Anomalies in Asia and America

Anomalies in Asia and America

Tom Plate writes that normal expectations have been challenged by three recent developments

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Friday, February 29, 2008

Los Angeles --- It has been suggested, even sometimes to me, your most faithful Asia columnist, that a preoccupation with Asia could be an occupation of boorish predictability.

These civilizations -- one is reminded again and again -- are so ancient that their patterns of movement are as unmovable as planetary rotations. And their instinctive cultural politeness grinds regional tensions so exceedingly fine that it's a rare day to find Asian nations shouting at one another.

And on the whole Asian economies have been booming along so bucolically that it's hard to imagine this winning lineup screwing up.

That's especially the case with Singapore -- the proud, sometimes pushy, almost always forward-looking city-state that boasts Asia's highest per capita income and some of the world's smartest public officials.

But just the other day Singapore gave the world a news story that would have had everyone doubled over in laughter were the matter not so serious.

A security lapse on the otherwise tight little territory permitted a terrorist leader to escape from jail. That's right, a feared terrorist! The prisoner was said to be commander of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian extremist group allied with Al-Qaida. The man simply threaded himself through a bathroom window and slithered into the woods before anyone knew he was missing.

Singapore messing up on something like this is rarer than Tiger Woods missing a two-inch gimme putt on the final hole.

On the average day, Singapore is to security what Tiffany's is to diamonds, the Pope is to God, and fog is to London. Another way to spell security is to spell it "Singapore." To say that Singapore's authorities are embarrassed would be an understatement to say the least.

But the news keeps on happening, even in Asia. It's almost as if there's something weird in the air. Up is down, dove is hawk, world leader is world joke.

Take the current political situation in South Korea. Maintaining good relations with the United States should be about as effortless as Tiger finding the first tee -- but there are days when you have to wonder.

Take the brand new president of South Korea.

His predecessor frequently irked Bush administration hawks in Washington for being too lovey-dovey with those craven Commies in the North. That was before the Bush crowd got almost religious about negotiations.

Now, it turns out, the new South Korea president -- Lee Myung-bak, who just took office -- is a crabby hawk on the North. He, thus, takes office precisely at the moment when the Bush administration is modifying its hawkness on diplomacy with North Korea.

So all of a sudden Seoul is out of synch with Washington. In fact, some on the Bush foreign-policy team wake up to find themselves irritated by the new South Korea president's club-footed foot-dragging over diplomacy -- just as it used to be irked by his predecessor's smiley-toothed cheerleading for diplomacy. When will Washington and Seoul get on the same page?

People all over Asia are trying not to laugh when they're trying not to cry.

Here's a third example of the upside-down world of Asia and America:

A little over ten years ago, at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis, the region's leaders were being subjected to almost daily finger-pointing lectures from Washington on the need to become more crisis-proof. They must practice, lectured Washington (not wrongly), the virtue of economic transparency, clean up its banking and investment acts, and reap the economic virtues of true best-practices virtue. Bring secretive economic practices out into the open and let the sunshine of rationality and regulation burn out all the corruption and malpractice.

But here we all are -- not ten years later -- and now everyone has to wonder why was it that the United States failed to follow its own religious advice. For the glowering mortgage and credit crisis here, we owe everything to secretive and deceptive securities practices of the sort we decried a decade ago.

Not only are those bad U.S. practices threatening to drag down the world economy, they threaten to reduce U.S. global credibility as well.

Does America practice what it preaches? Or do we just talk the talk -- and do a different walk when no one supposedly is looking.

Again, this last example would actually be quite funny, if the matter were not quite so serious.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.