Asia Program


"Harnessing Gravity"

April 25, 2001 // 12:00am

By Amy McCreedy
Asia Program Associate

Chai-anan Samudavanija
President, Institute of Public Policy Studies, Bangkok, Thailand
Chan Heng-Chee
Ambassador from Singapore
Alasdair Bowie
Associate Professor of Political Science, George Washington University
John Cavanagh
Director, Institute for Policy Studies (commentator)

Fighting globalization, some say, is like fighting gravity. But, of course, human beings overcome gravity all the time, not by fighting it but by channeling it and using it to their own ends. Some ways of applying the force of gravity are easier and more productive than others. The force of gravity can be harnessed to lift a piano; it is also the force that brings the piano down on top of you if the rope breaks.

In the world system, globalization is similarly powerful and dangerous. People everywhere are increasingly realizing that the decision is not whether to globalize but how and how fast, and how to maximize the benefits of globalization while keeping its adverse consequences to a minimum.

To tackle these difficult questions, the Asia Program brought together four experts on Southeast Asia for a lively and, at times, boisterous discussion. The usual focus of debates on globalization is whether it leads to wealth (equitable or otherwise). We decided to concentrate on a different, though related, issue: does globalization contribute to good governance? This question is of concern to any government mapping out a strategy to leverage the momentum of globalization. A positive answer suggests that countries should strive to integrate with the world system relatively quickly. A negative answer suggests a more cautious approach.

Chai-anan Samudavanija, a lifelong advocate of democracy and "dean" of political science in Thailand, began the discussion with a sober reminder that the current debate can never be resolved as cleanly as we would like. The relationship between globalization and good governance cannot be defined any more than the relationship between industrialization and democracy—a popular subject for conferences twenty years ago.

As Chai-anan noted, it is a mistake to speak of Thai society as one entity to be affected this way or that by globalization. In fact, the Thai population is bifurcated into a private-corporate sector and an agricultural sector—and globalization is the agent of good governance only for the former. For example, "good governance" laws such as the 1999 Business Competition Act and the 2000 Accounting Act have indeed helped to encourage competition and curb abuses. But these laws have had no effect on Thai farmers, whose concerns are increasingly marginalized. Politicians neglect or shove aside proposals involving community rights, natural resources, and environmental management. Thailand's wealth gap has widened in spite of per-capita income growth, and knowledge-poor "victims of development" have no place in the new system. While business leaders have been allowed into the highest levels of governmental decision-making, farmers were recently sent home after nine months of fruitless protesting outside the state house. According to Chai-anan, when farmers do succeed in exercising political rights, they manage to express grievances but not to aggregate interests.

Chai-anan agreed that globalization weakens authoritarian states and harmonizes the world's legal systems. If "good governance" consists of efficiency, contract enforcement, privatization, support for R&D, and other measures to enhance business competitiveness, then indeed globalization is its agent. But if we seek the good of the whole society, we must look elsewhere. As Chai-anan puts it, social leaders do not need "good governance" but a "good political strategy" if they seek to empower the weaker members of society, to expand political participation, and to ally the rich and the poor, the urbanized and the rural, the modernized and the traditional. In other words, good governance is good management, but democracy requires a more "people-centered" approach. For democracy, the key is localization, not globalization.

Chan Heng-Chee, the ambassador from Singapore, also began by recalling earlier debates and earlier "izations." In the 1960s and 70s, she pointed out, the buzzword in social science was "modernization," different from globalization in that it implied a conscious choice—one road to follow out of many, rather than a force to be harnessed. Countries believed that they could choose their own models involving various mixes of socialist and capitalist ideas. With globalization "you can't choose the pace, though some countries think that they can. You are either in it, or you are out of it." The best thing that leaders can do, therefore, is to boost education levels as high as possible while strengthening corporate governance and transparency. In this way, Chan implied, Singapore can serve as an inspiration for developing nations everywhere.

