Weak leadership puts pressure on Asian economic future

The day Asian leaders have long dreaded is here: The era of rapid growth is over. It has taken five years, but the fallout from what Asians call the "Lehman shock" is hitting living standards.

The day Asian leaders have long dreaded is here: The era of rapid growth is over. It has taken five years, but the fallout from what Asians call the "Lehman shock" is hitting living standards.

These risks are the talk of Bali, where Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation nations are mulling what to do about a world where "risks remain tilted to the downside".

Michael Taylor, chief credit officer for Asia at Moody's, said chaotic markets and a slow recovery in advanced nations were driving "change in the economic cycle" that makes sustaining growth in Asia "more challenging".

But a messy international scene isn't the biggest problem facing Asia. The problem is weak leadership in a region that desperately needs bold and visionary solutions to a growing list of challenges.

Asia failed to use years of high growth to recalibrate economies away from a hyperdependence on exports. After Asia's meltdown in 1997, policymakers strengthened financial systems, built more transparent business environments, and attacked cronyism. Then, at the first sight of recovery, reform efforts were shelved.

The costs of that complacency are rising: The Asian Development Bank estimates 2013 growth will be the slowest in four years, at best.

As Asia's export machine sputters and markets brace for an end to the US Federal Reserve's stimulus, governments need to act nimbly to protect growth. Yet considering the state of Asian leadership, it's hard not to be gloomy about the region's chances. Here's a quick rundown.

Indonesia: For all his success in bringing stability to a nation that 15 years ago seemed destined for failed statehood, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono looks a spent force. His team needs to act forcefully to erase a current account deficit that's turning off investors and has pushed the rupiah down 14 per cent this year. Yudhoyono should be intensifying his anti-corruption drive, accelerating infrastructure, and restraining the nationalistic vibe that now permeates the resource sector.

India: There was a certain irony to Manmohan Singh visiting the White House last week as the US government was shutting down: The Indian PM's own government stopped working some time ago. His team faces the possibility of a full-blown debt crisis. When Congress Party heir Rahul Gandhi's criticism of something as obvious as letting criminals serve in Parliament passes for leadership, you know India's economy is in trouble.

Malaysia: Hopes that Prime Minister Najib Razak would scrap race-based policies that favour ethnic Malays were all for naught. Instead, Najib is doubling down on economic apartheid, expanding perks at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities. Rating companies are calling Malaysia out for its rising debt, generous subsidies and a lack of budgetary reform.

Thailand: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is also failing the subsidies test, displaying a lack of political will to stand up to farmers and to gasoline consumers.

Even Asia's bright spots face leadership deficits. China's new bosses are too preoccupied with consolidating power to restructure their rickety economy. In Japan, Shinzo Abe's pledges to deregulate the economy are running foul of his own party. In South Korea, Park Geun Hye is watering down plans to craft a "creative economy" for fear of alienating the country's conglomerates.

Asia avoided the worst of recent crises, but its luck may be running out. Asia's next five years could be quite turbulent indeed.

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