ONE is the undisputed South-East Asian statesman winding down his long and illustrious career. The other is a young Asian leader who has done much for his country in just two years and is now grooming himself to assume the helm of the region.
Today's one-on-one meeting between Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Thaksin Shinawatra in Langkawi is certainly no mere premier-level prattle. It is significant in a myriad of ways, perhaps even seen as a symbolic “passing of the baton.”
They may have come from the most diverse of backgrounds but the approaches and leadership styles are uncannily alike. Both advocate Asian growth under strong and stable governments and both are willing to deal with the rich and powerful West, but only on fair and equitable terms.
Thaksin, who turned 54 yesterday (July 26), shares Dr Mahathir's mindset in resolving basic problems involving the people – the primary one being poverty. Unlike previous leaders of his country, he dares to try untested methods and is eager to extend his influence beyond the country's borders.
Locally, his detractors may still be denouncing his policies aimed at wiping out poverty as “populist” but the programmes and projects that he has implemented, such as affordable loan for farmers, are proving to be effective.
Thaksin's regional leadership ambitions were nascent during his keynote speech promoting his brainchild – the Asia Cooperation Dialogue– at the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in October last year.
In a theme that has been recurrent with Dr Mahathir, he said Asian should be rightfully rich with 3.2 billion people and over one trillion US dollars – half the world's foreign exchange reserves – and abundant natural resources.
“But in reality, poverty among our people remains one of the major problems. Poverty makes it harder for each of us to be strong trading partners. Despite our rich potential, basically we are still poor. A rich continent weakened by its poverty,” he said.
Thaksin is set to make his real foray into the world arena when he hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in October.
As pointed out by Chulalongkorn University's political science lecturer Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Thaksin has “charisma, stature and leadership skills that his regional peers among the post-Mahathir generation simply do not match.”
“Like Dr Mahathir, Thaksin is armed with political legitimacy based on a one-party-dominant democratic system. He has complete control of his country's political landscape to enact policies that reflect his vision.
“He even has his own development strategy known as Thaksinomics, a self-styled approach that blends neo-liberal, export-led growth with grassroots-based domestic demand,” the lecturer wrote in an article last week that was carried prominently by local newspapers.
Thaksin has not been averse to declaring his admiration for Dr Mahathir, even immediately after being sworn in as Prime Minister in April 2001. Much to the chagrin of the international and regional media which then (and some, even now) regarded Dr Mahathir as the bete noire of Asian leaders, Thaksin decided to come to Malaysia to discuss “closer economic cooperation.”
Let's take a look at how Thailand has been doing these days under the CEO-style management of Thaksin.
The economy is back on track and rolling along quite nicely. Thanks partly to the much-depreciated baht, exports went up by 18%. Small and medium industries are thriving. (Thailand has been voted number one in worldwide total entrepreneurial activity rankings).
Life for the rural poor, badly hit by the currency crisis in 1997, is a lot better. Incomes of farmers have risen by 11% on the average.
Despite the SARS outbreak earlier this year, Thaksin is confident of a 6% gross domestic product this year. He expects things to be better the following year at 7% and 8% in 2005.
Thailand's relationship with Malaysia has also been greatly enhanced since that first official visit two years ago.
The breakthrough in the relationship forged by the two Prime Ministers has, without doubt, changed the scope and pattern of dealing with each other. If in the past both countries regarded each other as “competitor,” the current perception is one of “partner” in joint growth.
In a record of sorts for governments, the Cabinets of both countries held a joint meeting in Haadyai last December. Malaysia is currently Thailand's fifth largest trading partner while Thailand ranks as Malaysia's seventh largest trading partner. Malaysia's bilateral trade with Thailand amounted to US$7.13bil in 2002.
An obvious symbol of joint cooperation is the 366km Malaysia-Thailand gas pipeline project, although the agreement was signed before Thaksin became PM. After being stalled for years, largely due to protests from locals and NGOs, the project is on again.
Malaysia's Ambassador to Thailand Datuk Syed Norulzaman Syed Kamarulzaman said: “I am happy that we are making progress on this and I can confirm that construction work has begun. Some who opposed the project now understand the mutual benefits for both countries.
“The project will provide a boost to the economic growth of both countries by opening up new opportunities, joint ventures and creating demand for construction, services and petrochemical related products that both countries can supply.”
The ambassador, who will be among the 300 participants of the two-day Malaysia-Thailand Technology and Business Partnership Dialogue in Langkawi that coincides with the meeting of the Prime Ministers, said there were ample areas for potential cooperation besides gas.
These range from industrial complementation to services sector such as education, healthcare, joint tourism programmes, joint services in transportation and logistics as well as in the development of a halal food hub.
The ambassador has been pushing for the private sectors of both countries to intensify interaction.
“It is only through frequent exchanges of views and sharing of information that we can understand each other and better identify projects for joint implementation,” Syed Norulzaman said.
The vital process of communication is already under way. Earlier this year, Minister of International Trade and Industry Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz addressed a gathering of 500 businessmen in Bangkok.
Many issues related to existing rules and regulations were raised at the no-holds-barred meeting. One was about red tape: administrative requirements in both countries for overland movement of goods, a cumbersome problem that causes costly delays.
“While there are good reasons for some of the measures, both governments are looking into making trade easier. Such obstacles won't be known unless the business community brings it up,” the ambassador said.
He noted that many Malaysian businessmen who had traditionally looked down to the south of peninsular Malaysia to trade were now moving up north, realising the market potential of Thailand and the surrounding countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Syed Norulzaman is so confident he is predicting that trade with Thailand can reach US$10bil in the next two years, given the current trend.
How are Malaysian businessmen in Thailand doing? Not too bad, according to Yeap Swee Chuan who heads the year-old Malaysian Thai Chamber of Commerce .
“Malaysian-Thai business cooperation is improving from year to year. I see many new Malaysian businesses investing in Thailand; many have Thai partners.
“However, there are fewer new Thai investments to Malaysia. I hope the Thai Government will encourage more Thai companies to invest in Malaysia,” added Yeap, whose automotive parts company, Aapico Hitech, is the only Malaysian-owned firm to be listed in the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
The two premiers are likely to discuss the improving business links besides the more serious issues of Myanmar, terrorism, cross-border security and manpower.
Much more important than the items on the agenda, however, is the indomitable spirit of amity, mutual respect and shared vision – an essence that is expected to continue when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi takes over as Prime Minister.
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