THEY had absolutely nothing in common, probably never met and possibly wouldn’t have liked each other even if they had. But in their very different ways, while they lived, all four made the world a better place.

The death of Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister of Thailand and secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean); Manuel Marin, a former Spanish minister and European Union Commissioner; Johnny Hallyday, France’s ageing rocker who was also known as the “French Elvis” and Shashi Kapoor, the dazzling Bollywood icon who mesmerized millions both in and outside South Asia, in recent weeks marks the end of a happier, gentler era.

For many, Surin was one of Asia’s most thoughtful and charismatic thinkers, whose absence will be sorely missed in a dynamic but troubled region. He burst on to the international stage in the late 1990s as one of the youngest and most brilliant foreign ministers in South-east Asia and then consolidated his reputation as one of Asia’s top minds during his five years at the helm of the Asean Secretariat from Jan 2008 to Dec 2012.

Born into a humble Muslim family in Buddhist-majority Thailand, Surin knew a thing or two about what it was like to be a member of a minority in Asia — and the complexities of Asian politics. He could have been the secretary general of the United Nations (instead of Kofi Annan) if Thai politicians had managed to set aside their rivalries to back his bid. His nomination to head Asean was equally complicated. But he got the job — and changed Asean forever.

And just as well. Surin led Asean with brilliance, often running into trouble with the region’s more conservative and publicity-shy governments who, while committed to regional cooperation, were reluctant to cede power and visibility to the Jakarta-based secretariat.

As a journalist and analyst, I admired and respected Surin for his intelligence, eloquence, passion and compassion. Equally at home in Asia and in Europe (and the US), he was always cheerful, respectful and generous with his time. One quote from him, and a story would almost write itself. Often at meetings, I would literally hound him for some insights. When he could, he obliged — with a smile.

Also, unlike many policymakers, Surin had a great respect for think tanks and was the star speaker at many conferences. He spoke about Asean but also liked to dwell on the travails of being a Muslim democrat, telling me at a conference in Tokyo last year that the space for freedom of expression was sadly shrinking in the Muslim world.

“Muslim intellectuals cannot pursue their examination of laws and principles at home… they have to do that outside the Muslim world,” he said. “Academics have to migrate in order to do their job. Muslim democrats feel the space for exercising their role is being limited… they cannot visualise their future.” Dr Surin’s loss has repercussions beyond Asean. In many ways, the Muslim world is also bereft.

Spain’s Manuel Marín, a long-time member of the European Commission who also died recently at the age of 68, has left a similarly lasting legacy for Europe, having set up the much-admired “Erasmus” programme of student exchanges across the EU.

As Spain’s secretary of state for relations with European communities in the 1980s, he led successful negotiations to enter the European Community (EC), the precursor to the EU. And once in the Commission between 1986 — the year Spain joined the bloc — and 1999, he had many jobs, including relations with Asia which he had managed with wit and aplomb. He is remembered in Europe as the “father” of the Erasmus student exchange programme which has allowed over nine million young people to study in universities in different parts of Europe, thereby creating unique bonds between young Europeans. The programme has now gone global, giving a hefty boost to Europe’s soft power.

Marin, described as a great “Europeanist” and a “gentleman of politics” harked back to a gentler era in Spanish politics. Today, the country appears irrevocably divided over Catalonia’s demands for independence. As a sign of even more trouble ahead, around 45,000 pro-Catalan independence protesters took to the streets outside EU institutions in Brussels last week in support of the separatist Spanish region’s cause.

French rock and roll star Johnny Hallyday, 74, who mesmerised France with his music and rebellious lifestyle for more than 50 years, also had the knack of bringing people together. “Everybody loved Johnny — my grandparents, parents and my generation,” a young colleague told me. In a country divided by politics — the far left and the far right loom large on the political landscape while French President Emmanuel Macron struggles to bring about much-needed economic reform — that was no mean feat.

“For more than 50 years, he was a vibrant icon,” read a statement by Macron, who this summer attended a concert Hallyday gave days after a dose of chemotherapy. The French leader added, “There is a little bit of Johnny in all of us.”

And then there was Shashi Kapoor whose death at 79 in India lead to an outpouring of grief and nostalgia, with people also pointing to the handsome star’s kindness, charm and modesty. While the BBC outrageously showed clips of his nephew Rishi and Amitabh Bachchan while announcing Kapoor’s death — leading to comments that the broadcaster could not tell the difference between brown men — the star captured attention at home and abroad with both his Bollywood blockbusters but also his collaboration with the Merchant Ivory production house, including in Shakespeare Wallah.

As we come to the close of another difficult year, it is important to remember people like Surin, Marin, Hallyday and Kapoor for who they were but also as symbols of a gentler, more tolerant and more courteous time. The world is a sadder place without them.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2017

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