On the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first “non-white” president of the United States, I reflected on the impressions of his elections in the different Asian countries I am familiar with. For my purposes, “non-white” is better than “first black president”, because quite obviously, his appointment meant something personal to many people around the world.
The sentiments that I was able to observe in the different countries that I visit frequently in the region told me as much about these countries as it did about the US election itself, and I thought I should jot down some notes as follows:
In JAPAN. I was intrigued that the young Japanese liked the idea of “Change” very much – but only as long as it happened in some other country. The Obama election in November did not really touch much of the older Japanese (“the Americans are always up to crazy things anyway, so what is new?”). But the younger Japanese are at least intellectually cosmopolitan, aware of developments globally, travel well and enjoy reading about the changes taking place in the US. Yes, the world is changing and it is good to know that. But equally, they could not for the world of them, see any way for change within their own society. Even if that change is seeping in – through foreign workers from Indonesia and the Philippines looking after their ageing parents, through their jobs going to this horrible neighbour called China, and so on. One day, Change will arrive in Japan, like a huge train into an empty train station. But not today.
In SOUTH KOREA. There are two Koreas today – the Koreans who have lived abroad and have brought change themselves into their own country, and the Koreans who have never left the country except on holidays and still carry in themselves the generations of genetic insularity. The Koreans who have been abroad enjoyed the Obama elections along with the rest of the world. They read the newspapers at Starbucks and discuss them openly with their foreign friends. The insular Koreans just can’t see the significance of it, their perception accentuated by the only black people they do see in Korea – the drug dealers in Iteawon district, the huge posters for sending donations to poor countries in Africa and the US servicemen.
In CHINA. Being a huge country, there are pockets of young people to whom the election of Obama did mean something. But to the national psychic, it was a non-event. In China, most things Western are non-events – the Oscar Awards, the Nobel Prize, why even the Olympics – unless the winner is a Chinese. Then it becomes a huge event, even out of proportion, because “we Chinese” can. Until then, it is a non-event.
But I do worry about the impact of the Obama administration on US-China relations. After the honeymoon period of the Bush administration, where Hank Paulson pandered to China like a monkey on a string, the storm clouds of dark days to come are already gathering. The people around Obama, Hillary Clinton and Lawrence Summers, do not care very much for China. In fact, in as much as we can expect Obama to have some kind of empathy towards the Middle East, it does appear that he does not have a homing device on things Chinese. His inauguration speech was telling. He addressed “our friends in the Muslim world” directly, but fell silent when it came to China, Asia and the parts of the world with the fastest growing economies. The chemistry is not going to be great at all, which will only accentuate China and the Chinese people’s lack of appreciation for the significance of his presidency.
In TAIWAN. In Taiwan, where many people have families in the US the appreciation is more on the themes of leadership, certainty and direction – because it speaks directly to the need in Taiwan today. Like to the Chinese in China, the idea of a non-white president would only be relevant to the Taiwanese if he were Chinese. But they were impressed by the ability of a country as complex as the US to nominate one man to be their leader and to rally around that man – they wished they were able to do so in their own country.
In HONG KONG. The Hongkongers are intensely practical people. They give Obama no points for being elected! Elections are a charade in Hong Kong and to Hongkongers. They reserve their points to give only if he is able to turn the economy around and if it means more money to them. Until then, the standard Hong Kong response is “Let’s see” and nothing more. The lack of personal connection with the US is symptomatic of the point that despite being one of the most open economies in the world, the local Hongkonger is intensely local and parochial in his interests.
Life is hard in Hong Kong. People work hard. Despite the hypocritical attempt of the British to impose democracy on Hong Kong just before they left in 1997 and no sooner, government is largely irrelevant to everyday life. It is comical to see the theaterics in the largely appointed legislature, where the HK government works hard to be taken seriously by its people, as say, the Singapore government is, but fails. Not that an irrelevant and failing government is a bad thing, because the Hongkonger is a highly resourceful, creative and self-sustaining individual. The Hongkonger also speak mostly Cantonese, a provincial language which shields them from the outside world.
There is another Hong Kong, the Hong Kong of the international community, living mostly on Hong Kong island, watching television at the bars in Lan Kwai Fong and Wanchai. These are the spectators, and includes the Americans (many Democrats amongst them). These provide the buzz for the occasion, a buzz that is palpable but pretentious. But then, everything is pretentious amongst the international community in Hong Kong.
In all of the Chinese-speaking world today, there is no Chinese equivalent of a “minority” who makes it to the top. The 55 ethnic minorities in China don’t really count in the upward mobility indices. There is the concept of the underdog, but it is reserved for the Han person from poor or underprivileged families through hard work, through real politicking and working through the ranks.
In THAILAND. The Thais in Bangkok do not like black people. Period. The “ruling class” (by which, I mean the broad spectrum of state administrators, politicians, priests and influential business people) in Thailand is fiercely elitist. The idea of an underdog making it to the top is anathema to Thai social hierarchy. So the story of Barack Obama making it to the top is a story from another country, another land. Nice to read about as long as it does not happen here.
This aloofness towards people of darker skin is originates from the Thai elite of Chinese heritage. In their world, it is okay to be a Banharn Silpa-archa, whose claim to be of Chinese heritage justified his appointment as a prime minister, even if he was hopelessly corrupt. The lower ranks of ethnic Thai society, the poor farmers, the pimps and prostitutes in Siloam Road in Bangkok, connect with the stories of the Barack Obamas of this world to the extent that this is what fairy tales from a faraway land are made of.
Their ruling class watch the prospects of an underdog beating the system with grave concern. The Thaksin phenomenon is still painful to them. Although a Thai-Chinese, he established his mandate to rule from the masses, not from the elite. Something like this cannot happen in Thailand. Must not happen in Thailand.
Having said that, some the most famous Thais – singers, models, actors – are actually of mixed heritage. But that is exactly what they are – singers, models and actors. The Thai masses, kept at their stations in life through poor education, the lack of English to plug them into the global world and by a corrupt elite, have only these beautiful half breeds to remind themselves that maybe upward mobility is possible through the creative arts and non-establishment channels.
Even then, Thai children of mixed parentage can only survive in Thailand if only the other parent is a Westerner. When the other parent is black – even if that person is Tiger Woods – they genuinely do not know what to do with that knowledge. That is probably why Tigers mother, who is Thai, left him to grow up in the US and not in Thailand.
I was once at a hotel where Tiger Woods was supposed to appear and an entire army of very young reporters were sent there to find a story for the local newspapers. One young reporter told me that, except for the fact that Tiger Wood’s mother was Thai, she could not find an angle for the story. The newspapers did make a big deal about him if only because he was too large a figure to play down. Also, Thais loved their golf, so that was an angle. But he does not connect into the Thai psyche like some of the shallower, pretty faces of mixed heritage on Thai TV, advertisements or popular stage shows do.
In MALAYSIA. If any country in Asia could or should have appreciated the significance of a non-white man becoming president of the largest country in the world, it should have been Malaysia. That phrase in Obama’s speech, “for we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” should have meant so much to Malaysians as it did to Americans. Because, like the US, it is a multi-cultural country, and coming so soon after this country’s own upset elections where the ruling party was routed, it should have inspired Malaysians to celebrate that patchwork.
But instead that phrase exposed the huge and growing gulf between the Malaysia that is from the country that could have been in this multi-ethnic country. To those who speak English in Malaysia, regardless of their ethnic group, the connection and the significance of the Obama election was immediate and personal. These Malaysians, like their international and cosmopolitan counter-parts anywhere in the world, are generally able to appreciate and assess the unadulterated coverage on international cable television. But this group of people is becoming a declining and increasingly elite minority in Malaysia who exist outside the mainstream.
More Malaysians lack the use of English today than ever before, despite their colonial heritage from which the British left them with a natural lead over other countries in the region. This growing pool of non-English speaking Malaysians, is increasingly disconnected from the complexity of global issues, deriving their understanding of the world from the diluted, partisan and cynical assessments of the highly parochial local media, local school teachers and local mosques.
The question was actually asked in the local media, “Is Malaysia ready for a non-Malay prime minister?” But the non-answers from the political quarters, simply confirmed the increasingly insular, parochial, small-minded and complicated mess that the country has become.
Singapore. Interestingly, the same question asked in Malaysia was asked in Singapore “Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?” In Singapore, the Chinese dominate, in reverse to their northern neighbours, where the Malays dominate. Unlike Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore are multi-ethnic and so the issue of race and politics are real and much larger.
Questions like these in Singapore are usually asked by the tiny “right-off-centre” liberals – in my lexicon, self-correcting liberals who can be expected to toe the line when required. They are also the ones to champion the causes on disenfranchised gays and single moms, and ask questions like “should Singapore legalise gambling or abortion?” (both of which are now allowed in Singapore by a pragmatic government listening to another drummer).
