Leave Those Giant Boots Unfilled
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Just the other day, Seth Mydans reported from Jakarta that the former Indonesian dictator Suharto was making a surprising recovery. Up to that point, a morbid “sinetron,” the Indonesian word for soap opera, according to a commentary by Eric Ellis in Asia Sentinel, had been unfolding. Never mind the (premature, it now turns out) arrangements for his funeral; it was the manner in which Indonesia’s movers and shakers hurried to the ailing strongman’s bedside that caused comment. That, and the visit of old friends like another Asian strongman (though never forcibly deposed), Lee Kwan Yew.
According to Ellis’ commentary, Lee Kwan Yew “who at 84 to Suharto’s 86 is perhaps sensing his own mortality,” made a point of going to Jakarta because “I feel sad to see a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years not really getting the honors that he deserves,” and that furthermore, “He deserves recognition for what he did… That’s why I came here to visit him.” Ellis said it was a hypocritical performance because Singapore’s “minister mentor” has “virtually created a leadership cult from his aversion to corruption,” and yet this man of “famously high morals” was now singing the praises of the man Time Magazine said had salted away a $15 billion fortune (and successfully defended its assertions against a libel suit).
Said Lee Kwan Yew, when confronted over his visit, “What’s a few billion dollars lost in bad excesses? He built hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets.” Ellis then spends the rest of his commentary taking Lee to task. But for one observer of Southeast Asia’s political and business culture, the Singaporean elder statesman’s comments were surely understandable. That observer is Joe Studwell, who wrote a book titled “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia,” which details what he claims is the cozy relationship between Indonesia’s leading politicians and businessmen, and Singapore, which has banks that provide a haven for Indonesian wealth (whether honestly or corruptly obtained). Basically, Singapore’s economy benefits from Indonesian wealth, so one could view Lee Kwan Yew’s admiration for Suharto as knowing where his country’s bread is buttered. It would be interesting, for example, to see where how much of the billions of dollars in assets Lee credits Suharto with creating ended up in Singapore’s banks.
Which may also explain Lee’s famous contempt for the Marcoses: the late Philippine dictator stashed his money in Switzerland and not, like his dictatorial contemporary Suharto (or their respective cronies), in the banks of neighboring countries.
Studwell’s book “The Ties That Bind,” for Newsweek International, which gives a condensed version of his ideas) argues that in Southeast Asia, the tycoons call the shots more often than not, except when strongmen like Suharto come around and intimidate the tycoons. In any case, tycoons and politicians in that part of the world are hand-in-hand when not actually in one or the other’s pocket.
As he puts it in Newsweek, describing the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis (which led to Suharto’s fall, lest we forget), “After the financial crisis in Southeast Asia, in state after state, taxpayers picked up the tab, tycoons picked up the pieces and life went on as before. The lesson of the past decade has been that the relationship between political and economic elites in Southeast Asia is more enduring than almost anyone imagined.”
But what interests me most about Suharto’s expected passing is how yet another Southeast Asian country is coming to grips with the passing, not just of individual strongmen, but of the generations those strongmen came to represent. Writing of the death of Queen Victoria, H.G. Wells described its effect as like the removal of a great paperweight — bits of paper began to blow about in the wind.
An unnamed correspondent, writing on Jan. 16, also in the Asia Sentinel (“Death won’t End Suharto’s Malign Influence”) contrasts Indonesia’s present with its recent past. Today, the correspondent writes, “Despite the sweeping changes in political language and banquet seating, Indonesia’s mentality of governing hasn’t changed. Political office is seen as an opportunity to benefit yourself, your family and your friends — as Suharto reportedly did to the tune of billions of dollars — rather than serve the public.”
On the other hand, according to the same correspondent, “At least under Suharto there was order in the corruption: If you paid the right people, things got done. Today, with decentralization and no strongman at the top, corruption is more chaotic and widespread and payoffs less effective.” I’ve heard similar complaints from Filipinos who, from time to time, look back with nostalgia to the Marcos years. I’ve even heard an academic validation of this opinion. One economist told me that his research could prove that corruption became endemic in the Philippines in 1981-83, when the Philippine economy collapsed and Ferdinand Marcos became, at times, gravely ill.
The reason, he said, was due to a combination of widespread hardship and an absence of effective leadership at the top. Instead of the big boss farming out rackets, everyone discovered they could be on the take and no one could stop them. Now of course this was a unique and extreme case, and one that perhaps only the Indonesians have experienced to a comparable extent.
However, as the era of strong leaders passes in Southeast Asia, and institutions, then, are forced to keep societies together, will the result be better governance, or a spread in petty as well as big-time corruption? Societies that are more traditionally attuned to taking their cues from a single, elder, often ruthless, leaders, may be unprepared for small men and women trying to fill the giant boots of these departing (or departed) strongmen.
That could lead to an even more dangerous situation: that leaders will still try to fill those boots, instead of accepting that the kind of leadership they offer has to change.