TIME flies as it has been five years since I left the Malaysian government service. I can still recall the reason I gave for my resignation, “to spend more time with my family”. I think not many among the Malaysian public believed this somewhat commonplace reason for stepping down. And that is understandable, for although I was then but the political secretary to the Malaysian prime minister, to many it was a golden opportunity to be able to work at the political nucleus of the country. Furthermore, under the imaginably imperfect developing-country socio-economic reality of the time, whereby avoidance of conflict of interest was often not strictly observed, such a “core” position could potentially yield a lot of “benefits”, and as such why would any sane current occupier of that position be willing to voluntarily relinquish it? But of course, over the last five years, I tried my resolute best to contribute in a small way to regional peace and stability in a less rigorous manner, and was indeed able to spend more time with my family. I hope these efforts are plain for all to see, and any doubts to the contrary would be automatically crushed.
But this sort of family reason was recently taken up again by at least two regional leaders to account for their resignation or decision not to seek reelection. One was New Zealand Prime Minister John Key who suddenly resigned a week ago. New Zealand is one of the southernmost countries on earth and, like the Philippines, is situated along an active volcanic belt, and thus subject to frequent eruptions and earthquakes, such as the quake that shattered quite a few towns in its South Island. But despite these calamities, New Zealand has consistently been rated one of the most livable countries, with its superior living conditions and generous welfare system. With their country’s large expanse of rolling grasslands suitable for its economic mainstay of livestock stock farming as well as a sparse population, New Zealanders can still be considered to be living in relative tranquility.
The colonial settlers of olden days of course fought the native Maoris in bloody wars and won. In modern times, affirmative action policies were adopted to address concerns about past oppression. For example, nowadays although English remains the working language, most New Zealand official documents are prepared in both English and Maori. Maori traditional gestures of courtesy have also become part of the country’s official ceremonies. When Prince Charles of the United Kingdom (who is also crown prince of New Zealand) visited the country, he obligingly pressed noses with a Maori warrior as a sign of peace and friendship. The famous New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team has been winning successive world championships, with its famous tongue-wagging war dance in proud display.
New Zealand is also quite unique in its foreign policy. It is often compared with Switzerland on account of its relative neutrality. But I think a more appropriate characterization of the country’s foreign policy is one of pragmatism. New Zealand has to be constantly mindful that it is situated next to a gigantic neighbor, Australia, and as such maintaining a relatively symbiotic bilateral relationship with the latter should be a crucial element of New Zealand’s foreign policy.
Even then, despite their similar colonial backgrounds, New Zealand has opinions of its own when it comes to crucial national interests. For example, although Australia is a major producer of radioactive raw materials, New Zealand is a decidedly non-nuclear state, permitting no ship with either nuclear capability or weapons to berth at its ports. This is partly due of course to the more “progressive” ideological bent common in New Zealand society. But more importantly, it is also a safeguard against possible contamination of New Zealand’s economic lifeline– the livestock farming industry–in case of a radioactive leak.
I was on a working visit to New Zealand last year to attend the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association conference. Prime Minister Key came to open the event, and was decidedly an “endearing” politician, shaking hands with all and sundry. He led the crowd of young students in singing the New Zealand national anthem with such passion that many of the participants also joined in. I was deeply impressed by the lack of a clear boundary there between politicians and common folk prevalent in many Asian cultures. I guess I could somehow understand Key’s resignation for family reasons. In the New Zealand social milieu, a non-public “afterlife” must have been fun too.
Another regional leader who decided not to seek reelection due to family reasons was the Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung. Mr. Leung did appear to have some urgent family concerns to sort out, and due privacy should be accorded to him.
But it is a tough time to be Hong Kong’s leader nowadays. In the early days of its reunification with China, when the “half-century status quo” guarantee was widely accepted by everyone concerned with Hong Kong, societal confrontations were relatively rare, and Hongkongers remained more or less united despite economic ups and downs. In recent years, however, many appear to have approached some very basic principles from very contradictory angles, with alarming ideological confrontations, making it almost impossible for any side to back down and compromise. As such, the next chief executive must exercise extreme caution and wisdom in tackling some of Hong Kong’s looming economic and socio-political challenges, so as to ensure Hong Kong’s continued prosperity.