Political tigers are an endangered species

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2010, 12:00am

The coming lunar new year is the Year of the Tiger, a time when natural leaders with vigour, courage and imagination are supposed to do great things.

Unhappily, not many tigers are roaming the capitals of the United States and Asia at present, at least not with the stature and statesmanship of those leaders after the second world war who had a sense of mission and strategic vision that went beyond everyday politics.

An exception is Lee Kuan Yew, founder of the island nation of Singapore, prime minister from 1959 to 1990, an organiser of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and now, aptly, minister mentor of the city state.

Lee, who is 86, once said that Singaporeans needed 'to find a niche for ourselves, little corners where, in spite of our small size, we can perform a role which will be useful to the world. To do that, you will need people at the top, decision makers who have got foresight, good minds, who are open to ideas, who can seize opportunities.'

Not that Lee's rule has been without controversy. His critics, at home and abroad, have pointed to his authoritarian ways, accused him of nepotism in getting members of his family appointed to powerful positions and lamented his repression of the opposition and the press.

Even so, when Lee received the Lifetime Achievement award by the US-Asean Business Council last year, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said: 'He has become a seminal figure for all of us. I've not learned as much from anybody as I have from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He made himself an indispensable friend of the United States, not primarily by the power he represented but by the quality of his thinking.'

Today, US President Barack Obama is finishing his first year in office without having proved, despite his Nobel Peace Prize, that he belongs in a class with Democratic president Harry Truman or Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, often considered by historians as among the top 10 American presidents.

Closer to home, President Hu Jintao is seen as a competent technocrat but a lacklustre bureaucrat not in the same league as the brutal but charismatic Mao Zedong and the brilliant statesman Zhou Enlai . Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin do not measure up to president Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the tyranny of the Soviet Union, closed out the cold war and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist, is given credit for prodding his nation out of the economic doldrums but few would elevate him to the political levels of prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, who led India onto the world stage after independence in 1947.

Among US allies, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan is floundering, which has led to speculation that he is on his way out. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea has been distracted by financial investigations. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines rules a corrupt, nearly failed, state. Thailand's turmoil has left it almost paralysed.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has enjoyed approval ratings between 60 per cent and 70 per cent for two years but has not risen to the level of Sir Robert Menzies, who set Australia on its feet in his 16 years as prime minister until 1966.

Elsewhere, the legacies of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, or Sukarno or Suharto in Indonesia, who were authoritarian but fervent nationalists, have not been replicated, although President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia has received good marks for fostering political democracy and economic progress.

Other than Singapore, Asia-Pacific capitals today sit atop a bleak landscape bereft of tigers.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington