Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Uncertainty Lies Ahead

Thailand has had a pretty good year since the demonstrations of April and May, 2010, culminated in a bloody crackdown on May 19 in which 91 people died. The country is largely peaceful, the economy is thriving, unemployment is low, the currency is strong. All are usually good omens for success at the ballot box.

But the national election, which will be held Sunday (July 3) is more likely to muddy than clarify the long-running political drama that has divided the country for more than a decade.. The only thing certain about the election, and more importantly what happens after the votes are counted, is uncertainty, says Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.

This election represents another turn in the long-running political cycle drama in Thailand that pits supporters of ex-prime minister, now fugitive, Thaksin Shinawatra, and opponents who are determined that the former premier will never wield power in Thailand again – or set foot in the country if they can help it.

It is an article of faith that elections in a democracy are necessary to clear the air. That may be true when the losing side accepts the legitimacy of the outcome and contents itself with serving as a loyal opposition until the next polling comes around. That has not been the case in Thailand in recent years.

The Bangkok Post described the long-running political stalemate this way: “In Thailand’s electoral democracy election winners cannot rule; [but] those who rule cannot win elections.”

Whenever Thai people have been asked choose, they have unambiguously sided with the party of Thaksin or his proxy. That was true in the last election held in December 2007 and won by the Thaksin-backed People’s Progress Party (PPP), which formed a government under Thaksin surrogate Samak Sundaravej.

Opponents who go by the shorthand name of “yellow shirts” took to the streets of Bangkok in massive demonstration culminating in the occupation of the government house and the capital’s two main international airports, which brought transportation into and out of the country to a half.

The courts eventually disqualified enough PPP members of parliament on various charges (the first prime minister because he had hosted a cooking show on television), so that the government lost its majority in the lower house and was replace by one led by the Democrat Party. That plus some horse trading among minor parties led to the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Soon the capital was flooded with supporters of the former government, who by then had earned the nickname “red shirts”, and who occupied the commercial center of Bangkok for better part of two months before the police and allegedly the army moved in to suppress the movement and arrest its leaders.

Since it is widely assumed that Thaksin won the hearts and loyalty of so many Thai’s by a boldly populist agenda that included the beginnings of rudimentary health care, development loans to rural areas among other things the current Abhisit government has been, in essence, trying to out-Thaksin, Thaksin.

The government has undertaken several initiatives aimed directly at Thaksin’s constituency, such as land reform, income boosting measures, subsidizing food and diesel oil. In some respects the government has expanded on the Thaksin playbook, such as with programs that probably exceed anything the former government tried.

Minister Korn, speaking recently in Japan, freely admitted that many of these programs have a political dimension. “We don’t want the Thaksin folks to have a [political] weapon,” he said. But he also maintained that there were programs that any government concerned with the people’s welfare should undertake.

And yet none of this seems to have done much to loosen the iron grip that Thaksin has on a significant portion of the Thai people. The Pheu Thai party, the latest political vehicle for Thaksin, is reportedly leading in most opinion polls. The main political divide between the Thaksin-supporting north and northeast and the Abhisit’s strength in the south and middle is largely unchanged.

In previous elections, since he was exiled in 2006, Thaksin has been represented in parliament by surrogates (the courts keep disqualifying his party; loyalists simply regroup under a new name – hence Pheu Thai [for Thai] Party). This time the leader and potential prime minister is his 44-year-old sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has worked in her brother business empire but never been in politics before.

To have the Thaksin party headed by a genuine member of the family is about as in-your-face as you can get. She is happy to be described as a “clone” of her elder brother. “I understand hum, how he handles politics. That will be the one thing I’ve cloned from his logical thinking and vision,” she has said.

If the “red shirts” return to power one might expect that the opposition will hold mass demonstrations. There may be more investigations into the shadowy elements in the armed forces that are believed to have been behind the killings a year ago. It is possible that the judiciary will intervene to disqualify Yingluck, possibly for alleged financial misdeeds.

If Abhisit is able to form a government, expect more street demonstrations by the red shirts. The new government might be more aggressive in persecuting those on the red side who are believed to have torched many of the commercial buildings in Bangkok during last spring’s uprising confident that they will be in power for a long time.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the situation is how, despite all of the political uncertainty, despite the potential for disrupting post-election chaos, the Thai economy seems to just tick along as if the political disputes were taking place on a different planet.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Singapore's Gold-plated Ministers

America’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who oversees a budget of about $700 billion, makes approximately $157,000 a year. His counterpart in Singapore, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, who supervises a budget of about $15 billion and roughly 70,000 troops, earns the equivalent of $1.2 million a year. Is something askew here?

It is no secret in Asia that Singapore’s government ministers make outrageously generous salaries. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pulls in the equivalent of $2.4 million annually, or six times the $400,000 salary of President Barack Obama. Cabinet ministers earn in excess of $1 million, with equally generous retirement benefits.

