Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Asia's Dynasties

Tolstoy was right: Happy families are all alike

Asian family values seem to go from one extreme to another. Either it’s internecine warfare or out-and-out nepotism. Take the latest news this week. In Cambodia, long-time boss Hun Sen has just elevated his favorite son Hun Manet to Major General at the tender age of 32 and is now tipped eventually to succeed his father, now 60.

Mind you, that is slow promotion by the standards of Singapore, where Lee Hsien Loong had got to be a Brigadier-General at 31 and deputy prime minister by 38. In North Korea, Kim Jong-Il has already announced he would pass on his dictatorship to his son, Kim Jong-un, who beat even Lee Hsien Loong at the general game, having been named a field-grade officer at the age of 27 or 28.

Cambodia thus adds to the growing list of Asian countries where family succession has become the norm, joining India, Malaysia, North Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore and the Philippines in the dynastic succession business. (Of course, in America the Kennedys, Bushes, Gores and Clintons have done well by doing good).

In India, the Gandhis, Indian or Italian, have held sway since they were Nehrus and appear likely to continue their run with the 30-year-old Rahul, son of Sonia and the assassinated Rajiv and the great grandson and granddaughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi respectively.

Indonesia may well be next. It has already had Megawati Sukarnoputri as president, albeit after a long gap since her father’s reign, and if the Jakarta media mill is correct, may next find itself seeing Kristiani Herawati succeeding her husband Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as president, despite denials, reportedly to warm the seat for one of the couple’s two sons.

In the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III has superseded his mother, Corazon Aquino, after an unhealthy interregnum in which the indicted Joseph Estrada was followed by the so-far unindicted Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of former Philippines President Diosdado Macapagal. In fact, in the Philippines it is considered a birthright to pass on power, witness the various Marcos spawn holding legislative seats.

Indeed, however, passing on political power peacefully is looking much easier than passing on huge wealth. Children of founding tycoons often seem incapable of sharing inheritance fairly and engage in vicious warfare.

Hong Kong woke up January 25 to the news that casino king Stanley Ho, 89, had apparently been stripped of most of his ownership in the main holding company for his gambling and tourism interests. It appears that when Ho was gravely ill in hospital in 2009/2010 with a blood clot in the brain, one of his three living wives conspired with two of his 16 living children to take control of the holding company.

Ho is now taking legal action to reverse this. But family quarrels are nothing new to the Ho family. Stanley has for years been engaged in legal battles with his sister Winnie, who claims she was cheated out of her rightful share of the empire.

Ho has been showered with official honors, including Hong Kong’s Grand Bauhinia medal despite having got rich originally from smuggling, collaborating first with the Japanese occupiers and then with the Chinese Communists. He then acquired a gambling monopoly in Macau which was long tainted by association with organized crime.

The Ho family warfare follows an ongoing fight among the Kwok family which controls Sun Hung Kai Properties. Collectively three sons and their mother, the widow of the founder Kwok Tak-seng, are the second richest in Hong Kong where real estate is almost the only way to mega riches. The elder son, Walter, fell out with his younger brothers and mother and was removed from the board and has since been engaged in a legal battle over division of the empire. The main dividing issue was the influence of Walter’s mistress.

These are just the most high profile of a slew of family money dispute cases which provide good earnings for Hong Kong’s lawyers and grist for the media mill. Asia Sentinel

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