The ASEAN Institute Symposium: "Asia in the 21st Century", Manila, 7 May 1993
I have chosen to participate in the discourse on the future of Asia although in a world of galloping changes forecasting is a risky enterprise. Nothing could be worse to the glazer of the crystal ball than his prediction proven wrong. But for us the issue is not primarily the correctness of our prediction, but more crucial as an effort to instill a psychological and mental preparedness to face up to the uncharted territory. We have to confront the future now, because the seeds of the future is contained in time present. But let me start with something from the past.
In the last hours of his life before he was to face the firing squad, