Staying in the Driver’s Seat

Buencamino does foreign affairs analysis for the advocacy group Action for Economic Reforms.

In Malaysia, PM Mahathir, is voluntarily retiring and handing over the
reins of power to his deputy. In the Philippines, President Arroyo just
announced that she would contest for a six-year term after saying she
would not.

Maybe this is a good time to offer some unsolicited advice, just in
case she gets elected to a new term in May, which, by the way, will
give her a six-month headstart on the other un-elected president,
George.

Is there something she can learn from Mahathir ? People around her
might ask , why should she take lessons from a Malaysian when she is
getting a scholarship from the West ?

You see, Malaysians are like us, only better fed, better dressed,
better housed, better paid, and, increasingly, better educated. Those
people, Malaysians that is, who look exactly like us, are even
employing thousands of us as domestic servants, many of whom are there
illegally and risking imprisonment and caning. To me, that is enough to
make one think that maybe Mahathir did something right. Now, this is
not about the ability to copy as it is so valued in our culture, from
our leaders who want to turn our country into a little America to our
people who strive to look and sound like western celebrities. It is
about doing things your own way and leaving our monkey-see monkey-do
values behind.

In 1997, Malaysia, like the rest of Southeast Asia, was attacked by
currency speculators. Malaysia was heading for a crash and Mahathir had
to choose between handing the wheel over to the IMF and hope that they
could steer his country away from the crash; or keeping his hands on
the wheel and hope that he could steer his country away from the crash.

Mahathir chose to remain in the driver’s seat. He went against the IMF
formula of keeping the free movement of capital; raising interest
rates; allowing weak banks and unprofitable businesses to fail; cutting
back on government spending; etc., by instituting capital controls;
keeping interest rates down; propping up banks and vital businesses;
and spending as much as he could.

There was no certainty of success for either option. The only thing
certain was that relinquishing the driver’s seat to the IMF would mean
that Malaysia would be stuck in the passenger’s seat of its own
development forever, just like all the other countries who trusted the
IMF’s driving abilities more than their own.

The false choice presented by the West was between two different
approaches to resolving a financial crisis. The real choice, Mahathir
knew, was between maintaining control over one’s own affairs or
surrendering it to someone else before exhausting all options.

The following is a paragraph from Mahathir’s speech during the 2002
UMNO (his political party) convention. It reveals his understanding of
the mind of colonized people and why it was important for him to show
his people that they should try to work their Way out of their crisis,
regardless of the risk involved, rather than letting the IMF work it
out for him.

“We have to look again at the situation in Malaysia. During the 450
years we were colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the
Japanese and the Siamese, there was no serious attempt to liberate the
Malay states. The Malays were so weak in spirit that they believed only
the white men can rule their states. If it had not been for the
Japanese, an Asian people who are not white, defeating the British
imperialists, probably the Malays even today will not demand for
independence, because they have no confidence in themselves as people
with the ability to administer and develop the Malay States.”

So, two very important lessons from Mahathir. One, formerly colonized
peoples need to rely on themselves and seek outside help only when all
else fails. It is especially important to have some faith and
self-confidence in your own abilities. Two, solutions to a country’s
problems or to a country’s development are not something you buy “off-
the-rack” from some Western emporium called IMF or WB or AGILE. Nothing
fits better than a tailor-made suit.

And, one very important lesson from the greatest president the Philippines has ever had, Manuel L. Quezon.

He said , “I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than one run like hell by Americans.”

(NOTE: Mahathir is stepping down as Prime Minister on 31 October 2003).

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