The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially turns 55 today, without expanding into 11 members. At the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh on 3 August 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Timor-Leste will not become a member of ASEAN this year. This statement appears to confirm a recent comment by Timorese President Ramos-Horta that the "road to heaven —to reach the perfection of heaven— is easier than to reach the gates of ASEAN."
On 20 May 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste became the world’s first new sovereign state in the 21st century and the youngest country in Asia. Up till this date, Timor-Leste remains to be the only Southeast Asian state that has yet to join ASEAN. Two decades since Timor regained its independence and fifty five years after the establishment of ASEAN, now would be a good time for the bloc’s final phase of expansion. However, while the post-pandemic period has opened a window of opportunity for renewed accession negotiation, geopolitics is back on the horizon and might provide yet another setback.
Timor-Leste, or East Timor, is a tiny island state situated right between Indonesia and Australia with a population of approximately 1.3 million. It is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia apart from the Philippines. Timor-Leste shares a land border with Indonesia’s West Timor region to the west, which constitutes a part of the Nusa Tenggara Timur province. The country has often been overlooked by the international community due to its small economy and population, yet it has a significant role to play in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape.
The case of Timor’s accession to ASEAN offers a unique glimpse into the multitude of regional and global challenge in 21st century, such as South-South relations, colonialism, and neo-imperialism. ASEAN is often referred to as the second most successful regional organization after the European Union with a greater population than the entire EU combined and impressive GDP growth over the past decades. The region will play a significant role in a geopolitical order characterized by Sino-US rivalry and thus deserves a lot more scholarly attention by the various subfields of the political science discipline.
Long Struggle for Self-determination
Carved out as a result of negotiations between the Dutch and the Portuguese, the Eastern half of the island has been subjected to Portuguese colonial rule for five centuries (along with an enclave to the West). The 1974 Carnation Revolution in Lisbon resulted in a political vacuum in the colony, and local revolutionary forces seized the opportunity to proclaim independence in 1975. However, the nascent nation would become one of the unfortunate casualties in the Cold War.
Before and after declaring independence, there were differing views on the future of East Timor. Some favoured integration into Indonesia while others wanted full independence. A brief civil war broke out, in which the left-wing party Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) emerged victorious. Indonesia’s Suharto regime claimed that Timor-Leste would fall into the hands of communists, and with tacit approval from American President Gerald Ford and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, he launched an invasion in the name of anticommunism. The first Timorese republic lasted only nine days before the territory was overrun by the Indonesian military. This incident, known as the Lotus Operation (Operasi Seroja), marks the beginning of a 24-year occupation that would lead to the death of up to one-third of the population.
Indonesia’s New Order regime collapsed in 1998 following the Asian Financial Crisis. As suppressing the Timorese resistance had been extremely costly and unpopular internationally, Suharto’s successor B. J. Habibie allowed for a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority opted for independence. In retaliation, pro-Indonesian militias in the territory mounted a Scorched Earth Operation which saw some eighty-five percent of the buildings burnt or destroyed. To stabilize the region, East Timor was placed under the protectorate of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). On 20 May 2002, Timor-Leste finally regained its independence.
Determined for ASEAN Membership
Prior to declaring independence in 1975, Timor-Leste had already demonstrated keen interest in joining ASEAN. José Ramos-Horta, who would eventually become a Nobel Peace Laureate and the second President of Timor-Leste, went to Jakarta to discuss ASEAN membership with Indonesian foreign minister Adam Malik, one of the founding fathers of the regional bloc. The latter gave an affirmative response and even offered to allow Timorese diplomats to receive training in Indonesia.
It is worth noting that the ASEAN at that time was nothing like today. The grouping was still largely a Cold War construct with anticommunist overtones. There were no member states apart from the five founders: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and there was little to be gained from joining ASEAN in terms of economic integration. All of these attests to Timor-Leste’s self-identification as a Southeast Asian nation and their eagerness to become a fully recognized member of the community. “We are a country that belongs to this region,” foreign minister Dionísio Babo Soares remarked during his official visit to Singapore in 2019.
Ironically, Indonesia did fulfill their promise to Timor-Leste on ASEAN membership - not as a sovereign state but instead as its 27th province, Timor Timur. This was the closest to ASEAN that Timor-Leste ever got to. In the years after Timor regained independence, Indonesia has become one of the strongest supporters in the former’s bid for ASEAN membership.
