Looked back on 10 years from now, Asia's currency crisis may be viewed in a different light. It may be seen as a period in which not only economic reform but also popular democracy gained ground.
Note three recent events that display crony capitalism in retreat:
First, two top gurus of global finance gave their blessing to South Korea's new, democratically elected reform president, Kim Dae Jung. Sir John Templeton invested in that nation at low ebb. George Soros journeyed to Seoul to bestow his approval in person.
Second, US President Clinton, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, IMF fixer Stan Fischer, and US Treasury troubleshooter Larry Summers put the squeeze on long-reigning Indonesian President Suharto to reform his economy for his people's good. Reform in this case meant curbing nepotism and cronyism.
Third, at the other end of Asia, nepotism at the top took an even harder blow. The detective work of Pakistani investigators probing the $100 million-plus spoils amassed by the husband and family of deposed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was pinned down in detail by New York Times correspondent John Burns.
Taken together, these three events mark various stages in the progress of Asian peoples. They are already enjoying the fruits of capitalist economic advancement but only beginning to taste democratic political power. The road toward more democracy may twist and turn. But the more advanced "tiger" nations have already produced more affluent, better-educated, more world-aware middle classes. With their family-oriented morality and thrifty habits, these populations are raising a next generation not likely to settle for a return to corrupt old ways of cronyism.
Examining the corruption that led to the jailing of former presidents in Korea or exposure by investigators in Pakistan is important for two reasons:
(1) It adds urgency to recent moves to wipe out bribery as a way of doing business in the multitrillion-dollar world economy.
(2) It warns leaders of emerging economies and their families and associates that bribes, kickbacks, and quiet extortion will be traced and punished.
The hard-working, high-saving peoples of most emerging nations deserve to be delivered from this hidden, persistent tax on their pursuit of better lives. One direct way to do so is to put more teeth in the anti-bribery convention signed last December by 34 nations in Paris.
Putting a stop to bribery is a first step. Pressing governments to adopt more open contract, bank-loan, and corporate practices is equally crucial.
One basic aim is to erase the l'tat c'est moi mentality that accompanies family dynasties. From the regime of the late Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos to the twice-ruling Bhuttos in Pakistan that has taken a toll. It is not confined to Asia, of course. Witness the crony corruption in Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire, and Mexico. And it flourishes in communist states. Note nepotism at the top in China, Cuba, and cultish North Korea.
Nor can the West shrug. Remember the Lockheed scandal that touched leaders in Europe and the Mideast. And the still unfolding story of Asian money in the 1996 US election.
Pressure to continue reforming national money practices benefits us all.