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Will Southeast Asia Succeed? Personal Reflections from Two Decades

Will Southeast Asia Succeed? Personal Reflections from Two Decades
 
Date/Time: Feb 02, 2005 / 5.00pm
Venue: SIIA HOME
 

Mr. Norbert Van Hofmann, head of office for regional cooperation in Southeast Asia of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (German non-profit foundation committed to the values of social democracy) shared his personal insights on the issues and challenges facing Southeast Asia with a crowd of SIIA members.
The session began with an opening remark by Professor Simon Tay, chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs on the importance of the topic for us to think through on a longer term perspective. The question of Southeast Asian succeeding is a live one and often asked in many ways. In his statement, “We should question ourselves on what is success, and is it purely economic or is it to be rounded off in social, economic and other pillars of growth and success.” Secondly, on the economic front, given the competitive environment from India and China and even Eastern Europe, will Southeast Asias ucceed economically? An alternative way of questioning is, would there be a Southeast Asia? That is understood in term of the need of China and India to belong to a certain framework i.e. to embrace an East Asian framework. This is no doubt an interesting topic to address at this juncture in time.
Before directing his attention to the main topic, Mr. Hofmann described his so-called “first encounter” with Asia, during the 1960s when demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Since then, after a short stint in the FES office in Africa, he had spent 22 years looking at Asia, first in Thailand, then Vietnam, Singapore and then back to FES HQ in Berlin to be placed in charge of Northeast Asia. He came back to Singapore in 2002 for his final posting before retirement. In these 22 years, living and travelling around Asia, he has met with a plethora of social groups ranging from the media to the activists, to technocrats and royal families. Recalling his initial visit to Bangkok in 1983 and looking at the picture of the current Tsunami disaster in Phuket, he recognized the enormous uncontrolled and unplanned development in many islands of Thailand, leading him to think of one of the main critics about development in this region – the lack of care for the environment in the rush to invest and make money in as short time as possible. This attitude towards development has driven Thailand and perhaps a couple of other countries of SE Asia towards uncontrolled investments.
He commented briefly on the political situation in Thailand mentioning the failure of their trade union to organize themselves. Similar to the Philippines, the local and the farmers have been the backbone of the campaign to elect the strong man into power and that the main democratic deficit of Thailand and Philippine is the failure of the political system to response to the needs of the rural as well as the urban poor. Uncontrolled trade, capital liberalization, privatization and deregulation has increased the number of desperately poor and increasing the inequality gap within the country. This has thus driven the poor to hold a cynical view of politics and vulnerable to the promises of “politicized charlatans” such as Estrada. In the absence of social and political means to organize electoral participation, politicians will be recognized by name and fame. Best known names are thus of business tycoon, military generals and movie stars.
On Indonesia, he hopes that it would not follow the same path of Philippines and Thailand. He was impressed by the success of the three elections last year and their apparent transition to democracy. The people had realised the power of their votes and in the last election had punished the non-performing party and politicians especially the PDI-P of Megawati Sukarnoputri. Now the new President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had promised to tackle government corruption, the inefficiencies in the legal system, etc. Should he fail to live up to his promises, he would be ousted out of government like Megawati after just one term. Indonesians living under dictatorship for such a long time will be keen to regain exercise their democratic rights and voting power. Looking at Susilo’s performance up till now, he is skeptical. Susilo’s management of the disaster relief in Aceh, leaving it to the military generals and chief of staffs, and his vice-president who in turn tried to subjugate international support in Aceh to the control of TNI was cause for concern.
Coming to Vietnam, he recalled his first visit in 1989 where Hanoi was dark, undeveloped and similar to the state of Rangoon. When talking to the politicians and bureaucrats, he sensed a wide view of opinions ranging from those in favour of genuine changes to the conservatives who would only be forced to change for the sake of survival of the communist party. Quoting the saying of Deng Xiaoping, “If you open the door you have to accept the flies to come in”. His sense is that this is not the case in Vietnam. The communist leaders want to maintain a tight control over the changes, and reforms to them are accepted only when absolutely necessary to survive. The reform in the middle of 1980s did not take place because leaders accepted the failure of their politics but rather due to the hunger riots on the streets. His optimism towards Vietnam however lies in the fact the Vietnam people are forward looking and champions at improvising. The reason for Vietnam economic achievement these days is largely due to self sufficiency in food supply which allows substantial export of rice. Due to the de-collectivization in favour of family enterprises, Vietnam was able to switch from a rice importer to a rice exporter in 1988. For Mr. Hofmann, it was not a reform or transformation but rather a revival of the traditional division of labor. Thus he was critical of the reforms although economic growth has been impressive. However, he outlined many underlying problems such as a widening gap between the rich and the poor and the unequal benefits of gains within the country. He was pessimistic about the de-politicisation of the country in favour of technocrats revealing his perspective of the importance of political regime and that without a political base and will, technocrats cannot deliver long term vision, objectives and political programs.
