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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Reflections 1998:

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW


Suharto Three decades of rule end in chaos and ignominy

Mahathir and Anwar The premier and his chosen deputy battle

A.B. Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif blast their way into the nuclear club

Zhu Rongji China's reformer grapples with the Crisis

The Internet Governments don't have to love it, but can no longer ignore it

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, a newborn nation dared to go where no Asians had gone before. Until then, the continent had known but two kinds of rulers: dynastic monarchs and imperial governors, rising and falling with the flow of blood in royal veins or from roguish battles. But on June 12, 1898, Filipinos ended 333 years of Spanish colonization and proceeded to form a government expressly for the concerns of the people, for the res publica. Not the glory of an emperor, the greatness of an empire or the greed of an elite - but the good of everyone.

Reality, of course, lagged far behind good intentions. For the past five score years, even after casting off the colonial yoke, Asians had largely allowed a privileged few to decide how countries were run and for whose benefit. Quibblers were silenced with the bang of guns or the boom of GNPs. But this year, the party is finally ending for the once-revered autocrats. Now that the Asian Miracle has become the Asian Crisis, a fundamental shift in mindset is irrevocably sweeping the continent: Asians want control over their lives and lands, to rule both for their own benefit.

Out with the Old Asia, run by and for the rulers; in with the New, governed of, by and for the people. To be sure, the region still has a long way to go toward that democratic ideal; indeed, some countries are marching the other way, to the drumbeat of ruthless juntas, recalcitrant strongmen or reactionary elites. Even in the Philippines, 12 years after People Power and six months under the hugely popular Joseph Estrada, figures from the nation's despotic decades are regaining wealth and influence.

Still, more and more people are discarding the chains of past docility, even if their bosses continue to cling to the chinks of past domination. From the reformasi rallyist in Kuala Lumpur and the onion shopper in Delhi, to the laid-off worker in Wuhan and the jobless graduate in Osaka, the region's inhabitants have one message to their leaders, whether presidents or PMs, tycoons or CEOs: We're mad as hell and we won't take it anymore. From the cost of living to the rights of man, from top-level corruption to ground-level destitution, Asians will no longer take "Trust me" as an answer.

That's what Asia's Newsmakers discovered or demonstrated in this year of living desperately. One fell after three decades of strongman rule, two dueled over political and economic reform, and a fourth grappled with state power in business. Another pair rattled nuclear sabers and stirred nationalist and communal passions, while the seventh Newsmaker, a fast-spreading global force, harnessed millions of minds to divine, debate and decide the affairs of nations. Suharto. Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim. Zhu Rongji. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. The Internet. In their endeavors over the past 12 months, they were prey or players in the fight by Asians to assert their will.

If there was one ruler this year who epitomized the Asia of millennia past, with its Faustian bargain of prosperity for the people in exchange for their unfettered souls, it was Suharto. The Bapak (father) of Indonesia held forth for more than a generation, despite endless grumbling at home and abroad over his iron hand and gilded pockets. One big reason, of course, was the Asian Miracle, which lifted half of all Indonesians from the quagmire of destitution, cutting the poverty rate from more than 70% when the general bloodily took over in 1966, to less than 20% as he rounded out his 30th year in the presidential palace. But where dissidents had failed, the currency markets proved potent beyond all expectation. Panicked by Suharto's backtracking on Indonesia's IMF program, the money traders torpedoed the rupiah, jacking up inflation and interest above 60%. The poverty ratio soon followed suit, making millions of Indonesians unfed, ungovernable - and unwilling to countenance Bapak.

Malaysians too have seen their prosperity-for-freedom swap undergo strain, though the unraveling is not so straightforward as it was for their neighbors. For one thing, it isn't over yet: the jury is still out on whether Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's currency controls and corporate bailouts can ferry the economy through the current squall until it finally leaves East Asia. More fuzzily, freedom's avowed advocate, ousted and jailed deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, had long been a key player in a system now lambasted in Kuala Lumpur rallies as corrupt, repressive and undemocratic. The question for many Malaysians: Is reformasi just an Anwarista ploy or will it outlive the Anwar trial and the country's recession to really transform the way Malaysia is run?

Besides repression, Anwar has attacked cronyism, another facet of the old Asia which has been blamed for the Crisis. Cozy ties between government and business are under assault from Bangkok to Seoul, Jakarta to Tokyo -- and even in Beijing. Premier Zhu Rongji aims to end the coddling of government banks and state-owned enterprises and bring to them the freedom and discipline of market forces. They have been largely untouched by the reforms launched two decades ago by the late Deng Xiaoping. The success of this latest phase of Deng's revolution will decide the future of China's economy and its czar Zhu.

What complicates Zhu's challenge is the way his tough liberalization agenda is fueling assertiveness at the grassroots as millions of SOE workers are laid off or stripped of benefits. It is a supreme irony that pushing through economic reform in China may well require continued political repression, just to keep the shouting down and the reform chorus humming. On the other hand, economic reform is advancing individual freedom in more fundamental ways. It is freeing more and more of the economy from state control, leaving it to the entrepreneurship and drive of ordinary citizens. More important, by continuing to uphold the profit motive in society, China is telling its people that it is good to work for individual gain, rather than sacrificing all for some imperial or ideological ideal, as they had been told through the millennia before Deng declared, "To be rich is glorious."

If 1998 has offered democracy's advocates much to cheer about, other Newsmakers in our list may give them pause. For one thing, it is pandering to the voting public that was largely behind the nuclear bomb tests ordered by India's A.B. Vajpayee and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif. Stirred by nationalist and communal fervor, Indians and Pakistanis cheered in the streets about something that ought to have chilled their hearts: incontrovertible proof of their capability to decimate each other. Nationalist, ethnic and religious animosity has long plagued South Asia, but this year East Asia got a dose of it, as protests in Indonesia degenerated into anti-Chinese rioting, rape and pillage. Must such mayhem inevitably stain the flag of democracy?

Recent troubles of both Vajpayee and Sharif suggest that communal radicals need not hijack the democratic process. India's ruling Hindu rightist BJP suffered losses in state polls due to mounting economic woes, while Sharif had to call out the Pakistan army to deal with a long-raging ethnic rebellion paralyzing Karachi. The message: whipping up mindless nationalism may win some temporary political gains, but enduring power comes with competent governance and economic management. Indeed, both social harmony and economic growth require that unruly ethnic, religious and patriotic passions be reined in, not allowed to run wild.

As Asians push their individual agenda, things will not be as smooth and orderly as before. After all, people enjoying new latitude in their lives, livelihoods and politics will inevitably fall into excess and chaos, as they probe the limits of a new dispensation. Our seventh Newsmaker is a metaphor for the region's march to greater freedom. The Internet is bursting with countless possibilities, perils and pitfalls, which people are only now discovering and coming to grips with. Hence, it is messy but exciting. And so will be Asia's new democratic adventure.

- By Ricardo Saludo


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