Monday, September 25, 2017

The ones to watch

Among the most fruitful aspects of travelling round the region is the way one hears about things that have not yet made headlines beyond their own borders.

Usually, it is because they have been subsumed by the media’s coverage of high-profile events, like the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet or Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Later, they tend to burst onto the front pages in a kind of compensatory overkill, as the 1970s Watergate burglary in Washington did or as the visceral anti-Muslim sentiment of Myanmar’s Buddhists has done recently.

One regional example is the explosion of coverage of the formerly little-known Joko Widodo in Indonesia. Of course, loyal readers of this column have known since mid-2012 that Jokowi was a man to watch.

And so he has proved, first by becoming governor of Jakarta, then by his recent declaration that he will run for the presidency of Indonesia later this year. He will almost certainly win.

Today, I’ll give you the names of two comparable individuals, both women, both as unknown now as Jokowi was two years ago, and both, like him, destined to become potential leaders of their countries in the near future.

The first is Grace Poe, who was abandoned in a church by her birth mother in the central Philippines city of Iloilo, 45 years ago.

Viewing her discovery as due to the grace of God, a local priest called her Grace, and after being passed from home to home, she was adopted by the film star and later presidential candidate Fernando Poe.

After an education in the Philippines and the United States, Grace worked in the US before returning to campaign for Fernando’s doomed 2004 presidential bid.

When he died soon after, she stayed home and became involved in public service. Then, last year, she took the plunge to enter politics and run for the Senate as an independent.

Initially dismissed as an outsider, if not a no-hoper, she astounded everyone by winning the most votes of any single senatorial candidate.

Now she is being touted as a future presidential prospect for 2016. If she does run, then, like Jokowi, she will probably win.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, another woman who is similarly little known could well emulate Jokowi and Poe and become the leader of her nation in a couple of years’ time.

Already, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, 59, is the most powerful female politician in Hanoi, since she is a member of the all-powerful Politburo, which exerts final control over everything in that Communist country.

After obtaining degrees in politics and economics, Kim Ngan served in the finance and trade ministries, before becoming Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs in 2007.

Later, she was elected vice chair of the National Assembly, the body that, among other things, drafts and implements laws and appoints the president and prime minister.

It was in that post that she first came to public attention in a big way when she took a pivotal role in the negotiations to win the release of around 10,000 Vietnamese workers in post-Gaddafi Libya in 2011.

Currently, however, Kim Ngan’s power and future potential derives from her elevation last May to the elite 16-member Politburo. She is only the second woman on this august body.

She is also close to the current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who is midway through a second and final term in office, and who is expected to become the next party chief when he steps down as PM.

Likely to take over from him, according to most Hanoi insiders, is Kim Ngan, who will then become Vietnam’s first female PM around the time Grace Poe could well become president of the Philippines.

Thus, it is quite possible that, along with Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra and Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, they could form a formidable quartet of female leaders in this region. Now that would be something.