But does he still have more fun?


We’ve covered the fact that despite the nation’s much-vaunted Confucian respect for age, a glossy dye-job or even a straight up wig is standard issue for Chinese politicians.

Of course, the same thing is true in the West to a certain extent, but it seems like even the least likely people are getting in on the act:

There has been speculation for a while that Boris’s fabled mop may have had a touch of the Marilyn Monroe to it. Last year, celebrity hairdresser Heinz Schumi claimed it was a ‘forgery’. ‘I’m telling you, it’s bleached,’ he told the Daily Mail. ‘I went to see him give a speech, and when the spotlights shone on his hair, it was kind of orangey — it doesn’t go light enough. Also, when hair is bleached, the follicles are broken so you manipulate it how you like — this is what Rod Stewart did, so I am absolutely certain he bleaches it.’

Yet no confirmation had ever come from Boris as to whether this was true. Indeed his own father told the Mail that it was ‘100 per cent nonsense’. ‘I remember when he was born in New York, I nipped off to get a pizza and when I returned he was swaddled with all the other babies — but quite distinguishable by this shock of white hair. So I can reassure the nation, it’s quite genuine,’ he said.

Well, now it seems the truth has emerged. In today’s Sunday Times Magazine, during an interview with Tim Shipman, Boris admits that he does in fact rely on the bottle. When conversation turns to Boris’s ‘bird’s nest of platinum hair’, he is keen to point out that ‘This is the real thing. It’s all natural.’ But when pressed as to whether or not he dyes it, he admits that ‘Yes’, he does. As Tim puts it, it is ‘real but enhanced, a little like the public personality.’


Rumour also has it that Boris deliberately musses his hair up before going in front of the cameras. Gotta protect the trademark, after all.



Only Disconnect


The Singapore government is about to disconnect civil servants’ computers from the internet. They will still have email and be able to surf on their own devices. The reaction has been predictably measured and thoughtful.


Let’s all take a moment to laugh at how backward and authoritarian the Singapore government is. There now, done?

In fact, it’s common practice in most countries for computers in security-sensitive offices to be cut off from the internet (email excepted). It’s also common practice to ban staff from bringing their own devices into the office and to oblige them to clean all USB keys before use (whether they actually follow these rules, on the other hand…). The Russian government has gone a step further and reverted to typewriters for some of its functions, with Germany possibly following suit.

While the official line is that this is for security reasons only, it’s worth remembering that there’s little conclusive evidence on whether internet access makes workers more productive, but the workers themselves seem to think that the effect is generally negative. (Thought experiment: look at the first page of your inbox. Which of those messages would you still have received if someone had to type them out on a manual typewriter and deliver them?)

Obviously the Singapore government can’t actually say that they think that their employees are a bunch of time-wasting slackers, and prefer to endure a few days ridicule for being paranoid and out of touch rather than offend their homies.

Which is rather sweet.

Edit: This just in, Patient Zero in this initiative was our social media-loving PM, Lee Hsien Loong.

The first person to volunteer not to have any direct Internet access on his work computer was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He took on the challenge at the beginning of the year after security experts advised that it was necessary to shield the public sector’s IT systems from cyber attacks.

Relating his experience yesterday to reporters in Myanmar, where he is on an official visit, PM Lee said: “It’s a nuisance, it takes some getting used to, but you can do it.”


Which other world leaders are famous for deliberately avoiding connectivity? Yup.

He probably puts the milk in before the tea, too

Foreign Policy has taken a break from its usual schedule of Hillary: She’s Less Awful Than You Think pieces, to tell us about a heinous crime:


Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Actually Care About Saving Leopards 

A high-profile, Putin-backed campaign to protect the habitat of Persian leopards has been quietly abandoned, clearing the way for the country’s richest man to expand his ski resort…


Now I’m about as pro-fluffeh as political analysts get, but I’m still not 100% convinced that when Putin finally stands before the Pearly Gates, his attitude towards Persian leopards will be the number one item on St. Peter’s charge sheet. It may not even feature in the top five.