ASEAN membership matters in several ways. First, as a nascent state, Timor-Leste is seeking to establish its place in the international community - and membership in a regional organization is an important step in this. In her monograph The Post-Colonial Security Dilemma: Timor-Leste and the International Community, Rebecca Strating highlighted the constraints faced by a small and weak state, which leads to their pursuit of absolute external state sovereignty as “real” independence. For much of Timor’s history it has been dominated by foreign powers: the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Indonesians. They have only recently emerged from a United Nations transitional administration, and a seat in the regional organization could offer Timor a greater sense of agency. ASEAN membership, in particular, is a ticket to other international frameworks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the East Asia Summit. The access to regional markets and free trade areas would be conducive to the country’s aspiration of becoming an upper middle-income country by 2030. Earlier this year in an interview with the New Straits Times, Timorese Ambassador to Malaysia Joana Veneranda Amaral stated ASEAN membership is now a “national and strategic priority” and would be “a strong catalyst for growth among its businesses and entrepreneurs.”
ASEAN in the 21st Century
ASEAN has developed exponentially at the turn of the century, with the bloc doubling in size. After Brunei’s admission in 1984, the four Indochinese states were admitted in the 1990s: Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. The Cold War was subsiding and ASEAN was eager to bring the entire region together. Had Timor-Leste been a sovereign state already in that period, it would most likely have been welcomed into the organization already. Unfortunately for them, the bar has only become higher and higher ever since.
Developments in the last two decades have cemented the popular conception of Southeast Asia as a region. The ASEAN emblem and flag consists of ten padi stalks, representing the ten member states; the ASEAN Charter was signed in 2007, conferring legal personality to ASEAN as an inter-governmental organisation. As of today, the term “ASEAN” is used almost interchangeably with the Southeast Asian region, and many do not even think of Timor-Leste as a part of it. Furthermore, the ASEAN Community in 2015 has further accelerated the regional integration process. In this sense, ASEAN has left Timor-Leste far behind.
According to Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter, there are four criteria for admission to ASEAN:
There is no controversy surrounding the first three criteria at this point, and all that remains is the last one, which is rather vaguely defined. When Timor-Leste first handed in their application for accession to ASEAN, the country had not established diplomatic missions in all neighboring states yet. Timor has come a long way since then, though obstacles remain.
Large disparity across countries has frustrated Singapore’s agenda for greater regional integration, and the addition of Timor-Leste would likely slow down the process even further. The Timorese economy is even smaller than that of Cambodia and Laos, and is classified by the United Nations as a “Least Developed Country.” Furthermore, unlike other international organizations, all ASEAN member states are expected to contribute an equal amount to its operations, and under the ASEAN Community integration they would have to attend over a thousand regional meetings on various government levels and topic areas. This would undoubtedly pose a challenge for Timor-Leste.
Politics has been a potential factor leading to hesitation on the part of other ASEAN members. Timor-Leste is consistently ranked as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, ahead of all ASEAN member states. Having been a victim of Portuguese colonialism and Indonesian imperialism, the country has taken an activist role in championing human rights and advocating for a rules-based order, which possibly has led to reservations from the more authoritarian countries in the region. However, perhaps in a desperate attempt to garner support for ASEAN membership, Timor-Leste abstained from a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the situation in Myanmar last year. This decision has been criticized by former President Ramos-Horta as well as some other observers, who went as far as claiming that it has “tarnished” the country’s bid for membership. While this abstention vote may have backfired, it demonstrates just how far Timor is willing to go for admission to ASEAN.
The China Factor
While Timor enjoys close relations with its two neighbours Indonesia and Australia, as well as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), its interactions with China must not be overlooked. Beijing has been a firm supporter of Timor’s long struggle for independence amidst the Cold War, when most Western countries acquiesced to Suharto’s expansionism. As a result, three major government buildings have been sponsored by China: the presidential palace, ministry of foreign ministry, and the military headquarters. Ten years after he stepped down from the post, Ramos-Horta was elected as President again this year. At his inauguration speech in the national capital Dili, he pledged closer bilateral ties with China and outlined several sectors including agriculture, energy, and infrastructure.
