Intolerable Amateurism in Government

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Intolerable Amateurism in Government

Today''s global financial market reminds me of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the Hollywood classic about buried treasure and the three men searching for it.

The global financial market now is a lawless, barren cyberspace. Capital swarms around in search of immediate gains and pulls out at the slightest sign of risk. The locks on national financial markets have been broken, leaving those which have borrowed from international capital easy prey to invaders.

These speculative assaults by global capital create twisters almost everywhere; even the international oil futures and spot markets are affected, with oil prices being blown this way and that.

It is against this new and uncertain global background that countries in Southeast Asia have been confronting the challenge of financial and corporate restructuring, the essence of which lies in removing insolvency and securing safety devices through new rules and systems anchored in market principles.

It has been three years since the financial crisis hit Asia but across the region restructuring is stalling, and the fault lies in the main with governments.

The Japanese government can be classed among the "bad." By delaying restructuring and taking no other remedial action it is prolonging the problem and forcing the economy into decline.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are three countries in which reforms have been held up by the impeachment of government officials accused of corruption. These could be described as a trio of the "ugly."

South Korea''s Kim Dae-jung administration initially earned high marks for overcoming the financial crisis and ranked, along with Singapore, as the "good," but it is now fast sinking to join the "bad," at the very least, the "ugly." Its restructuring and reforms have become mired in corruption scandals, and labor and medical disputes have cast doubts on the government''s management capabilities.

Of course, the government is not solely to blame for the dawdling pace of reform. There has been a loss of enthusiasm for reform, brought about by financial markets stoked up to boiling point by the dot-com startup boom and soaring shares, excessive consumption in some sectors, and injection of astronomical amounts of public funds. The financial sector and the press have also shackled the government''s restructuring efforts, claiming forcible restructuring is no longer acceptable.

But the bulk of blame lies with the government''s lack of leadership. The current administration still demonstrates an amateurish aspect in the way it governs. Its freshness and strong will for reform was a novelty at first, but it employed too few technocrats in the state administration able or willing to turn the promise into action

With the government in the second half of its term, It is high time it demonstrates management skills. It has to rise above the amateurism of looking after of its cronies. President Kim Dae-jung rose to power on the strength of the labor unions'' support, so it is understandable that he should try to remain their champion, but he cannot allow them to continue to hamper restructuring efforts. There are times when it is necessary to betray one''s supporters for a greater cause.

I am not finding fault with pluralism; it is a natural byproduct of democratization. But pluralism can mature only when it is based on a benign mix of good government, social restraint and fair play. But Korea is trapped in a vicious cycle of bad government, foul politics and group selfishness.

If public confidence in the government and its politics is to be restored, the president has to forsake personal ambitions and be honest with the public. I wonder how former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have reacted if power industry workers had threatened a general strike which risked plunging the nation into darkness. Wouldn''t she have emphatically stressed the inevitability of restructuring and appealed to people to endure the inconvenience of living by candlelight for a few days?

The public does not grasp fully the complexities of politics and economics. They trust and follow a leader when he appears to be honest and when they believe he is trying to solve problems, instead of merely talking about solutions. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan always put in a few words of his own in the speeches his aides wrote for him, and by so doing presented the image of a frank and confident leader talking directly to the American public in a language voters could understand and relate to.

If Mr. Kim is not obsessed with maintaining his influence after he steps down, or with securing his party''s victory in the next presidential election, he should not be afraid to make whatever decisions that are necessary for the sake of the nation. Government failure carries far greater consequences than market failure. I can only hope that the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mr. Kim spills over to the government, in which a sense of renewal would be more than welcome.

by Byun Sang-keun

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