Tue 5 Jun 2012
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Aside from the moral force of her example, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is a practical lady who is concerned with the uncertain future of her predominantly youthful nation.Last week, in Bangkok and just before the opening of the East Asia Summit of the World Economic Forum (WEF), I had the pleasure of chairing a small, private session with Myanmar’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The Lady”, as she’s dubbed internationally, is a global figure. She’s received honours ranging from the Nobel Peace Prize through to countless biographies and even a Datuk Seri Michelle Yeoh biopic.
The opportunity to spend time with her arose quite by chance.
For well over six months, I’d been arranging, along with my colleagues from the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on South-East Asia, a special half-day programme for emerging Asean leaders.
We’d convened the event because we wanted to promote two things: human resource development and a greater sense of Asean identity among young leaders.
By the time the East Asia Summit came along, we’d managed to assemble a slew of bright young people from across Asean; journalists, a fund manager, business people, an upcoming female police officer, a ministerial staffer and various social entrepreneurs.
On the day itself, the programme was opened by my good friend and former Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Amazingly, and at the last minute, we were able to secure an off-the-record one hour and 15 minute gathering with “The Lady” herself.
However, since it was off the record, I’m therefore unable to write about what we discussed – except to say that she was charming, informal and enormously inquisitive, posing almost as many questions as she herself received from the audience.
Indeed, I’d like to think that she enjoyed having the chance to meet and talk with young people from across the Asean region.
Whatever the case, “The Lady” is set to leave a deep impression on all of us, both old and young.
I noted the way she chose her words with great precision, enunciating them clearly, like a school teacher wanting to ram home certain key messages.
As she talked with the audience, I remember observing very closely and being struck by her poise and quiet dignity.
She was dressed simply, but elegantly – a Burmese longyi, pale sky-blue blouse and rubber slippers.
She had flowers on her hair and a shawl that she adjusted as she spoke.
Sitting alongside her, I couldn’t help but think of all that she’s experienced over the past quarter of a century: the excitement of the polls in 1990, the subsequent brutal suppression, her many years of house arrest, the constant threats of assassination, the attacks (in Depayin, over 70 of her supporters were murdered) and harassment, not to mention the cost to her own personal life – a husband taken from her by cancer and children who grew up with a mother in absentia.
It’s hard not to feel awed by someone like Suu Kyi.
At the same time, and seeing her in the flesh in Bangkok, there’s a sense that her sacrifices on behalf of her people and her nation are finally coming to fruition.
On the other hand, Suu Kyi has been quick to caution against those who are too effusive and over-optimistic with regards to the situation in Myanmar.
As she said in a separate session at the WEF (which I also attended):
“Good laws already exist in Burma, but we do not have a clean and independent judicial system. Unless we have such a system, it is no use having the best laws in the world.
“These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism. A little bit of healthy scepticism I think is in order.”
At the same time, and obviously with the future in mind, she also spoke for the needs of the youth:
“The proportion of young people unemployed in Burma is extremely high. That is a time bomb. Please don’t think about how much benefit will come to those who are investing.
“I understand investors invest because they hope to profit from ventures. I agree with that, but our country must benefit as much as those who invest.
“I want this commitment to mean quite simply jobs – as many jobs as possible.”
Listening to her, it struck me that Suu Kyi represented the kind of leadership that most Asean countries desperately need right now.
For starters, she’s very definitely a South-East Asian figure, someone who’s able to appeal to people across the region – if only because of the universal appeal of her struggle, namely, the fight to release her people, the Burmese, from bondage and backwardness.
She’s also shown us how effective her selfless type of leadership can be in mobilising people.
Moreover, Suu Kyi’s not an airy-fairy woman obsessed with her image or vague ideas of freedom and/or reform.
Instead, she’s very grounded and realistic; a figure of reconciliation and renewal, assuming the higher path once taken by Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
But aside from the moral force of her example, Suu Kyi is a practical lady who is concerned about a faltering education system, electricity blackouts and the uncertain future of her predominantly youthful nation.
She’s a simple housewife – without fanfare or image consultants – who’s shown herself to be more appealing and admired than most other South-East Asian heads of state or government.
The message we should all take away is that leadership which appeals to the ideals of democracy and fairplay is far more powerful and sustainable, than one that relies on coercion, intimidation and fear.
It’s a lesson that most of our leaders must learn sooner or later.
So while Suu Kyi’s example was to have an electrifying impact on the young people in our small session, there’s no doubt that her courageous stand against injustice and oppression has also galvanised many millions beyond her homeland.