These imposing salaries have long been a source of disquiet among the island republic’s five million citizens, but it was a disquiet that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which held every one but two seats in the 87-seat parliament, could safely ignore. As a result of last May’s watershed general election, which saw the opposition triple its strength in parliament, that may no longer be the case.

Singapore’s government salaries have been rising fast since 2007, when parliament adopted new guidelines, which peg the salaries of Singapore’s ministers and top civil servants at two-thirds of a composite of the top professionals in the republic, including lawyers, bankers and multinational corporate CEOs.

Since it is not uncommon in the United States for salaries of major CEOs or the heads of major financial houses to earn $30 million or more a year, President Obama would be paid about $20 million a year if the United States operated under the payment parameters that Singapore has set for itself.

Singapore’s founding father and long-time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has justified Singapore’s generous salaries as necessary to attract honest and competent leaders. Indeed, in his view, Singapore needs more than just competent leaders to guide a small republic with no obvious resources other than its own people to independence and prosperity.

He brushes aside comparisons with other countries, saying there is, no such thing as an international standard for setting ministers’ salaries, although almost every other democracy in the world from Britain to Australia pays their leaders far less than does Singapore. Some of them, such as Denmark or Switzerland, actually score better on international rankings of governmental corruption. That is irrelevant, he argues. Singapore exists in that sea of corruption called Southeast Asia; Denmark and Switzerland do not.

“Ministers who deal with billions [of dollars] cannot be paid low salaries without risking system malfunction” argued Lee Kuan Yew in the past. “Low salaries draw in hypocrites, who ‘sweet talk’ their way into power in the name of public service.”

But are the ancient Confucian values of honesty and efficiency enough in themselves in a modern democracy? Is the PAP’s ideology of authoritarian meritocracy fully justified? What about empathy, a sense of public duty or even a sense of sacrifice? Are these foreign values that are not suitable or necessary for a properly working Asian democracy?

Workers’ Party parliamentarian Shirley Lim addressed these questions head on when the current system of adjusting ministerial salaries was first tabled in 2007. She argued that the exorbitant salaries widened the gap between government and average citizen it served, undercut the concept of public service as a noble calling and actually failed to attract the brightest and best into government service.

“Can we say that each and every minister in the cabinet would become a top earning banker, accountant or CEO [if he left office]?” she asked. “Other countries favor a more moderate use of taxpayers’ money for salaries, and they do not seem to have run their countries into the ground.”

She noted that Singapore is a beneficiary of globalization, but she added that globalization tends to favor the top wage earners while depressing average earnings. If this trend continues and if the current salary review system remains in place, she argued, Singapore could be seeing ministers earning $3, $4 or even 5 million dollars a year.

Lim was then speaking as a Nominated Member of parliament. That is a curious position, unique to Singapore, in which the top three losing opposition candidates are appointed to parliament but have no vote. Ironically, it was Lee himself who first proposed the nominated members, worried that his own younger party members lacked street smarts and debating skills.

However, Lim is now speaking as a full-fledged voting member of parliament. She was part of the five-member Worker’s Party slate that captured the Aljunied Group Representative Constituency, in the May 7 general election, the first time that any opposition party had won a GRC since they were created in 1988. One other Workers Party candidate took one of the few remaining single-member seats.

The GRC is another dubious Singaporean contribution to democracy. The GRCs ostensibly ensure minority representation in parliament as one candidate on the slate must be from a minority, usually Malay or Indian. Critics maintained that it was a device to perpetuate the PAP lock by making it harder to recruit candidates and pay deposits, while minimizing the chances that weaker PAP candidates losing in head-to-head races.

For the opposition, winning one of the GRCs was like scaling Mt. Everest. It will get easier next time. Meanwhile, opposition members of parliament will no longer feel so lonely. Adding three new no-voting members, the opposition now has a sizeable bloc.

The PAP sought to boost its electoral chances by sprinkling famous party leaders and senior ministers in different slates. This backfired when Foreign Minister George Yeo went down to defeat in Aljunied, the first cabinet minister ever to lose an election in Singapore (the pain may have been ameliorated by a $2 million annual pension.)

Singapore may be virtually a one-party state, but the government takes election results seriously. When the PAP vote total falls below about two-thirds (last month it was 60, a record low in 18 consecutive elections) it is usually an occasion for soul searching. This election was no different.

Prime Minister Lee reshuffled the cabinet, trying to bring in new faces more appealing to the younger voters. Two famous old-timers, Lee Kuan Yew and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, resigned from the cabinet where they had served as “Mentor Ministers” without portfolios.

Lee acknowledged the public unease with ministerial salaries by immediately appointing a new committee to review the present method of setting salaries. “You can expect that in all probability, salaries will be cut,” said the committee’s new head Gerard Ee, who is chairman of Changi Hospital.

