When regional leaders meet, they have a peculiar way of joining hands. The question is why.
THEY stand in a line, cross their arms over the chest and hold the hand of the person on either side of them.
Then, it’s “say cheese” for the photographer.
This is the pose Asean government leaders assume when they take their group shots at the start and end of their conferences.
The Asean way: Asean leaders (from left) Philippine president Benigno Aquino III
, Lee, Yingluck, Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung
and Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen doing the Asean handshake for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 20th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
. — AP
It’s a thing that is peculiar to the leaders and senior officials in our region.
As someone observed: “In every Asean group photograph, why must all participants cross their arms in front of their chest in order to hold hands with the adjacent person?
“I think it looks uncomfortable … as if they are trying to change a light bulb by holding it and turning around.
“Why don’t they do it the easy way, letting their arms hang down naturally while holding hands?”
A close look at the faces in those shots will often reveal at least one or two with decidedly uncomfortable expressions. Especially among the women.
Men have longer arms, and they don’t have breasts that can get in the way of such contortions.
So, often, the women leaders, who tend to be shorter, too, will have a kind of tight-lipped smile that is similar to the grimace they have when taking a mammogram.
There is a particular photo taken in November 2009 of Asean leaders meeting with US President Barack Obama that is most telling.
Former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo Macapagal, who is really petite, is next to Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong.
She only comes up to his shoulder and she looks like she is holding her breath even though her arms are not really stretched out.
She must be a veteran of such hand-holding because she makes the guys on either side do the stretching.
So it is PM Lee, on her left, who has to extend his hand to hold hers as well as Obama’s on the other side.
As a result, Lee’s arms are so tightly crossed, his tie is almost swallowed up by his jacket.
This tangle of appendages has a name. It’s called the “Asean handshake” although “the grip-and-grin” seems more accurate.
I am unable to determine when this “traditional” handshake started, and by whom, but really, it’s time to put an end to it.
Photos taken at the 20th Asean summit in Phnom Penh last week are again telling.
The taller leaders manage the handshakes better, including Yingluck Shinawatra, who is quite well built. She looks unruffled and elegant.
I wonder if she and other new Asean leaders get coaching on how to do the Asean handshake by their minders.
If not, it can catch a leader by surprise, like what happened to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a 2010 meeting.
There is a YouTube video on how he looked momentarily confused and unsure of how to place his arms when faced with the Asean handshake.
The honest truth: This de rigueur pose for a group shot is not at all flattering.
Inevitably, their suits get squashed, their shoulders are hunched up and, made to stand in a line, these world leaders do not look so worldly nor leader-like.
Rather, they look like school kids forced by their teacher to hold hands to keep them out of mischief.
Now, I am not criticising the act of shaking hands, just this odd form.
The handshake is, after all, a gesture of friendship and goodwill. It didn’t start that way though.
There are many versions of its origins.
A widely accepted one is medieval: When wary strangers met, they patted each other down for hidden weapons.
This evolved to grasping the right hand and shaking it to dislodge a dagger up the sleeve.
Centuries down the line, the handshake is universally used as a friendly gesture. No more checking for sharp objects, but it’s become a gauge of sorts of a person’s character.
Is the handshake firm, limp or bone-crushing?
This greeting was originally a male thing because women usually didn’t carry arms.
It’s a pity that it has since crossed genders as hand contact with men is not really recommended.
My suspicions were confirmed when a male colleague pressed the floor button in the office lift using a piece of tissue.
He admitted this was due to his fear of what male digits can leave on the buttons and other frequently touched surfaces because he knows what men do and don’t do in the loo.
Maybe that’s why Asean women leaders doing the grip-and-grin look so grim. Two hands at one go trapped in male paws. Euuww!
There’s also the risk of catching germs.
According to experts, 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by contact like kissing and … hand shaking.
That’s why the British Olympic Association chief medical officer Dr Ian McCurdie suggested banning handshaking in the Games Village in the upcoming London Olympics!
The handshake is on shaky ground in sports for other reasons, too.
Shaking hands before and after a match in several sports – football, tennis and American football – is a cherished ritual to denote good sportsmanship.
Now it has become contentious because the gesture seemed to have regressed to its hostile origins.
The way two sportsmen clasp hands (or refuse to) can be taken as a sign of contempt, disrespect and even aggression, and has led to brawls.
There is an on-going debate on whether to abolish it.
That may take a while to settle. In the meantime, perhaps Asean politicians can take the lead and disband their chest-constricting clasp.
If they want to denote unity and cooperation, how about just linking arms at the elbow?
They will look like a strong chain and look, ma, no hands!
SO AUNTY,SO WHAT BY JUNE H.L.WONG > The writer prefers hugs, nicely described by someone as handshakes from the heart.
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