John Funston is a Visiting Fellow at the College of Asia & the Pacific, ANU. Michael Montesano is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Barry Wain, as several tributes have noted, was the doyen of Australian journalists in Asia.
The Queenslander's career began in Australia, most notably with The Australian, where he worked six years as the new paper's bureau chief in his home state and then as defence correspondent in Canberra. In 1971 he moved to Hong Kong and never returned to live in his home country. He soon joined the leading regional weekly, the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), and in 1976 the Asian Wall Street Journal (AWSJ) in its foundation year.
He went as a correspondent to Malaysia in 1977, to Bangkok in 1979, and returned to Hong Kong as the AWSJ's managing editor and then editor from 1984 to 1992. He worked as editor-at-large from 1992, and also published frequently in the FEER after its operations merged with the AWSJ under common owner Dow Jones in 2001. As these journals increasingly shed Asian interests (leading to the Review's demise in 2009 and the Journal's reorientation around the same time), Wain moved to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore in 2005 as writer in residence.
Wain was a fine correspondent who focused on the interconnections between business and politics in Malaysia and Thailand, and on regional issues. He wrote in clear prose, did not shy from politically sensitive issues, and often revealed an underlying humanitarian approach. He was the first to expose the plight of Vietnamese 'boat people' in the 1970s, and subsequently published The Refused: The Agony of the Indochina Refugees (1981). In the 1990s he also played a leading role in calling attention to and tracking rival claims to the South China Sea and the early stages of the disputes that have now become such pressing matter for Asia.
As an editor, Wain built the old Asian Journal into a highly respected, and critical, regional publication. Reporting on the machinations of influential business figures and their relationships with political elites often drew a strong response, and the Journal was frequently banned. As fellow journalist and editor Philip Bowring noted, 'These were the paper's finest years, with Wain leading a team of correspondents writing groundbreaking stories, particularly on Southeast Asia.' Wain subsequently drew extensively on reporting from this period for his book on former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, titled Malaysian Maverick (first published in 2009 and in a revised edition in 2012).
Mahathir's biography will be one among Wain's lasting legacies. It provides a broad overview of its subject's prime ministership (1981-2003) and active role since retirement. Wain interviewed Mahathir three times for the book, but does not shrink from critical assessment of his rule. He acknowledges the successes – sustaining economic dynamism, creating a new middle class, a new national self-confidence – while documenting Mahathir's authoritarianism, ruthlessness (particularly in his actions against former deputy Anwar Ibrahim) and tolerance of rampant corruption. The book has been an eye-opener for Malaysians. Since its delayed release in Malaysia it has been a best seller there.
Malaysian Maverick reflected Wain's deep-seated conviction that, even in this age of 'globalisation', a fine-grain understanding of Southeast Asia and its states and societies still mattered. This conviction was richly rewarded when the book became the object of intense interest in Malaysian cyberspace, as a generation of young Malaysians turned to Wain's work to gain perspective on their country and how it had reached its current state. A Malay-language version of the book is in the works even now.
With the publication and indeed re-publication last year of his Mahathir book, Barry by no means gave himself a break. Rather, with his familiar drive and relish, he began work on a book examining Southeast Asia in the post-1975 period. Its first chapter considered Timor-Leste in its Southeast Asian context. It displayed Wain's trademark reliance on hard research work and his unfailing ability to offer fresh perspective. One can only hope that chapter will, in some form, see posthumous publication.
Barry Wain's dad had been a tennis coach in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill. Wain picked up the game as a boy, during the golden age of Australian tennis. Up till the last years of his life, he spent many mornings on the courts, though he noted that he had so thoroughly reconstructed his game as tennis itself changed that it no longer bore any resemblance to the way that he had played in the 1950s and early 1960s.
This was typical. For, in capturing the interest of young Malaysian netizens, in focusing his attention on the new nation of Timor-Leste, in welcoming a world in which former 'boat people' and their children are now high-achieving Australians and Americans, and indeed in so generously sharing his friendship and good humour with younger friends and colleagues, Barry never allowed his longstanding commitment to and interest in Southeast Asia to grow dated.
On a personal note, the two of us first met Wain in the early 2000s after he moved to Singapore. He was an inevitably avid, entertaining and interesting interlocutor, a treasured and generous friend, and a man whose modesty and warmth should set an example for all of us. His early death – from complications after major surgery last year – is a great loss.
Image courtesy of Dinmerican.