The Singapore government enjoys answering these questions, because they appear engaged with the issues of the day. Alas, the question “Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?” is a pseudo-intellectual, seemingly controversial, but at the end of the day, a benign question. The real answer to which is “whatever the government damn well wants the person to be.” These are not the questions that sway votes or threaten the status quo, at least not today.
To me, the real Singaporean response to the Obama election worth noting were the whispers inside the broad ruling class of administrators, politicians and the influential business circles. “He has no experience,” they said about Obama before he was elected. “Just watch him, he has no experience,” they are still saying today. It is a surprising response, especially to outsiders who might think they know Singapore to celebrate “Change”.
It is important to the elite in this island that Barack Obama is not “experienced enough”, because it resonates with the status quo’s own legitimacy to rule in the face of a growing, more vocal and more educated alternative class in Singapore.
The ruling class in Singapore, highly educated, highly competent administratively, and perhaps most importantly extraordinarily highly paid, is always surprised that the skills they demonstrate are not always recognised at the ballot box, where election after election, the man-on-the-street’s preference has been definitely sliding in favour of an under-organised opposition.
So when the people of a leading country like the US demonstrate that they are willing to elect someone who is “not experienced enough” to run a state, the ground on which the elite in Singapore stand feels like a shift is not impossible. Their response in turn has been to calcify their own sense of entitlement – this process of calcification of the ruling elite is already happening, even as the outside world marvels this country’s ostensible ability to inbibe “Change”.
Something else that added to my own understanding about Singapore, from the US-Singapore relations of the past two years, is how frighteningly GW Bush and everything he represented resonated with many in those circles – the war on terror, the Israeli idea of pre-emptive strikes against innocent Palestinians, Guantanamo Bay. The value system that the ends justify the means is so alive in Singapore, more than anywhere else in the world. This country will humour Obama like they did Clinton in his time, but the natural chemistry between Singapore and the US is firmly right-winged, Republican.
I know that some might complain that these observations about Singapore are a gross generalisation. But it is my preliminary assessment that at moments when it matters, the Singaporean response is fiercely right-winged by developed country standards.
The tendencies of national leadership guide my thinking when assessing how the different countries might and do respond to American leadership in many different things. The Japanese LDP people are definitely pro-Republicans, even if the young people on the ground can be more liberal. The old Taiwanese KMT people were definitely Republican, if we go by the photos on the wall of the office of Jeffrey Koo Sr, owner of Chinatrust Bank – featuring only handshakes with Republican US presidents. The current administrations in Taiwan and Korea are not clear yet in their orientation given that there are many new faces in their respective administrations today. I can say with some authority that the leadership in China is neither pro-Republican nor Democrat, notwithstanding the fact that it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who brought the two countries closer. It all depends on the US administration. So far, the Republicans have done more to cosy up to China than the Democrats.
The Indian leadership warms up to Democrats very easily – almost by definitions, the Republicans are drawn to China as the Democrats are drawn to India, as Bill Clinton was in his time. Having said that, people like Hilary Clinton and Lawrence Summers, being neo-cons, can be expected to spend more time engaging China in the same way the Republicans did, even if their president might from time to time say the wrong things. The neo-cons will also be very agreeable to the Singapore elite… as long as Singapore is not made to choose between friendship with China and friendship with the US.
Indonesia. If there is one country that had the bragging rights along with the US and Kenya in high rejoicing of the Obama inauguration, it is surely Indonesia – where Obama spent part of his childhood in local schools. This country is so very happy that one of its adopted sons is today the president of the most powerful country in the world. The Indonesians have been cheering him every step of the way, as Obama moved from one phase of the election to the next in his journey to become president. CNN and the international media did this country incredible injustice by not reporting on the ground sentiments in this country.
Indonesians still remember when Obama’s mother lived and walked amongst them. I remembering passing on a Wall Street article on Obama’s mother to the CEO of BCA Bank, Djohan Setijoso, who was sitting just behind me on a flight from Singapore to Hanoi in March 2008. He read it with obvious pride, and later told me “You know, I still remember her… she put on a lot of weight (before she died).” There are corporate people walking around Jakarta telling stories of whatever little they knew of them time that Obama spent in a local school outside Jakarta.
