On the same day that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau plugged the virtues of Canadian high-tech companies in Thailand, he also toured the fabled temple of the Emerald Buddha and the fantastic golden curlicued domes of the Grand Palace. Later, Trudeau nibbled chateaubriand and sweet water lobster and marvelled as graceful Thai performers swayed through a delicate lotus dance. For all the talk of international trade challenges and trying times, on the first leg of Trudeau’s 18-day sweep through seven Far East countries the bottom line was that the prime minister could not hide the fact that he was also having a marvelous vacation—on the taxpayers’ tab.
For all that, the first week of the junket was relatively successful. The Thais liked him and Canada—and they showed it with lavish honors. When Trudeau arrived in Bangkok, Thai women scattered lotus petals in his path. Throughout the city Canadian flags waved beside the printed message: MAY THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN THAILAND AND CANADA LAST FOREVER. In Singapore, where about 25 Canadian firms are bidding for an estimated $1 billion in contracts to build a subway system, Canadian businessmen were more critical of government policy. But Trudeau’s longtime friend, Singapore’s
prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, saved the hour when he bestowed the rare honor of asking the businessmen to join the two leaders and his senior officials for briefings. Said Canadian High Commissioner to Singapore George Seymour of the special treatment: “I can’t say it’s unprecedented, but it’s very unusual—it’s the first time that I am aware of the inclusion of businessmen in a state dinner and a head-to-head meeting.”
Although he was 24,000 km from home, Trudeau could not entirely escape domestic matters. At a press conference last week he curtly dismissed the advice of eight Roman Catholic bishops on economic affairs (page 46). Then, nettled by a reporter’s request to list the tangible benefits of his trip, he exploded, “Did you really think I would be signing big contracts, or are we just here for a good time?” He went on to insist that good Thai-Canadian business relations are an intangible but “beneficial” effect of his travels. There will be tangible benefits, however, for seven Canadians serving time in Thai jails for heroin offences. Trudeau and Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda witnessed the signing of an agreement that will allow nationals from each country to return home to finish prison sentences.
Despite Trudeau’s perks and piques, his visits to Thailand and Singapore and his travels to Malaysia, Indonesia,
Brunei, the Philippines and Japan were devised in a belated bid to boost Canada’s sagging export trade. Between 1971 and 1981 the five-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—excluding Brunei and Japan-managed an average annual growth rate of 6.5 per cent. Although this figure dipped to almost four per cent last year, it still appears healthy when compared to Canada’s crippling 2.6-per-centdecline.Despite the region’s potential, however, Canada has been slow to exploit the opportunity. Canada’s exports to the five ASEAN nations was a scant .05 per cent of trade in 1981. ASEAN bought only $577 million of Canadian goods in 1981 and sold a paltry $463 million to Canada (although trade has trebled since 1975 and economic necessity has made a virtue of improving ties). In contrast, Japan’s foreign trade with ASEAN is 12.2 per cent, the European Economic Community’s is 2.5 per cent, and the U.S. share is 1.2 per cent.“I think the Europeans and the Americans have seen the potential before us,” Trudeau admitted in Bangkok. “These countries will continue to grow in economic terms compared to Europe, and the sooner we get in here, the better. The Thai government is following a policy of diversification—and this is a bonanza for Canada because we can be one supplier of many.”
Despite Canada’s catch-up position, Trudeau’s encounters with Canadian
businessmen in both Thailand and Singapore were generally upbeat. The Thai determination to diversify trading partners equals Canada’s desire to find new markets. This unusual harmony ensured that Trudeau’s meeting with 10 prominent businessmen with major contracts in Thailand was without rancor. The group told Trudeau that nations such as France and Japan are increasingly offering blanket loans at low rates and long terms to Far East nations—thus undercutting the Canadian competition. “I told him that we haven’t run into the very low rate to any great extent, but it is becoming more and more common, and the number of projects is becoming fewer and fewer,” warned George Janigan, a vice-president of Combustion Engineering of Ottawa, which has a $94-million contract to construct four steam boilers for an electrical generating station. “Canada,” he added, “has to start now to address itself to the financing problem before it is too late.” In Singapore, where officials openly admit that an attractive financing package is essential for subway contracts, the businessmen were more adamant that Trudeau use his prestige to help them out. They pressed Trudeau for more support from Ottawa’s Export Development Corp. and increased Canadian presence in Singapore. But they were also mollified by the rare access to the high-level meetings that Trudeau’s presence—and his ties with old Commonwealth friend Kuan Yew Lee—provided.
Despite Trudeau’s newfound interest in trade, he sought time to discuss the multilateral issues that concern him. The Thais hinted that Canada should
give aid to the Kampuchean coalition headed by resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Trudeau pointed out that Canada never supplies military aid in trouble spots. Then Thailand delicately mentioned the thousands of Indochinese refugees clustered in its
camps and broached Canada’s immigration cutbacks. Trudeau countered that Canada received 80,000 Indochinese refugees since 1979, 5,000 in 1982 alone, with another 5,000 likely in 1983. With Canada’s record unemployment for December at 12.8 per cent, Trudeau argued that times are too tough to do more. Then Thailand pointed out that Canada imported $18 million worth of Thai goods during the first six months of last
year, while selling close to a whopping $63 million of Canadian goods. Senior Canadian officials say that the diplomatic debate managed to clarify a few issues: Thailand now knows that Canada will not further reduce its refugee intake—under the Conservatives in 1979 it was 8,000—and that it will try to fight trade protectionist forces.
This climate of compromise extended to sales. Thailand’s Tinsulanonda said his country wants to buy more from Canadian oil and gas, transportation and power-generation firms. Trudeau, in turn, lauded specific Canadian firms and their products. “He made himself the spokesman of these firms,” said a senior trade official, “and that gives them an approbation that is pretty hard to get otherwise.”
Despite the chores, Trudeau seized the plentiful opportunities to play tourist. During a brief 19-hour stopover in Hong Kong, while senior officials fielded local press inquiries about Canadian immigration and textile policies, the prime minister and son Sacha wandered about the harbor, and the PM did not meet with his official counterparts. At one lengthy luncheon with Thai academics and royalty, Trudeau kept everyone at his next appointment waiting while he discussed the uneasy relationship between the values of Buddhism and the pressures of development. He lunched with King Bhumibol at his luxurious villa, supped with Princess Chumbhot at the Suan Pakkard Palace, and swept north by helicopter over hundreds of filigreed temples to open a Canada-ASEAN centre to develop hardier tree seeds. In Bangkok he stayed at the exotic and plush Oriental Hotel,which international bankers recently rated as the best hotel in the world. In Singapore he stayed in the luxurious guest house on the grounds of the presidential palace.
As the tour moves into its second week, Trudeau’s aides will keep trying to play down the fun and stress the beneficial aspect of keeping him on the road, where his popularity is higher than at home. At a meeting with Canadian businessmen in Vancouver last month the prime minister listened while each entrepreneur plugged his product and asked for help abroad. Then he maliciously asked why none of them bothered to speak up when critics panned his travel plans.
There were some successes, of course. “I was able to play golf with the Thai ministers of industry last Sunday, and that’s unusual,” remarked Douglas MacKay, the president of Renting Earth Sciences Ltd. of Ottawa. MacKay may long remember the round in the sultry oriental sun. As for the prime minister, who made it possible, the cooler Canadian public may note his play as only par for the course.
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