Book review
by Sophia Lizares

Roland Simbulan. THE WORLD IS A CLASSROOM: Reflections of a Fellow Traveler.
Illustrated by Jeanet Herbosana Simbulan. Published by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) and the Center for the Study of Social Change (CSSC)

Political scientist Roland Simbulan is an intentional tourist. He journals about his travels, writes essays, and often delivers them as speeches overseas. Now his wife has made selfie sketches of him to accompany his notes.

As is in all good travel books, this one is about locales, places of meaning and specifically about “true friendship” where mutuality and respect flourish. The pieces might as well also be love letters written between 1996 and 2013 to countries and peoples. In New York, it is of a grad student having countless cups of coffee with Jose Ramos Horta and other activists in exile. In Russia, it would be about a nuclear scientist, sick and dying from radiation sickness from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Writing home about the sights, dropping names, retelling what surprised and amazed him, Simbulan takes the classic route through geographies leading to deeper commitment to national self-determination.

The reader is offered a range of themes - environment, urban development, health, nuclear power, military bases, mass movements, and alternative national and regional economic development as challenges to neo-liberal formulas. Several pieces serve as companion essays about a place or country, the other, a more involved discussion on an issue. He chose the Cu Chi Tunnel as an illustration of the Vietnamese “endurance, ingenuity and sheer will to fight for their country and defeat those who would trample their sovereignty.” Simbulan was there long before budget fares taught other tourists about the motorcycles and the directions that the Vietnamese economy.

He links place and people with ideas in an introductory course on Philippine international relations not only with its most powerful partners but also with smaller states in Asia and Latin America. Here south-south engagements are privileged, thankfully broadening our perspective. Simbulan, after all, self-describes as an academic, activist and socialist.

While the collection of essays and speeches offers a committed anti-imperialist stance that Simbulan is known for, there is a perspective that is not through rose-coloured glasses. He writes about Gaddafi being cheered by the Libyan people for liberating the country “from feudal and monarchical oppression, and breaking the monopoly by foreign interests of the oil resources.” And then tells of sheep and other livestock being herded on to planes through counters of the Tripoli international airport. Same with North Korea and his observations about cultic leader worship. He does not shirk entering the belly of the beast. For example, before the Philippine Marines at the time of Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, he calls for a foreign policy independent of super power interests, citing Vietnam as an example. Perhaps he is comfortable being an “Army brat,” son of a ranking military officer and diplomat. But it is more likely because of ethics and reflexivity in social science, where one discloses one’s framework ever aware of the traps of manipulation and self-deception. There is hardly any academic jargon here, and the sprinkling that appears is generally unpacked, products of a conscientious lecturer.
Simbulan summarizes his political position in a postscript which emphasizes the importance of people-to-people relations in building international solidarity, pointing to the role of the Filipino migrants. He sees change as “not coming from any rival military and economic behemoth. It comes from social movements, and an emerging international social movement that uses modern technologies and cyberspace as a tool for political change through freedom of information.”  

There is an unevenness of the pieces. Some are practically lists of people and places visited, others published articles and speeches. Pity there is nothing on our largest neighbor, Indonesia, and our porous borders with the world’s largest Muslim country, its history of non-alignment, as well as the current Islamic and Middle Eastern dynamics including the Arab Spring. Missing too is the international humanitarian crisis to which the states of Sri Lanka and Myanmar are contributing and the reluctance of the tiger economies in the region to take in refugees. Do these gaps reflect differences in colonial masters?

A couple of essays are not immediately relevant. For example, why an article on the politics of France in 2004?  Perhaps it is with an eye on socialist politics in France, perhaps as a memo to the writer? Or why a list of think tanks he visited in Washington? Was this to show the machinery that does its research, a kind of corporate planning department to move a superpower further on the track of hegemony?

Who would want to read this? Nerds looking for travel destinations of recent and running history. With the cheap international fares on offer, the intentional tourist might now pack along the questions that open up other countries beyond the tourist guidebooks and the official press –left, right, or center. At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, a large billboard from Malaysia Air proclaims: “The journey is about the people you are with.” Another advertisement from “the world’s largest bank” says: “deepening understanding, strengthening.” The book does the same, but reclaims international relations from the neoliberal elite.

Sophia Lizares is Member, Board of Trustees, Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN)

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