Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Asia’s risky strongman nostalgia


By William Pesek

05 February 2014.

Indonesia is growing at 6 per cent, has rejoined the ranks of investment-grade nations and, after decades under the repressive President Suharto, has reaffirmed its place as the world’s third-largest democracy. Yet somehow, enough Indonesians remember the Suharto years fondly that his Golkar Party has hopes of regaining power in upcoming elections.

Golkar is not alone in trying to exploit nostalgia for past strongmen (and women). India’s Congress Party is trying to squeeze any remaining good feelings about the Nehru-Gandhi period (from 1947 to about 1989) to elevate lacklustre heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Even as China’s Xi Jinping pushes ahead with market reforms, he continues to pay homage to Communist icon Mao Zedong’s rule between 1949 and 1976.

Thais are destroying their economy rather than cutting off support for tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra (in office 2001-2006) and his sister Yingluck. Many Malaysians wax sentimental about the boom days of Dr Mahathir Mohamad (in office 1981-2003). Japanese are indulging Mr Shinzo Abe’s dangerous stroll down memory lane.

What gives with nostalgianomics? The yearning for yesteryear speaks to our disorienting times and a dearth of visionary leadership when it is most needed.

This is an upside-down era when the unthinkable has a way of becoming reality: The United States is a developing nation again; Europe is hitting up “poor” China to bail out its debt markets; central banks have gone Islamic with zero-interest rates everywhere; the free trade that once raised living standards now foments poverty. Many simply want to get off this crazy ride.

That is a problem in a dynamic global economy that is constantly reinventing itself. It is natural to pine for a less-frenzied existence, but looking to the past for policy solutions courts economic decline. Unless nations reinvent themselves and plan ahead now, they will get left behind.


Across Asia, there are too many examples of populations still fixated on worldviews that no longer exist. The forces of globalisation will not slow down as nations reminisce. Neither will the biggest migration flows in history, the dizzying pace of change in technology, the need to compete with neighbours as much as cooperate, nor the deadly effects of climate change.

These are simply the conditions of our new world.

Amid such upheaval, those at the helm must lead their people forward. They must innovate constantly, promote dialogue about how best to exploit global developments and manage plural societies. When their citizens start looking to the past for inspiration, today’s leaders must take the hint and do better.

Nostalgianomics is related to the cult of gross domestic product that started with Japan. Its swift rise from the ashes of World War II set the bar high for leaders from South Korea to Indonesia.

Fond memories of a Japan-like post-war boom under Park Chung Hee (1961-1979) helped propel daughter Park Geun Hye into the Korean presidency. Japanese long for a return to their boom years so much that they are willing to turn a blind eye to Prime Minister Abe’s nationalistic ways and retrograde foreign policy.

The Mahathir schmaltz pervading Malaysia recalls the days when GDP there, too, soared. But the insular and jury-rigged system of affirmative action, national champions and fat subsidies over which Dr Mahathir presided now holds the economy back. The Malaysian leader also had a tendency to embarrass his nation on the international stage with his anti-Semitic tirades. Malaysians must find fresh inspiration by looking forward, not back to 1990.


The same holds true across the region. As Singaporeans try to balance the open immigration flows that drive growth with rising social tensions and inequality, they will not find answers by harking back to the heady days when Mr Lee Kuan Yew was in charge, from 1959 to 1990. They need to identify and empower a new generation of progressive leaders.

[OK. He just lost me. I do not sense Singaporeans harking back to the good old days of Lee Kuan Yew. Yes, we accord him the recognition for what he has done for Singapore, but we certainly did not vote in his son because of nostalgia. Nor do we say things like, "If LKY were still in charge..." (Partly because some Singaporeans think he IS still in charge). 

Yes, we are nostalgic - for those days when public services were reliable (trains breaking down), when public servants had integrity (Ng Boon Gay, Peter Lim, Tey Tsun Hang), politicians were beyond reproach (Yaw Shin Leong, Michael Palmer), and law and order was a given (Little India Riot) and people felt safe. But we do not have a "Strong Man Nostalgia"]

No one really worries about a revival of Mao’s disastrous economic policies in China. But not until Beijing stops pretending that the Great Helmsman remains a guiding inspiration — and removes his portrait from the Tiananmen gate in central Beijing — will it enjoy the global legitimacy it craves.

Mr Abe’s wistfulness about a time when Japan was a military powerhouse, its pacifist constitution was not an American creation and war crimes of past leaders did not anger neighbours or implicate his grandfather, is proving especially dangerous.

At some point, the Japanese are going to have to ask themselves how much more leeway they are willing to grant their Prime Minister in the hopes that he can revive growth — something that remains in doubt.

Asia is hardly alone, of course. In the US, the slow recovery under President Barack Obama has some looking back fondly to the wreckage that was the George W Bush years. Europe’s many crises and waning competitiveness have voters in Barcelona and Milan missing the pre-euro days. And how else do you explain Vladimir Putin’s lasting presence in Russia?

Musing over the past helps humankind avoid repeating its mistakes. But looking at yesteryear with rose-tinted glasses encourages policies and styles of leadership that are no longer relevant in a fast-changing Asia.

The more voters yearn to go back, the more they may suffer in the future.



Tokyo-based William Pesek won the 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary. 

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