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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Democracy? Good leaders matter more


SINGAPORE -- The notion of multiparty democracy as an ideal one-size-fits-all form of government is, I am sorry to have to report, not exactly bowling people over these days. Take a look at Thailand and the Philippines, which Washington has often enshrined on its ideological placards as a pair of shining democracies amid a political landscape otherwise littered with brutal dictatorships, severe one-party quasi-democracies or whatever.

Goodbye to fantasy island: Manila's fragile democracy is in turmoil over serious allegations that President Gloria Arroyo manipulated the results of her re-election in 2004 (sound anything like Florida 2000?); and in Bangkok, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, though duly elected, has resigned over a firestorm of charges involving family corruption and political incompetence.

Indeed, Thaksin's forced resignation has only added fuel to the political firestorm of flames licking at the feet of the Arroyo presidency. Many Filipinos want Arroyo to take a hint from Thaksin.

In Asia, a lot of people say that elections are meaningless rituals if they do not produce good results. Pakistan, for example, had a modeled parliamentary democratic system that was as corrupt as could be. In truth, things didn't improve until strongman Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over and started to knock some sense into the place.

Strongmen are not necessarily a bad thing if they are smart and their hearts are in the right place. Did you know that otherwise democratic Thailand actually has a king? And did you know that the Thai people in general tend to like and respect him? So much so that when King Bhumibol Adulyadej called Thaksin in for a chat the other day, the widespread belief was that after the king was finished speaking, millionaire-businessman Thaksin would be finished politically. And he was.

Or take the political situation in Singapore. This tiny city-state of a country is as politically stable as the Vatican City and sometimes it seems almost as wealthy. It's true that for decades people have been allowed to vote (sort of), but the opposition to the long-in-power People's Action Party was usually, by manipulation if not design, a joke.

The prime architect of successful modern Singapore, with the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia, was Lee Kuan Yew, now 82. He now has the somewhat silly title of minister mentor (he mostly mentors other ministers, including his son, who's now the prime minister).

Lee has been called every un-nice name in the Western political insult book -- from "the Little Hitler of Southeast Asia" (from an American newspaper columnist who'd never met him) to the kinder "soft authoritarian." But in my book he is nothing short of a political genius who is showing people that multiparty democracy peopled by semi-corrupt politicians and well-heeled special-interest lobbies does not always produce anything like the best governance.

Turns out, "Little Hitler" himself was in Saudi Arabia last month, and the king, prince and advisers were bowing to him as if he were some kind of secular political pope. They all wanted the details on how Singapore has managed to become so wealthy, have such a squeaky-clean environment, enable most families to own rather than rent their homes and offer first-rate public education.

And when the Saudis come to Singapore anew for further briefings on how it is done, they will want to check in with the redoubtable Kishore Mahbubani, who until recently was a highly regarded ambassador to the United Nations (which, by the way, will need a new secretary general by next year, if anyone's interested in nominating Mahbubani).

Mahbubani, an ethnic Indian with the gift of gab like an Asian Cicero, is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Its mission is to educate not just Singaporeans but students and officials in the immediate region, especially those who are serious about seeing really good public policies put into action.

Visiting the school last month, I noticed that very many of the students were from Asia, including Chinese from the mainland and some from Vietnam. That sort of surprised me: In any self-respecting communist-controlled state, the party is the fount of all wisdom. So why would a public-policy school be needed? It looks as if at least some of the party bosses in Hanoi have figured out that no one institution can have all the answers.

Vietnam is even thinking of starting its own public-policy school, and it has begun preliminary consultations with policy schools in Singapore and even in the United States.

Let us wish the Vietnamese the best of luck. Good, smart and clean governance is in everybody's interest, whatever kind of political system produces it.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy and a veteran American journalist, has recently been traveling in Southeast Asia.

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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