October 8, 2014
Southeast Asia: The Bright Spark in a Gloomy World
by W. Scott Thompson@www.nst.com.my
“AROUND the world in 80 days”, or even eight days, might not be a happy trip in 2014. Start with my country: the current issue of political journal Foreign Affairs has a cover saying “See America: Land Of Decay And Dysfunction”. Head south and it’s hard to find success stories. Argentina is in a financial mess, Venezuela is moving back into the hands of the Army and Mexico is all about drugs.
For Europe, the biggest joke is that only Belgium has escaped the financial crisis, mostly because it has no real government and no prime minister during the key years. You can’t blame Germany for being thrifty and resenting to pay for the high life in Greece, Italy and Spain over the last 20 years. A compromise has yet to be found between the northern proponents of austerity and those believing that more consumer spending will get the southern countries out of their doldrums. Unemployment rates at 25 per cent don’t make for easy governance.
Africa is a mixed bag. Even the leading stars in growth, like Ghana, are in financial trouble. Fighting continues in Congo, extremists continue to move south and even if overall, Africa has an average growth rate better than most of the world, it’s too small a part to change things — CNN attempts to show the bright side, notwithstanding.
Let’s just skip the Middle East; it’s a disaster zone and it’s too early to say whether the Islamic State can be stopped — though it has to be. Suffice to say that if IS takes control of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, the best scenario indicates it would take a year or two to evict them. As usual, Iran is a shadow player and in the end, will be the most important one to stabilise the region.
In South Asia, India’s new Prime Minister has made it big at the United Nations, but it’s an open question whether he can really can open up the Indian economy for the rapid growth on which success depends. Let’s not even mention Pakistan.
All the talk about China centres on Hong Kong and what the demonstrations portend. But I would pay more attention to western China, where the Islamic Uighurs are a far bigger headache for the Politburo.
Come to Southeast Asia and you might start smiling. Discussion is dominated by the old forces of the Indonesian military under the leadership of General Prabowo Subianto, in voting out all the moves of decentralisation that have achieved so much since 1999. President-elect Widodo will be sworn into office on October 20; he does not command a majority in Parliament but he hasn’t even begun to use presidential patronage to block Probowo’s attempts to turn the clock back. I wouldn’t bet against the new President’s powers of persuasion and presidential suasion. On balance, we should be very optimistic about Indonesia.
Now, go around the region and just about everything is moving, if slowly, in the right direction. That is, if you see the Thai coup d’état as a necessary evil that will restart the political system without the cost of long-term death to democracy that former PM Thaksin Shinawatra represents. The political establishment has regained control and let’s not forget the 60 years of transformation that the coalition has provided. Next to China, no sizeable state has grown so fast.
Malaysia provides one of the world’s best examples of a tricky balancing act in providing stability in a multi-ethnic state. It is basically because it is a strong state; even its critics must admit the remarkable success of its leaders. It is gaining ground in the middle income division of the world’s states. The economic model says that countries well-endowed with natural resources are the first ones to fail, relying too heavily on what they can get out of the ground or grow on trees. But it secured independence with strong leaders who changed all that. This is quite an oversimplification, but the bottom line is a big success story.
Now, welcome to the Philippines, home of, in my experience, the world’s happiest people. Its growth rate is closing the gap with China. Critics say the rich elite is getting more than its fair share, yet, studies of wealth division show the Philippines with not much different a Gini coefficient of wealth distribution than the other countries in the region.
And if nothing else, everybody is benefiting from investments in infrastructure. Bulldozers and backhoes are everywhere, widening roads to population centres, and providing jobs for the best of the young professionals in the all but ubiquitous call centres. President Benigno Aquino III has managed two thirds of his six-year term without an agenda, but he always says the right things and leaves no taint of corruption — leaving aside consideration of some of his associates whom he’s too nice to fire.
Everyone in the region is worried about China’s claim to much territorial waters of littoral states in the South China Sea. My guess is the new President of China is too smart to let its navy push too far. Anyway, if you came from Mars and could live anywhere, you certainly wouldn’t choose Russia or China, most of Africa, and so many other places with deeply rooted problems.
Well, this is a bit subjective for me, having chosen Southeast Asia 50 years ago as a research area that was on the go — and when the world was my oyster and I could live anywhere. I’m glad I chose Bali, the Philippines, and the capital cities of Thailand and Malaysia.