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Ceritalah Asean: Why 'Ceritalah'?

It's May 1998 and the Rupiah has collapsed. There are race riots in Jakarta. Chinese-Indonesian owned businesses are being targeted.

In Solo, some 556km to the east of the capital, Sumartono Hadinoto, a Chinese-Indonesian businessman is worried. He knows something is wrong. The city is eerily silent. Within hours, his home-cum-office is attacked, looted and set ablaze. He manages to escape an angry crowd by scrambling through a hole in back of his compound.

Ten years later, when I first meet and interview him, the memories of '98 are still raw. But Sumartono is an optimist and a firm believer in "paying it forward."

Mobilising his fellow Chinese-Indonesian businessmen friends, he raises funds for ambulances and public health campaigns. He knows that good race relations require hard work and humility.

He also mentions casually that Solo has been lucky - its Mayor, a young entrepreneur-turned-reformist politician has done a great deal to rebuild trust and confidence in the shattered city.

 

Six years later, I'm back once in Solo but this time with a TV crew. Sumartono is my subject. The Presidential polls are rolling along in the background. Coincidentally, Solo's Mayor, (who by then has become Governor of Jakarta) happens to be one of the candidates.

We shoot the final scene on Solo's crowded streets as tens of thousands of revellers gather to celebrate Chinese New Year, lighting and releasing paper-lanterns into the inky, blue-black night sky.

A few months later, the former Mayor is declared President and his deputy in Jakarta, an Indonesian Chinese politician, assumes the Governorship. It's a sequence of events so extraordinary that even now, some two years on, I remain a little stunned by it all.

But then again, this is the strange beauty of South-east Asia: a cerita (or story), like this can happen. If you're lucky enough: you can witness them up close.

That's what Ceritalah is all about.

Roughly, it means "tell me a story!" or "what's up?"

It's colloquial - the kind of thing you'd hear yelled across a coffee-shop. Over the years, I've learnt that one "cerita" inevitably leads to another, until I'm enmeshed in a thick gauze of memories, stories and often, some very tall tales.

I've been writing this column now for well over twenty years. Its genesis was in Malaysia, my home. But it began moving - often of its own accord - as I began to realize that storytelling knew no boundaries, that you couldn't really make sense of Kuala Lumpur and its race-obsessed dynamic until you spent time traveling through the rest of the region.

Moreover, in an era of Brexit and Trump, with celebrated pundits having failed so miserably, Ceritalah Asean is storytelling from the ground-up. I'm not here to impose my views on the world. Instead, I'm the kind of person who frets at thought of all the "ceritas" I'm missing out on!

Most of the time, you'll find me out on the road, notebook and pen-in-hand leaning across to my interview subject and saying "ceritalah..."

While I've mostly been writing about maritime South-east Asia, I'll now be spending more time in Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar in particular: moving from majority Muslim and Catholic polities to predominantly Buddhist and Confucian societies.

Also, partly because I'm very tired of politics, I'll be writing more about the things that people share, about the popular culture that keeps us glued to our smartphones - the singers, sports-stars, actors and actresses-that we obsess over.

The formation earlier this year of the Asean Economic Community (or AEC) has given me an added incentive to travel.

Having experienced first-hand how the British voted against their own interests to leave the European Union, I'm increasingly fascinated by the collective experiment we are undertaking.

Do we really know what we're doing? Is there a grand strategic plan? Does the AEC have any relevance to lives of ordinary Asean citizens?

So in order to get a sense of these big questions, I've decided to take the plunge and see whether there is anything beyond mere diplomatic blather that unites us.

Are we just a convenient talk-shop located between India and China (dismissive of the first and fearful of the second) or is there what the Indonesians would call a "benang merah", or red thread that links us to one another?

Whatever the case, you can rest assured that I'll be chasing after the stories that I want to chase with the odd detour-whether it's a pretty face or particularly good coffee just around the corner.

I'll be picking up on trends that I find intriguing and hopefully you will too. Indeed, I may even step out of the region - reporting on events elsewhere that might impact Asean.

Whilst Ceritalah is an account of what I'm seeing, doing, feeling and thinking, in time I hope it will become something shared, interactive and more resonant.

Why?

Because at the end of the day, it's our ceritas, our stories, that bind us together, that make us human.