Which is a moderately interesting reaction in and of itself. If I had run into this same article on one of the many animal rights sites to which I subscribe (I wasn’t kidding about the pro-fluffeh item – you should see the amount that poorly battery hens and downtrodden milch cows have had off me over the years), I would – right now – be searching for the “donate” button with suspiciously watery eyes.

Reading it on FP, however stirred not a shred of sympathy for the sadly afflicted kitties, merely cynical irritation at the idea that someone felt this was high-quality negative PR.

Seems like Facebook feels much the same way:

Alas, poor leopards. Choose your media outlets more carefully next time.

(P.S. If the political fannying about hasn’t soured you on the idea, you can donate to the leopards here: https://ptes.org/grants/worldwide-projects/persian-leopards-in-iran/ or here: http://www.worldlandtrust.org/projects/armenia/save-caucasian-leopard)

Don’t you ever change

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore currently has an exhibition going on to do with the idea of the scholar in Chinese culture. (Long story short.)

Among the exhibits is this:

ACM Confucius crib sheet

Doesn’t look very interesting, does it?

ACM analects crib sheet

If that’s too small to read, here you go:

Crib sheet with the Analects of Confucius
China, 19th century
Ink on silk

In order to cheat on the Imperial examinations, the Analects (论语) have been written in tiny characters on both sides of this piece of silk, which could easily be smuggled into the exam room.

Bearing in mind the fact that Confucius was pretty much the origin of the Chinese obsession with the idea of scholarly virtue, and the exams themselves tended to feature a preponderance of questions on that same broad topic, the discovery that such a proof of subversion exists made me ridiculously happy.


Who wore it better?

Park Geun-hye ice hockey

President Park Geun-hye playing iceless hockey (?) at the Daegu Athletics Promotion Centre.

Leaving aside the oddly surreal fact that an Athletics Promotion Centre apparently features as its key attractions ice hockey without the ice and a virtual reality ski-lift (neither I nor the original article have a convincing explanation for either of these things), what do you think of when you look at this picture?

Was it this?

Putin ice hockey

It’s not as if Putin’s the only politician ever to have played hockey. Nevertheless, what’s interesting here is the way that – whether you approve of his PR or not – he’s raised the macho bar for everyone else.

If he didn’t exist, I would have scrolled wearily past that Park shot as one does with all the millions of pictures of politicians gamely missing easy football penalties that seem to have become an obligatory part of public discourse these days. However, because he does exist I couldn’t see the picture of Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent politician – without automatically making a comparison.

In rather the same way that (as Borges tells us) Kafka created his own precursors, politicians create each other, simply by acting as points of comparison. If you’re up against someone wacky, you’ll look duller by comparison. If you’re up against someone stupid, you’ll look smarter by comparison. The audience isn’t making a conscious choice at any point in the proceedings, they’re just situating you within your environment.

Alexander Wendt described the process of identity creation for states as a sort of ongoing battle between their own perceptions of themselves (or how they wish to be seen) and the way that others see them. Seeing Park – who, incidentally, is an entirely serious and competent leader – lining up this shot, it struck me that individuals face the same struggle.

Male Cinderellas

Jang Song Thaek funeral

Hot on the heels of Kim Jong-pil’s gorgeously atmospheric and unpleasant memoirs, comes former NIS apparatchik Ra Jong-yil‘s book about Jang Song Thaek, which looks to be a humdinger:

… Stories of sons-in-law marrying into privileged families are not altogether uncommon on either side of the Korean divide. Though the stakes were different – no one ended up publicly purged and executed – a useful comparison can be found in the story of Lim Woo-ja, who married Samsung Electronics CEO Lee Kun-hee’s daughter, Lee Boo-jin, also an executive in the conglomerate. In both cases marrying well brought great privileges but also severe consequences.

