Marcos, Duterte and failed autocrats
“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, be considered for a national burial,” lamented the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
“Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics,” Lee added with visible vexation at the glaring absence of accountability.
Lee saw Marcos as a tinpot dictator who turned a once-promising nation into a regional basket case. “[Marcos] might have started off as a hero but ended up as a crook,” he argued.
Not long after Lee’s passing, President Duterte allowed the burial of the former dictator in the cemetery for heroes, alongside the Philippines’ most celebrated patriots. Unlike the Singaporean leader, the Filipino strongman populist is clearly a big fan of Marcos.
Now, some are even advocating a “Marcos Day” in the north, likely a prelude to even more bizarre and shameless revisionism. And yet, Mr. Duterte’s supporters love to compare their political idol to the Singaporean leader.
There are some shallow overlaps between the two lawyers. While the Filipino president is a former mayor, Lee Kuan Yew was, in the terse words of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, “mayor of Singapore.”
Known for his authoritarian tendencies and fiery rhetoric, the Singaporean leader was also controversial, with his own legion of critics. Some would even argue that Singapore, already a bustling and strategically located entrepôt during British colonialism, would have turned into a prosperous city-state regardless of its leader.
Yet, what made Lee a legendary leader was his uncompromising work ethic, deep grasp of global geopolitics, ability to maintain optimal ties with both the West and the East, and zero tolerance for corruption and incompetence. Under his watch, Singapore developed one of the world’s centers of bureaucratic excellence. But even more impressive were his counterparts in neighboring Taiwan, South Korea and, later, post-Mao China.
Unlike Marcos, or even Lee, the leaders of these countries oversaw the establishment of global brands and industries, from Hyundai (South Korea) to HTC (Taiwan) to Huawei (China).
What’s remarkable is that these were full-fledged countries with considerable populations, complex rural-urban dynamics, and far less geographic blessings than Singapore, which conveniently lies at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And all of them were stuck in one state of war or another, requiring massive defense spending through decades.
In the words of China’s Deng Xiaoping, who turned an impoverished country into an economic dynamo, “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly [as Singapore]. But I have the whole of China!”
So, what was the secret of their success? The first thing one notices is that it’s not about form of government or even type of regime. China remains a single-party communist regime, while Taiwan and South Korea, with their own unique presidential systems, have become even more dynamic since their transition to democracy in the 1980s.
Whether authoritarian or democratic, they have had remarkable economic performance. Clearly, it’s not also about “race” or “culture” per se, since all of these countries were extremely poor just a few generations ago.
What’s common in the success stories of these NICs (newly industrialized countries) is their well-organized, autonomous and competent bureaucracies, which have maintained national dynamism through proactive trade and industrial policies.
As scholar Joel Migdal has pointed out, the Philippines’ main problem is that it never had a “strong” state with a combination of “policy autonomy” and “functional capacity” to discipline the oligarchs and promote national interest.
No wonder then that the Marcos dictatorship, which heavily relied on deeply corrupt and incompetent cronies, failed to develop even a single global industry after more than two decades in power. Now that’s epic failure.
As for Mr. Duterte, what happened to his earlier claim of overhauling the country “in six months” and fighting even “a whiff of corruption”? Clearly, “political will” alone is insufficient. Sadly, as feckless as our democrats have been, our autocrats have been even far greater failures. Largely thanks to incompetent despots, instead of turning into another Singapore, the upshot is more like a “Singa-poor.”
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