The past few days I’ve been swanning around the Singapore Writers Festival. I say swanning because that feels like what you should do while amongst the creative community. Quite so, quite so.
An aspect of SWF that I’ve really enjoyed so far is variety of events that are on. There are the usual wanky “What is a writer?” type shindigs, workshops on how to write realistic fantasy dragon characters or whatever, and the ubiquitous authors plugging their books. There are, thankfully, meatier aspects of the programme, like explorations of the changing face of journalism, to Asian feminism, to realistic insights into the publishing industry, and even explorations of terrorism.
My preference for these parts of the programme took me to The Arts House last night, a beautiful old building backing on to Parliament House. I was there for a Meet the Author event with Professor Mukesh Kapila. He has written a book called “Against a Tide of Evil” that has been critically acclaimed and awarded the 2013 Best Non-fiction Title by the Crime Writers’ Association. Professor Kapila was also the head of the UN in Sudan during the genocide in Darfur. “Against a Tide of Evil” is his account of the events in Sudan, the UN’s shocking failure to act, and the desperate measures he was forced to take to get the international community to take notice.
It was an intimate event, probably only 10 or 15 people in the audience, in quite a small space. We were introduced to Professor Kapila and he told us about his childhood in Bihar, one of the poorest states of India, his education at Oxford in the UK, his transition from clinical medicine to public health and eventually humanitarianism.
It was pretty clear early on that, even before his work with the UN, Professor Kapila was an exceptional human being. Then we got on to his time in Bosnia and Serbia, then Rwanda in the 90s, and how he came to be Head of the UN in Sudan in the early 2000s. His predecessor only lasted 100 days.
He spoke of the bureaucracy, the UN’s lack of intelligence capacity, walking the tightrope between working with the Government and condemning their actions, and how a pattern emerged of systematic violence against non-Arabs in Darfur emerged.
The warning signs were there and were alarmingly similar to those noted, and subsequently ignored, in Rwanda. He was told to do nothing, to stay out of it. Professor Kapila painted a very different picture of the revered former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan, going so far as to say he should be held accountable for his failure to act. He spoke of his frustration and decision to go to the media when the official channels were unfruitful. He flew to Nairobi and broke the story to anyone and everyone. At midnight, New York time, while the rest of the UN were sleeping. Suddenly the world took notice.
In his closing comments, he made it clear he wasn’t aiming to be a role model or a hero or looking for validation in any way. He told us, suddenly looking very small in his chair, that on nights when he can’t sleep he thinks about what he could have done. The torture of the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens were all over his face and his voice was strangled. “I failed,” he said simply, before taking a moment to compose himself.
That was it for me. The problem with intimate Meet the Author events with 10 or so audience members is, if you have to lose your shit and start to bawl, chances are people, including the revered doctor/academic/UN head/author, will notice. Needless to say, when I got home I almost stripped a layer of plastic off my laptop’s keyboard in my haste to order the book, which has sold out in Singapore.
As inspiring and wonderful as all was, the experience has left me feeling a bit hollowed out. Here we have an exception person who has risen from poverty in India to attend one of the world’s best universities and then, rather than living the comfortable life he was and is so entitled to, opted to take huge risks for humanitarian causes. This inherently good man was strangled by bureaucracy and the suffocating etiquettes of diplomacy to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of people. There’s more bad people in world than good people. In my mind, those that do nothing are as bad as, if not worse than, the bad ones. I suppose that just makes the good ones more important.