Thursday June 27, 2002

Beware sleeping tigers

By John Aglionby

When Malaysia's feisty prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, finally confirmed on Tuesday that he was planning to bow out of politics - albeit after a 16-month transition period - it was, quite rightly, seen as the beginning of the end of an era in Malaysian politics. Both the character of Dr Mahathir's chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, and the changing times suggest no one will ever dominate Malaysian politics to the extent the outgoing leader has. The only debate is over how much gentler the political climate will become and how quickly.
But the ramifications of Dr Mahathir's passing will reverberate far beyond Malaysia's borders. Put simply, the days of strong leaders with regional - and even global - clout are over. The Philippines was the first of south-east Asia's "big five" to experience significant political change when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos succumbed to people power in 1986. Two years later Thai politics marked its watershed when Chatichai Choonhavan's election as prime minister heralded the onset of more stable government - although its modern constitution took almost another decade to write. Next to go was the architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, in 1990, although many commentators say that while he remains senior minister he has not really departed at all and no significant change will happen until he dies.
The region's economic crisis and massive student demonstrations saw off Indonesia's dictator Suharto in 1998 which, until this week, left Dr Mahathir as the region's only significant player left in office. The other nations in south-east Asia - Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - all, to varying degrees, still have authoritarian governments but none count for much on the global stage. The sultan of Brunei, for example, is unlikely to get the red-carpet reception at the White House accorded to Dr Mahathir last month.
Does this dearth of dictators matter? For the most part the answer is a resounding "no" and "thank goodness they've gone." The Philippines and Indonesia, for example, are much freer than they were under their respective authoritarian rulers and even the Singaporean leadership is at last talking about the problems of having such a controlled society (ie they are waking up to the need for critical thinkers).
The problem is that they have left either a leadership vacuum, a frighteningly messy state, or both in their wake. The failure of the latest attempt by the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to aspire to global ambitions typifies the situation. Last week he launched the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) - a meeting of senior ministers from across the continent - essentially in a bid to raise his own profile. But many observers see this as a non-starter as it either duplicates or undermines existing talking shops such as the Asean regional forum and the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation. The headline in the Bangkok Post after the ACD closed - Asian ministers agree to, er, cooperate - encapsulated how little mileage Mr Thaksin is likely to get out of his venture.
To be fair to Mr Thaksin, at least he tried, and Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri, the Philippines' Gloria Arroyo, Singapore's Goh Chok Tong and Mr Badawi would not have fared any better.
Where the lack of leadership is most apparent is in the economic sector. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the Asian financial crisis - which began in Thailand with the collapse of the baht and rapidly spread elsewhere. Half a decade on and the badly mauled tigers of southeast Asia are still struggling to find their voices. This is, admittedly, partly because of the internet bubble bursting in 2000 but that explanation only goes so far.
The two main reasons for the prolonged whimper are the slow pace of institutional reform and the increasingly large Chinese shadow being cast across the region. Until issues such as banking reform, corruption and sustainable economic diversification are thoroughly addressed, south-east Asia will be passed over in favour of China and northern Asia. And once investor interest is lost, it will be a struggle to recoup it.
This does not mean a return to authoritarianism is the best way forward; charismatic leaders do not have to be dictators. But unless the region finds a figure, or better still figures, to rally behind soon, the repercussions could be such that the murmuring for a return to the likes of Dr Mahathir, Suharto, Marcos et al could easily turn into a clamour.