Obama did say in an interview about a month before inauguration day that one of his first trips outside of the US upon becoming president, will be to “a large Muslim country”. I am waiting to see if he meant Indonesia, and if he did, his trip there will be nothing if not electric to the people of this country!
Indonesia’s Muslim character is not at all like that of other fundamentalist Muslim countries in the world. In Malaysia and Singapore, talking to Muslim taxi drivers and restaurant owners, I got this feeling that Obama’s offer to the Muslim world to find “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”, was met by continued suspicion and cynicism. It was not just “a wait and see” response. If the Western world repented and tried to be constructive, the Muslim world will change the rules of engagement on them yet again.
At the ground level, the Muslim world is not interested “in a world of mutual interest and mutual respect.” What they would really like is for a visible, confident civilization somewhere in the world today that is the Muslim equivalent of a China. The fact that there isn’t one is as much the fault of the Muslim world as it is that of the Western “imperialists” they blame. The lack of social mobility, the status of women, corruption, the Sunni-Shiite-Sufi fundamentalism rubbish, the political in-fighting and a gross unwillingness to prosper-thy-neighbour stymies this entire civilisation.
On the ground, countries like Turkey, Iran and Pakistan have great potential to become iconic Muslim states, but with so many mixed messages flying around, the prognosis is not good. But interestingly, Indonesia, the largest Muslim state in the world, is laid back enough to regard Obama as simply one of its children done well in the world. The Western media and analysts will be idiots to muddy the sentiments in this archipelago as they have done other Muslim countries, because the real sentiment here is a very simple one.
Obama is closer to Southeast Asia than we imagine. His closest half-sister, Maya Setoro-Ng, was born of an Indonesian father. Her husband Konrad Ng’s family is said to come from Sabah, Malaysia – my mother’s home state – which is neither here nor there, because he was born in Canada and is firmly American. But you can imagine the conversations around their family dinner tables. Southeast Asia is not unfamiliar to them.
The Philippines. As the most dysfunctional American state, as the Philippines is sometimes regarded, the Obama election did create a lot of buzz in this archipelago. It was almost like mainstreet USA as people celebrated on the streets of Makati and Cebu as the US election results came in. Very much like Indonesia and very unlike Thailand or Singapore, they celebrate diversity very openly in the Philippines. The message of the under-dog done well resonates with the desire to escape poverty and gain opportunity in this country. Even if in reality, the Philippines is still a country of a handful of land-owners and banking families with a strangle-hold on the politics and the economy. Many Filipinos have family in the US. One day, there may well be a Filipino American president of the United States. Like everything else in this country, they discuss the prospects without discussing how they can get there.
India. I think the reason there was euphoria in India when Obama won the elections was because generally Indians do not like imperialists and Bush was one in a way that Obama is not perceived as for the moment. Like China, the Indians would have made it a matter of over-blown proportions if an Indian became the president of the United States. They make a big fuss about Indians who do well in the US – from the dot com geniuses to the time when Vikram Pandit was appointed CEO of Citibank.
The big difference between Indian ethnic pride and Chinese ethnic pride is that the Indians can get carried away sometimes and put themselves into the center of the world even if nobody asked them. The movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, was released at about the same time as the Obama inauguration and went on to win several Golden Globe awards (it secured 10 Oscar nominations at the time of writing). India is celebrating that movie as if it was a proud and genius 100% Indian product, almost completely obliterating the British and American elements that made it possible in the first place.
(Having said that, I just watched the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”, on a pirated DVD from China, and I must say that it was outstanding! One observation from the movie was that I too have met little beggar children in the streets of Mumbai who spoke good English with me, so this movie is frighteningly really not as far fetched as one would imagine. The movie also reminded me that despite its hopeless justification of poverty and its meandering humanity that seems to take them nowhere as a modern nation-state, Indian civilisation continues to touch ALL other civilisations in its own inimitable manner, worth respecting.)
The good thing about India and Indians is that they tend to be really plugged into the world affairs, more than any other country I know. Their access to the English language, the availability of good schools, the fact that even the hotel driver reads the same Economist magazine as the foreign visitor does, all portend well for the Indian mind. So, you can be sure that the Obama appointment was not lost on India and the Indians.
But plugging into that psyche and igniting it into overt enthusiasm is a completely different matter. Indian response to anything foreign is not that easily ignited. The cacophony of distracting, contradicting energies on a daily basis makes it difficult for any one event to rivet the national attention, unless it is able to rise above the din. Hence if the US presidential inauguration appears like a non-event in India, it is not unlikely that you will be able to pick up a very learned conversation with anyone on the streets and then drop it just the same. It’s just the way the country is.
