Andrew Symon: Wonderful
company lost

Andrew Symon, a writer and researcher of Southeast Asian industry and history, died in Singapore on Feb. 24, aged 49.

Late in 1996, a disheveled beanpole of a man approached me in the Jakarta offices of The Castle Group (now Castle Asia). Sweaty, and panting after a walk through Jakarta's mad streets, Andrew Symon was eager to tell me about his just-completed report on Indonesia's chronic infrastructure failures.

Before he'd even introduced himself, Andrew was worriedly bemoaning Indonesia's creaking bridges, potholed roads and corrupt ports. He shook his head in sorrow at the emergent bottleneck that would surely crimp economic growth.

Andrew's report, titled Infrastructure Indonesia, brimmed with new data he had gathered along the bleak hallways of Indonesian government departments, where he quizzed sleepy bureaucrats and delved through dusty archives.

From this unpromising material, Andrew miraculously produced a report that was not just detailed and informative - it was damned good reading. Andrew applied a classy finish to his prose, however mundane the subject.

Andrew Symon was from Adelaide, South Australia. He had worked as a journalist and in the federal parliament, where he was a staffer for Don Chipp, the legendary leader of the Australian Democrats.

His first base in Asia was Jakarta, where he worked in various consulting and freelance jobs. Around 1998, Andrew moved to Singapore, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

There he carved out a niche in the energy sector, writing perceptively about the oil and gas industries in Southeast Asia. Andrew visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia regularly.

When he came to Jakarta, he would always stay at our bungalow in Kuningan. After a hectic day in cabs and government offices, Andrew would settle in an armchair by our pool, recounting a typical Jakarta day of frustration and unmet goals. Soon though, he would relax and we would ruminate on his great love: Asia's colonial history.

Andrew nurtured a love for the histories of Jakarta and Singapore, and delighted in unearthing remnants of a distant and foggy past. He enjoyed investigating the offbeat curios of colonial history.

In 2000, he had a series of articles published in The Jakarta Post about the Stovia (Vocational School of Medicine for Indigenous Doctors), a colonial institution that produced many of the finest minds of the revolutionary generation.

He regretted that the Stovia building on Jl. Abdul Rahman Saleh was in such a lamentable state, crumbling in the tropical elements. I commend his articles on Stovia to all readers as illustrations of his diligent research and silken writing. He had a fluent style that reads so easily but is very hard to compose.

Andrew loved Asia. Like so many Australians before him, Andrew was seduced by the continent's beauty, bustle, complexity and contradictions. He was, in some ways, a harkening back to an earlier generation of rumpled Australian journalists in Asia who, despite their apparent roughness, produced some of the most sensitive and perceptive prose written about the region.

Despite Andrew's occasional declaration that he was done with Asia and wanted to go home, his friends knew he would never leave. Andrew would have been bored in post-historical Australia.

Andrew was, however, weary of the freelancer's tenuous existence. He cobbled together a living from op-ed honoraria, consultancies and a few retainers. In an email to me last year, Andrew lamented having to do "5 things at once to make a living".

He yearned for stability, and in mid-2008 he seemed to be finding it. Andrew's widely praised Lowy Institute paper on nuclear power in Southeast Asia helped him land longer-term opportunities with the International Institute for Strategic Studies and others.

Still, Andrew was wary of the lure of optimism. In his final email to me, written in late November 2008, he wrote that although his situation had improved markedly, "I fear though it's often snakes and ladders - you think you are on the way up and then you hit a snake."

I have an enduring memory of Andrew from a short stay with him in his colonial flat in Tiong Baru. It was late 2001, and I was in transit from Cambodia to Jakarta. Arriving late at night, I trod gently into his flat and found him stretched out on his back on a living room mat.

Seemingly asleep, he was lost in reverie listening to the audio track of the classic movie Casablanca. I took a few more steps before he realized I was in the room. Lifting his head, Andrew politely asked if I could wait a minute or two until his favorite scene was over, after which we would open a bottle of wine.

With a lazy ceiling fan rotating above us, we drank, gossiped and laughed until far too late. Andrew was wonderful, intelligent company, and I cannot believe we have lost him so young.

The writer is country representative for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. He lived in Indonesia between 1996 and 2006.

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