Wednesday. 30/6/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Getty Images

Opinion / James Chambers

A quiet place

During one of my first Monocle reporting trips to Bangkok, I remember being in a bar and trying to talk about the king before being quickly and vociferously shushed by my local companion. It was both an eye-opening and mouth-closing experience. I knew that Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws were strict but not that strict. Since then I’ve become accustomed to seeing Thai friends and interviewees point up at the sky instead of naming the monarch in public, or make coded references to Rama X as “Justin” for his Bieber-like body tattoos. As a visitor I’ve been forced to play along with this charade too, so coming back to Hong Kong was always a breath of fresh air and of free speech; we literally could say anything. Not any more.

One year after the introduction of the National Security Law, similar habits are beginning to creep in at home. Voices are lowered in restaurants whenever the NSL is mentioned with a waiter in earshot and hushed conversations are had in the back of taxis about friends moving to the UK; one woman recently told me that in the post-NSL era her husband simply refuses to talk about Beijing outside of their own apartment. Paranoia or a necessary precaution? Right now, we just don’t know. The police run a tip-off line that encourages the public to report any suspected national security violations. Apparently it has been ringing off the hook.

For all we know, there could be a lot of suspicious cats stuck up trees, conspiring to take down the government. So we go on laughing at ourselves for acting ridiculously. Chatting about Xi Jinping is not a crime. But the fear spreads. Last week I watched and waited as my formerly level-headed lunch guest insisted on switching off his phone before indulging me in a business-related natter about China – something I had only ever witnessed on the mainland. Such small, subtle changes of behaviour will probably go unnoticed by most visitors to Hong Kong; unless, that is, they also get shushed by a friend for talking too loudly about our own version of the Thai king. If that day comes to Hong Kong, it really would be unspeakable.

Image: Getty Images

Defence / Ethiopia

Peace in view

Military action has trumped diplomacy in Ethiopia’s restive northern region of Tigray over the past year but there may be a window for talks. After rebel forces retook the regional capital Mekelle, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire on humanitarian grounds; the brutal conflict has displaced over two million people and pushed 350,000 people into famine. The ceasefire comes while Ethiopia awaits the results of last week’s elections, which are widely expected to favour current prime minister Abiy Ahmed (in part due to boycotts in regions like Tigray that perceive a lack of political representation). Will Ahmed, the one-time Nobel Peace Prize laureate, take a more diplomatic approach going forward? “There is no guarantee but there are hopes that this opening could enable a peaceful solution,” Adem Kassie Abebe of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance tells the Monocle Minute. “Both sides have learned from the miscalculations that led to the war.”

For more on the way forward in Ethiopia, listen to today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

Image: Courtesy of Swiss Interntaional Air Lines

Aviation / Switzerland

Flights of fancy

At first glance it’s a bit of a contradiction: Swiss International Air Lines this month predicted a 20 per cent decline in ticket sales over the medium term compared to pre-pandemic levels, and said it was cutting its fleet by 15 per cent – but this week it unveiled a new premium economy class to be introduced on all 12 of its Boeing 777 fleet by April 2022. But for Swiss CEO Dieter Vranckx there’s a bigger picture. The goal is to attract leisure travellers who can be tempted to pay for a bit more comfort, including new, wider seats with a hard back that allow you to recline without bothering the person behind you.

Other benefits include more leg room and the little extras that are missing from economy such as an amenities kit and food served on porcelain plates. “We are premium and we will keep on being premium,” Vranckx said in this week’s announcement. As consumers slowly return to the skies (possibly in smaller numbers), we can expect many airlines to nudge the average traveller into scaling up their comfort level.

Image: Areta Santos

Politics / Finland

Finnish first

This week another barrier has been broken in Finland: 28-year-old Suldaan Said Ahmed (pictured) is set to become the first Somali-born MP in the country. The Helsinki city councillor is nominated to take a seat in parliament in the autumn when his Left Alliance party colleague Paavo Arhinmäki becomes deputy mayor of the Finnish capital. Said Ahmed will join Iraqi-born MP Hussein al-Taee as the only lawmakers with migrant backgrounds in the current parliament. Confronted by racism in his teens living in eastern Finland, Said Ahmed has sought to reset the conversation by reclaiming national symbols that are generally associated with the far right. He’s often seen wearing a chain with a lion pendant – from the country’s coat of arms – and has even adopted the nickname “Black Lion”. Said Ahmed says that becoming an MP had been his dream, and that he hopes to set an example for other migrants and minorities in Finland to follow.

Image: Marco Arguello

Culture / Greece

Makers’ mark

Urban regeneration can take many forms but the opening of a thought-through new gallery can have benefits for tourism, property and the community as well as the art scene. In Athens, a former tobacco factory reopened this month as the latest outpost for cultural foundation Neon run by Elina Kountouri (pictured, in centre). The Greek capital has no shortage of smaller art institutions and studios but a grand new 6,500 sq m venue is something of an exception – and could offer a new lease of life to the low-rise neighbourhood of Kolonos. For decades, half of the 1930s-era factory building lay idle while the rest housed the government’s Hellenic Parliament Library and Printing House. After a two-year tenure, the Neon foundation will return the building to the parliament but not before a full refit that’s turned it into an exciting new space for exhibitions. Here’s hoping it becomes home to another fitting cultural project after the handover.

Read more about Athens’ new cultural space in Monocle’s July/August Quality of Life issue, on newsstands now.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

Max Porter, Jon Hopkins and Aoife McArdle

All of this Unreal Time is a new film installation made by a creative group for this year’s Manchester International Festival. Written by Max Porter for actor Cillian Murphy, it explores our individual and collective fallibility as one man wanders through London at night addressing his failings. The film is directed by Aoife McArdle and the soundtrack composed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National along with electronica artist, Jon Hopkins. Robert Bound is joined by Aoife, Jon and Max to talk about the collaborative process.

Monocle Films / Global

The Monocle Book of Homes

Allow us to introduce you to The Monocle Book of Homes. A guide to exceptional residences, the title is packed with beautiful photography, inspiring stories ­and few tips on making the most of your living space. So what are you waiting for? Come on in. Available now at The Monocle Shop.

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