Pakistan. Several of the conversations I had in Karachi late last year told me that the more informed segments of the Pakistani population were surprisingly inspired by the Obama appointment. The entire US transition took place in parallel with Pakistan’s own transition of power from the very competent leadership of General Musharaf to the more political electoral process that gave rise to Asif Zadari the husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto.
So much is misunderstood about Pakistan in the West. Firstly, Pakistan is not India or Bangladesh or any of the noisy South Asian countries. Secondly, the tribal Pakistan of warloads and gunfire that we read about in the newspapers is hardly the Pakistan that you see in the major cities. It is a surprisingly very civilised country.
A fact that is not well appreciated about Pakistan is that it is a country of about 180 million people, of which only about 4-6 million live in the troubled northern tribal areas bordering India, Afghanistan and Iran. There is a thriving commercial economy in the Sindh and Punjab regions, where there is a strong educated populace that thinks about its future as much as people in any developed country.
The news that gets blown all out of proportion and gives Pakistan the sad reputation it gets around the world are the things that happen in the border areas where about 2.5% of the population live. So, we do need a sense of dimension when thinking about what makes this country tick.
In Karachi, General Musharaf had put in place a very commendable line of highly competent administrators, some of whom I know personally, at least in banking. When Zadari came into power, he found that he was not able to mess with the system, at least not initially. I thik that the IMF was able to approve the latest round of loans to Pakistan precisely because of how professional its administrators come across and how responsible they have been with te national budget.
It was in these communities that I found great admiration for the transition of power in the US, and a wish that Pakistan could one day have its own inspiring leader who would rise above the many schisms that exist in the country and lead it forward. “Our single most important problem,” one career banker told me, “is one of leadership.”
Sadly, leadership in Pakistan at the national level is concentrated in the hands of a few families – the Bhutto family, the Nawaz Sharif family and a handful of others. So while they have the forms of democracy, it is really a plutocracy that requires the different political families to plunder the country in order to rule it. This is the Pakistan that the country is trying so hard to come out of, and which subsequent US administration have refused to recognise to their own benefit.
The Middle East. I might add perceptions in the Middle East as a footnote. The young people in the Middle East, of which it appears there are many, were simply elated with the Obama appointment. I did not see this in any other part of the world, where the young people formed a visible force on their own. The era of the Internet, and of 24 hour television and education in western schools located in the Middle East has given rise to a large cohort of young people who want better for their region, and whose perceptions are not hemmed in by tribal considerations. These young people will be drawn back into their tribal throngs at some stage in their lives in any case, but while they are young, they do dare to dream of the day when there is a bridge between the West and their region.
Australia. Coming to terms with their own sordid past with their own aboriginal people, the White Australians know the world is changing on them. They like the idea of a cosmopolitan world, but many just do not have enough real friends (ie ones you hang out in the bar with and who is not just a neighbour) of different races within Australia to warrant any thought on the topic. They did do their part by booting out the racist right-winged government of John Howard. The government of Kevin Rudd appears more middle of the ground. As a people, they know that “Change” is coming and they are prepared, through their education and their youth to change along with it.
What were my personal thoughts as I watched the inauguration on television?
I thought that some of the “politics on the podium”, on top of Capitol Hill spoke very loudly about lingering prejudices in Washington. The sequence in which the dignitaries arrived for the inauguration was messy. The conscious unwillingness of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the emcee for the ceremonies, Dr. Rick Warren, the pastor who gave the opening invocation and one other to speak Obama’s middle name– they called him Barack Obama, Barack H. Obama, and consciously avoided “Hussein” as they would have said George “Walker” Bush or Ronald “Wilson” Reagan as is customary in formal American settings – was very obvious. Only during his own oath of office, was his full name used.
I thought that the invocation by Rick Warren was symptomatic of a white man’s interpretation of how the world turns. His prayer just kept pressing the point about Obama being the “first black president of this nation”, to the ground, as if there were absolutely no other qualities about the man worth mentioning. People in positions of being in the majority whether in America or in Singapore, do this patronising thing unconsciously towards the “talented others” around them. You did not hear “our first Irish president” or “our first catholic president” during the J.F Kennedy inauguration, although these were factors in the deliberations leading up to his election.
Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of his prayer, Warren asks God to provide (this black man) the wisdom and the courage to be a good president. His invocation was a golden opportunity to lift the thinking of the people around him to recognise the universal qualities of a man that has made him acceptable to all people everywhere, but he failed to rise above himself, and spent 90% of his prayer focusing on Obama’s blackness.
Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “My country this of thee” was great, except that it was not designed for a winter’s morning in the wide open in front of two million people. So was the John Williams quartet – great piece in the warmth of a small hall of about 200 people. I had no clue what the poet Elizabeth Alexander wanted us to remember from the long piece. Only the benediction by the Dr. Joseph E. Lowery managed to bring back and rally everyone’s spirits around the occasion.
The seating arrangements were so messy that Obama and Biden kept turning around, distracted on many occasions by the things going on around them. To us in Asia, where kings and presidents are held in revered positions, the posture and the pomp of the Leader is as much a reinforcement of their stature as the solemnity of the event itself. To us, the inauguration of this, the most powerful ruler on the planet, looked like a hastily organised parents day in a neighbourhood school.
I watched someone patting Obama on the back before he took his seat. It may be that they knew each other and they may even have been bosom buddies, but such familiarity in this very public setting showed disrespect to the two million people who came with hopes in their heart to see their Leader take his Position and Bless their regard of him. This Thing called Leadership. It does mean something, not just to the two million people in that Mall, but to all people everywhere. That person could have quite easily reserved such familiarity to a private function later.
I cite these observations not to be critical, but because they were simply so obvious. Yes, we should cut a lot of slack because this is America, where familiarity requires us to see the mechanics of Leadership in a different light. In Asia, these taboos and pageantry sets the Leader apart, not with an intention of alienating them, but with the intention of giving them space to be rulers.
My final point is on the Inauguration Speech itself. After hearing it the first time, and then re-reading it on the Internet, I wondered why he did not edit it more tightly. Some phrases could have been said more effectively. Some metaphors missed the impact they were intended to have. For example, that phrase “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers” was so incomplete even as it was seeking to be all-inclusive. It also lacked a sense of symmetry that should have put the religions with common roots together. Jews and Hindus don’t really belong together. It could have been better said along the lines of, “We are a nation of Christians, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, believers and non-believers…”
Now Obama has already given some of the most memorable speeches of our times. So it is not my place to critique one of the greatest speech givers in the world today. But this lack of tightness in this most important speech of all made me ask why did he not pay enough attention to it.
The answer I suspect is that he was probably managing the rest of us with that speech. If we listened hoping to hear a 2009 version of the most memorable inauguration speeches a la Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, we would have been disappointed. Obama focused his inauguration speech on his agenda for the next 100 days, and in that way, he was already managing our expectations of him, as a Leader should. When you think about what he has been occupying himself in the days leading to the Inauguration, you would appreciate that he was already working.
Read in that context, you could go through the speech and list out all the activities he will be ticking off in the next 100 days – the economy, the unlawful detentions, the environment and so on. In this way, a good Leader manages his people, and not allow the people to manage him. Intuitively or otherwise, he did not give us what he thought we would like to hear, and I am pleased, if that was what it was.
Obama’s most memorable and deepest speeches were given at times when his back was against the wall – like the one on race and leadership after the Reverend Jeremiah Wright almost derailed his election campaign. But in this inauguration speech, his back was not against the way. It was the opposite – he was in the front leading and all he needed to do was the reaffirm his commitment to the same end-game as set forth by his predecessors, the founding fathers of America.
In this regard, the US has something that no Asian country, despite all the breathless growth we have had in the past 30 years, has ever worked at. That vision statement of the kind of country it wants to be, stated at the beginning of its history by its founding fathers, and reinforced crisis after crisis until it becomes the DNA of the country.
There are really good countries with great leadership in Asia – but its people are still left guessing as to what the end-game should be, the inalienable truths about what makes them a country. Values that the people can imbibe, work towards them and make it theirs, generation after generation, downturns after downturns. It is arguable that China’s equivalent of the influence of the American founding fathers would be the impact of Confucius on what the character and behavior of the Chinese nation should be. But the Confucion Analect is highly prescriptive without stating what the Big Picture should be.
It is this Vision Thing, these values, bravely set at the start of its nationhood, and reaffirmed until they became realities of the day, that sets the United States as different from every other country in the world today. So for all its faults, all the failings of the Bush administration, even a messy inauguration ceremony that any Asian country could have easily aced, it is still admired, even by those who hate it most.
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