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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

Sign-off 1998

LOOKING AHEAD WITH OPTIMISM
From the debris of empires, Asia enters a more authentic reality

By Rehman Rashid


ALL IS WELL, ALL is good, all is moving as it should. Some words you may not have heard in relation to the Asian economic crisis: relief, optimism, hope. Within the crippling convulsions of the past couple of years in the region, there has stirred a half-delirious sense of promise. There is catharsis in pain, certainly; the scourging scours the mirror clean. The lessons learned, the incompetencies unveiled, the uneasy realities revealed beneath the lofty motives of national development - all moments of home truth for the societies and administrations of the Crisis-afflicted nations of East Asia.

But there was relief in this irruption of sobriety. Fun as it had been, no one had expected the party to last. There was Japan, swinging from its gibbet off the China coast, barely living proof of what can happen when the endaka is done. At the zenith of prosperity was a nadir of banality; a dour national ennui. Questions of quality-of-life begin disturbing those of standard-of-living. Then the bubble pops, and in its falling shards is reflected the sad image of pretty much who you were before getting so gloriously rich. That prosperity did not change us as much as education could: there lies the true misery of it.

But there, too, lies our redemption. For the collapse took place in precisely the manner required for the nations of the region finally to emerge from their first half-centuries as the debris of abandoned Western empires, into a reality more authentically theirs. Having spent our first two generations trying to mimic the masters, it dawned on the developing nations of Asia that their third generations were beginning to wonder why. Now they know. (And as any venerable Asian family knows, it's the third generation that will determine what your name means thereafter.)

The toppling of Asian economies was called a "contagion," as though it were a deadly virus felling them like mad cows. The view from Malaysia was radically different. This collapse was not the consequence of systemic weaknesses in Asia; this was not the acquired immune deficiency the International Monetary Fund insisted it was. Asia was not sick, and did not feel particularly sick. But this felt like a surgeon's scalpel slicing away the combined economies of half a billion people like so much diseased flesh.

There was no need for that amputation. The speculators who ravaged our currencies, their water-wheeling deals spinning no matter which way the river flowed, could have made their fortunes just as well had ours grown. So what was this scolding from the West over the profligacy and ineptitude of our systems? No Invisible Hand at work here; this was personal.

While Asian leaders such as Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad railed against individuals such as George Soros, we imagined fresh-faced fund managers and investment analysts gleefully downgrading us, junking our bonds and dumping our currencies out of sheer spite. What else could explain it? There was something nasty in the woodshed, and when the "contagion" attacked the stock markets as well, it was confirmed. This was not about free markets, globalized economies, industrialization, democratization or any other such euphemism for Westernization. This was Us versus Them, and it was a grudge match.

This is why the Asian response has been so firmly rooted in nationalism, and why this is the richest soil from which an Asian rebirth will grow. The Crisis has catalyzed political change where such change was most wanted, as in Indonesia and Malaysia. It has led to constitutional reform in Thailand and reaffirmed constancy in Singapore. The nations are coping in their very different ways, from the hard-bitten bullets of Indonesia and donations of personal jewellery in Thailand to the restructuring of South Korea and the literal flag-waving of Malaysia; even the boisterous democracy of the Philippines has turned into an article of national pride in itself. But they are coping in defense of their own identities, perhaps even their sovereignties, as nations.

It will take a year or two to restore their administrations and economies to an even keel. Indonesia and Malaysia face important elections in this time. No one ever expects to regain the intoxicant levels of the boom years, but neither is it considered necessarily bad to stop living beyond our means on a raft of imported dreams. (It has certainly spelled immediate relief for the environment.) Painful, difficult times allow for painful, difficult changes. The suggestion that all this is at the behest and to the design of Western powers, though galling, is mistaken at both ends and in any case irrelevant.

However they weather these storms, these tempest-tossed nations will emerge with fewer impediments to a more sensible socio-economic dynamic across the region. The signs, already manifest in migrant manpower, cross-border development and mutual resource management, now include a fiercely renewed sense of a common fate and perhaps the deepened mutual respect that will empower it. Economies divided as imperial legacies among newly sovereign nations have realized the silliness of carrying on as such.

A region isolated has overcome the shock of abandonment by recognizing that it's not a lonely morsel adrift in an ocean of predators, but quite a hefty beast in its own right. A happy irony: as the euro makes its debut, the Old Masters of Europe may yet be pointing the way forward for their sometime wards in the ASEAN Nine.

Wherever this leads in the future - and it will take that Third Generation to get there - it will surely lead to survival. That's all we've ever been really good at; it's Asia's ultimate talent. Wealth here has always come as a consequence of survival, never as a precursor to it. As at last the 20th century begins to turn, perhaps we shall see Asia mark these last rites of passage by ringing out the new, for a change, and ringing in the old.

- Rehman Rashid is a freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur


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