Singapore "took to globalization like a fish to water" and was recently rated by Foreign Policy as the world's "most global country." But Chan admitted that the island city-state of Singapore is quite different from an agricultural country like Thailand, which has a vast hinterland. Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries probably cannot—and in some ways, should not—hope to replicate Singapore's experience. Still, Chan maintained that there are lessons to be learned in how Singapore's leaders, particularly Lee Kuan Yew, emphasized knowledge and technology and guided the country to become "clean and green." According to Chan, "We understood that there were some standards that were going to be world standards, norms of how you do business internationally. . . . Singapore chose a path. We stuck to it."

So globalization led to wealth. But did it contribute to good governance? Only on the margins, Chan suggested. In fact, it makes more sense to reverse the sequence: good governance attracted investment and produced more competitive products, thereby encouraging global integration. According to Chan Singapore did its homework and prepared. Singapore did not just open its markets and hope for the best. In fact, in some countries globalization might initially exacerbate corruption by pumping money into a weak or "robber-baron" system. According to Chan, Lee Kuan Yew got a head-start in the 1960s by correctly deducting how the world system would develop.

Alasdair Bowie, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, concentrated on the current situation in Indonesia (post-financial crisis). Bowie explicitly discarded the normative term "good governance," and identified a different term, "better governance," to refer to the efficiency and equity of services. According to Bowie, narrowing the definition in this way reduces fuzzy thinking and guards against value judgements.

If "governance" includes the provision of services, Bowie went on, then it only makes sense to include services that are offered by the private as well as the public sector. In this view, programs that are instigated by transnational corporations—such as educational campaigns, health clinics, and peer counseling—can be said to have contributed to "better governance" in Indonesia. Companies are not doing this out of altruism, but because they want to maintain a good corporate image and are under pressure from NGOs. Besides taking government into their own hands, Bowie hopes that transnational corporations can also find new opportunities to work with local officials, "to create and enhance clusters of expertise and hence to expand employment, training, and social services for these communities." One sign of better governance is that today's policymakers in Jakarta have neither the ability nor the will to quash union activity or suppress wages, as did the previous regime of Suharto.

Thus, according to Bowie, ideas come into a country on the heels of foreign capital. That is not the only way they come in, however. Ideas are also disseminated though the press, TV and the Internet, directly contributing to a gradual convergence of global norms. For example, the campaign for greater accountability on the part of government officials takes some of its energy from similar movements in Thailand and the Philippines. Indonesia is also (albeit very slowly) adopting global norms concerning the appropriate use of force by security forces, as can be seen by the separation of the national police from the military.

Commentator John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, was considerably less optimistic about the effects of globalization. Rather, he has misgivings not about globalization per se, but about the current "corporate led" system. He maintained that this system has either "hurt, left out, or marginalized" at least two thirds of the world's people. According to Cavanagh, what we have now is "globalization from above," but to improve governance and encourage democracy, we need "globalization from below." Cavanagh agreed with Bowie that transnational corporations are increasingly taking on the role of the state, but he sees this as far from benign. Corporations get in the way of what ordinary people most desire: community control of human resources. If foreign investors have provided services beneficial to the Indonesian population, it is only because activists and NGOs have held their feet to the fire. (Bowie would not wholly disagree with this, but he implied a more willing partnership between corporations and citizens, rather than a fundamentally antagonistic relationship.) According to Cavanagh, institutions often hailed as agents of "good global governance," such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the U.S. Treasury Department, brought on the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s by recklessly encouraging countries to liberalize their markets. Cavanagh saw no silver lining attached to the financial crisis, as opposed to Chai-anan, who allowed that "without economic crises, there would have been no need for authoritarian regimes in Asia to relinquish power."

As the workshop came to a close, it became clear that there was at least one agreement among all the presenters: developing countries should not feel powerless in the face of globalization. All the speakers maintained that while some sort of globalization seems to be inevitable, human beings can harness its force to a variety of ends if they have the knowledge and the determination to do so.


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