The View From Asia

The signs of things to come

Asia News Network commentators reflect on the passage of time and what the future holds as we head into a new year. Here are excerpts:

From the Oracle of Delphi to Alexa

June H.L. Wong
The Star

Whenever I want answers to anything, I go to my modern-day oracle called Google.

Of course, there are huge differences between this virtual oracle and the legendary Oracle of Delphi. The ancient Greeks went to Delphi to consult the priestess Pythia for answers to their questions and she, in turn, would deliver her replies in the form of cryptic prophecies that needed interpretation.

And woe be upon the person who understood it wrongly, as in the case of the Lydian king Croesus, who asked Pythia whether he should wage war on the Persian empire. The reply he got was that a great empire would be destroyed if he did so. Heartened by that, Croesus attacked Persia but it was he and his empire that were defeated, not the Persians.

Most of the time, Google is not so cryptic and is even savvy enough to know what you are seeking, even when you misspell words. It will helpfully ask, "Did you mean...?"

And it doesn't predict the future or prophesy. Not yet anyway. While my choice is Google, others might use Baidu, Yahoo, Bing or DuckDuckGo, which is my daughter Jill's preferred search engine because it doesn't track you. But all of us are after the same thing: getting answers to what we want to know very quickly and with very little effort.

And that's the rub. We don't have to work at the finding any more. Just click on your preferred "oracle", also known as search engine, type a few words and voila! You're in.

A scene from Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo Ping's film The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia featuring actor Da Peng. Set in an unnamed dynasty, it tells the story of a secret clan of superhero warriors who battle two alien monsters. For a big movie teaming up two top names in Chinese martial arts films, its failure has come as something of a surprise to critics, says China Daily writer Xu Fan. PHOTO: WELL GO USA ENTERTAINMENT

Because of that, the ability to comb through books, magazines and periodicals for information is practically a lost skill.

In school, my most trusted learning aids were the encyclopaedia, National Geographic magazines and the dictionary. I used to read dictionaries when I had nothing else to do. That followed me to my workplace as a journalist, where I added the phone directory and the Yellow Pages to my arsenal as major sources of information and contacts. It was laborious, time-consuming and frustrating. But I learnt to be dogged and patient, and to talk nicely to strangers.

On the plus side, because information is so easily available, my children are well-informed and knowledgeable young people.

On a recent drive to Genting with my son, we talked about all sorts of things and I marvelled at the wide range of interests he had. Nick is about to graduate as a food scientist and he could tell me why there is botulism in honey and why food labels like "no sugar added" are misleading.

Of course he studied all this, but he said most of his sources were from the Internet, not textbooks.

I used to be upset that I never saw my son with a book in hand. That no longer bothers me. I know now that he reads, but not in the way I expect him to.

So while the method of seeking information has been simplified to going online, at least that still requires the seeker to type out the question or key words.

But that is also changing. From the Internet Age, we are now into the Internet of Things.

Enter devices like Alexa. This is an intelligent digital personal assistant developed by Amazon that responds to spoken commands. It can switch on your house light, play music on request, read books, tell jokes and provide the latest on weather, traffic conditions and news.

The inspiration behind Alexa is the voice-interactive computer system of Star Trek's Starship Enterprise. It is named after the famed Library of Alexandria, the fount of knowledge of the ancient world.

The Yellow Pages' iconic slogan was "Let your fingers do the walking". That has changed to "Let your fingers do the typing/swiping". In the very near future, it will be "Let your fingers do nothing" with the likes of Alexa and robots powered by artificial intelligence.

Our ability to spell will probably get worse, but the silver lining might be that we will have to learn to think carefully about what to say, speak clearly and enunciate properly so that our devices can understand and respond correctly.

And by default, we may communicate better with fellow humans too!

Twilight of the HK movie maestros

Xu Fan
China Daily

One of the most anticipated films for martial arts fans this month, Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo Ping's latest film The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, seems to have failed to meet many people's expectations.

Set in an unnamed dynasty, the movie tells the story of a secret clan of superhero warriors who battle two invading alien monsters.

The movie gained an aggregate rating of just 4.8 points out of 10 on film-review site Douban, an online guide for cinema fans.

Many viewers complained that the film's storyline was confusing. Other moviegoers criticised the alien villains for looking too much like their counterparts in Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters.For a big movie teaming up the two top names in Chinese martial arts films, its failure came as something of a surprise to the majority of critics.

Hailed by many as a maverick and a master of the genre, Tsui began reviving the fortunes of Chinese martial arts films by combining traditional stunts with fantastic visual effects in the late 1970s. His bold imagination and flair for creating visual spectacles in classics like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and the Once Upon A Time In China franchise have enchanted generations of Chinese movie fans ever since.

Best known for the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as the Matrix franchise, action choreographer-director Yuen has also been a major figure in reshaping the direction of Hong Kong's gongfu movies.

"Monsters in Chinese movies are usually portrayed as demons that have transformed from animals or plants, but we wanted to connect them with myths about how the world began and how humankind first appeared on Earth," said Tsui during an interview with China Daily this month.

Tsui also hopes the film will stand out to exemplify the diversity and profundity of Chinese culture.

