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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

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Now, the Sinatra Principle
"We all did it our own way," croons Mahathir
BY ALEJANDRO REYES Singapore

From the makers of Asian values comes a new, post-Crisis concept. Listen to what Mahathir Mohamad had to say last week at the World Economic Forum's East Asia Economic Summit in Singapore. Addressing an audience of mainly Western executives, Malaysia's prime minister mused: "Contrary to those who seek the holy grail - the single model, the simple path, the one standard formula, the one 'secret' of Asia's success - I believe that the various Asian societies have been inventing and reinventing themselves according to different formulas at different times. We have each taken our own unique paths to the so-called 'Asian miracle.' There has never been a single model. We achieved whatever we have achieved according to the Sinatra Principle - we have all done it our own way."

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ASEAN: An Indochinese Caucus After a conclave in Vientiane, fears of a split

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir
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So forget the Asian Way. The real key to East Asia's success has been a "devotion to pragmatism." Mahathir crowed about how his unorthodox Crisis remedy - selective currency controls and the pegging of the ringgit to the U.S. dollar - had produced results at least comparable to the more painful IMF-approved solutions implemented in other economies. "No one anywhere has concluded that our currency measures have been a spectacular failure," he said wryly. The PM's conclusion: "Do what works, rather than [apply] any fundamentalist economic theories."

Mahathir wasn't the only one preaching the "no-dogma dogma." The "age of dragons and tigers when we in Asia could do no wrong" is fading, said Malaysian deputy primary industries minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. Malaysians, he said, are now less glassy-eyed, more pragmatic. "There is a mistaken view that [we] are against globalization," he said. "We can't stop the world from turning and we don't want to. We listen to world opinion, but that does not mean we will sacrifice everything." He added: "It is up to us to mold society. If need be we must protect people from the worst excesses of globalization. The market cannot be left to regulate all human intercourse. Markets are made to serve the people and not the other way around." In his speech, Mahathir also proposed that an East Asian Monetary Fund be set up to enhance regional cooperation.

The Thais touted their own Crisis approach. "We believe in the rewards and penalties of a free-market system," declared Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. He stressed the need to embrace globalization and openness. "Political development should go hand-in-hand with other aspects of development. Democratic ideals and concepts of popular participation are closely linked with principles of competition and the free-market economy." Chuan's protégé and minister in his office, Abhisit Vejjajiva, echoed the PM's views: "People aren't just consumers. They want to exercise their choice. So it is likely the concepts of political and human rights will shape expectations. Democratization is an inevitable trend." He noted, however, that the march of democracy won't happen without resistance and countries will open up politically at different speeds.

Reacting to suggestions that economic recovery is diminishing East Asia's zeal for tough restructuring, Abhisit, 35, said that if a rebound weren't on the way, it would be harder to convince suffering citizens that reforms were necessary. He railed at those who implied that the Crisis was somehow not deep enough, that Asia hadn't been taught its lesson. The people who were hurt by recession, those who lost their jobs or had to leave school, are innocent victims, undeserving of punishment, said Abhisit. To suggest they should suffer more is wrong. "Foreign creditors must bear the responsibility," he argued. "And yet foreign investors are still resisting the notion" of not being allowed to withdraw funds amid a crisis.

While Asian governments have been criticized for corruption, the private sector must also be held responsible, Abhisit said. "Every time you hear of an official taking bribes, ask who paid those bribes."

It was left to Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew to spell out the implications of the Sinatra Principle. There will be high flyers and flightless birds in the globalized economy. Those who undergo painful reforms and adapt to international rules will soar. Those who don't will not take off. Said Lee: "[You] either get into shape, respond to market signals and watch the bottom line - or the whole economy will stagnate. To varying extents, all countries understand this. The question is how painful it will be to adjust to this new paradigm."

Several Western speakers with the same message defensively stressed that Asia isn't being force-fed "Anglo-Saxon" formulas under the cover of international rules of the game. "It won't be a question of Americanization, but [the application of] a global standard," said James Schiro, chief executive officer of international consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers. Asia's economies may be going their own ways, but that does not mean they aren't headed generally toward the same destination.

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