On Myanmar, his pessimism stems from the lack of development, lack of official mechanism for measuring the economy, lack of statistics which he observed and he revealed his sense of humour by mentioning that an official once mentioned to him that astrology was used in measuring and predicting the future growth rate! In regards to the 7 point road map to democracy, he was sceptical and that compliance serve as a legitimization factor for the current government rather than a sincere desire for changes. As for the release of Ann San Suu Kyi, his view was that the military government would want to put things in order before releasing her.
Lastly, on Singapore and Malaysia, he was sceptical about changes and noted that there was little to indicate that democratic space and civil liberty will rein in the near future. On Malaysia, the success of Badawi of UMNO is due to the success of his campaign and his focus on a humbler, cleaner and more responsive government He thinks the inability of Malaysia’s opposition to form a viable coalition of multi-ethnic, religion, cultural electorate could be one of the reason why the possibility of change in government is remote.
He mentioned a couple of human rights situation in Malaysia and Singapore such as the Anwar Ibrahim case and the Internal Security Acts (ISA) in Singapore and his encounter with one of the longest detainee – Chia Thye Poh. He also highlighted the PAP’s 50th Anniversary celebration last November and although the Party had many good values, he stressed that “Not everything that is legal is legitimate”. It would be great if Singapore leaders stop seeing full fledge democracy, civil and human rights as a possible offset for economic growth, development and security. Such would be necessary for peaceful living together and sustainable development. Government should remove outdated laws, restrictions and policies i.e. on public speech in response to the changing landscape. Citizens should be encouraged to participate in politics outside the ruling party.
To conclude the session, he reiterated that the region will succeed if the following four indicators that have emerged continue to strengthen: the speeding up of the reforms of the economy, focusing on the country’s real competitive strength; people becoming more aware of the importance of good governance; a common recognition that democracy and social justice and inseparable; and most importantly, the emergence of a more open and democratic government.
Question & Answer
The Q and A session following the remarks included both the political and economic dimensions. A couple of interesting questions asked included the role of political system in economic development, citing the success of Socialist countries like China and Vietnam versus. democratic ones like the Philippines. Mr. Hofmann’s stressed on the importance of the rule of law above democratic rights apparent in Western democracies and that good governance and non-corruption is the way forward praising Singapore as an ideal learning example for the region. In response to why some countries in Southeast Asia were unable to take off unlike Singapore and Malaysia, he emphasized the agricultural makeup of some countries and that such a base would take a longer time for transition to take place towards an industrial, manufacture, IT or even knowledge based economy.
On the question of the possibility of independent and free labor unions in Asia, Mr. Hoffman’s cited the example of Singapore where 25% of the labor is organized by NTUC. On the other hand, as also mentioned earlier in his speech, the Philippinesand Thailand has several small independent unions while socialist Vietnam workers are affiliated to the Party and Cambodia has few independent movements. He also mentioned that the ASEAN Trade Union Council had little impact on several countries like Cambodiaand Laos. Ultimately, the international (ASEAN) community has little say in such issues of domestic politics.
On a similar subject matter, he addressed the question of political diversity in the region reiterating on the difficulties in bringing diverse political systems together for an ASEAN political cooperation. National cooperation aside, even within a country, different ideologies and values are hard to consolidate. Thus, for as long as international agreements are non-binding, a consensus would be hard to achieve.
Chairman Simon Tay noted that 1997 is always seen as a watershed for Southeast Asia. He asked Mr von Hoffman for his assessment if such a financial crisis would return again. Mr Von Hoffman’s positively responded with an illustration, “When the ball has started to roll, it will be difficult to stop”. A growing middle class in Asia signals a level of progress that would counter the triggers of the earlier financial crisis. It is also a good sign towards democratic developments in Asia, and therefore a crisis of such similar scale may be less likely.
He stated on his final remark, “If any part of the world has a chance to succeed, it will be this part”, reiterating once again on the need to be mindful of social justice and a fair distribution of economic gains.
Report by Joanne Lin
SIIA Research and Public Education Coordinator

Event Report: 

Mr. Norbert Van Hofmann, head of office for regional cooperation in
Southeast Asia of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (German non-profit
foundation committed to the values of social democracy) shared his
personal insights on the issues and challenges facing Southeast Asia
with a crowd of SIIA members.

