November 18, 2009
In nearly two decades trawling through corporate Asia, I've seen it time and again. Foreign businessmen who'd be the first to trash the business policies of a Rudd, a Merkel, an Obama or a Sarkozy will ooze sycophancy about their ever-wise Asian hosts, no matter how corrupt, venal, conflicted or even murderous their regimes might be. From Indonesia to the Gulf and central Asia, the more illiberal, the sweeter the treacle, or so it seems.
This cravenness was invented in South-East Asia's more autocratic times, when Suharto used to get it - and backhanders - from foreign businessmen sniffing out monopolies while apologising for their own country's deficiencies, as Suharto and kin were looting Indonesia. I once wrote a vaguely critical column of Singapore Inc that so incensed one Australian Lee-lover, a bigwig in Singapore's Australian community, that he demanded Australian diplomats lobby Singapore to expel me, and sue me into submission. A friend from Austrade had to hose him down.
Sycophancy migrated to China, as that sleeping giant stirred. At one conference, I heard a Brit bizoid pat Shanghai's beaming mayor on the back and tell him - and the adoring crowd - that ''democracy is a word that should be abolished''.
I saw it again last month in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. These are sandswept, oil-drenched fiefdoms ruled by remote Bedouin autocrats who, boosters claim, have virtually invented a ''new paradigm'' of capitalism. It was the Qatari emir's "far-sighted vision" and "wise counsel" that was responsible for the soaring (and mostly empty) skyscrapers rising from Doha's dunes, the broad freeways, the Williams sisters in its tennis stadium, Robert de Niro at its new film festival, the brand-new ''human rights commission''.
The al-Thanis may well all be Rhodes scholar, Nobel prize-winning oracles who re-devise game theory when they're not munching McDonalds. But I'd bet this ''new paradigm'' has two things going for it that bests brains in any business plan, delivering a GDP per capita of about $US90,000 ($A96,000), one of the highest in the world. Qatar has about 30 per cent of the world's known gas reserves beneath its dunes. And Nepalis flipping Qataris burgers, Sri Lankans banging rivets and Pakistanis gouging gas - collectively about 80 per cent of Qatar's workforce - who would be lucky to earn 1/50th of that $US90,000 in their pay packets. The Gulf's new paradigm - truer of Dubai than its hydrocarbon-hued neighbours - is actually one of the world's oldest: slave labour.
Conflicts of interest? Another foreign banker didn't seem to care that the finance minister who regulated him was also the chairman of Qatar's biggest bank, his major competitor. Might that just make him circumspect sharing his bank's strategy with the, er, local bureaucrats?
There is another way of doing this - being normal. You can be like groups such as British fund manager Aberdeen Asset Management, which operates successfully around the region and has a robust take on conflict of interest, abuse of funds and mismanagement and doesn't mind expressing it, to the media or to clients, where appropriate.
I'm starting to see all this sycophancy as a guide to a country's politics, which in always-connected Asia is a guide to the region's business and economic fortunes. Indonesia is run by Kevin Rudd's new best friend, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. SBY's greatest success seems to have simply been his ability to serve a constitutional term and get elected to a new one. The best to be said about his new cabinet, in a country so desperate for reform, is that it's careful. Economically, SBY's presidency has been unremarkable. There's not a lot to gush over, but suddenly foreign businessmen are lavishing flattery on SBY: that he is a man of far-sighted vision striding the world stage with aplomb, forging - oh dear - another ''new paradigm''.
And now Australia too. Last weekend, at an Australian Chamber of Commerce do in Singapore, the ex-NSW Liberal leader John Brogden, now head of some finance lobby and in Singapore for APEC, embarrassed himself with an over-the-top paean to Kevin Rudd, describing how he'd saved the world from financial cataclysm, or at least the Australian bit of it. I hope for Brogden's sake that no one recorded it.