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Interview: Zeger van der Wal about 'Good Governance in Asia and the West'

On Thursday 28 September 2017 the Institute of Public Administration of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs (FGGA) organizes the event ‘Good Governance in Asia and the West: What is the Difference?’ as part of the Leiden Asia Year. Below you can read the interview with professor Zeger van der Wal about his views on Asia and the event.

Zeger van der Wal, Affiliate Professor at the Institute, has spent much of the past 5 years working in Asia. As he explains below, there’s a world to win in terms of comparative research and knowledge exchange between the East and the West. On behalf of the institute and the faculty, Van der Wal invites colleagues, students, and practitioners to debate and share views about good governance with him and expert colleagues.

What is the Leiden Asia Year all about? How does the Good Governance event fit in?

With the Leiden Asia Year, our university highlights numerous ongoing research projects and collaborations between Leiden University and various Asian counterparts. Existing collaborations are being strengthened and Asian partners are being invited to participate in events throughout the year. For decades, our university has enjoyed a phenomenal reputation for its research about and with Asia through reputed centres as the International Institute for Asian Studies the Leiden Asia Centre, and various ties with China and Indonesia (among others).

Moreover, the Asia Year could not have come at a better time: experts across the globe agree that this century will be the ‘Asian century’. Personally, I also experience increased interest in Asia from academics, politicians, and businesspeople. Recent economic and political crises in the EU and the US only exacerbate and accelerate attention to what happens ‘East’.

It goes without saying we’re currently witnessing tectonic economic and political shifts. There’s lots of facts and figures here, but let me highlight two. In 1980, the share of global GDP of the US economy was about 25% and that of China 2.4% Last year, both countries stood at 17%. In purchasing parity power (PPP) terms, China’s economy is already bigger, with only the EU as a whole just topping the list. Another remarkable number concerns the explosion of the Chinese ‘middle class’: an increase of 500 million compared to just one decade ago! This development alone contributed greatly to the United Nations’ achievement of a key millennium development goal in 2015: halving global poverty.

However, it’s not just China. Countries such as Turkey and Indonesia have tripled their entire economies in the past 15 years. More so, the advanced ‘Asian tigers’ – South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – dominate many global rankings in the areas of education, healthcare, and innovation.  In addition to economic show of force, we witness a more assertive political posture of Asian countries. A telling example is how China is now taking the lead in the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement after the Trump administration decided to abandon the agreement.

That brings us to the topic of ‘good governance’. After all, despite all the successes and shifts, we in the West frequently critique the way in which the regimes of China, Turkey, Iran and Russia, and others govern their countries and treat their citizens, and rightly so. Interestingly, there also is increasing internal criticism of governance practices within these countries from new, assertive, and highly educated generations of citizens and NGOs.  

At the same time, academics conduct little rigorous comparative research into governance practices, cultures, norms, and the actual conduct of politicians and public servants. There is a world to win here. My hope is that our institute and faculty will become important players in this area. That also fits a faculty that carries ‘global’ in its name.

What’s your connection with Asia?

After having worked for five years at Asia’s number 1 university, the National University of Singapore, I increasingly feel like an ‘Asian Dutchman’. In a way, comparing the East and the West is not just my job but also my everyday hobby. At NUS, I collaborate with peers and students of over 50 different countries, the majority of which are Asian. I’ve travelled around Asia over 70 times to give keynote speeches, to do research, and to participate in conferences and executive education programs. I’ve visited China, Malaysia, and Thailand more than 10 times each. I’ve learned so much from these fascinating experiences. They’ve helped me to re-assess and question many of my own assumptions (and stereotypes!), and to see my home country through different eyes.  

I’m always surprised by how little Westerners know about what’s going on in Asia. We’re focused on our own domestic issues, and to a lesser extent on Europe and the US, even though the Netherlands is such an international, globalized, and export oriented nation. I’ve seen increased interest in the past 2-3 years though. Through my role at the FGGA, I hope to contribute to more knowledge exchange and joint research and education. The opportunities are limitless.

The Good Governance event addresses differences between governance in the West and Asia. What can we learn from Asia?

The question should be: what can we learn from each other? After all, there are plenty of Asian countries who are way behind the West in terms of their development. At the same time, it’s fascinating how only a decade ago delegations from China, Singapore, and South Korea frequently visited European countries to learn from their best practices, whereas now the reverse is happening.

In Singapore, we receive delegations of politicians and public servants from Finland, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands on a weekly basis. Does that mean that the West has more to learn from Asia than the other way around? In some areas, such as pursuing consistent and long-term innovation and industrial policies, or investing in higher education and the capability and job satisfaction of teachers, that may certainly be the case. In other areas, such as combatting corruption, modernizing public sector personnel policies, increasing liveability and sustainability, and human rights issues, many Western countries are still outperforming their Asian counterparts.  

From a public administration perspective in particular, there’s much room for improvement in many Asian countries in terms of how public servants are recruited, trained, and remunerated (with the Asian tigers as clear exceptions). In addition, the culture is more hierarchical. That bears all sorts of consequences for the degree of administrative autonomy and the extent to which public servants can act ‘entrepreneurial’ and critique superiors: ‘speaking truth to power’ as us scholars call it. A topic such as diversity management is also handled very differently: we aim for a larger share or women and minorities in leadership positions, whereas in the East representation of historically separated – and sometimes hostile – groups, castes, classes, and clans is often more important, sometimes even legally mandated.

What do you hope participants in the event will take home?

A number of colleagues will shortly present some intriguing research findings and questions, ending with propositions aimed to provoke debate and dialogue. We hope to involve one or more (former) diplomats with experience in Asia, so they can share their views on good governance in the East and the West. Of course, we will extensively involve the audience as well, by soliciting questions and viewpoints. I hope we will all feel enriched and challenged after 2 hours of presentations and debate, and will walk away with some new viewpoints and revised assumptions. The setting, the ‘Spaanse trap’ in our beautiful new building Wijnhaven is perfect for an event with this purpose.

Everybody’s welcome: colleagues from Leiden and beyond, students, and practitioners from The Hague and elsewhere. A walking lunch is provided. Hope to see you all on 28 September, from 12:30 to 14:30 hrs.! Please register via this form.