In his lead role in the 1979 Vietnam War psychological war epic Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando haunted a whole generation of moviegoers. More than four decades on and amid today’s modern geopolitical reality, the Francis Ford Coppola film is now seen as a cultural relic of a previous era. Thanks to former US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, Vietnam has reinvented itself in American consciousness as the beneficiary of the shift of manufacturing production.
Closer to our times, a friend who read last week’s column reminded me that this coming week is the 25th anniversary of the Asian Financial Crisis. It started with a wobble of the Thai baht on July 2, 1997, which quickly cascaded into a crisis of confidence fuelled by the rising cost of US dollar-denominated debt. Currencies across the region — the rupiah, the won and the peso — came under pressure. The debt-to-GDP ratio of some Asean economies, still somewhat bearable at 100% in 1993, shot up to 180% in merely five years.
If there’s a single infamous image that encapsulates that era, it would be that of the then international Monetary Fund managing director Michael Camdessus, arms folded, sternly standing over Indonesia’s then-President Suharto as he signed the IMF bail-out package. As part of IMF’s “rescue”, the rupiah was to float freely. The widespread rioting that followed was the catalyst for Suharto’s downfall. Malaysia, then under Dr Mahathir Mohamad, retreated into economic self-isolation. He rammed through the peg of the ringgit to the dollar, and he hung international investors out to dry by spiking the Clob trading system in Singapore.