THE recent Time magazine article “Era of the Strongman”—which included President Duterte as among the strongmen who’ve risen in recent years, together with Russian President Putin—has a very questionable assumption underlying it: That strongmen are bad for countries and people. The reality though is more complex.
This bias of US media isn’t surprising. Russia was ripe for the picking by the US and the West when the USSR was dissolved, and a weak (or drunken?) leader Boris Yeltsin was at its helm. It was only when the strongman Putin emerged that his nation broke the West’s encirclement—even literally as the US came to control many of the former Soviet republics—of Russia. It is now claiming its position as a superpower in a multi-polar world. Why, it could even have played a crucial role in electing the current US President!
What the Time article, nor most Filipino intellectuals, even its supposedly objective economists, do not say is this: All of the Asian “economic dragons,” as well as the “tiger cubs” grew to be industrialized nations under the authoritarian rule of strongmen.
The biggest, incontrovertible proof of this idea is of course modern China, ruled by “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping for 11 years from 1978 to 1989. Deng steered the country of over 1 billion and its Communist Party of 30 million at that time to embrace “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That was really a euphemism for capitalism guided and directed by the party in order to grow the economy fast and to benefit the masses.
Is strongman rule bad? China lifted out of extreme poverty (those living on $1.90 per day, roughly P96 per day) 800 million of its citizens from 1988 to 2013. Was getting 800 million souls out of the hell of poverty bad?
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, ruled Taiwan with an iron fist from the day they fled to the island from China in 1947 after their Kuomintang forces were defeated by Mao Zedong’s forces, to the time Taiwan embraced democracy in 1988.
Two strongmen ruled South Korea for nearly three decades: Syngman Rhee for 12 years until 1960, and Gen. Park Chung-Hee for 17 years (1962-1979).
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whom so many Filipinos seem to idolize, ruled Singapore for 31 years. After a clever hiatus, during which Go Chok Tong was prime minister, Lee’s son Hsien Long took the reins of government and has since been prime minister for 12 years now. Lee’s People’s Action Party, as in the 1950s, continues to control the press through Singapore Press Holdings.
What Lee’s fans never note is that Singapore has been under so much dictatorship that its press has never been “free” to this day, with print, broadcast, and new media mostly run by state-owned firms like Singapore Press Holdings and Temasek Holdings.
Correspondents of critical foreign outfits have been routinely expelled, sued and their publications banned. I should know. The Far Eastern Economic Review where I worked was banned in Singapore for more than a decade, losing that lucrative market. Even I couldn’t visit Singapore as a tourist as it banned all our staff, even the lowliest janitor, from entering the island state. Lee lifted the embargo on our magazine only after our British editor was fired, and replaced with an appeasing young American lawyer.
Suharto and his cronies
Indonesia’s Maj. Gen. Suharto grabbed power in a bloody coup d’état in 1967, and stayed in power for 31 years. Marcos’ cronies were amateurs compared with those of Suharto, whose closest crony Soedono Salim was given monopolies on cloves, flour, cement and even government bank deposits.
While most of Marcos’ cronies are forgotten now, Suharto’s top cronies, the so-called Gang of Four, set up First Pacific Co., Ltd in 1981, now one of the biggest regional conglomerates in Asia, which owns PLDT and Meralco, ironically controlled by Marcos’ cronies during martial law.
Malaysia’s Mahathir was in power for 22 years starting in 1981, and is still a formidable political force in his country, having effectively suppressed the leading opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges, of all things, of sodomy.
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn ruled Thailand as military dictator from 1963 to 1973, until violent student protests forced him out of office.
The average length of strongman rule in these Asian countries was 23 years; Marcos’ held on to power only for 13 years. Is there a case for claiming that strongman rule didn’t work here, since Marcos’ strongman rule did not last as long as those in other countries did?
How Asia’s strongmen fared
The reality stares us in the face: The Asian economic tigers grew to industrial status in one generation, all under authoritarian rule, and not under democratic systems, as in the West.
The tiger economies all grew under strongman rule. But for us it resulted in poverty, which we haven’t been able to overcome after 27 years. Why?
Two short answers. Marcos from the start really wasn’t too strong a strongman, because he maintained the nation’s legal framework. There wasn’t even the extermination of our insurgencies on a ruthless level as occurred under Indonesia’s Suharto and South Korea’s Park Chung-hee.
And secondly, whatever degree of strongman rule he had imposed became weak when he lifted martial law, even if only on an official basis, in 1981, and diffused his power to the three competing factions at the time: that of his wife Imelda with his cousin, Gen. Fabian Ver; Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile with the Philippine Constabulary Chief Fidel Ramos; and the technocrats under the World Bank-International Monetary Fund’s aegis led by Finance Minister Cesar Virata.
The weakening of his strongman rule was even paralleled by the weakening of his body. His kidneys started to fail in 1982 that he had to undergo a transplant of his two kidneys in 1984.
It is not just coincidental that the Philippine economy surged at an average of 6 percent under Marcos’ strongman rule 1972-1980, and then tumbled when he became a weak ruler, from 1981’s 3.4 percent GDP growth rate to a recession in the two years of 1984 and 1985.