The opposition to high ministerial salaries is more than just a reflection of public envy. It is a manifestation of a deeper malaise over widening gap in wealth between the people at the top and the average Singaporean workers, a situation that is by no means unique to Singapore.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Naoto Kan's "Annus Horribilis"

When Naoto Kan looks back on his year as prime minister of Japan – and it probably won’t be long before he is looking back on it – he would well use the term popularized by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth after a stressful twelve months and call it his “Annus Horribilis” (Latin for horrible year).

Of course, Queen Elizabeth never had to survive a vote of no confidence like Kan did by vaguely promising to resign. Kan tried to keep his resignation open ended, but many leaders of his Democratic Party of Japan are already busy, metaphorically, measuring the curtains of the prime minister’s residence for when one of them moves in.

The next person occupying the prime minister’s office may not even be a member of Kan’s own party. Ever since the March 11 combined earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, there has been loose talk of a coalition between the two main and possibly smaller parties. Though still unlikely, that possibility is looming larger

It has gained renewed currency as one means of breaking the parliamentary gridlock and passing necessary legislation to fund the budget and repair the damage wrought by the March 11 earthquake. One might think that the two sides might come together to pass legislation obviously needed to relieve suffering, but that might be asking too much of Japan’s dysfunctional government.

In any case, parliamentary democracies think in terms of coalitions not bipartisanship. In one scenario, LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki assumes the prime minister’s position at least temporarily in order to have the Diet pass needed legislation then calls a general election. That the new ministers may hold office for only a few months would hardly be novel in Japan.

Naoto Kan recently passed the one year in office milestone, a dangerous time for Japanese premiers. His four predecessors, Yukio Hatoyama. Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, all held office for one year or less (in Aso’s case he resigned after losing the 2009 general election). Kan had hopes of breaking this pattern that has been embarrassing to Japan.

Kan’s “Annus Horribilis” year got off to a bad start, and he never really recovered. Within weeks of assuming office on June 4, 2010, the Japanese went to the polls to choose half of the House of Councillors, the upper chamber of Japan’s bicameral parliament. Kan’s party lost enough seats to hand the chamber over to the opposition, resulting once again into a divided Diet.

The July upper house election was scarcely over before Kan was fighting for his political life in an election for president of the DPJ against his nemesis Ichiro Ozawa. Although he won a comfortable majority among party rank-and file, he only narrowly carried the party’s parliamentary members. The narrowness of that vote would portend trouble throughout the year.

A former party president, Ozawa has been like a ball-and-chain on Kan’s leadership. Kan’s dilemma is that Ozawa is viewed as corrupt by the general population and a drag on the party in general, but because of his electioneering skills he is popular with the members of parliament, including about 100 freshmen members he personally recruited, groomed and placed in the Diet.

Ozawa was stripped of his party privileges last February after he was indicted on suspicion in an illegal financial transaction; in retaliation many of his supporters did not show up for a vote on the 2011 fiscal budget and 16 openly threatened to leave the party. Kan has never felt strong enough to expel Ozawa from the party.

The recent no-confidence vote may have been submitted by the formal opposition, but it’s only chance of actually passing had depended on significant numbers of Ozawa followers actually voting against their own government, which or a while seemed very possible. This failed to happen only after Kan’s last minute promise to resign sometime in the near future.

The prime minister spent much of his time between the party election last September and the massive quake in March trying, mostly without success, trying to find some combination of votes that would permit him to pass important spending bills, including the authority to issue bonds that under write 40 percent of the budget, against an opposition promising to block any such move to force a new election.

Even now, despite the extraordinary circumstances of what has been called Japan’s greatest post-war disaster, the opposition is willing to hold the budget hostage, in a move similar to Republican objections to raising the debt ceiling in the U.S., unless Kan resigns or perhaps a “grand coalition” government is formed.

The earthquake and subsequent nuclear power plant meltdowns did give Kan a temporary reprieve from relentless opposition in parliament and in his own party and perhaps a chance to demonstrate leadership in a crisis. But while it is difficult to find serious fault with his government’s response, it is equally difficult to pinpoint any genuine successes either.

He rather impulsively flew to the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant complex the day after the earthquake to personally assess the situation, but all it earned him was criticism for getting in the way of the plant operators struggling to contain the nuclear meltdown; when he returned to the earthquake region three weeks later, he was criticized for not appearing sooner.

When he entered office a year ago, he had two main goals. One was to fix the social security system, which like many similar entitlement programs is suffering from an aging workforce, by raising the sales tax from current five to ten percent. Another was to enter into more free trade agreements, an area where Japan is losing ground to regional neighbors such as South Korea.

