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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

The People Power Century
Combining idealism and pragmatic political instincts, these leaders are repudiating politics-as-usual

A new breed of politicians and activists are ready to break the shackles of the past, here listed by country:

The People Power Century
Combining idealism and pragmatic political instincts, these leaders are repudiating politics-as-usual

Hong Kong Leung Chun-ying

India Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Chandrababu Naidu

Indonesia Andi Mallarangeng, Munir, and Emmy Hafild

Japan Noda Seiko, Shii Kazuo and Watanabe Yoshimi

Malaysia Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Lim Guan Eng

Philippines Manuel Roxas II and Michael Defensor

Singapore Teo Chee Hean and George Yeo

South Korea Choo Mi Ae, Kim Min Seok and Nam Kyung Pil

Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian

Thailand Chaturon Chaisang and Abhisit Vejjajiva

Business & Finance
Journeying Beyond the Crisis
Born amidst unparalleled prosperity and tempered by adversity, a new generation of business leaders is poised to take the region to new levels of success in banking, commerce and industry

In a region as heterogeneous as Asia, where the levels of political, economic and social development exhibited by the countries are almost kaleidoscopic in their diversity, it is not surprising to see that different people hold on to different kinds of hopes and aspirations. Those living in countries with disparate income levels may desire a more equitable economic structure. For those straining under the arbitrary hand of authoritarian rule, the yearning is for justice, freedom and individual rights. In places plagued by corruption, people call for transparency and fairness. In societies where women are treated as second-class citizens, the desire (at least of half the population) may be for the closing of the gender gap. Diverse though they may seem, all these hopes and aspirations ultimately come down to one thing: creating a system that works for the people.

Some might ask: Is such a system even possible? For those who are less cynical about politics, a more pertinent question is: Are we moving toward such a system - and who is leading? The answer may lie with Asiaweek's 20 Leaders for the Millennium in Politics and Power who are featured in the following pages. All under 50, they bring with them the idealism of youth, yet have the experience and savvy that ground them in the reality of everyday politicking.

These individuals are products of the postwar period and grew up enjoying the fruits of their forefathers' accomplishments. Their elders shed blood, sweat and tears fighting against colonial powers, struggling for stability in the early days of independence and building the nation up from scratch. The fundamental challenge of the next generation of leaders is to build upon the foundation thus laid. In many instances, however, they face an additional task: to undo the excesses and destructive consequences of their predecessors' actions.

One such action was rushing headlong into economic development at the expense of almost everything else. While this approach has raised many parts of Asia out of poverty, it has often come at a heavy cost - ranging from the suppression of civil liberties to the entrenchment of corruption in the political culture. Discontent over such costs is present even in seemingly free, democratic and prosperous Japan. Diet member Noda Seiko, for example, thinks it is high time there was greater individual freedom for members of both genders. The emphasis, she says, should shift from the economy to human rights, education and the environment.

Perhaps nowhere are the benefits and costs of the economy-first policy more sharply etched than in Indonesia. Few would dispute that Indonesians enjoyed much-needed prosperity during three decades of rule by former president Suharto. But now, with the country only just starting to recover from the political and social devastation that was the direct consequence of Suharto's autocratic policies, many are asking: At what cost? Human-rights lawyer Munir believes that bargaining away rights and freedom in exchange for economic development was a mistake - and he is surely not the only one who feels that way. Indeed, the need to rectify the errors and failures of the past and forge a new, better way is a recurring theme that many of our young leaders touch upon.

Readers may notice another "theme" in the following pages: that many of the names sound familiar. And so they are. Malaysian democracy activist Lim Guan Eng is the son of veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. On the other side of the country's political divide is Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, who can boast a distinguished family lineage that starts with his father Tun Hussein Onn, who was Malaysia's third prime minister, and goes back to his great-grandfather, who was the first chief minister of Johor. The most familiar name is, of course, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is the latest torchbearer of Asia's most illustrious political dynasty.

To some, the presence of scions of well-known political families may appear incongruous. After all, a dynasty of any sort is a throwback to feudal times rather than a pointer to the democratic, meritocratic ideals of the new millennium. But a well-known name need not necessarily be at odds with the trends of the times. It can actually be a useful tool that enhances the other qualities already possessed by the holder of the name. By opening doors that might remain closed to a rank outsider, it may act as a springboard that enables one to reach higher. In a family with a long tradition of government service, it could mean the passing down of valuable knowledge and experience. It can even provide that elusive, intangible "star quality" that is, if not indispensable, certainly helpful to any aspiring leader.

In fact, if famous enough, it can be argued that, instead of breeding mediocrities who feed off the family's reputation, the name will bring with it a sense of responsibility that encourages even higher levels of dedication and service. Just as a company like Rolls-Royce would not dream of doing anything that might compromise its reputation for quality, Priyanka would be careful not to bring the name of Gandhi - and the long history of national leadership that it represents - into disrepute. Rather, she is likely to try ever harder to further burnish the illustrious name.

Ultimately, though, a name is less important than drive, willpower and vision. Whether fighting against injustices or introducing measures to end corruption or simply lobbying to install more computers in schools, all the 20 leaders featured in these pages - plus the few "honorable mentions" who are interspersed throughout - have one goal in common: serve the people. As Korean oppositionist Nam Kyung Pil puts it, their task is "to make politics for the good of the people, not politicians." It is a familiar refrain - one that has been uttered by generations of self-serving politicians. Asiaweek's Leaders for the Millennium, though, hope to get it right this time. Here's to the beginning of the People Power Century.

This is the third and final part in Asiaweek's Leaders for the Millennium series. The previous two installments featured young leaders in Society & Culture and Business & Finance. For information on reprints, please contact Cyril Desre at (852) 2512 9775 (fax) or

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