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African’s are impressed with Malaysia’s development but they can learn more from our mistakes

ON a recent visit to China, South African President Jacob Zuma complained to an audience at Renmin University that developing countries were tired of being told that Western style democracy was necessary for achieving sustained economic growth.

He went on to praise the “political discipline” of China’s authoritarian system and wondered aloud whether there were any lessons to be learned by developing countries.

It is not difficult to understand why Zuma would be so mesmerised by China.

China is undoubtedly a great country. Anyone who is familiar with China cannot fail to be utterly astonished by the remarkable transformation that it has undergone in just a few short decades.

When I first went to Beijing in 1979 to take up my diplomatic assignment at the Embassy of Malaysia, I was shocked by the poverty and the backwardness I saw. China is an altogether different country today.

In the second quarter of 2010, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy with a nominal GDP of US$1.337 trillion (RM4.162 trillion). The chief economist of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimates that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2027.

China is already Africa’s second biggest trading partner, and South Africa’s largest. It is also an increasingly important source of foreign assistance and investment in a much neglected continent.

China’s rise to global significance and influence has therefore been nothing short of phenomenal.

However, it would be a mistake to attribute China’s success to its authoritarian system of government and its so-called “political discipline.”

China’s rapid economic growth has occurred not because of its political discipline but in spite of it. It was only when China’s communist rulers reluctantly agreed to free the economy from its Marxist moorings and unleash the ingenuity and creativity of the Chinese people that the economy surged forward.

Many observers, both within China and outside, believe that one-party rule has in fact been a hindrance rather than a help and needs to be reformed.

Indeed, no less a person than Premier Wen Jiabao has called for political reform and a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the Communist Party. In a recent speech in Shenzen, the premier said that “if there is no guarantee of reform of the political system, then results obtained from the reform of the economic system may be lost, and the goal of modernisation cannot be achieved.”

This is a remarkable admission from a very senior Chinese leader.

Zuma is, of course, not the first Third World leader to question the usefulness of western style democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, many Asian strongmen forcefully argued that developing countries needed to chart their own way forward based on their own values and realities and utilising their own traditions and systems. Remember the whole “Asian values” spiel? It all sounded great and very reasonable but it was really a smokescreen for authoritarianism.

The strongmen are long gone or have been discredited but apparently their deceptive legacy continues to bewitch African leaders like Zuma.

I recall an interesting article that appeared in an African newspaper in 2008 highlighting the connection between political systems and development. It noted that Malaysia’s rapid economic growth had only been possible because Malaysia had essentially rejected “the western way of doing things.” The implication was that the centralisation of power at the expense of parliament, the judiciary and the media, helped propel Malaysia towards rapid growth.

There are, of course, many helpful and useful lessons that can be learned from the Malaysian development model but crimping democracy to prosper economically is not one of them.

Third world leaders who frequent our capital are easily enthralled by the gleaming towers, the swanky malls, the shiny BMWs and the palatial homes.

What they don’t see, or choose not to see, is the corruption and waste, the unequal income distribution and the social injustice that could have been avoided had a more transparent governance system, with appropriate checks and balances, been in place.

If African leaders are looking to learn some lessons, they would do better to look at the causes of their own failure to launch. It is not that western-style democracy has failed Africa; it is just that democracy has never been given a fair chance to succeed.

Africa continues to be mired in poverty and instability because it has, for too long, been at the mercy of tyrants and dictators, elected or otherwise, who have plundered their own countries for the benefit of themselves and their cronies.

Zimbabwe is a classic example of how an autocrat has led one of Africa’s most prosperous countries to absolute ruin in just a few decades. Surely the example of Zimbabwe must forever discredit the argument that Africa needs more authoritarian rule.

Democracy is undoubtedly a difficult system to operate. It doesn’t always churn out the best leaders or create the best environment for inventive solutions but the alternatives are far worse.

In the end, it is not the political discipline of countries like China that is the best guarantee for sustainable prosperity but the discipline of accountability to the people themselves that democracy alone provides.