What Duterte can learn from Mahathir
President Duterte’s supporters often like to compare him to the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. It’s a flattering comparison, because centuries from now, the Singaporean leader will likely be remembered as one of the titans of the millennium. His eloquence, breathtakingly boundless knowledge of global affairs, and stubborn commitment to perfection secured him an eternal spot in the pantheon of the great men of history. In many ways, he was the modern embodiment of Plato’s philosopher-king.
But the Singaporean leader never had the chance to test his skills at ruling a conventional country with its own complex rural-urban dynamics. As the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who lifted more people out of poverty than any other leader in humanity, icily told Lee: “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly [as Singapore]. But I have the whole of China.”
In fact, as The Economist has noted, Singapore, at its moment of independence, was nothing like a poor backwater but instead a middle-income nation and a bustling entrepôt, fortuitously perched at the convergence of global trade.
In short, any objective analysis would suggest that Singapore, even with a mediocre leadership, was almost destined to prosperity in the age of globalization. In this sense, the Duterte-Lee comparison doesn’t hold much water.
One could argue, however, that Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad has more to teach junior peers such as Mr. Duterte. Mahathir ruled over a mid-sized country and, over two decades of rule, steered Malaysia, long torn by urban-rural and ethnic tensions, toward a modicum of industrialization and upper-middle-income prosperity.
To be clear, social science teaches us to be skeptical vis-à-vis the hagiographical descriptions of leaders at the expense of appreciating the unique structural ingredients that made countries like Singapore and Malaysia successful in the late 20th century.
Both were strategically located nations (Malacca Straits) and benefited from the British tradition of bureaucratic excellence. Malaysia even had the added benefit of huge oil reserves relative to its modest population. In this sense, both Mahathir and Lee were lucky heirs of relatively well-positioned nations with robust institutional legacies.
It’s not authoritarian rule, but instead strong state institutions, as well as smart industrial and trade policies, that define the success of nations. Even if you have the best leaders, weak state institutions and bad policies tend to doom nations to failure.
Yet, it’s also hard to dismiss the crucial role of human agency in shaping history. And this is why, for every enlightened authoritarian leader like Mahathir and Lee, one can find dozens of Mugabes and Gadhafis that condemned their nations to destitution and chaos.
Notwithstanding the horrors of his authoritarian past, what makes Mahathir a “great” leader is his dynamism on two fronts.
Politically, Mahathir, at the age of 92, played an unlikely yet momentous role — as the harbinger of the democratic transformation of Malaysia. In direct contrast to his authoritarian past, this year saw Mahathir leading a democratic opposition to power for the first time in the country’s history. As one of his advisers told me, he is expected to step down within two years, paving the way for democracy activists such as Anwar Ibrahim.
Instead of perpetuating himself or his family in power, Mahathir is focused on stabilizing the process of regime change and holding the Najib administration accountable for its widespread corruption.
Geopolitically, Mahathir is now the leading voice against the “new colonialism” of China, canceling up to $40 billion in Chinese investment projects due to concerns over corruption, lack of economic viability, and exclusion of Malaysian labor and companies. Meanwhile, he is also standing up to Western hegemony and Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policies. In this sense, Mahathir represents the true spirit of an “independent” foreign policy.
At once and at last, Mahathir may have become both the voice of freedom for his nation as well as of collective autonomy for smaller countries squeezed between the imperialism of the West and the East.
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