THE GENERALS OF REFORM
By Ricardo Saludo
"The present means to obtain some future apparent good." Stiff though his prose may sound, Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English political philosopher, was spot on in defining power as, put simply, getting what you want. The same idea underpins his most famous work, Leviathan, which expounded on the authority a sovereign commands by ensuring the security of his or her subjects. The truism was much, much older, of course. In The Analects, the Duke Ai asks: "What should be done to secure the people's submission?" Confucius says: "Advance the upright and set aside the crooked." Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War, written more than 2,300 years ago, underlined the importance of a ruler having justice and the people's will on his side in defending his kingdom and rallying his forces.
As then, so now: on the eve of a new millennium, rulers continue to take pains to persuade their constituents that their edicts and policies will bring about the common weal. Both democrats and autocrats recognize this eternal tenet, and those who demonstrate how their rule will bring bounty to all, will see that power strengthen, even if a period of anguish shall harry the realm before the promised reward comes. Thus unfolded a year that saw a strongman fall after three decades in office, lands of once-unassailable plenty slip into distress and deprivation, and the cries for sweeping change grow louder and angrier, unstilled by recalcitrant regimes, entrenched interests and the dogged resistance of traditional whys and ways.
So what has been the vision of better things which has rallied people and powerbrokers across Asia behind leaders credibly promising it - or against despots standing in its way? In a word: reform. A year ago Suharto, who topped the first Asiaweek Power 50 ranking of the region's most powerful people three years ago, lost the presidency (and his position on the annual list). The Indonesian army still protected him, but even its firepower could not keep him in the presidential palace. Why not? Because his people saw Suharto as the main stumbling block to fundamental changes sorely needed to lift the nation from the depths of recession, repression and corruption.
In another apparent fall from grace, Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim lost out in his rivalry with the faction of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last September. Anwar was fired as deputy PM and finance minister, arrested under the draconian Internal Security Act, beaten up, tried and convicted of corruption, sentenced to six years imprisonment, and now charged with sexual offenses. Yet far from being just another power-play casualty to be written off, Anwar retains considerable clout among hundreds of thousands of Malaysians. Why? Because many see him as the best hope they have to bring greater democracy and freedom to the country.
How the reform imperative has brought the region's wielders of power up or down, in or out, over the past 12 months - that has been the defining factor in The Asiaweek Power 50 this year. And in the fortunes of the list's topnotchers. For the most powerful personages in Asia owe the bulk of their authority not to armed might, astounding wealth or awe-inspiring titles. No, Asia's No. 1 clout-carriers have cowed opponents, rammed through edicts and wowed nation and region largely on the strength of two intertwined potencies: their reform agenda and the widespread backing it has won from the masses, the markets and the media. And yes, the plurals throughout this paragraph are exactly that. As the leading generals of Asian reform and the toughest bosses in the region, sharing top spot in the Power 50 are, alphabetically, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.
A tie? Measuring power is anything but an exact science, so to arrive at parity between two national leaders in different time zones, political structures and economic systems - how'd they do that? Just in case it needed to be said, there are no such things as calipers to measure clout, so Kim and Zhu at No. 1 does not mean there is some identical power rating that Asiaweek calculated for the two leaders. Rather, once the exercise and major components of each man's power are taken into account, from the Korean president's electoral mandate to the Chinese PM's command over the world's second-largest economy after the U.S., the thoroughly deliberated conclusion is that both deserve to be No. 1 in the Power 50.
Zhu's power is simpler to explain, being mainly economic. As premier, he holds many levers of control over China's economy, which remains largely state-controlled and is now over 50% bigger than Japan's in purchasing-power-parity terms. But the real measure of his clout lies in his advocacy of reform against the stubborn and quite formidable resistance of entrenched company bosses, corrupt officials and iron-ricebowl workers. He has won kudos for his campaign to restructure or shut down badly run state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and international trust and investment companies (ITICs). He has resisted pressure from exporters to devalue and backed Hong Kong's own battle against currency speculators.
The engineer premier has hit some speed bumps in his drive to get China into the World Trade Organization, including the current rupture in Sino-U.S. relations over NATO's tragic bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. But given Beijing's need to keep reform going in order to boost growth, competitiveness and investment, it is the hope of many inside and outside the country that Zhu continue wielding power for economic change. Any apparent setback in his struggle due to social unrest or political obstacles is likely to be temporary, because if it isn't - or worse, if Zhu falls - it will almost surely hit confidence in China, Hong Kong and their currencies. Not to mention the rest of Asia.
Kim rules over a much smaller country and economy than Zhu, but his power spans political, military and economic spheres. The Korean is head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Asia's fourth-largest after China's, India's and North Korea's. His economic restructuring initiatives have had more sweeping and deeper impact, with a credit squeeze put on chaebol that resist change, a tripartite pact for restructuring forged among business, unions and the government, and the sale of major banks to foreign entities. Kim has even brokered swaps of major industrial ventures between top business groups, and pressured Korean Air to replace its CEO after a recent crash.
Many may wonder how a democratic leader like Kim can move so fast and decisively on painful reform, while Zhu, the premier of an autocratic government, seems to take greater care in pushing his agenda for change. That Kim has no president to answer to is just part of the reason; so is his deft, if heavy-handed domination of Parliament. But a more fundamental reason is, in fact, democracy itself. With his election mandate and the tripartite deal, the Korean president can face down corporate chiefs, military brass, high-level bureaucrats and parliamentary factions.
On the other hand, Zhu and even President Jiang Zemin (No. 3 in the Power 50) draw authority from such centers of power in China and often have to avoid antagonizing them. However, the caution of any leader advancing and retreating on the road to reform is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Half-full and half-empty comes to mind in judging any reformer's record of change, and what matters more is not the individual steps forward or back, but the overall direction. For Kim and Zhu, the trajectory is clear and seems likely to continue for some time to come.
In the next several years, however, the outcome of reform efforts could trim or treble the clout of both Kim and Zhu. Jiang's long-term position would also be less secure if the drive for change falters; hence, he needs to back Zhu. Other leaders are likely to rise or fall with reform's progress, including Thai PM Chuan Leekpai (No. 7) and top finance officials like Japanese bank reformer Yanagisawa Hakuo (No. 8), chaebol-buster Lee Hun Jai (No. 16), and finance czars Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore (No. 18), Donald Tsang of Hong Kong (No. 19) and Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda of Thailand (No. 28). Advising and sometimes prodding them is Hubert Neiss (No. 10), the International Monetary Fund's top man in charge of Asia, who represents last year's Power 50 head honcho, IMF managing director Michel Camdessus. But Neiss has had to ease up on economic targets after the Fund admitted it had underestimated Asia's slump. Malaysia's Mahathir, meanwhile, is also to be judged on his controversial deviations from IMF orthodoxy.
In recasting and shoring up the financial sectors of entire countries, the money mandarins can alter fundamentally how economies run and where resources go. In a lesser degree, so can restructuring-minded businessmen, who are also climbing the Power 50 ladder. Foremost among them are two Japanese innovators. In his drive for creativity, efficiency and profitability at electronics and entertainment juggernaut Sony, president Idei Nobuyuki (No. 15) is inspiring others in Japan Inc. Breaking into the list for the first time is another Tokyo high-tech high-flyer, software tycoon Son Masayoshi (No. 30). His Internet forays have catapulted him into very serious money indeed.
Two Hong Kong names, property billionaire Li Ka-shing (No. 9) and First Pacific Group chairman Manuel Pangilinan (No. 39), have also shown the capacity to move boldly into novel areas, like the Cyberport project of Li's son Richard and Pangilinan's Southeast Asian acquisitions, including Philippine phone giant PLDT. Samsung's Lee Kun Hee (No. 44) and Philippine tycoon Eugenio Lopez (No. 38) also show both old money and new strategies. At the same time, many innovative and entrepreneurial businessmen seem quite willing and able to work traditional levers of power for commercial advantage. That past and future ways mix in the march to reform is inevitable, of course, since change is gradual and the old guard fight tooth and nail to keep their clout and ways. In the Power 50, strongmen and cronies are cheek by jowl with reform advocates.
Moreover, change is not advancing everywhere. They are at a standstill in Myanmar and much of Indochina, while some backsliding is evident in South Asia and the Philippines. Slowing economic liberalization and resurgent ethnic tensions helped bring down Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee (No. 40), even before his ruling coalition broke up. Philippine President Joseph Estrada leapt in the rankings, from No. 29 to 13, thanks to his immense popularity. With that unprecedented rapport, he has resisted labor pressure for wage hikes and taken a hard line against rebels, while advocating democracy abroad. But he has yet to rally the people against such social ills as oppression, environmental degradation and corruption. His idea of a mass campaign against dishonesty is to put anti-graft slogans in government offices. Indeed, public adulation has allowed Estrada to weather growing criticism of his alleged cronyism and limited legislative priorities.
Will reform and the power-wielders behind it prosper in 2000 and beyond, or lose out eventually to opponents of change? The Asian Crisis has done much to win the debate over the need for restructuring, but many now worry that recovery may blunt that imperative. At the same time, too much strife and uncertainty, as in Indonesia, can endanger economic and political reform, and invite stricter controls. In Malaysia, however, Mahathir's partymates are having to acknowledge the clamor for change and respond in some way to it. Evidently, if enough people demand reform hard enough, they cannot be ignored forever. And their insistent voices will in time elevate more Kims, Zhus and Ideis up the pagodas of power.
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