Concurrently, China’s actions in the Pacific have drawn close attention from players within the region and beyond. In April Beijing confirmed it has signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands - a sign that it is seeking to assert its influence in areas further away from the Mainland. If China is to reach a similar deal with Timor-Leste, this would undoubtedly pose a security threat to both Indonesia and Australia, two of the largest countries in the vicinity. While there is no further sign that Beijing intends to do the same with Timor yet, ASEAN should act decisively to draw Dili further into its orbit. Timor-Leste has proven its commitment to the Southeast Asian region, and their inclusion could add impetus the notion of ASEAN Centrality, which refers to the bloc’s leadership role in coordinating multilateral discussions for regional affairs. Promoting ASEAN Centrality is crucial as Southeast Asia seeks to maintain its autonomy amidst an increasingly bipolar world.
Timor-Leste remains to be the final missing piece to ASEAN. The paradox here is that they were essentially stuck in a vicious cycle: Timor was refused entry for not being “developed” enough, yet at the same time their growth is being stunted without ASEAN membership. Due to the geopolitical factors at play, it would be in the strategic interest of ASEAN to admit Timor-Leste as soon as possible.
Previous fact-finding missions assessing Timor-Leste’s readiness has been impacted by the global Covid 19 pandemic. As the world phases into a post-pandemic era, there has been renewed attention on the topic of Timor’s accession and Milena Rangel, Timor-Leste’s Director-General for ASEAN Affairs, is confident to make progress at the 2022 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. Dili’s eventual admission would be a significant milestone for the country’s development, and herald a new chapter for ASEAN as it finally represents the entirety of Southeast Asia.
On 21 April 2021, I launched The Southeast Asianist as an academic blog of Southeast Asian Studies, for all Southeast Asianists. A year since then, it would be a good time to reflect upon this undertaking and talk about the future directions of this blog.
I still remembered how lost I felt coming out of my first Southeast Asian politics course four years ago. I was particularly interested in Timor-Leste then, a niche within a niche; I did not know where to start, nor did I have anyone to consult. How is wish there could have been someone to point me in the right direction! With The Southeast Asianist I published a handful of reviews from a student's perspective and will continue to do so. The hope is that aspiring Southeast Asia specialists like myself would have a potential resource they could turn to in their learning journey. Indeed, looking back at myself from a year or two ago, I would be overjoyed if there were something like The Southeast Asianist I could look up whenever I needed something.
I wanted to make ideas about Southeast Asian studies accessible and easily digestible for the typical undergrad student. Instead of long-form journal articles which take a long time to read and an even longer time to write, I wanted to be able to focus specifically on the key issues without the burden of having to survey all existing literature out there. The content should be bite-sized, such that one could easily finish reading while waiting for the bus, for example.
From the Diplomat to New Mandala, most publications out there tend to emphasize current issues or new discoveries. There has not been a space for people to re-read old readings such as José Rizal and Benedict Anderson; yet in fact these are exactly the kind of sources we should be consulting in our early stages of studying Southeast Asia.
One of the most important parts of learning is output. For the same reason we write essays for university, I believe writing about Southeast Asian studies through blog posts would be a way to consolidate our knowledge and develop our thoughts further. For me myself, it has also been a way to record my current perspectives to revisit in the future.
It would be such a huge waste of our intellect to simply absorb everything we learnt and keep them to ourselves without discussing or exchanging with others. It is not easy to find people who are interested in Southeast Asian studies for the sake of Southeast Asia itself. Hopefully, this could serve as a platform for the convergence of students and facilitate discussions.
The first year of the Southeast Asianist has been a lonely one for me, as this academic blog is neither affiliated with nor supported by any institution; I have done little to promote it beyond posting on my Instagram account. Featuring more writers would be our key objective for the upcoming year and we can then grow the community of readers. If you have any ideas worth sharing, please do consider writing to us!
The decision to star Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul พิมพ์ชนก ลือวิเศษไพบูลย์ was controversial. Some questioned why the producers did not cast a real transexual actress instead, but I see this as a smart move - not because her nickname “fern leaf” Baifern ใบเฟิร์น somewhat matches with the title, but because she could carry the whole series single-handedly with her superb acting. I knew about her from the movie FRIEND ZONE (which was, by the way, released in the same year) and now after Bai Mai Tee Plid Plew I am officially a fan. In addition to tapping into Baifern’s large fanbase, casting this diva also made such a topic of taboo more palatable to the audience.
