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Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf concluded in 2010: "We already know that the earthquake of the past few years has damaged Western economies, while leaving those of emerging countries, particularly Asia, standing. It has also destroyed Western prestige. The West has dominated the world economically and intellectually for at least two centuries. That epoch is now over. Hitherto, the rulers of emerging countries disliked the West's pretensions, but respected its competence. This is true no longer. Never again will the West have the sole word." I was reminded of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. When Asian economies were devastated by similarly foolish borrowing the West - including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank - prescribed bitter medicine. They extolled traditional free market principles: Asia should raise interest rates to support sagging currencies, while state spending, debt, subsidies should be cut drastically. Banks and companies in trouble should be left to fail, there should be no bail-outs. South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia were pressured into swallowing the bitter medicine. President Suharto paid the ultimate price: he was forced to resign. Anger against the IMF was widespread. I was in Los Angeles for a seminar organised by the Claremont McKenna College to discuss, among other things, the Asian crisis. The Thai speaker resorted to profanity: F- the IMF, he screamed. The Asian press was blamed by some Western academics. If we had the kind of press freedoms the West enjoyed, we could have flagged the danger before the crisis hit. Western credibility was torn to shreds when the financial tsunami struck Wall Street. Shamelessly abandoning the policy prescriptions they imposed on Asia, they decided their banks and companies like General Motors were too big to fail. How many Asian countries could have been spared severe pain if they had ignored the IMF? How vain was their criticism of the Asian press, for the almost unfettered press freedoms the West enjoyed had failed to prevent catastrophe.

Cheong Yip Seng
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