Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Southeast Asia in 2004: Living dangerously again

Thang D. Nguyen, Program Coordinator, United in Diversity Forum, Jakarta

2004, the Year of the Monkey, will be an exciting, but challenging one for Southeast Asia.

The New Year has already challenged the leadership in several Southeast Asian countries with the bird flu outbreak. Thus far, this epidemic has taken lives in Thailand and Vietnam and led to mass culls of millions of chickens throughout Asia -- from Cambodia to China, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan -- and recently reached the US.

While scientists still try to confirm if this virus can be transmitted human-to-human, it gives us all a chilling reminder of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that took many lives and damaged Asia's economies severely last year and shows that the region's leadership has failed the test of handling this crisis.

The bird flu aside, leadership in several Southeast Asian countries is expected to change this year. For Indonesia and the Philippines, 2004 is an important year as their presidential elections are only a few months away.

In the Philippines, one can only hope that, if re-elected, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will become a better president than she has in her first term in office, especially in revitalizing the economy and dealing with the Muslim rebels in the south. As bright and strong a leader as she is, President Arroyo needs to enhance and protect her credibility by making her decisions in a manner consistent with what she says.

Even though the excitement about Indonesia's elections has not picked up yet, as it did at the same time before the 1999 elections, it will be a most significant presidential election in the country's history as the president will be selected by direct votes. President Megawati Soekarnoputri -- despite her shortcomings and lack of leadership -- is in fact the leading candidate at the moment.

Whatever the outcomes of the presidential elections in Indonesia and the Philippines, it is certain that the elected presidents have an overwhelmingly challenging task of bringing about stability, security, and prosperity in these troubled democracies.

A quick look at its other heads of states shows that Southeast Asia's leadership is young and, therefore, still on the learning curve.

Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi -- or Pak Lah as he is affectionately called -- took office last October as Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad retired after 22 years of leadership. Pak Lah is navigating to find his own direction and build his own leadership style, which is different from that of Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Thus far, he appears to fair rather well. Malaysia will soon have its general elections. It is reasonable to expect that Pak Lah will make good use of his time in office to gain popularity before deciding when the elections will take place.

Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong is expected to hand the baton over to Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (the son of Singapore's founding father, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew), by 2005. While the exact timing of this transition is unclear, it is certain that Goh will do so when he feels is most appropriate and that Lee, the junior, has been well groomed and is ready to take charge ably as soon as he assumes his new post.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra has been exceptional. In his three years in office, Thaksin has been, and continues to be, a leader of respect (if not fear). Described by some as a transactional leader, Thaksin's policies, those with heavy-handed government intervention into not only in the economy and politics, but also other aspects of the Thai society, have made a turn-around for Thailand -- one of the most prominent victims of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 and from which it spread to neighbor economies.

Nevertheless, Thailand's cover up of and belated response to the bird flu will both hurt the country's chicken poultry exports and Thaksin's rising reputation.

In addition to being young, it is also fair to say that ASEAN leaders, with a few exceptions, are for the most part not visible or heard enough in international arenas and not strong or proactive enough in their region. This is certainly true in the case of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. It is reasonable to expect the leadership in these countries to remain the same in 2004.

ASEAN's ultimate goal is to integrate its ten member economies. While this is a noble cause that ASEAN has every reason to pursue, it presents the grouping with a number of formidable challenges.

For one thing, there is a lack of the much-needed political will among member countries to reduce both tariff and non-tariff barriers within AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Agreement). This lack of commitment from member countries has made trade more expensive and business more costly to do in and with them. The consequence is evident in that intra-ASEAN trade has fallen by 19 per cent since 1994, when the free trade area was established.

The second challenge is the grouping's consensus-oriented governing style. Founded on a non-interference principle, ASEAN as a grouping of diverse political regimes, cultures, and ideologies needs to move beyond its consensus-seeking tradition to a majority-voting style. Unpopular as it is, a majority- voting style would enable ASEAN to move forward with its market integration and trade liberalization processes.

The third challenge is the grouping's lack of institutions to further its economic integration. The grouping's Jakarta-based Secretariat is not suitable, nor is it capable, to monitor and implement this process.

If anything, AFTA is operated by ministers of trade and industry from the ten member countries who hold long meetings and hammer out wordy documents that are hardly implemented. It is time to create an ASEAN Trade Organization (ATO) to handle its trade matters and other perfunctory institutions to monitor and implement its economic integration.

Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir bin Mohamad, and Soeharto have developed ASEAN and worked hard to earn it a place and respect in the international community. The grouping's leadership torch is now in the hands of its current leaders, who should make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to their successors.

These are his personal views.