The session began with an opening remark by Professor Simon Tay,
chairman of Singapore Institute of International Affairs on the
importance of the topic for us to think through on a longer term
perspective. The question of Southeast Asian succeeding is a live one
and often asked in many ways. In his statement, “We should question
ourselves on what is success, and is it purely economic or is it to be
rounded off in social, economic and other pillars of growth and
success.” Secondly, on the economic front, given the competitive
environment from India and China and even Eastern Europe, will
Southeast Asias ucceed economically? An alternative way of questioning
is, would there be a Southeast Asia? That is understood in term of the
need of China and India to belong to a certain framework i.e. to
embrace an East Asian framework. This is no doubt an interesting topic
to address at this juncture in time.

Before directing his attention to the main topic, Mr. Hofmann
described his so-called “first encounter” with Asia, during the 1960s
when demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Since then, after a
short stint in the FES office in Africa, he had spent 22 years looking
at Asia, first in Thailand, then Vietnam, Singapore and then back to
FES HQ in Berlin to be placed in charge of Northeast Asia. He came back
to Singapore in 2002 for his final posting before retirement. In these
22 years, living and travelling around Asia, he has met with a plethora
of social groups ranging from the media to the activists, to
technocrats and royal families. Recalling his initial visit to Bangkok
in 1983 and looking at the picture of the current Tsunami disaster in
Phuket, he recognized the enormous uncontrolled and unplanned
development in many islands of Thailand, leading him to think of one of
the main critics about development in this region – the lack of care
for the environment in the rush to invest and make money in as short
time as possible. This attitude towards development has driven Thailand
and perhaps a couple of other countries of SE Asia towards uncontrolled
investments.

He commented briefly on the political situation in Thailand
mentioning the failure of their trade union to organize themselves.
Similar to the Philippines, the local and the farmers have been the
backbone of the campaign to elect the strong man into power and that
the main democratic deficit of Thailand and Philippine is the failure
of the political system to response to the needs of the rural as well
as the urban poor. Uncontrolled trade, capital liberalization,
privatization and deregulation has increased the number of desperately
poor and increasing the inequality gap within the country. This has
thus driven the poor to hold a cynical view of politics and vulnerable
to the promises of “politicized charlatans” such as Estrada. In the
absence of social and political means to organize electoral
participation, politicians will be recognized by name and fame. Best
known names are thus of business tycoon, military generals and movie
stars.

On Indonesia, he hopes that it would not follow the same path of
Philippines and Thailand. He was impressed by the success of the three
elections last year and their apparent transition to democracy. The
people had realised the power of their votes and in the last election
had punished the non-performing party and politicians especially the
PDI-P of Megawati Sukarnoputri. Now the new President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono had promised to tackle government corruption, the
inefficiencies in the legal system, etc. Should he fail to live up to
his promises, he would be ousted out of government like Megawati after
just one term. Indonesians living under dictatorship for such a long
time will be keen to regain exercise their democratic rights and voting
power. Looking at Susilo’s performance up till now, he is skeptical.
Susilo’s management of the disaster relief in Aceh, leaving it to the
military generals and chief of staffs, and his vice-president who in
turn tried to subjugate international support in Aceh to the control of
TNI was cause for concern.

Coming to Vietnam, he recalled his first visit in 1989 where Hanoi
was dark, undeveloped and similar to the state of Rangoon. When talking
to the politicians and bureaucrats, he sensed a wide view of opinions
ranging from those in favour of genuine changes to the conservatives
who would only be forced to change for the sake of survival of the
communist party. Quoting the saying of Deng Xiaoping, “If you open the
door you have to accept the flies to come in”. His sense is that this
is not the case in Vietnam. The communist leaders want to maintain a
tight control over the changes, and reforms to them are accepted only
when absolutely necessary to survive. The reform in the middle of 1980s
did not take place because leaders accepted the failure of their
politics but rather due to the hunger riots on the streets. His
optimism towards Vietnam however lies in the fact the Vietnam people
are forward looking and champions at improvising. The reason for
Vietnam economic achievement these days is largely due to self
sufficiency in food supply which allows substantial export of rice. Due
to the de-collectivization in favour of family enterprises, Vietnam was
able to switch from a rice importer to a rice exporter in 1988. For Mr.
Hofmann, it was not a reform or transformation but rather a revival of
the traditional division of labor. Thus he was critical of the reforms
although economic growth has been impressive. However, he outlined many
underlying problems such as a widening gap between the rich and the
poor and the unequal benefits of gains within the country. He was
pessimistic about the de-politicisation of the country in favour of
technocrats revealing his perspective of the importance of political
regime and that without a political base and will, technocrats cannot
deliver long term vision, objectives and political programs.

