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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SHATTERED SUMMIT

A high-handed speech by Al Gore started this year's APEC meeting on the wrong foot.
It never recovered

By Alejandro Reyes and Tim Healy


Reporter's notebook The Crisis on the menu

Surin Interview "It would be wrong to dismiss APEC"

Abdullah Interview "There will be no witch-hunt"

Political Dialogue, APEC style Butting heads over Anwar

What happened at the summit and what didn't

IN THE PANTHEON OF American diplomatic mealtime blunders in Asia, it will probably find a place alongside the 1981 toast by then-vice president George Bush in Manila praising Ferdinand Marcos's "adherence to democratic principles." Unlike Bush, Al Gore was clearly not trying to flatter his host when he spoke at a dinner preceeding the two-day leaders' meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Kuala Lumpur. But the current U.S. vice president displayed the same sort of artlessness as his predecessor 17 years earlier. Said Gore: "Democracy confers a stamp of legitimacy that reforms must have in order to be effective." He went on: "And so, among nations suffering economic crises, we continue to hear calls for democracy, calls for reform, in many languages - People Power, doi moi, reformasi. We hear them today - right here, right now - among the brave people of Malaysia."

Put aside, for a moment, Gore's error of fact (doi moi is a program of economic renovation in Vietnam and is far from People Power) and look instead at the offense he caused. Malaysian officials were livid that a guest had chosen the occasion of an official dinner to lecture the host, in this case Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: "The most disgusting speech I've heard in my life," said Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz. "For heaven's sake, try to understand what is really going on before you open your mouth and put your big foot in it." Many Malaysians considered Gore's heavy-handed rebuke proof that he was kurang ajar (badly brought up). So did non-American businessmen and diplomats attending APEC.

Even supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister for whose benefit Gore's words were meant, seemed dismayed. Anwar faces charges ranging from sodomy to corruption; his trial, which began early this month, was suspended for the duration of the APEC conference and will resume Nov. 23. Says Syed Husin Ali, president of the opposition Malaysian People's Party and sympathetic to the cause of reform pushed by Anwar's people: "We consider Al Gore's speech as not being well-advised. It can be effectively used by Dr. Mahathir as an opportunity to strengthen his position by whipping up the people's patriotism." Of course, the essence of what Gore said - promoting democracy and reform - is no bad thing. Also, says Malaysian academic Zakaria Ahmad: "We may be over-reacting. Malaysia [itself] comments on other countries. It's fair game." But as The Straits Times in Singapore editorialized about Gore's remarks: "Wrong place, wrong time, wrong tone."

Thus did APEC's sixth annual meeting of government leaders get under way. Gore's speech - or at least the uproar caused by it - was a portent of things to come. First conceived nine years ago as a talking shop among important Pacific economies focusing mostly on trade issues, APEC this year seemed more like a venue for trading recriminations. And there were plenty to go around.

Some not-very-robust measures to provide financial aid to nations stricken by the economic Crisis were announced, but even the principle architect of the plan, the U.S., conceded that the amount of aid involved was "modest." A tentative agreement reached at last year's meeting in Vancouver to reduce trade barriers in nine economic sectors failed to make progress. In the end, all sides agreed to send the issue to the World Trade Organization, where it is likely to be delayed for at least a year - probably longer. Mahathir wanted a deal to restrict currency speculators. He didn't get it. Businesses sought progress on trade liberalization. No. The U.S. demanded Japan's concessions on opening a few of its less-important industries to imports. Forget it. Malaysians desired simple courtesy from their guests. Maybe next time.

There is irony in all these failures. Since the first APEC-leaders' gathering in Seattle back in 1993, which Mahathir refused to attend because he felt the U.S. planned to hijack the group for its own ends, the organization's value as more than political theater has been debated. This year, U.S. President Bill Clinton begged off the meeting with the excuse that he had to stay home and deal with the Iraq crisis. With Malaysia serving as APEC chair in 1998, observers wondered if the organization's reigning skeptic-in-chief would have his heart in the role.

Page 1| Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4


POLITICAL DIALOGUE, APEC STYLE

Before the summit began, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remarked that "APEC is about the economy, not politics." He would wish. Some of Mahathir's guests refused to play ball, sparking slanging matches - as the following sampling attests:

"As for my visit with [Anwar's wife] Wan Azizah, I would like to say the U.S. has made clear a number of times that Anwar Ibrahim is a highly respected leader."

- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

"Please visit. It's your democratic right to meet anybody. Maybe when I go to the U.S., I will meet [Independent Counsel] Ken Starr."

- Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's Minister for International Trade & Industry

"He [Starr] is not in prison." - Albright

"Pathetic." - State Department spokesman James Rubin, on Rafidah's Starr turn

"Among nations suffering economic crises, we hear calls for democracy, calls for reform, in many languages - People Power, doi moi, reformasi. We hear them today - right here, right now - among the brave people of Malaysia." - U.S. Vice President Al Gore

"I've never seen anybody so rude." - Mahathir, overheard saying in response to Gore's remarks

"A very beautiful speech." - Philippine President Joseph Estrada

"The most disgusting speech I have heard in my life." - Rafidah

"Most abhorrent. Most unwarranted. Gross interference." - Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi

"Politics should not get in the way of APEC." - Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong

But it has - big time.


WHAT HAPPENED AND WHAT DIDN'T

Concrete achievements out of Kuala Lumpur were hard to come by. A broad-brush outline of a Crisis response emerged, but there were no detailed measures, no plan to avoid any global recession and no agreement on early trade liberalization. Perhaps the summit's biggest achievement was to expose APEC's limitations. Key declaration points:

Pursue strategies for growth.

Strengthen social safety nets and generate employment by expanding international aid programs.

Revitalize the private sector by recapitalizing financial institutions, addressing corporate debt and improving access to trade and working capital financing.

Help bolster the international financial architecture.

Reaffirm the commitment to liberal and open markets.

Examine tighter regulation of financial institutions in industrialized economies to promote safe and sustainable capital flows.


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