Hands raised aloft, open-palmed, imploring. Head lifted heavenwards, beseeching. Repeatedly. Point by point. The constantly intensifying tension is matched only by the intensity of fervent dua, prayers of supplication. The year is 1992. In Kuala Lumpur the final of the Thomas Cup is being contested by Malaysia and Indonesia. And Datin Sri Siti Hasmah (as she was then) the Patron of the Malaysian Badminton Association, wife of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, is single-handedly praying the nation to its ultimate victory. It is traumatic and euphoric. Each twist and turn, each stretch and smash, each point lost or won prompts earnest invocation of divine intervention. And it works. Malaysia reclaims the Cup, the world team championship of badminton, for the first time in twenty-five years and, most glorious of all, defeats Indonesia.
Ah, yes. I remember it well, for I was there. Like the rest of Malaysia, I was seated in front of my television – at the time oblivious to an entire quart of chocolate ice cream somehow evaporating down my gullet in a futile attempt to allay the tension – enthralled by the action, entranced by the power of prayer as after each point the cameras cut to Siti Hasmah who never relented in her devotions. Why does this instance come so readily to mind as explanation of the apt epithet ‘the archipelago of paradox’? The answer is that, like everything else in the region, this event holds in tension unresolved contradictions. The paradoxical is the combination of contradictory features and qualities; the leading to conclusions that seem logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. In Southeast Asia such things are never hard to find.