As with reading José Rizal, you don’t ever get an easy time watching this series; it is meant to sting, moments of bliss are short-lived and it keeps you feeling as if you were on the edge. I find this melancholy much more meaningful than those popular “BL” series from Thailand. Some have commended Bai Mai Tee Plid Plew for bringing to light the transgender and transexual communities, a salient topic in Thailand. More so than advocacy for LGBT+, however, to me what Bai Mai Tee Plid Plew stands for is this desire to turn over a new leaf. Despite all the suffering she had endured before her return to Thailand, Nira did not actively seek to hurt anyone. Even though there was much hatred in her heart, eventually Nira simply wanted to be left alone - she was even willing to let go of Chatchavee. To me this is resemblant of the characters under Rizal’s pen. Like Ibarra after his father’s death, and like Basilio after his brother was killed and mother went insane, Nira was willing to let the past go and start afresh. But a series of incidents pushed her into a corner and resulted in the tragedy that ensued.
Apart from the cast and the storyline, I believed the music itself deserved a section of its own despite the fact that this series did not have its own original soundtrack. The theme song is a rearrangement of the classic Thai song Rak Tee Yaak Leum รักที่อยากลืม, covered by Jiew Piyanut จิ๋ว ปิยนุช. The original style remains widely popular, but I prefer the new version more.
ลองรัก translates to “trying to love” in English, and it mark Nira’s transformation throughout the series. From the first episode when she could hardly control her anger, Nira gradually learnt to become independent and moved out of the doctor’s house. She was learning to hate less and try to love.
Although Gam Wichayanee แก้ม วิชญาณี’s Bai Mai ใบไม้ appeared only once in the series, the lyrics made it my favorite out of the three: beautiful, poignant, and melancholic.
Even the background instrumentals were nothing short of impressive. I wished there could be an album released with all of the lyrical and instrumental music included, like those Korean dramas.
The hardest part of exploring a new genre is finding where to start. While I have not viewed enough Thai la korns to be able to make a definite judgment, I definitely liked Bai Mai Tee Plid Plew and would recommend it. There will be many more la korns to come, but I am confident that Bai Mai Tee Plid Plew would remain to be a timeless masterpiece. I shall continue to work on my Thai, and when I am proficient enough I would definitely read the original novel.
Ever since I started studying Thai, one perennial question that stuck with me is the name of Thailand’s capital city - why is it called Bangkok in English but pronounced “Krungtheep” (กรุงเทพ) in Thai? For a long time I had been irritated by this dissonance (or rather, not knowing the reason behind it).
On February 15, the Office of the Royal Society of Thailand (ORST) announced a new policy regarding the name of Thailand’s capital city. Bangkok will soon officially be called Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, although the former will continue to be recognized as well.
Name changing in Southeast Asian cities is nothing novel: the eastern Indonesian metropolis Makassar used to be called Ujung Pandang; Yangon was Rangoon until 1989; and we all know Ho Chi Minh City’s old name, Saigon. Even Thailand’s official name has been through changes and was called “Siam” for a period of time - but where exactly did the name “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon” come from?
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon
The full written form of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon is actually กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลก ภพนพรัตน์ ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์ มหาสถาน อมรพิมาน อวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะ วิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์ (pronounced “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”)
The lengthy name roughly translates as “the City of Gods, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable City (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City Abounding in Enormous Royal Palaces Which Resemble the Heavenly Abode Wherein Dwell the Reincarnated Gods, a City Given by Indra and Built by Vishnukarm.”
I recall my Thai teacher once demonstrated the full pronunciation in our first class, having to catch her breath twice in between - that was a spectacle. For obvious reasons the Thai people do not speak the full name in daily usage, and instead they use the shorter abbreviation Krung Thep, written as กรุงเทพฯ.
The next question one might ask is, where does “Bangkok” (บางกอก) come from then? A theory is that the name is derived from “Bang Ko” (บางเกาะ), bang meaning a village on a stream and ko meaning island.
