CLINICAL PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES – You might well be starting to believe that the calibre of today’s political leadership isn’t what it used to be. Suddenly, the global field of play is cluttered with stunning individual wreckage. Political uncertainty rules, a war sparked by an invasion reveals our current degree of “uncivilization”, and centerpieces of former grandeur crumble under pressure.
What could be a more glaring example than the decline and fall of the polity of the United Kingdom? From a 19th-century global power to a 21st-century circus, from a political culture that once produced the most formidable and articulate leaders to the farce of Prime Minister Boris Johnson exiting ignominiously.
Take the tumult in South Asia: With even less ceremony than we witnessed in London, the president of Sri Lanka, a former British colony, had to scramble for his life: Sri Lankans, wholly fed up with profoundly inept governance during the country’s economic collapse, stormed the residence and office of former military officer and dynastic poobah Gotabaya Rajapaska, president of the otherwise famously scenic island nation since 2009.
The widely circulated snaps and video of protestors indulging in a very unauthorized dip in the president’s opulent pool – hilarious if they were not so touchingly pathetic — will not soon go away and merit consideration as 2020’s most telling political pictorial.
Then go to Japan, itself (by GDP) the third-largest economy overall, long-nested into one of the world’s best-woven social fabrics: and yet, so shockingly last week, a Japanese citizen brandishing a homemade handgun pumped two bullets from close range into former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, taking the life of the country’s most popular elected politician (eight-years running as number-one) since PM Junichiro Koizumi near-epic 2001-2006 run.
Abe’s confident leadership style was a winning one with many Japanese: As it turned out, the results of the weekend’s upper-house national election should advance the controversial campaign of which he was champion to amend the Constitution to broaden the overall remit and military potency of the country’s ‘self-defense’ forces. This may prove Abe’s most notable legacy. But it may also prove a legacy of very mixed value outside of Japan – and perhaps to Japan itself in the end.
The late Abe had few fans on mainland China or on the Korean Peninsula. People there largely viewed his visits to the internationally notorious Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo as revealing what was true to his heart. In global GDP, China is #2 and South Korea #10. Surely better strategic thinking for Tokyo would incline toward regional reconciliation rather than confrontation, no matter how difficult China and Korea can sometimes be.
In his new book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggests that great leaders must attract followers well beyond the bandwidth of core constituencies; otherwise, the putative leader become a lame follower of backers. His counter-example example is the visionary Anwar Sadat of Egypt – one of only six leaders given a top rating. He is greatly admired for bringing a vision of peace to the Middle East by a “strategy of transcendence.” It is good that this Egyptian leader is so remembered by America’s most prominent senior statesman.
The sole figure from Asia to rate high leadership status in Kissinger’s book is the late Lee Kuan Yew. This is striking when one considers who otherwise might have been asked to the podium to take a bow – Nehru? Mohammed Ali Jinnah? Kim Dae Jung? Yasuhiro Nakasone? Deng Xiaoping? Nonetheless, the choice of LKY is superb.
As Kissinger puts it, the legacy of LKY is both product – the emergence of the powerhouse city-state of Singapore – and process – which he terms “the strategy of excellence.” Under the iron-willed Lee and his capable successors, Singapore attained a standard of governance that, here and there, went global. But some U.S. human-rights groups stood in the way of that appreciation with their monomaniacal focus on human rights issues defined as solely political ones (more important to be able to vote or criticize than to eat or be housed.) By contrast, Lee’s deep understanding of human needs and of government’s moral obligation to meet them is widely appreciated.
Despite Lee’s blistering anti-Communist domestic record and his insistence on the need for a continued balancing American military presence in Asia, many in China would agree with Kissinger’s assessment of Lee, himself well known for his unstinting praise of breakthrough reformer Deng Xiaoping.
Asia’s overall leadership quality is anything but forlorn, perhaps in part as a result of Singapore showing the way, and in part due to the region’s continued economic energy.
Please add to our book of positives the remarkable work of Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand, PM since 2017. This is one clear-headed, adroitly grounded politician who advances realistic possibilities instead of recycling old myths. Another major Asian leader that rates highly. is Joko Widodo, since 2014 president of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and home to more Muslim residents than any other.
Determined and credible, he and PM Ardern should form a kind of special relationship to help us all work up a more functional approach regarding China than any pugnacious containment policy. As the plain-speaking Ardern recently put it, the world is “bloody messy” but must escape from the dead end of black-and-white thinking and political polarization. These are the leaders Asia needs.
LMU Professor Tom Plate is vice president of the non-profit Pacific Century Institute and author of the Giants of Asia book series, which includes a volume on the Lee Kuan Yew. The original version of this column was published Tuesday 12 July 2022 in the South China Morning Post, where Prof Tom’s columns originally appear.