The movie is full of fantasy elements. The warrior played by Chinese actress Ni Ni can transform into a piece of cloth to fly through a crowded market. A three-eyed fish demon morphs into part of a painter's scroll to hide from pursuers. A young woman who can turn into a giant bird has the power of resurrection. Up to 1,000 scenes, or around two-thirds of the film's total content, are packed with digital special effects.

When cinematic efforts such as these fail to secure success, they strike a sad note among the legions of Chinese mainland fans of Hong Kong's cinema, who were wowed by the work of these film-makers in the 1980s.

"On the heels of John Woo and Andrew Lau, Tsui and Yuen have just become the latest members to join the surprising-flop club of the Hong Kong masters. What's wrong with them? It makes me miss the golden age of Hong Kong movies even more," said one critic on Douban.

Woo's long-anticipated Manhunt and Lau's The Founding Of An Army, both released this year, failed critically and commercially.

Mad Dog year looms for Thailand

Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak says next year will be the year Thailand "takes off" - whatever that means in practical terms.

He was probably referring to the rate of economic progress - predicting gross domestic product growth of at least 4 per cent from this year's average of around 3.5 per cent. But he also pointed out in one of his speeches that without stable and "good politics", hope of steadying the economy would be undermined.

So, is he implying that the country will "take off" only if the return to electoral, parliamentary democracy is implemented in a smooth manner?

Two mavericks, though, are cause for concern: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both are less than 35 years old. Both are volatile and unpredictable. Both have revealed Borgian inclinations by imprisoning or eliminating potential rivals, and will not rest until they have satiated the itch to dominate their respective regions.

It's not easy to draw the country's "economic czar" into political discussion, despite talk of a new "military party" being formed with him at the head. But there is no shortage of clear signals from many quarters that serious attempts are being made to pave the way for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to remain as the country's leader after the election through clandestine moves being made in public and behind the scenes.

In a way, next year could be described as the "take-off" year for politics: It will feature 12 months of intense activity on all sides. Mr Prayut's Article 44 order issued on Dec 22 to "reset" political parties has touched off a major controversy. The order gives newly launched political parties a one-month head start over existing ones when it comes to registering members. That clause has been slammed by veteran politicians, who are convinced that the move is aimed at aiding new political outfits while placing veteran parties at a huge disadvantage.

The requirement that existing party members must reaffirm their allegiance in writing within the month of April next year is seen as a tool to weaken the traditional parties. A frustrated and angry senior Democrat politician declared: "We have about 2.8 million party members, the highest among all parties. But if we have to follow the new ruling, we will be lucky to still have about 100,000 legitimate members left by the end of the procedure."

Uppermost in the mind of critics is the suspicion that this amendment and others have been drawn up for one obvious objective: to pave the way for a military-backed political party, which would then use the new provisions to draw members of existing parties to defect to its own ranks. The ultimate aim of this complicated web spinning new rules for the political game? To put Mr Prayut back in power after the election.

Things will get messier if politicians decide to challenge the legality of the new rules in the Constitutional Court. Such a move would add fuel to the fire, with widespread predictions that the new clauses will cause indefinite delay to the election timeline. All this does not augur well for next year and hopes that the economy would rebound with the return to electoral democracy. If political controversies do overshadow the economic outlook, 2018 could end up being the Year of the Mad Dog. Let's hope I am proved wrong on all counts in 12 months.

Marching grimly into the future

F.S. Aijazuddin
The Dawn

This year is gradually slipping into a coma. There must be few people across the globe who will mourn its subsidence.

Certainly not almost a million Yemeni innocents. They are dying of cholera because Nero-ic Saudi Arabia wishes to demonstrate its superior might against a small neighbour.

Certainly not the overly rich, under-armed state of Qatar. It has discovered that being part of a pack is no protection against cannibalism.

Should one expect to see a change next year?

Certainly not the beleaguered Syrians. Hundreds of thousands of them have been decimated so that their lanky leader Bashar al-Assad can survive.

Certainly not the European Union. It is losing Britain and can already feel the new tooth of Spanish Catalonia wriggling to occupy the vacant space.

Certainly not the Congress party in India. Like some ageing amnesiac chameleon, it is attempting to relearn how to change colour, from the safe camouflage of Nehruvian secularism to a provocative Hindutva saffron.

Certainly not the PML-N in Pakistan. It may have lost its head Nawaz Sharif but, like the British monarchy after King Charles I's beheading, it can expect to draw upon a succession of Stuart/Sharif pretenders to his throne.

Opening a portal into next year for a moment, should one expect to see a change or an improvement in the international scene? That seems unlikely. The cardinal points on the world map next year have already been locked into place. Key leaders in the United States, China, India, Germany and France have until 2020 and beyond before they need to face national polls.

The elections in Russia next year will give Mr Vladimir Putin a legal extension which Joseph Stalin would have envied. The world's leaders and their policies are known; their alliances have been forged. They have time to perfect them.

Two mavericks, though, are cause for concern: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both are less than 35 years old. Both are volatile and unpredictable. Both have revealed Borgian inclinations by imprisoning or eliminating potential rivals, and will not rest until they have satiated the itch to dominate their respective regions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'The signs of things to come'. Print Edition | Subscribe