Home Introduction Books Research Papers Popular Articles Talks Weblinks Contact
  Print this page
  ARI Newletter Interview
Featured Interview
Other Interview
You could have had a career in the West with a Yale-Harvard education. Why didn't you?

I 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'.

What contributed to the making of Jomo, the much feared and respected public intellectual?

Are 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 goons.

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 (

What made you leave academia for the public sector?

Push 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.

Is cooperation among Asian countries possible with Japan, Korea and now China being the dominant economies?

I 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?

Well, 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, actually.
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?

We 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 out.
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.

Should Asian development models become the norm-setters for the developing world?

The 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?

Well, 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.

  Privacy policy | 2016 Jomo KS Design: Horo. 2003