailand
monks on the river boat, Bangkok, ThailandBut what Potter is more concerned with is the effect on globalisation on the ethos or worldview of a society. “For all the benefits that the outside world can bring, it is possible for a society to be overrun by external influences, diluting and undermining the culture to the point where little remains of the original ethos. The possible destruction of a unique and probably irreplaceable worldview is one of the real and tragic consequences of globalisation. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that the forces that lead to the destruction are both thoroughly legitimate and almost impossible to control or impede in a free and open society. Individuals have the desire and the right to improve their lives through trade, to adopt new technologies, to explore other ways of seeing the world. This process by which individuals acting in their own interest collectively ensure the demise of their own ethos is the great tragedy of the cultural commons.” [Comment: objectively, why would this be tragic?]

This has led in the last hundred years to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant popularising the idea of cosmopolitanism. “The cosmopolitan rejects both particularism and localism, seeing instead his or her loyalties and obligations as extending to the entire human race. But this is not with the aim of homogenising all mankind, rather, they thought that variety was valuable. “For [John Stuart Mill], “diversity matters…his argument was straightforward: just as different plants and animals flourish in different physical environments, different people flourish in different moral and cultural environments. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and unless “there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable.””

Buddhist statues for sale, Bangkok, Thailand
statues of Buddhas, Bangkok, Thailand
begging bowls and monk effigies, Bangkok, ThailandHowever, communitarians have been pushing back at what they see to be liberal self-centred-ness and narcissism. The Kantian liberal’s goal is the maximisation of individual freedom; the Mill-ian liberal’s aim is the maximisation of individual happiness or welfare. Paramount importance is placed on satisfying individual needs. “[But] it’s not all about you”, the communitarian says, “there are common goods that transcend our individual wants, that command our allegiance, and might require our sacrifice.”

Potter suggests that liberals and communitarians have been talking at cross purposes: “The cosmopolitans are talking about the importance of certain liberal principles, while the communitarians are concerned about the effects of that liberalism on values. The principles/values distinction is one that we don’t usually make in our everyday language, and it is not uncommon for the terms to be treated as virtual synonyms…”

“When we talk about principles, we are referring to the general rules that govern our sense of right, such as the constitutional statements of due process, equality, and the freedoms of religion, speech, and association that support a liberal society. Values, on the other hand, refer to our sense of what is good to do or believe. Values are what give our lives meaning or purpose.” So the two are not mutually exclusive. In the Charlie Hebdo shooting incident, for instance, the liberal principle of the freedom of speech would agree that you could express your thoughts should you choose to do so, and communitarian values would determine the manner and method by which your thoughts would be expressed.

But what of communitarian values in a diverse community? Voltaire thought that religious diversity was the foundation of public order rather than a threat, saying,”If there were only one religion in England, there would be the danger of despotism, if there were only two they would cut each other’s throat; but there are thirty, and they live in peace.” He was referring, however, to 30 version of Protestantism.

Where there is true multiculturalism, Robert Putnam has found that large-scale immigration and increased diversity within a society has made people “act like turtles” and become “less open and more distrustful of one another”. But the solution to this is not less diversity, rather Putnam argues that a society’s long-term project would therefore have to be the deliberate construction of a broader and more inclusive civic identity.

[Comment: this is something the pioneers in Singapore have sought to do for its ethnically and religiously diverse population. The racial riots of only a few decades ago is still fresh in the minds of the older generation, but it is tragic that many of the younger generation have scoffed at this as mere PAP propaganda, as they sneer at anything any of arm of the government says, regardless of content. A recent issue has been a petition for Thaipusam (a Hindu festival) to be made a public holiday in Singapore. Not everyone who supported it was Hindu, some were just on the extra holiday bandwagon. This well-worded reply came from SIngapore’s Ministry of Manpower:

We appreciate the perspectives shared by many Singaporeans on whether Thaipusam should be reinstated as a public holiday.

As many have noted, Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968. The prospect of the British withdrawal and the need to compete for a living in world markets necessitated many changes in the country. The government decided to reduce the total number of public holidays, amongst other things.

The decision on which public holidays to give up in 1968 was reached only after careful consultation and discussions with various religious groups. The Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhamed’s Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa. The Christians, who had to give up two days as well, chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday. The Hindus had to choose between retaining Thaipusam or Deepavali as a public holiday, and chose the latter.

These were difficult decisions for the leaders of each faith, with something of value being given up by each group in the larger interest. The Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to offer any cuts. Some groups continued to celebrate religious events of significance to them, such as Vesakhi for the Sikhs and Lao-Tzu’s Birthday for the Taoists, without these being public holidays.

The resulting 11 public holidays that we now enjoy is neither high nor low when compared to other countries. It is the same number enjoyed by New Zealanders, Canadians and the French, among others. Our closest neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, enjoy a few more days than we do, but we have a few more than developed countries like the United Kingdom and Germany.

But beyond numbers and economics, our calendar of public holidays is a reflection of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. There is much value and meaning attached to each of our ethnic and religious festivals, including Thaipusam, both among that particular group and Singaporeans generally.

But any move to reinstate any one festival as a public holiday will immediately invite competing claims, and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities. Balancing the wishes of each community will not be a simple matter. Neither can we simply re-allocate public holidays by ethnic group, as amongst both Chinese and Indians we have citizens of a few different faiths.

While we will always ensure that all Singaporeans can practise their faiths freely, it is impractical to make all important festivals of all faiths public holidays. But it must always be possible for Singaporeans of all faiths to make arrangements to observe their respective religious festivals. We encourage all employers to show understanding and flexibility in this regard.

We have learnt to live harmoniously with each other with this balanced approach, where everyone makes some compromises for the greater good. It has served us well for the better part of five decades and remains the best way for Singapore.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director, Workplace Policy & Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower

To which at least one Singaporean on Facebook commented, without reason: “absolute crap!” and another, illogically in light of the explanation given, complained of unfair treatment of Hindus because they were not the main religion in Singapore.]

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, ThailandPotter suggests, however, that the reason for this is less “racism, classism, prejudice, or any xenophobic refusal to associate with the “other””. Instead, the ethnocultural society starts with few shared norms. In cities, the absence of a small, close-knit society where there might have been regular interaction that facilitates enforcement of existing social norms, the breakdown of the economy of trust is accelerated. (It is this community of trust that yuppies yearn for when they move to the suburbs, at least in an American/Canadian context.)

So while seekers of authenticity wish to preserve Havana or Bhutan romantically in yesteryear, Potter argues that this narrow and selfish desire misses “any sense of what is gained in the way of political freedoms, increased material wealth, and greater intellectual and creative opportunities…it ignores the way that cosmopolitanism represents not only a material advance, but also a form of moral progress.”

Societies do not exist to be “compatible with someone’s preferred account of what constitutes an authentic culture…”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore