Thomas L. Friedman

Of Arab and Asian autocrats

A volunteer giving out apples to kindergarten pupils at a school in China. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 
A volunteer giving out apples to kindergarten pupils at a school in China. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 

I've been in China for the last week. It's always instructive to see how the world looks from the Middle Kingdom. Sometimes the best insights come from just reading the local papers.

On March 25, the China Daily published an essay detailing how the "Beijing authorities" had "launched inspection tours of kindergartens this week to ensure that children are not overburdened with schoolwork. Although Chinese, mathematics and English are supposed to be taught to primary school pupils, it is not uncommon to see preschool-age children across China being forced to study these subjects." The essay went on to explain why it wasn't healthy to "begin preparing for the college entrance exam" in preschool.

Reading that, I suddenly had a vision of a Swat team from China's Ministry of Education bursting through the doors of kindergartens and declaring: "Put those pencils and books down! Back away from your desks, and nobody gets hurt!" What a problem to have! Kindergartens teaching maths and English too soon.

In the same paper, there was also an article about the latest fighting between Shi'ite pro-Iranian and Sunni pro-Saudi factions in Yemen. Clashes there have focused on Yemen's second-largest town, Taiz.

Taiz? Wait a minute! I was in Taiz in May 2013 working on a documentary about how Yemen was becoming an environmental disaster. We focused on Taiz because, as a result of Yemen's devastated ecosystems, residents of Taiz get to run their home water taps for only 36 hours every 30 days or so.

So there you have it. The news out of China is the crackdown on kindergartens teaching maths and English too early, and the news out of Yemen is that Sunni and Shi'ite factions are fighting over a town that is already so cracked up the water comes on only 36 hours a month, and the rest of the time you have to rely on roving water trucks. And that was before the latest fighting.

But at least we've found the problem. I've read that it's all United States President Barack Obama's fault. I wish. Mr Obama has said and done some boneheaded things in the Middle East (like decapitating the Libyan regime with no plan for the morning after), but being wary about getting further embroiled in this region is not one of them. We're dealing here with something no president has had to face: the collapse of the Arab state system after 70 years of failed governance.

Again, the comparison with Asia is instructive. After World War II, Asia was ruled by many autocrats who essentially came to their people and said, "My people, we're going to take away your freedom, but we're going to give you the best education, infrastructure and export-led growth policies money can buy. And eventually you'll build a big middle class and win your freedom."

Over that same period, Arab autocrats came to their people and said, "My people, we're going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israel conflict."

Asian autocrats tended to be modernisers, like Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died last month at 91 - and you see the results today: Singaporeans waiting in line for up to 10 hours to pay last respects to a man who vaulted them from nothing into the global middle class.

Arab autocrats tended to be predators who used the conflict with Israel as a shiny object to distract their people from their own misgovernance. The result: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are now human development disaster areas.

Some saw this coming. In 2002, a group of Arab social scientists produced the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report. It said the Arab world suffered deficits of freedom, knowledge and women's empowerment, and, if it did not turn around, it would get where it was going. It was ignored by the Arab League. In 2011, the educated Arab masses rose up to force a turnaround before they got where they were going.

Except for Tunisia (the only Arab country whose autocrat was also a moderniser), that awakening fizzled out. So now they've got where they were going: state collapse and a cauldron of tribal, sectarian (Shi'ite-Sunni, Persian-Arab) civil wars - in a region bulging with unemployed, angry young people and schools that barely function, or, if they do, they teach an excess of religion, not maths.

I read about President Abdel- Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt declaring that "the challenges facing our national Arab security are grave, and we have succeeded in diagnosing the reasons behind it". And that was? Too little Arab cooperation against Persians and Islamists. Really? Some 25 per cent of Egyptians are illiterate today after US$50 billion (S$68 billion) in US aid since 1979. (In China, illiteracy is at 5 per cent; in Iran, 15 per cent.) My heart goes out to all the people in this region. But when your leaders waste 70 years, the hole is really deep.

In fairness, President el-Sissi is trying to dig Egypt out. Nevertheless, Egypt may send troops to defeat the rebels in Yemen. If so, it would be the first case of a country where 25 per cent of the population can't read, sending troops to rescue a country where the water comes through the tap 36 hours a month, to quell a war where the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad - Shi'ites or Sunnis.

Any Chinese pre-schooler can tell you: That's not an equation for success.