His authority weakened at first by defeat in the upper house elections and by subsequent events including a no confidence motion, has delayed any real progress social security reform, certainly under a Kan administration. Meanwhile, the need to refocus attention on rebuilding the devastated northeast, has swept any real thought to pushing more free-trade zones off of the table, at least for now.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Mystery Man

In May in 1794 an unknown artist with no known qualifications walked into the woodblock print publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo in what was then called Edo, now Tokyo, and somehow persuaded him to commission a series of portraits of leading actors in the hugely popular Kabuki theater.

Although Juzaburo had already published the work of other famous woodblock artists, such as Utamaro, he must have detected some spark of artistic talent in the young man (one imagines he was young, as his age is just one of the many things not known about him).

Within weeks he had produced more than two dozen portraits of startling originality and beauty, images that are among the most instantly recognizable images of Japan extant. He went on to produce about a hundred more woodblock prints. Then, ten months after he had emerged, seemingly from nowhere, he disappeared.

Who was Sharaku is probably the most intriguing mystery in the Japanese art world, or, for that matter, anywhere in the art world. Aside from possibly his real name, and that is disputed, almost nothing is known about this mysterious genius. All that is left is his work, and that speaks for itself.

The recent exhibition of Sharaku’s work at the Tokyo National Museum, ending Sunday (June 12) takes a conservative stance on the identity of the mystery artist, saying only that it accepts that there really was such an individual. (There are theories that Sharaku was not one artist, but a committee of artists.) Beyond that it declines to speculate.

The mystery of who Sharaku was is somewhat similar to that of Shakespeare, where there are still some who doubt that the plays written in his name were actually written by the real person named Shakespeare rather then somebody else. Similar theories assert that the artist named Sharaku was another famous woodblock print artist, under a different name.

The German art critic an scholar Julius Kurth, who “discovered” Sharaku in the early part of the last century and popularized his art, maintained that Sharaku was actually a Noh play actor named Jurobei Saito, but the name really tells us nothing, and his status as Noh actor only a little more.

Noh drama is a highly refined, rarified kind of religious drama. Modern Japanese have trouble understanding it. By contrast Kabuki is earthy, popular, plebian entertainment. Kabuki actors were as popular as Hollywood stars today. The prints were the pinup posters of the day.

Kabuki actors were the subject of literally thousands of prints, from pedestrian playbills to artistic masterpieces. But none of the woodblock print artists of the day bothered to depict Noh actors, not even Sharaku. It’s been more than 100 years since Kurth published his 1910 book Sharaku, but no scholar has yet been able to advance on his findings.

If Sharaku’s real identity is unknown, not so his subjects. They were the most popular actors of the day, and one of the fascinating things about the exhibition was its decision to juxtapose portraits of the same actor by Sharaku and drawings by contemporary artists such as Toyukuni and Choki.

Yet it is impossible, even for an untrained eye, not to see the differences immediately. The first two dozen portraits by Sharaku are relatively large prints, showing the actor in half profile. Each portrait has three main elements: At the top a black hairpiece (a more elaborate coiffure for those male actors portraying women).

The face is basically a blank spot with two piercing black dots for eyes under a heavy eyebrow. The rest of the facial features are barely visible, with only a hint of a nose and a thin slit for a mouth usually curved down in a frown. The final element is the richly colored and detailed costume (sometimes the hands show an expressive fourth element).

Together, this first batch of work seems to have emerged fully developed and not the work of an apprentice artist struggling to find his style while copying and improving on the style of his contemporaries. It almost seems as if the artist got things backward, a dramatic debut with a revolutionary style and then a turn to more prosaic portraits.

After producing about 28 of these large half portraits, Sharaku suddenly switched to more conventional full sized portraits in a smaller format, which, though often charming in themselves, do not seem all that different from the many portraits being churned out by other woodblock artists and publishing houses.

It is speculated that the subjects of his work were not all that pleased with how they were depicted and that his publisher prevailed on him to tone things down. It is tempting to think that he eventually decided to quit rather than see his art corrupted in this fashion, although there is no evidence to support this romantic notion.

It is a testament to the confidence of the Tokyo Museum of Art and many other museums around the world that Tokyo could even hold this exhibition. It was originally to open around April 1, about three weeks after the mammoth earthquake and numerous recurring aftershocks set people on edge.

The museum delayed the opening for a month as it sent queries to museums around the world as to whether they were comfortable lending their treasures to Tokyo. Most of them were. As a consequence, the museum was able to put together an exhibit, displaying almost every one of the 140 or so known Sharaku prints, the first such comprehensive exhibit and maybe the last.

The world of the floating world was as fleeting as the name implies. It flared up for a few brief decades with Sharaku at the pinnacle and then died. But the Kabuki theater still thrives in Japan, and men still play the women’s parts. But the young people now hang posters of rock stars and film actors.