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Friday, June 11, 2010

Who to credit for Asia's extraordinary rise?

LOS ANGELES — The extraordinary rise of Asia in recent decades cannot be understood or appreciated without some reference to outstanding leadership. Consider the experience of other regions of the world.

In the 19th century, Europe immensely benefited from the machinations of its Machiavellian empire-building leaders.

In the 20th century — the "American Century" — no one can imagine the United States having such global success without its Roosevelts and Kennedys.

Now, as Asia bodes to supersede America as the dominant global region of the 21st century, one might ask whom history will identify as the leaders that helped push Asia so far forward.

That is the central question that a new book series, the first volume of which has just been launched, seeks to illuminate. It's called "Giants of Asia."

Who are these so-called giants, and how are they to be selected for the spotlight? What are the criteria? Why him and not her? The potential for argumentation is enormous and endless.

I should know. I am the one who has — foolishly or not! — started on this series. I have been wrestling with the question of Asian leadership since 1996, when my columns on America and its relationship with Asia began appearing.

At that time the region was well into its upward mobility drive. Seoul was one gigantic metropolis of drive and ambition: You could feel it the minute you stepped out of the airport cab. Shanghai back then had more construction cranes up and running than any city anywhere (and it may still). Singapore wasn't so much caning young troublemakers as redefining a worldwide gold standard for efficient and honest government.

Malaysia wasn't abandoning the farm, but it was discovering the magic of the cyber-age and the best way to escape the limitations of its laid-back culture.

India was waking up from too many dusty decades of neo-Stalinist central planning under well-meaning but wholly misconceived governance.

Tiny Taiwan and tiny Hong Kong were constantly reminding the mainland that being Chinese didn't mean having to say, "Sorry, we have no money." Japan's postwar rise may have peaked in the 1980s, but China's is nowhere near played out.

This powerful and relentless transformation of what was considered a loser area of the globe into perhaps the biggest winner of the current century didn't just happen. Credit, if you want, the hidden hand of history, but I prefer to look for tangible factors. One was the people of Asia. Many of them worked until their backs broke. Almost everyone seemed to be either working or studying.

Another reason had to be that some Asians were getting superior leadership, however one defined it.

While Africa remained more or less notorious for leaders who sucked the life — and much money — out of their countries, Asia became known for leaders who were leading their countries to new prominence, staying with the job and their countries and watching them grow to new heights.

Postcolonial Asia had drive and ambition. There was less defeatism and more realism; less demagoguery and more economic production.

No scientific way exists to identify contemporaneously, without subjectivity, the giant leaders of Asia. That is the eventual proper job of history. But I can tell you that in compiling my own list and using it to launch this series, I found there was a consensus about certain assessments:

• One was that no such series could be written without the inimitable Lee Kuan Yew. He and his elite team helped redefine Singapore and set governance standards for the entire region.

• As for Malaysia, the outspoken Mahathir Mohamad has more detractors than anyone can count; but for 22 consecutive years he was the prime minister of a country that went from nowhere on the economic map to somewhere special.

• Similarly, Ban Ki Moon, the experienced South Korean diplomat, has been having a bumpy run as U.N. secretary general, it is true. But the very fact that the world body chose as Kofi Annan's successor this hardworking gentleman from the successful southern half of the Korean Peninsula is taken by Koreans almost everywhere as an affirmation of their rise.

And so that's how I began thinking about the series. Not everyone will agree with the choices. But how can anyone argue with the concept? Without such giants of Asia, the region would not be where it is today. It is that simple.

I am happy with my choices so far. Let the debate begin.

Veteran journalist Tom Plate's latest book is "Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew," the first in a series about Asian leaders, published last month by Marshall Cavendish Asia. © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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