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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Asia's modern women are assets in political arena

By Tom Plate

''In traditional Taiwan society, there was no war between men and women because women tended to be submissive, gentle and willing to take a secondary role,'' said well-known Taiwan-based radio host Ching Meng-chung to the glossy monthly Taipei Review.

Makiko Tanaka, the foreign minister fired from her post by Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has been praised and criticized for her bluntness.

Advertiser library photo • March 18, 2002

''Nowadays,'' he said, ''due to their considerable economic independence, modern women — especially feminists — demand a bigger say in things. That causes tension and even conflict between men and women.''

And that's a good thing!

Take the tension, and potential political conflict, between Makiko Tanaka — who is admittedly to the art of traditional, soft-spoken diplomacy what rugby is to badminton — and the cabal of old-school Confucian chauvinists in Tokyo who speak softly but hide a big bank account. ''Tanaka is no diplomat,'' they claimed when they got her fired from her foreign minister post by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. A bachelor, Koizumi may know his way around a kitchen, but he can't stand the heat anywhere else, it would seem.

She's no diplomat? Take a look around. Isn't it impressive how well the traditional, soft-spoken masters of diplomacy have done? Look at all that peace in the Middle East, in Chechnya, in Afghanistan. ...

What the world needs is fewer tip-toeing diplomats and more foreign ministers like Tanaka: people who tell it like it is, who refuse to gloss over harsh realities. We're much better off with a Margaret Thatcher or a Makiko Tanaka at the head table than such affable ''diplomats'' as former British Prime Minister Alex Douglas Hume or Koizumi.

I recently wrote about the expanding list of major female Asian leaders, a column that triggered a lot of angry male mail. Here's one:

''Asian women rule, you write, sir? Do they really? Notwithstanding the presence of Gloria Arroyo, Makiko Tanaka, Park Giun Hye, Keiko Obuchi, Aung Sang Su Kyi or even Megawati Sukarnoputri, each of these women has had to rise to power (or position of eminence) on the coattail of their father's namesake.''

An offspring getting ahead in politics on the basis of patrimony? Oh, my! How utterly unprecedented! It never happens in the world of male politics, right? We all know George W. Bush is president because he had the highest IQ, the most experience and the best command of language (not to mention geography). We all know John F. Kennedy's wealthy, connected father, Joseph Kennedy, had utterly nothing to do with his success. In fact, in the last session of the U.S. Congress, there were four senators and 10 House members holding the seats once held by their fathers. And in Asia, forget about it — the list of male dynasties would be even longer than a Fidel Castro speech.

To be sure, anyone who would suggest that Asia is in the midst of an overnight transformation to gender-neutral culture is clearly smoking some strong stuff.

"The political eminence of some women in Asia,'' writes the Indian Dipankar Gupta, ''is not so much because of a progressive attitude toward them as it is on account of a rather traditional view of what is deemed to be the role of a woman.''

Rather than independent political actors, he suggests, the political woman is a totem, reminding the worshipful tribe of the maximum leader (male) long since departed to that great patriarchal throne in the sky.

No one wants to play cricket against an Indian on his own cricket grounds. And perhaps we Americans are over-awed (or intimidated?) by our own increasingly powerful women. As one reader named Stan e-mailed last week about Tanaka, ''Tom, as to Japan, you are clearly smoking some strong stuff.''

To him I say, light something up while I tell you a story. If Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, is not one of the shrewdest, toughest, smartest political minds of his generation, please tell me who is. He was once questioned about his monumental decision decades ago to provide Singapore's women with educational and employment opportunities that are comparable, arguably, to those available to men.

How liberated, I said, admiringly. No, he replied, not liberated, just practical: If you give your women the same chance at success, you'll double your work force — a real issue in a nation of fewer than 4 million.

Then this tough, wise man looked at me with the politest of smiles: ''I'm going to ask that you make an appointment to meet our ambassador in Washington, which of course is our single most important foreign diplomatic post.''

''What's the name?'' I asked.

''Chan Heng Chee,'' he said.

Stan, the next time you're in Washington, ask who is the most widely respected foreign diplomat in the U.S. capital. Don't be surprised if the consensus choice is Chan Heng Chee.

That's Madame Chan, thank you — Cornell University and the University of Singapore.

Once, the Greek philosopher Plato was asked whether a woman could be a philosopher-king — that is to say, why not a philosopher-queen? He answered: What's wanted in that job is wisdom, judgment, virtue and intellect. What, he added, does a person's anatomy have to do with any of this?

Stan, you can also ask Lee Kuan Yew, while you're at it. Maybe he's no Plato, but he's way too smart to be a sexist.

Tom Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post, is a professor at UCLA. Reach him at tplate@ucla.edu. He also has a spot on the Web.