On Myanmar, his pessimism stems from the lack of development, lack
of official mechanism for measuring the economy, lack of statistics
which he observed and he revealed his sense of humour by mentioning
that an official once mentioned to him that astrology was used in
measuring and predicting the future growth rate! In regards to the 7
point road map to democracy, he was sceptical and that compliance serve
as a legitimization factor for the current government rather than a
sincere desire for changes. As for the release of Ann San Suu Kyi, his
view was that the military government would want to put things in order
before releasing her.

Lastly, on Singapore and Malaysia, he was sceptical about changes
and noted that there was little to indicate that democratic space and
civil liberty will rein in the near future. On Malaysia, the success of
Badawi of UMNO is due to the success of his campaign and his focus on a
humbler, cleaner and more responsive government He thinks the inability
of Malaysia’s opposition to form a viable coalition of multi-ethnic,
religion, cultural electorate could be one of the reason why the
possibility of change in government is remote.

He mentioned a couple of human rights situation in Malaysia and
Singapore such as the Anwar Ibrahim case and the Internal Security Acts
(ISA) in Singapore and his encounter with one of the longest detainee –
Chia Thye Poh. He also highlighted the PAP’s 50th Anniversary
celebration last November and although the Party had many good values,
he stressed that “Not everything that is legal is legitimate”. It would
be great if Singapore leaders stop seeing full fledge democracy, civil
and human rights as a possible offset for economic growth, development
and security. Such would be necessary for peaceful living together and
sustainable development. Government should remove outdated laws,
restrictions and policies i.e. on public speech in response to the
changing landscape. Citizens should be encouraged to participate in
politics outside the ruling party.

To conclude the session, he reiterated that the region will succeed
if the following four indicators that have emerged continue to
strengthen: the speeding up of the reforms of the economy, focusing on
the country’s real competitive strength; people becoming more aware of
the importance of good governance; a common recognition that democracy
and social justice and inseparable; and most importantly, the emergence
of a more open and democratic government.

Question & Answer
The Q and A session following the remarks included both the political
and economic dimensions. A couple of interesting questions asked
included the role of political system in economic development, citing
the success of Socialist countries like China and Vietnam versus.
democratic ones like the Philippines. Mr. Hofmann’s stressed on the
importance of the rule of law above democratic rights apparent in
Western democracies and that good governance and non-corruption is the
way forward praising Singapore as an ideal learning example for the
region. In response to why some countries in Southeast Asia were unable
to take off unlike Singapore and Malaysia, he emphasized the
agricultural makeup of some countries and that such a base would take a
longer time for transition to take place towards an industrial,
manufacture, IT or even knowledge based economy.
On the question of the possibility of independent and free labor unions
in Asia, Mr. Hoffman’s cited the example of Singapore where 25% of the
labor is organized by NTUC. On the other hand, as also mentioned
earlier in his speech, the Philippinesand Thailand has several small
independent unions while socialist Vietnam workers are affiliated to
the Party and Cambodia has few independent movements. He also mentioned
that the ASEAN Trade Union Council had little impact on several
countries like Cambodiaand Laos. Ultimately, the international (ASEAN)
community has little say in such issues of domestic politics.

On a similar subject matter, he addressed the question of political
diversity in the region reiterating on the difficulties in bringing
diverse political systems together for an ASEAN political cooperation.
National cooperation aside, even within a country, different ideologies
and values are hard to consolidate. Thus, for as long as international
agreements are non-binding, a consensus would be hard to achieve.

Chairman Simon Tay noted that 1997 is always seen as a watershed for
Southeast Asia. He asked Mr von Hoffman for his assessment if such a
financial crisis would return again. Mr Von Hoffman’s positively
responded with an illustration, “When the ball has started to roll, it
will be difficult to stop”. A growing middle class in Asia signals a
level of progress that would counter the triggers of the earlier
financial crisis. It is also a good sign towards democratic
developments in Asia, and therefore a crisis of such similar scale may
be less likely.

He stated on his final remark, “If any part of the world has a
chance to succeed, it will be this part”, reiterating once again on the
need to be mindful of social justice and a fair distribution of
economic gains.

Report by Joanne Lin
SIIA Research and Public Education Coordinator

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