Jang and Lim share commonalities in their backgrounds. Jang was a talented and ambitious person who earned his way into Kim Il Sung University but who was not from the Kim family’s privileged bloodline. Lim captured the attention of the South Korean media by marrying the Samsung head’s daughter despite being an “ordinary” office worker at the company. Like Jang, Lim’s career after marriage was full of fortune. He was promoted to vice president of Samsung Electronics in 2011, a position out of reach for most employees and, despite their later divorce, he is still serves in an advisory role at the company.

But Lee did divorce Lim in 2014, and Lim has been dogged by legal procedures ever since. Lim would not be purged or killed as Jang was, but has dealt with a steep decline in living standards, later writing of how his son tasted ramen for the first time after the divorce.

Ra’s book on Jang contains many other instances of how family history invades one’s private life, especially in the North: Jang’s older sister had to divorce her husband due to his family’s past record as a landlord during the Japanese colonization of Korea before the end of World War II. Lim’s family faced a similar tragedy. “Including my father, our family couldn’t meet my son from his birth until September 2015, when he turned 9 … Before the negotiations to meet my son, I couldn’t have free time with my son outside,” his letter read.

His ex-wife would cite Lim’s excessive drinking patterns as a reason for their divorce, which, if true, would be something else he shares with Jang. “I cannot stop drinking. Tens of thousands people are starving in the fatherland. I cannot sleep because of those starving people,” Jang used to say, as quoted by the book.

Jang was chosen by Kim Jong Il, who needed an ally during his preparations to succeed from his father Kim Il Sung. The young and talented Jang, who had been deeply affected by Kim’s younger sister, was a perfect partner. Ra says this was why Jang could overcome the differences in social standing between him and the country’s most privileged household. However, it also meant that he would serve Kim Jong Il “hand and foot.” Secretive tasks to satisfy Kim’s preferences were his primary job, including organizing parties with female entertainment for Kim and other elites, as well as obtaining luxury goods for Kim’s family.

This is a critical factor which featured his declining years, the author said. Due to the national emphasis on the bloodline, Jang’s position had fundamental limits. His prominence did not originate from his capacity but through Kim Jong Il’s choice. Between Kim Jong Il’s passing and Kim Jong Un’s rise, Jang’s presence became a nuisance for the young leader, eventually leading to his sudden end in late 2013.

Ra expected that it would take about two years for Jang, the second-in-command, to be removed from the leadership position. It was not only Jang who was purged. Five out of seven officials who served as Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers in December 2011 would eventually be removed; the two who remain, Kim Yong Nam and Choe Tae Bok, don’t have any real authority…

Read more.

Secular saints

Lion dance truck

Chinese New Year was a couple of weeks ago and Yuanxiao is coming up, so the streets of Singapore are thronged with lion dance trucks rushing between assignments.

If you’ve never seen a lion dance, here’s my favourite:


Companies pay for them to entertain their employees and clients and bring good luck, as do some rich families.

In fact, there is a law on the books in Singapore that bans noisy public religious displays, and which is much disliked by Tamils as it means that they can’t hold Thaipusam parades outdoors. Chinese New Year, however, escapes the ban because it’s not, strictly speaking, a religious festival.

Sure, there’s a lot of superstition and folk religion involved (that guy in red up there not smoking a cigarette is the God of Wealth). However, none of it is central to the event, which is merely the ticking over of the calendar from one year to the next. If the gods, spirits and Buddhas want to put in an appearance at what is an essentially human festival they’re more than welcome, but their attendance is not required.

Not being absent

Xi and Putin

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

A few days back it was related in the media that Chinese government-affiliated tabloid and rabble-rouser the Global Times had published an editorial saying:

China will look for past references on how Russia has taken action against Eastern European countries which have deployed the U.S.’s missile defense systems at their borders.


Woah, right?

Here it is, in black and white:



So that’s what Xi Jinping meant when he talked about “not being absent“.

When asked if this represented the Chinese government’s position, Hong Lei made vague, generic statements about THAAD being bad for regional stability.