A Britannica entry offers an alternative explanation for the origin of the name:
//The name Bangkok, used commonly by foreigners, is, according to one interpretation, derived from a name that dates to the time before the city was built—the village or district (bang) of wild plums (makok).//
The Bangkok Post article further elaborates on how this name came to be recognized as the official one:
//Bangkok has been in use officially since November 2001 under an Office of the Royal Society announcement. It came from an old area of Bangkok, which is now a part of the greater metropolitan area of the capital, Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai districts. Historically, it has been in common use for a long time.//
As can be seen in the comments section, the Facebook post drew mixed reactions from netizens. Some criticized this change as being unnecessary. To be fair, however, Bangkok really isn’t getting a new name per se - it has many names to begin with and it is just that “Krung Thep Maha Nakhon” will be recognized as the official one from now on.
I am sure a few of us, myself included, would find it satisfying that the official Thai and English names are finally “in-sync.” However, most of us will simply continue to use the familiar and easier “Bangkok” in our daily lives.
//Recorded in the history of human suffering are cancers of such malignant character that even minor contact aggravates them, engendering overwhelming pain. How often, in the midst of modern civilizations have I wanted to bring you into the discussion, sometimes to recall these memories, sometimes to compare you to other countries, so often that your beloved image became to me like a social cancer.//
Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo by José Rizal have been on my reading list for quite some time now. Affectionately referred to in the Philippines as the Noli and the Fili, these two books are celebrated as one of the most significant parts of Rizal’s legacy.
My interest in Rizal did not come from an anticolonial standpoint but from one of regional identity. As I read Revolutionary Spirit for the occasion of Rizal's 125th death anniversary, I got the sense of urgency to read Rizal's own works.
I ordered a copy of each book published by Penguin, translated by Harold Augenbraum. Reading took a while, and has been a fulfilling experience. An attempt to review such a widely and thoroughly studied piece of literature like the Noli duology would be suicide; I have nothing to offer in this blog post beyond my afterthoughts as a humble admirer of Rizal.
The back cover refers to the Noli as "The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution." Upon finishing the novel I could understand why. As one would expect, the novels are full of rhetoric in the character's dialogues and sometimes in the form of sarcasm on the narrator's part.
After seven years of studying abroad in Europe, the protagonist Crisóstomo Ibarra returns to his hometown San Diego with noble ideals. He was back to marry his childhood sweetheart María Clara, and proposed to build a new school in the town. In this process, he would come to learn the truth of his father’s death as well as the many dark sides of his homeland under Spanish rule.
If Noli Me Tángere gave me goosebumps of melancholy, then El Filibusterismo sent me cold shivers of vengeance. Rizal dedicated the Fili specifically to the three local priests: Don Mariano Gomez, Don Jose Burgos, and Don Jacinto Zamora. Collectively referred to as “GomBurZa”, they were executed on 17 February 1872 on alleged involvement in the Cavite Mutiny earlier that year.
The sequel brings in a longer list of characters, each of them interesting in their own right. Instead of a singular protagonist returning from the Peninsula, here the story centers around a group of young and passionate students educated in Manila, the most notable of which are Isagani, Makaraig, and Basilio from the prequel. El Fili is a story of desperados; honest people with good intentions, oppressed and forced to take drastic actions - of which Kabesang Tales is the prime example.
As much as Rizal criticizes the Spaniards, he also pokes at the backwardness of the indios in his era - their views on education, on marriage, on indulgences, and so on. The two novels are, in some sense, an ethnography of the Spanish Philippines. They address many of the social issues from wealth to justice. Perhaps this is the reason why in addition to the literal Touch Me Not and The Subversive, some translated the titles aptly as The Social Cancer and Reign of Greed.
I finished the novels feeling unsatisfied - there was so much I wanted to know. As with most fictions, it took me a while to remember the long list of characters in the books. Once I was actually done with reading, however, I wished there were more to many of the characters in the story.
What exactly did Father Dámaso do to María Clara's mother and Crisóstomo’s father? I wished there could have been more of the three ladies too: María Clara, Julí, and Paulita Gomez. How did they grow up? What was it about them that made them so attractive in the eyes of their suitors? There could be a whole Noli-Fili universe based on the stories of all these characters - it certainly would arouse my interest more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whatnot.
