The Forum for Asia has convened in Bo’ao, on the Chinese island of Hainan. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, on occasional Davos visitor, was the featured speaker on the opening day. Mahathir has an unparalleled record for upsetting the western consensus on a range of issues. He didn’t disappoint yesterday, proposing a tax on the world’s rich countries to fund infrastructure development in poorer countries.
That is precisely what the World Bank spends a lot of time doing, and it is funded by the rich countries. But Mahathir is a vocal opponent of the World Bank and the IMF, so he presumably wants a fund that might be more within the control of him and his cohorts.
What does Bo’ao have to counter Davos? It’s tropical rather than Alpine, but its trump card seems to be a close relationship to the Chinese government. President Jiang Zemin attended the opening, and, according to the Financial Times, part of the motivation for the forum is to raise Asia’s intellectual profile.
Whether Bo’ao can actually become a rival to Davos itself is open to doubt. Of the 178 participants to the inaugural meeting, only 20 are from the private sector. And public figures seem to be mostly “formers”, like former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and former Philippines president Fidel Ramos. One of the best principles of the World Economic Forum is no “formers”, even though the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush senior spend a lot of their time adorning the world conference circuit.
***Hope it’s time for goodbyes
Coincidentally with his keynote in Bo’ao, the Financial Times is questioning whether Mahathir’s regime can last much longer. Although Malaysia has made extraordinary strides under Mahathir, there is a repressive, arrogant nastiness to the man and his works. I suspect a post-Mahathir Malaysia will conclude, like so many nations who have emerged from a similar period, that they are well rid of the man. The global scene will be less colourful, but happier.