Saturday, June 12, 2010

Who are the great leaders of Asia?

The ineffable quality of leadership is so hard to define. But everyone knows we need it badly, especially in difficult times; and while the experts tend to quarrel over definitions, ordinary people tend to know real leaders when they see them.
It is my hypothesis that the extraordinary rise of Asia in recent decades cannot be understood or appreciated without some reference to outstanding leadership.

Consider the experience of other regions of the world. In the 19th century Europe immensely benefited from the machinations of its Machiavellian empire-building leaders. In the 20th century — the so-called American Century — no one can imagine the U.S. having such global success without its Roosevelts, Ikes and JFKs.

So now, as Asia bodes to supersede America as the dominant global region of the 21st century, one might ask whom history will identify as the leaders that helped push Asia so far forward.

That is the central question a new book series, the first volume of which just launched, seeks to illuminate. It’s called “Giants of Asia.” But who are these so-called giants? And how are they to be selected for the spotlight?

The process cannot be easy – what are the criteria? Why him and not her? The potential for argumentation is enormous and endless.

I should know. I am the one who has – foolishly or not! -- started on this series, and I have been wrestling with this question of Asian leadership not just since last summer, when I began writing the first book in the series, but since 1996, when my columns on America and its relationship with Asia first began appearing.

At that time the region was well into its upward mobility drive. Seoul was one gigantic metropolis of drive and ambition: You could feel it the minute you stepped out of the airport cab.

Shanghai back then had more construction cranes up and running than any city anywhere (and it may still). Singapore wasn’t so much caning as re

defining — a worldwide gold standard for efficient and honest government.
Malaysia wasn’t abandoning the farm but it was discovering the magic of the Cyber-age and the best way to escape the limitations of its laid-back culture. India was waking up from too many dusty decades of neo-Stalinist central planning under well-meaning but wholly misconceived governance.

Tiny Taiwan and tiny Hong Kong were constantly reminding the mainland that being Chinese didn’t mean having to say, “Sorry, we have no money.” People were even starting to bet that India would awaken.

Japan’s post war rise may have peaked in the eighties but giant China’s is nowhere near played out.

This powerful and relentless transformation of a loser area of the globe into perhaps the biggest winner of the current century didn’t just happen. Credit, if you want, the hidden hand of history, but I prefer to look for tangible factors. One of course was the people of Asia. Many of them worked until their backs broke. Almost everyone seemed to be either working or studying.

Another reason had to be that some Asians were getting superior leadership, however one defined it. While Africa remained more or less notorious for leaders who sucked the life – and much money – out of their countries, Asia became known for leaders who were leading their countries to new prominence, staying with the job and their countries and watching them grow to new heights. Post-colonial Asia had drive and ambition. There was less defeatism and more realism; less demagoguery and more economic production.

No scientific way exists to identify contemporaneously, without subjectivity, the giant leaders of Asia. That is the eventual proper job of history. But I can tell you that in compiling my own list and using it to launch this “Giants of Asia” series, I found there was a consensus about certain assessments.

One was that no such series could be written without the inimitable Lee Kuan Yew on the roster. He and his elite team helped redefine Singapore and set governance standards for the entire region. Consider the Malaysia story: the outspoken Mahathir Mohamad has more detractors than anyone can count; but for 22 consecutive years he was the prime minister of a country that went from nowhere on the economic map to somewhere special.

Similarly, Ban Ki-moon, the experienced South Korean diplomat, has been having a bumpy run as United Nations Secretary General, it is true. But the very fact that the world body chose as Kofi Annan’s successor this hard-working gentleman from the successful southern half of the Korean Peninsula is taken by Koreans almost everywhere as an affirmation of their rise.

And so that’s how I began thinking about the series. Not everyone will agree with the choices. But how can anyone argue with the concept? Without such giants of Asia, the region would not be where it is today. It is that simple.

I am happy with my choices so far. At least they have been made. Let the debate begin.

No scientific way exists to identify contemporaneously, without subjectivity, the giant leaders of Asia

Veteran American journalist and columnist Tom Plate.

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