The next century may not be the Pacific Century but it should be the century for social democracy in the Asia-Pacific as no government  can forever suppress the universal human aspirations for justice, democracy and good governance

- Opening of  Socialist International Asia-Pacific Committee meeting 
on "Asia and the Pacific: priorities and perspectives for social democracy"

by Lim Kit Siang  

(Kuala Lumpur, Friday): Let me on behalf of the Democratic Action Party warmly welcome all delegates and observers from fraternal parties and organisations  to the Socialist International Asia-Pacific Committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur on "Asia and the Pacific: priorities and perspectives for social democracy".

I want particularly to thank the Socialist International Secretary-General Luis Ayala for making this meeting possible.  I must apologise that I have not been able to fulfil his one wish, which is to arrange for him to visit jailed DAP leader Lim Guan Eng, as the powers for granting such requests are still not in our hands.

I visited Guan Eng in Kajang Prison yesterday, and he asked me to convey  his regards to all participants of this meeting, and to Luis Ayala, for enabling him to make his parting speech at the SI Council meeting in Oslo in May 1998 before his return home and to jail.  Guan Eng is not in the best of health in Kajang Prison, but his spirits are undiminished and unvanquished and they continue to burn strongly for the cause of social democracy.

We are meeting at a critical time when the region is just emerging from the Asian economic crisis which halted an unprecedented three decades of rapid economic growth, with far-reaching economic, social and political repercussions.  A recent World Bank report blames the Asian financial crisis for creating 200 million more people in abject poverty than a decade ago -  increasing poverty across Asia and much of the rest of the world.

Before July 2, 1997, the Asian Pacific was considered to be the world's success story of economic development and technological modernization of the past half-century.  Between 1965 and 1996, average annual growth of GNP in real terms for the world at large was 3.1 per cent. In contrast, in the Asian Pacific, China grew at an annual average rate of 8.5 per cent, Hong Kong at 7.5 per cent, South Korea at 8.9 per cent, Singapore at 8.3 per cent, Thailand at 7.3 per cent, Indonesia at 6.7 per cent, Malaysia at 6.8 per cent, the Philippines at 3.5 per cent, and Japan at 4.5 per cent.  In 1950, Asia amounted for just 19 per cent of the world's income; in 1996, its share reached 33 per cent.

There are domestic, regional and international causes for the Asian economic crisis. The domestic origins of the Asian crisis lay in macroeconomic imbalances, structural deficiencies in financial sectors, and shortcomings in political and corporate governance such as the lack of democracy, transparency and accountability.

This is why world attention is now focussed on the democratic experiment in Indonesia, which enacted one of the  most touching political dramas  on Monday, when in thousands of towns and villages around the country, millions of voters defied the wishes of the officials who had ordered their lives for generations, and for the most part, voted  as they wished for the first time in their life.

As social democrats, where freedom and democracy are an integral part of our  core  beliefs together with justice, peace and solidarity, we welcome Indonesia’s success in holding its  first democratic general election in more than 40 years.

 The Indonesians have safely  taken their important  first step toward democracy. Although  trouble and violence had been all too common in Indonesia over the past year,  with the exception of a few minor cases, reports coming in  from the various regions of the country have dispelled earlier fears that such a democratic and free vote  could only result in widespread violence.

This is not yet the time for rejoicing or celebration, as it is still too early to conclude that the Indonesian  elections had been free and fair, with rising concern, impatience and suspicion at the glacial pace of the vote count as to whether there could be foul play. Furthermore,   the road ahead for Indonesian democracy is going to be long and perilous in order to establish a healthy democracy and build a strong, just and prosperous civic society with  no abuses of power or KKN - corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

Social democrats, particularly in the Asia and Pacific region, are understandably very encouraged by the development in Indonesia  so far and  wish to extend their greatest support and solidarity with the people of Indonesia in their struggle for  justice, freedom, democracy and good governance in their country.

The successful first step in the establishment of Indonesian democracy should give heart to all fighters for democracy in the Asia-Pacific region that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, however dark,  bleak and protracted  their present passage - that even before the start of the new millennium in six months’ time, new breakthroughs in the fight for freedom, justice and human rights in other parts of the  the Asian Pacific,  whether in Burma, East Timor or even nearer home, are  still possible.

The Asian economic crisis has  also highlighted the need to address the inequities of the international financial  system, where every day about one trillion dollars move across the foreign exchanges, how to discourage speculative capital flows and in particular the issue of globalisation, which has deepened inequalities in our societies as between societies.

The Socialist International had been in the forefront in drawing international attention to the need to limit the negative aspects and improve the  positive effects of globalisation so that it takes into consideration diverse regional realities and the social cohesion of different societies, contributing to the global betterment of economic and social well-being and preserving the environment.

The Socialist International, at its 20th Congress in 1996 for instance  warned that "globalisation has increased the power of multinational corporations, manipulators of foreign exchange markets and international organisations at the expense of governments, electors and the democratic process... We need a new system of collective responsibility offsetting the negative effects of globalisation."

If the 1996 SI platform, which rejected the ultra-liberal view in which globalisation of profits comes together with the globalisation of poverty and called for a global economy with justice in international economic relations based on a global system of collective responsibility had been heeded by the international community, then the worst ravages of the Asian economic crisis might have been averted.

The SI Council meeting in Geneva in November 1998 had followed up with  a stirring call "to regulate globalisation and to globalise regulation" affter pointing out to a paradox which must be resolved: that trade and financial markets now are global but governance and regulation are mainly national.

The world must not be divided up into globalisation winners and losers, which is inimical to  the building of a  lasting world order.

The greatest challenge for social democracy in the new millennium is to establish the principles of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance as the primary political force in the Asia-Pacific region, not only in national affairs but also in international relations.

I had said at the SI Council meeting in New Delhi in November 1997 that unlike in Europe, where the great movement for socialism was founded and  there is no major misunderstanding of the ideology of socialism as a variant of communism, in many part of Asia, socialism is quite a dirty word. This is the result of many decades of misinformation and disinformation which equated socialism with communism,  the fall of communism with  the fall of socialism, and democratic socialists and social democrats as  advocates of the  defeated communist ideology.

Those who spout these pernicious propaganda, including some  who occupy the highest positions in government, are not ignoramuses, for they cannot be unaware for instance, that:

But the persistence of such powerful propaganda in Asian societies falsely  equating social democracy with communism or hard socialism underlines the upbill battle faced by social democrats in Asia.

This is however no cause for despair. However forbidding the terrain, we can discern in all the Asian Pacific countries, even among the most authoritarian ones,  an increasing popular demand for justice, equality, human rights, democracy, solidarity and good governance for these are universal human aspirations that no government  can ban, banish or  suppress forever.

For us in Malaysia, the people are looking forward for far-reaching changes in the next election which can be held anytime, for with the unprecedented co-operation of Opposition parties in Malaysia for the first time in the country’s history, the objective of breaking the mould of the ruling coalition’s political hegemony - the root cause of the authoritarian model of democracy in Malaysia - is within reach.

The next century may not be the Pacific Century, but it should be the century for social democracy in Asia Pacific.  Let the Kuala Lumpur meeting of the SI Asia-Pacific Committee signify the growing momentum in the  coming-of-age of social democracy in the Asia-Pacific in the coming century.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong