|You could have had
a career in the West with a Yale-Harvard
education. Why didn't you?
guess I am a child of Bandung, the generation
of post-war baby boomers from Africa and
Asia who want to build a new world. We
felt we had to walk the talk, and chose
to 'return home'. Many others faced greater
difficulties and challenges in terms of
political repression or economic hardship.
I am proud to belong to this generation,
many of whom still struggle on, making
sacrifices far greater than mine, which
economists would describe primarily in
terms of 'opportunity costs'.
to the making of Jomo, the much feared and
respected public intellectual?
you kidding? Who is afraid of me? I don't
want anyone to be afraid of me, except
perhaps my son. (laughs)
Being named after two of those led struggles
for independence must have made some difference.
From an early age, I became conscious
that there was more to life than my reasonably
comfortable middle class existence in
Malaysia. I cycled round the island of
Penang and started hitch-hiking in secondary
school and thus saw other Malaysias, especially
after joining the military college. After
two years of university, I came back overland
from Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and India while still in my teens.
After graduating the next year, I went
overland through South America, spending
more than a month in Chile before 9/11,
1973. Such exposure, and more academic
knowledge gained at university in the
early 1970s set me on my present trajectory.
After returning to Malaysia to work on
my thesis in 1976, I spent a lot of time
learning from others who had sacrificed
so much for independence, freedom, justice.
Later, we published a monthly magazine
for five years (1979-83) before getting
banned, over a hundred books and pamphlets
on contemporary and historical issues
we deemed important. We also helped others
like the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya
recover the voice denied to him by Soeharto's
After the stupid repression of 1987, I
started paying more attention once again
to the rest of the world, after focusing
on Malaysia for the first decade after
finishing my thesis. This meant a return
to a more conventional academic career,
writing, publishing, etc. for the few
dozen others interested -- unlike the
much bigger impact of writing for the
public. Since the 1990s, I have spent
a lot of time working with others on research
and publication, and in this way, I think
we now have a community of people with
serious policy alternatives to offer in
terms of industrial policy, trade, finance,
investment, human resources, technology,
etc. I have also been trying to do more
in the region and in the South more generally,
to fight the TINA nonsense that there
is no alternative. This was the motivation
for setting up IDEAs (www.ideaswebsite.org)
|What made you
leave academia for the public sector?
and pull factors. I had long been urging
friends to try to work to strengthen the
UN to help governments reject the TINA
mentality promoted by some of the powerful
in the West. But I did not think of joining
myself until things got very bad for me
at work. I agree with Kissinger that while
academic politics involve vicious methods,
the stakes are petty. Hence, I decided
to opt out, rather than fight -- much
to the disappointment of my friends.
I was mainly interested in work in which
I felt I could make a difference and did
not really seek out the job I now have
as I did not have government support.
I had nominated a friend for it, but she
decided not to go for it, and that is
when I became a candidate.
among Asian countries possible with Japan,
Korea and now China being the dominant economies?
think it is not only possible, but necessary,
for the same reason that the European
Union will count for much more as it integrates,
but this must be a co-operation sensitive
to diversity, rather than one which seeks
to deny the unevenness in the region.
|Has China taken
foreign investment away from ASEAN countries?
foreign direct investment (FDI) in the
world has gone down since the late 1990s.
In the 1990s, more than 80% of FDI in
the world consisted of mergers and acquisitions
(M&As), more As than Ms in the South,
In the region, China's share has gone
up from less than 40% to about 70%, so
the perception is that China has taken
away FDI from the others, but I would
argue that it is not so straightforward.
|Is the Free
Trade Agreement (FTA) between China and
ASEAN a South-South win-win case?
have to get away from this silly recent
infatuation with FTAs. The Bush Administration
started pushing them through Bob Zoellick,
the US Trade Representative and possibly
next World Bank President. Some in the
US claim it was meant to push others to
sign up to the WTO's multilateral agreements.
Some governments try to use it as a signaling
device to advertise special offers, etc.
and to try to lock in the other partner.
Most FTAs have relatively little on trade
issues per se, as they usually involve
relatively open economies. Instead, FTAs
are more often about special investment
incentives and strengthening intellectual
property rights (IPRs) -- a type of monopoly,
contrary to FTAs' free trade pretensions.
China wisely declined to have an FTA exclusively
with Singapore, and asked for one with
ASEAN instead. Thus, while the US has
a friend in Singapore, China gained nine
others in the region by signaling that
it would not do a deal keeping others
However, a variety of regional economic
cooperation arrangements is possible,
and we should be looking to explore the
implications and desirability of such
arrangements, rather than think narrowly
only in terms of FTAs.
development models become the norm-setters
for the developing world?
miracles in the region should be reminders
that there are alternatives, and to expose
and reject the neo-liberal myths of the
Washington Consensus or its new variations.
Asia offers many lessons to others, but
we must be modest, and not think that
we have all the answers to all the problems
in the world. Even though lessons from
elsewhere can be important, successful
development strategies must fully appreciate
and build on local conditions. Even transplants
must grow deep roots to be strong. Can
we honestly say that Asian investments
or technology are inherently better across
the board? We must reject Asian or any
other type of chauvinism, whether Christian,
Confucian, Hindu or Muslim. We must be
proud without being arrogant or haughty,
and presuming to know all.
|What do you
hope to accomplish in your tenure as Assistant
Secretary-General of the UN?
I will have to learn very quickly to begin
with. Unlike most of my colleagues, who
have spent time in national or international
bureaucracies or governments, I have much
to learn about the system, what can and
cannot be done, and so on.
As you know, the UN has been under siege
for some time. The world has also changed,
and the current configuration of international
power is incompatible with international
democracy, equality or justice. There
is a lot of pressure to further diminish
the UN's work on economic and social affairs.
We must work hard to convince the General
Assembly and the world of the importance
of the work the UN does, especially in
these areas. But more than that, we will
have to be pro-active to provide the scope
for international leadership in these
areas. There is no world government, but
international cooperation is increasingly
urgent to address a growing variety of
global challenges. The UN Secretariat
must provide the relevant guidance and
even leadership in this area.