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.




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 lining up this shot, it struck me that individuals face the same struggle.

There comes a point when you begin to wonder what else the PLA does with its time

Another video of PLA soldiers dancing to Xiao Pingguo:

Compare it to the last one, from November 2014. This new version is a much slicker and more media savvy: the dance moves are better, but the production values are much lower. This gives the impression that it’s a project that the soldiers came up with themselves, rather than something pushed upon them by the PR wing. Moreover, it puts it closer in aesthetics and ethos to the Meanwhile in Russia phenomenon that RT and its affiliates have exploited so efficiently, and which China’s foreign-directed media have increasingly been trying to copy.

Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.


Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!




Turns out I wasn’t the only one to notice Narendra Modi literally putting Mark Zuckerberg in his place. The internet noticed it too, and that was only the beginning. Pretty soon the hashtag #ModiFindsCamera was trending, to identify various other times when Modi ji might have been meeting a fellow bigwig but had eyes only for his PR…

For a selection of the best examples, click here. Seriously, do. The look of adoration in his eyes as he shakes hands with Tharman Shanmugaratnam is worth it on its own.

Louder than the astroturf

Lingo lingoHere in Singapore we’re all naturally very excited about having reached our 50th birthday. As part of the celebrations, a bunch of local celebs have released a song about the wonders of Singlish.

I’d link to it here, but since I watched it last night it’s been set to private, for reasons that I shall go into in a moment.

It basically looks like a K-pop video, with a mixture of tits:


gangsta rap bling (plus additional tits):


and extremely synchronised dancing:


Also, somewhat strangely, there isn’t all that much Singlish in the song. You can read the lyrics here. And you can read them because they’re pretty much entirely comprehensible to any basic English speaker.

As Mothership.sg points out:

As someone who is fluent in Singlish – this song doesn’t sound Singlish. It’s like throwing in a bunch of random French words into a song and calling it a French song. Baguette, croissant, oui oui. Foux du Fa Fa. Non.

If you want to listen to a song with some actual Singlish in that was genuinely popular, check out Munah and Hirzi’s parodies, which need subtitles unless you are a minah or an ah-beng yourself:

However, what’s interesting is that bling definitely isn’t something that comes naturally to the Singaporean national character. Even in the current mood of pan-Asian optimism that is accompanying the rise of China and India, Singaporeans are not – by nature – flashy people, and tend to look down on this sort of tuhao culture as exemplified by mainland Chinese. Mothership again:

Also starring in the video is a bevy of Lambos and Ferraris which kinda made no sense at all because our national mode of transport is definitely the Bus or MRT. Thus, it should be ‘Can you hear our echo. Louder than the train fault.’

On the whole the national reaction has been one of snark and scepticism, which is probably why the video has been pulled. See, for example, the reaction from Coconuts Singapore:

Give a slow clap for yourselves, ladies and gents — we have all done our service to the nation this SG50.

With all our snarky powers combined, the travesty that is the ‘Lingo Lingo’ music video has been taken down from the JTV YouTube channel, ensuring that Singaporeans everywhere will never be exposed to such a godawful clip. Or at least for now, until it goes up again.

Luckily, we did save some highlights from the stunningly out-of-touch music video, featuring Ah Boys to Men’s Tosh Rock, some dude called Bunz, and a whole lot of cringeworthy lyrics, among other things. To top it all off on its proverbial turd-cake, the video claims to be a tribute to our Singlish patois. You can check out our original article here.

If you’d like to find out the thought process behind the abysmally bad concept, take a gander at this behind the scenes clip. ‘Why 50 supercars? I feel that they represent a lot of our Singaporean culture and behaviour’. Wow… just wow.

However, there are a whole plethora of political implications to it that I am going to go into now. Or just skip the cheeminology and go back and look at the nehneh some more, liddat oso can.

Firstly, since this is Singapore, we can assume that this received some sort of official government sanction before being released. This is unusual because the Singapore government has not traditionally been a fan of Singlish, having spent years trying to cajole its population into sounding less ghetto in their everyday interactions via the Speak Good English Movement. (However, it’s worth noticing that this isn’t the first recent government-backed video to endorse unofficial dialects: remember the awesome Hokkien retirement PSA?)

Secondly, government initiatives that try to be cool almost never succeed. As has been observed here before, politicians only become cool when they clearly don’t care about being cool. Attempting to jump on someone else’s bandwagon, however proficient the attempt, will be seen through immediately by a media-savvy public and subjected to widespread derision.

I am whatever you say I am

SyriaPlenty has been said here about the excellence of ISIS’s communications strategy.

Relatively little, however, has been said about the other groups because, well, they’re just not that good.

On the other hand, if ISIS is a marketing fox, then its opponents are clearly a communications hedgehog, as shown by the photo above, which features opponents of ISIS dressed in the familiar orange boiler-suits, beheading ISIS members wearing the – equally familiar – black ensembles.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day this had almost as much popular resonnance as, if not the Tiananmen tank man photo or the Vietnam napalm girl, then at least Ali Shallal Al-Qaisi (yep, he has a name).

Ali Shallal Al-QaisiIt’s a pretty basic trick: taking ISIS’s own imagery and using it against it – having the guys in the orange boiler suits (itself a reference to the orange uniforms of ‘non-compliant’ prisoners at Guantanamo Bay) behead the guys in black, rather than the other way round.

It’s a trick that’s been used to make points for years, but only really came into its own in the last couple of decades: responding to insults and abuse by not merely owning up to them, but taking a pride in it.

From ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it‘ to NWA to Wizardchan – more and more groups are not denying or combatting slurs, but are taking ownership of them. It’s certainly not a purely Western phenomenon. Just within Asia, China has its diaosi and short-ugly-poor – young men unashamed to have few prospects, Japan made otaku (geek) culture cool across the world, and even Gangnam Style pokes fun at those who try too hard.

Here, ISIS’s opponents have pulled off the same trick: taking the orange boiler suits as a banner for their cause, repurposing the symbol for their own ends.

It’s not even the first time the strategy has been used in an international political context lately. The members of Vladimir Putin’s entourage targeted by US and European sanctions didn’t try to argue their innocence, or prevaricate, or even feign compliance. Subjected to a finger-wagging for their macho irresponsibility in invading Ukraine, their reply was basically ‘Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?

In Dave Skylark’s immortal words: haters gonna hate, and ain’ters gonna ain’t.

Don’t wear a plain red tie (but not because these guys say so)


According to researchers at Durham University, rather than conveying a certain testosterone-fuelled fortitude, red clothing sends out a signal that the wearer is angry, aggressive and prone to dominant behaviour.


Well, yes. That’s Ed Miliband: the archetypal alpha male; angry agressive and prone to dominant behaviour.

Doesn’t work, does it?

In fact, you shouldn’t wear a plain red tie because it says either:

a) I have no imagination, or

b) I was dressed by a stranger.

This is the reason researchers ar Durham University aren’t pulling down megabucks via their international PR consultancy.