We have to realize that Rizal wrote the novels not for the sake of art intrinsically, but politics. As John Nery would detail in his book Revolutionary Spirit, Rizal himself was unsatisfied with his two novels. “I want to write a novel in the modern sense of the term — an artistic and literary novel. This time I want to sacrifice politics and everything for art,” Rizal wrote in a letter to Blumentritt in 1892. Sadly, he did not live to finish this new novel he had set out to.
We often brand the Noli-Fili with a broad label of anti-colonial literature, yet there is far more nuance to that. We should credit Rizal specifically for shedding light on the religious orders which came to dominate the colonial experience in the Spanish East Indies.
The friars are a phenomenon very unique to the Philippines - before reading this I had no idea what the Augustinians, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans meant. Whereas in British and Dutch colonies we would see trade companies as the major players, the religious orders are the ones in charge in the Spanish East Indies. After all, the Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia apart from Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony (a comparison between the religious-colonial experiences of these two countries would make a good potential blog post).
As the novels show us, the actual power these friars wield exceeds even that of the governors’. Civil servants from the metropole come and go, but the friars are here to stay forever. They are the moral authority, they control the education system and they extort money from the population. Even the governor would be restrained by them, for they lack an in-depth understanding of the lands they govern and have no choice but to listen to whatever the friars feed them. I am not a Catholic myself and certainly did not grow up in the Philippines, as such Noli-Fili was my first time being exposed to this topic, a noteworthy part of Southeast Asian history.
Between Noli and Fili
In many ways the Noli and the Fili are like mirrors to each other. Both books are based around projects of education: the former a school initiated by Ibarra, the latter a Castilian academy advocated by a group of students. Every Christmas is a tragedy and nothing goes smoothly - not even conspiracies. Nobody gets a happy ending under Rizal's pen - that is, except for the most trivial of characters.
At the same time, one could also clearly see a theme of change in the progression from Noli to Fili. The events are set thirteen years apart, and many of the original characters have undergone significant changes. The poor kid Basilio grew up to become a medical student; Captain Tiago, from one of the most respected men in town, died a miserable drug addict.
Let's not forget that Rizal himself also went through much change: the sequel was published during his second time abroad and this time he had even more adventures: he traveled through Japan and traversed the United States; he spent time researching in London and read Multatuli’s Max Havelaar. In this process he was exposed to a breadth of ideas and made references to them throughout the second novel, the most amusing one to me being a sarcastic note citing Darwin:
//Unconsciously, Paulita had complied with the laws Darwin had discovered, in spades. The female gives herself to the most able male, who understands how to adapt to the medium in which he lives,//
Rizal did not write in Tagalog, his mother tongue - the originals were written in Spanish, the oppressor's language, and there is a significant meaning to that as Harold Augenbraum writes in the translator's introduction to the Fili: It was Rizal’s literary language, the only one in which the book could have a political impact.
I always make an effort to read in the original language whenever possible. For this I began learning Spanish for a while, until I decided that it was unsustainable for me to intensively study two languages (I was studying Thai) on top of my other commitments at the time. It would take years for me to be able to fully understand a sophisticated piece of literature like Rizal's novel, and I wanted to read Noli-Fili as soon as I could. Gradually I found consolation in the fact that even my counterparts in the Philippines would not be reading in the original language either.
For the English readers like me out there, I would definitely recommend Harold Augenbraum's translation. My money was well spent not just because I could keep the two classics in my collection permanently, but also for the Augenbraum's Introductions in both books - which I revisited upon finishing the novels.
Noli and Fili should be made a compulsory reading for all students of Southeast Asia - I regretted not reading them as soon as I enrolled in my first Southeast Asian politics class. While colonialism in its traditional sense is gone in the region, its remnants are still visible even up till today.
The dialogues in the two novels, especially the sequel, spoke of how the colony's education policy (or the lack of one) corrupted the souls of the Indios. Three centuries of Spanish colonialism left behind a malicious legacy yet to be undone. Even if one is completely uninterested in the history of a neighboring country, the two novels offer plenty of lessons for governance and self-reflection.
Rizal's novels are full of powerful quotes - if you flipped through my copies, you would find underlined sentences in every other page. I am now as old as when Rizal started writing the Noli - there is no way I would be able to write anything comparable to his magnum opus; I only pray that I could learn and grow as much as Rizal did when he was my age.