The Guest Column

11th August 1996

The Asian renaissance

by Stanley Kalpage

The attention of the world is being drawn to the rapid economic development in certain parts of Asia. Some countries of the Pacific Rim - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore - known as the four Tigers, have shown exceptionally high growth rates for some years now while those of southeast Asia have more recently joined the Tigers. Central Asia, the Near East and South Asia are sill lagging behind.

The dramatic progress that Asia is making and the momentum behind it constitutes a sea-change in the life of the world. From 1945 to 1995, poverty in Asia has been reduced from 400 million in 1945 to 180 million in 1995 while the population grew by 400 million during this period. In the 1990s, Asia came of age. As we move towards the year 2000 A. D., Naisbitt forecasts that Asia will become the dominant region of the world: economically, politically and culturally.

Asian way of development

The modernisation of Asia does not mean the westernization of Asia. Personal and family values are being incorporated into the modernisation process. Naisbitt forecasts the birth of a new Commonwealth of Nations - the Asian Commonwealth of Nations. The catalyst, he says, is the free market.

Historically, Asia has accorded the West a sort of superior status. All that has changed and there is an upsurge of confidence in Asia today. Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is himself at the forefront of an Asian renaissance, says: Since the nineteenth century, Asian nations have been overawed by the wealth the power of the West.

Under the yolk of colonialism, Asian nations had no choice but to examine themselves critically vis-a-vis their masters and not their neighbours. That was the fundamental cause of the crisis in the Asian consciousness He continues, the Asian mind has finally broken free from intellectual morass. There is emerging a more positive attitude towards our own traditions, and a genuine interest in the traditions of our fellow Asians

Asia is a collection of some forty countries with diverse, cultural and linguistic traditions. There has been no movement historically to blend Asia together, except the activities of traders and political conquests.

Asian states have been preoccupied with the struggle to gain independence and sovereignty from colonial rule and, after independence, to build and strengthen their own states. These national preoccupation’s have, until now, prevented solidarity with neighbours and the forging of common systems. However, four religious options, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam - all religions of Asian origin - provide a basic system of shared values which are being incorporated into the Asian way of development.

From labour-intensive to high technology

The dramatic shift from labour intensive agriculture and manufacturing to state of the art technology in manufacturing and services, has been among the trends that are being markedly evident on the Asian scene. This is most pronounced in the rush to telecommunications and computers.

Asia is still being thought of as a region of low-wage, labour-intensive industries. While this is to a large extent true and is one reason why Asia is so competitive, as the global economy continues to shift from the industrial past to the full potential of the information-based future, the key to productivity will not be inexpensive labour but the efficient use of high technology. Today, Asia’s urban centres have consciously leap-frogged over the industrial age and are pioneering the information age. This is most evident in the four dragons - Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore - as well as in the southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. In South Asia, India is emerging from its former socialist - shackled agrarian past into a new high-tech era.

All these countries are creating policies and removing bureaucratic barriers that might impede progress toward a high-tech fully wired future. These countries are striving to achieve three basic objectives: to make manufacturing more efficient, to develop home-grown high-tech industries, and to create a telecommunications infrastructure.

Asia - an economic powerhouse

Asia is emerging as an economic powerhouse. Admittedly, there are constraints. Rapid population growth in countries like India can negate the benefits of growth. Asia’s headlong rush to prosperity can be slowed down by inadequate education and training facilities, lack of managerial skills and the absence of telecommunications capabilities. Authoritarian regimes or political instability can lead to civil commotion which can act as a brake to development. Environmental problems of a serious nature, which have accompanied rapid industrialization have yet to be overcome. Crime and corruption are prevalent in the wake of urbanisation and development.

Asia was once the centre of the world and now the centre seems to be returning again to Asia. The old Asia was divided by culture, language, political ideology, religious philosophies and geography. The new Asia, forged by economic integration, technology - especially telecommunications - travel and mobility of people, will increasingly look like one economically coherent region

Until the 1990s, everything revolved round the West. The West set the rules. Japan abided by these rules during its economic emergence. But now Asians are creating their own rules and soon will determine the game as well. Asian countries must seize this moment.

The writer was the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations from 1991-94

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