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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003

Schwarzenegger should learn from Asia's strongmen

LOS ANGELES -- It looks as though California is getting some Southeast Asian strongman-style leadership. But will Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's new governor, prove half as effective as the two dominant personalities that have run Malaysia and Singapore these past decades? Or, in the end, will Schwarzenegger be a U.S. West Coast version of the disgraced former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, the cinema star-turned-national savior who's now in jail?

No one knows how Schwarzenegger will pan out politically. Even so, his take-charge, no-nonsense style seems, stylistically at least, akin to those soft Southeast Asian authoritarians Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew.

Two of Asia's true political giants, Lee is the founding prime minister of modern Singapore, and Mahathir, residing next door in Malaysia, is the longest continuously running political act in Asia.

What do Lee, 80, an influential political legend, and Mahathir, stepping down voluntarily next month as prime minister and leader of his party after 22 years, have to teach Schwarzenegger?

The brilliant Lee kicked himself upstairs a dozen years ago to the self-created position of senior minister. The West missed the story and generally depicted Lee in a superficial way, as the champion of caning criminals and clamping down on chewing gum and, in the memorable phrase of one off-his-rocker U.S. columnist, as a "little Hitler."

True, Lee, Cambridge educated and with a talent for turning a phrase, has been tough as nails with fools, incompetents and fact-fumbling critics. But on the other side, Lee believes government exists to solve problems and better the lives of people, not consume their wealth and protect bureaucracies and the status quo.

If Singapore has a public-policy problem, Lee believes a public-policy solution must be found. The answer to homelessness is to give people shelter -- and scoff at anyone advocating the "right" to be homeless. People who litter are enemies of the state; drug users are the destroyers of lives and families. People who don't work or study hard are morally deficient. Public officials who accept bribes or produce mediocre work should be removed. But they also should be paid competitively with private-sector workers to obviate a built-in formula for corruption. Any questions?

Lee is billed on the Geneva-based World Economic Forum's annual East Asia summit program, which started Sunday, as "Asia's leading statesman, thinker and moral authority." A bit fawning, to be sure, but it's indicative of his high regard internationally.

Similarly, Mahathir was the star of the annual leaders meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali last week. Like Lee, he has been the leader of a one-party democracy. When he took control of Malaysia, it was a mess, just like Singapore. He nudged his country, step by step, into the modern world, whether his fellow Malays liked it or not. Mainly, they didn't, so Mahathir has excoriated his countrymen for their laziness and lack of ambition.

That admonition, unheeded, propelled Mahathir to implement a policy of affirmative action for the Malay majority to reduce the Malays' violent hatred of the country's minority Chinese. As cockeyed as the policy was ethically -- affirmative action for the majority? -- it worked. Economic growth increased and ethnic tension decreased. Today, Malaysia is a success story.

But in the West, this dumb-as-a-fox moderate Muslim leader is often decried, like Lee, as a little Mussolini. His anti-Western (and sometimes anti-Semitic) rhetoric has done him little good, especially in his efforts to raise funds for his pet economic development projects. But Mahathir will speak his mind whenever his mind is made up, which is sometimes too often. Like Lee, he is a terminator of fools and foolish ideas.

At this writing, Singapore and Malaysia are both in economic trouble -- as is California. Citizen morale all around is not high. No one is blaming founding fathers Lee and Mahathir, but their successors are under the public-opinion gun. Their countries need Lee and Mahathir to remind them of how far they have come. And California needs Schwarzenegger to be more like a Lee/Mahathir than an Estrada. Is that asking too much?

UCLA professor Tom Plate is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2003 Tom Plate

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