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Commentary | California Prospect

Tigers Old and Young Plan for Asia's Success

Amid the grousing about Japan and Malaysia, the region's future is emerging elsewhere.

November 03, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA. The Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA, of which he is the founder, helped organize last week's Asia conference. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

Asian leaders have certainly gotten their share of bad press lately.

The U.S. news media have run so many bad stories about Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi that the esteem in which he is held here is almost as low as in Japan. And Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad plays the ugly anti-West card so often that America must wonder if it needs enemies with friends like him. But Asia is a sprawling place with more than half the world's population, a lot of countries and a lot of leaders. Two who came to Southern California last week served to remind everyone that Asia has its share of winners, too.

It's not difficult to envision Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, 75, and Thailand's Surin Pitsuwan, 50, who made major addresses here, as successive generational leaders. But despite the quarter century of life's hard knocks that separates them, no real policy gap divides them on the issues traipsing across the troubled Asian continent, except perhaps in the area of domestic control. "Lee Kuan Yew has served the region, not just Singapore, very well," observed Pitsuwan, Thailand's foreign minister. "All of us are indebted to him. But precisely because of the stability and prosperity in the region, we are now entering an era of more openness and more popular participation. This is the wave of the future. But this would not have been possible without the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew."

Pitsuwan participated, as did other Asian officials, editors and academics from Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Hawaii, in a wide-ranging three-day conference on Asian politics and the news media. Sponsored and organized primarily by Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, the Pacific Basin Institute and the Japan Times, the conference sought to take stock of the region's news media and political systems at a time when Asia is in economic crisis. Perhaps most remarkable about the conference was the almost total absence of globalization-bashing. New technologies will defy all government resistance to the open flow of information, said Pitsuwan, who was educated at Claremont McKenna and Harvard.

Noting the ready acceptance by up-and-coming leaders in both China and Japan of the new information technology, Pitsuwan said he believes a new "aristocracy of intelligence" is being spawned across national borders that will serve as an international agent of change for all societies. Pitsuwan, who took office shortly after last year's currency meltdowns, worries less about rampaging globalization than about cultural Americanization. He blames Thailand far more than outsiders for its troubles, but he worries about America's certainty that it always knows what's good for others. "Please allow us to be different from you," he pleaded, in a speech partly aimed at the Clinton administration's sometimes overbearing market-opening tactics. "Give us time to become our own new reality. We are in this together." Thailand is well aware, he says, of the banking and economic transparency reforms necessary if Thailand is to avoid future trouble.

Elder statesman Lee, whose modern, transregional visions inspired many of today's younger Asian leaders, was crowned senior minister after stepping down in 1990 as modern Singapore's first prime minister. For more than three decades now, his trenchant public policy observations have all but dominated Southeast Asian debate; his advice is sought out by leaders everywhere, not only in Asia. But on the domestic scene, Lee is an unapologetic law-and-order type. He writes in Volume 1 of his just-published memoirs, "The Singapore Story," about his own brutally strict upbringing, and concludes: "I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm." Nor are Lee's views on the role of the news media in society politically correct by Western standards. The media, he said in his L.A. speech, must work with the government, not against it, to improve society. And while the media should be open to differing opinions, they must report official views without interference, so that people are not confused about the government's goals, methods and perspectives.

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