The author has written extensively on Southeast Asia for The New Yorker. In this volume, he has chapters on Singapore, Burma, Cambodia and Borneo. His theme is the contrast between "charm and cruelty." Although the author is an accomplished journalist and a lively writer, this volume lacks any substantial conceptual or historical framework. He asks why in these nations authoritarianism and repression appear again and again. His answer emphasizes their colonial past and the "mistaken" policies of the United States, Britain and France immediately after World War II. But this simply ignores the long pre-colonial authoritarian legacy in much of Southeast Asia and it oversimplifies the impact of colonialism. For some inexplicable reason, too, the author leaves entirely out of his account the other countries of Southeast Asia, which have been among the fastest growing nations in the world, and in which there is the beginning of pluralism.
Finally, his predictions that the U.N.-sponsored election in Cambodia would fail have turned out to be wrong. One suspects that his dire admonitions about the return of the Khmer Rouge will also prove wrong.