I invariably spend my summers during even-numbered years reporting and opining on Hawaii politics.

Not this year.

While I’m back on the beat in time for the Aug. 11 primary, I spent much of June and July in foreign airports, airplanes, buses, taxis, shuttles, restaurants and hotels.

The 2018 Jefferson Fellowships, part of the East-West Center, gives journalists from the United States, Asia and the Pacific Islands a chance to experience the following:

the unique opportunity to gain on-the-ground perspectives and build international networks to enhance their reporting through an intensive one-week education and dialogue seminar at the East-West Center in Honolulu followed by a two-week reporting tour in the Asia Pacific-U.S. region.

“Woo-hoo!” I thought when I learned that I had been named a Jeff fellow. “Travel city! Party time!”

My first assumption was correct: We journeyed to Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, which is in the Borneo part of Malaysia. I’m still recovering from jet lag.

Another day, another meal: The 2018 Jefferson Fellows with East-West Center alumni in Singapore.

East-West Center

My second assumption was wrong: It was a hell of a lot of work, full days and then some of meetings, panels, symposia, dialogues and events. The subject was what appeared to be the dry-as-toast-without-butter topic of “Populism, Identity and the State of Democracy in Southeast Asia.”

As it turns out, it was a profession-transforming adventure for me, one that made me feel a whole lot better about the state of journalism in this Era of Fake News. It also made me worry about just how fragile emerging democracies can be and the attraction of political strongmen.

Here’s a few takeaways.

Singapore Is Very Clean

The sovereign city-state at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula is home to over 5 million people living on an island half the size of Oahu. And yet I saw nary a scrap of trash nor any dilapidated structures.

I also saw no homeless people. It’s like what Honolulu could be, except that it’s ruled by a dynastic autocracy and there are restrictions on the selling or importing of most types of chewing gum.

Singapore was the location of the EWC-sponsored International Media Conference, which focused a lot on the state of journalism vis-à-vis fake news. The location was fortuitous, given that Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un had just met in Singapore.

A conference highlight was a presentation followed by a Q&A with Michelle Giuda, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. Her talk was titled “America: Empowering Individual Voices Worldwide in the Age of Real-Time and AI,” but audience members were more interested in asking her what it was like to work for an administration where falsehoods are generated with some regularity.

No gum, please: The conference hall for the East-West Center media forum in Singapore.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“How much credibility do you have when you are coming from an administration where your president is a source of  disinformation himself? Do people still believe that you’re serious?”

That question came from fellow Jeff Emily R. Schultheis, a freelancer working in Berlin whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy

Not surprisingly, Giuda disagreed with Schultheis and, sounding like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, explained how the administration engages with the media and encourages dialogue and conversation.

Then came this followup from another Jeff, Ashley Westerman, an associate producer for NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

“I just want to clarify, because you keep saying that we are having this healthy debate and that people are empowered to make the decision about whether or not they believe media is true,” Westerman asked. “I just want to make sure and clarify that you are saying that it’s OK that President Trump debates facts and introduces alternative narratives and realities into the dialogue. That’s part of the debate we are having and you’re OK with that?”

Her question showed American journalists demonstrating to an international audience that there are many in the U.S. openly challenging the current administration on its mendacious proclivities.

If you listen to the video of the talk, you can hear applause from the audience for the questions. It includes me, sitting in the back of the auditorium, chewing gum.

Duterte Versus God

Huckabee Sanders’ counterpart in the Philippines is Harry Roque Jr. Unlike Trump’s press secretary, who can be awkward in her delivery and less than forthcoming in her remarks, Roque, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, is as cool as a San Miguel beer chilled to just above zero degrees Celsius in the Manila Hotel.

Roque was supposed to brief the Jeffs at Malacañang Palace, but that was canceled. The plan was then to meet for lunch, which was also canceled.

Finally, Roque arranged to meet us at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, where he kept us waiting in the same room until he finished eating his own lunch. But it was worth it.

Man at the center: Harry Roque, spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte meets the Jefferson Fellows in Manila.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Roque may wear a toupee that resembles a dead marmot, but the law school-educated former politician is a slick piece of work. He answered nearly every question the Jeffs threw at him as if the answers came from the core of the heart that beat beneath his Barong Tagalog.

It included Roque’s response to the first question — mine — about what it is exactly that made Duterte publicly question the existence of God, as he did the very week that we were in Manila. He replied that his boss carries emotional baggage from his molestation at the hands of a Catholic priest as a child.

Wow. The trifecta of sex, religion and politics, all in one answer.

Duterte publicly called God “stupid” and said that he would resign his post if someone could show proof of God’s existence. That same week, two provincial mayors were assassinated as part of Duterte’s extrajudicial killing of drug dealers, a third dodged bullets and a vice mayor was shot and killed.

Last I checked, Duterte’s popularity rating was at a healthy 61 percent.

Mahathir Represents The Second Coming

As shocked as Americans were that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, Malaysians were equally stunned to learn that former premier Mahathir Mohamad knocked off incumbent Najib Razak on May 9 of this year.

It was stunning because 1) Mahathir, known as Dr. M, was prime minister from 1981 to 2003; and 2) at age 92, Mahathir is the oldest leader in the world.

It was as if Franklin Roosevelt had stepped down after his fourth term rather than died in office and then went on to defeat President Richard Nixon in 1972.

The reasons are many. For one, Najib is caught up in a giant corruption scandal. For another, Mahathir formed an unlikely coalition to win back his seat. Folks in Muslim-predominant Malaysia speak fondly of their PM’s “second coming” as if he were Jesus.

Meet the new bosses: Fahmi Fadzil, a member of Malaysia’s Parliament who is part of a newly elected coalition that knocked off the longtime ruling party. 

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Few people the Jeffs spoke with expressed any doubt that Mahathir would right the wrongs of the government, and that his successor would likely be the man who Mahathir previously fired and who was  jailed for corruption and sodomy.

On the day the Jeffs left Malaysia, Dr. M turned 93. Two days ago, Mahathir and Duterte watched Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao deck Argentinian opponent Lucas Matthysse in the seventh round. Talk about strongmen!

I have so much more to say. Hopefully my editors will allow a second column from me on how I spent my summer vacation.

Otherwise, I gotta go back to work.

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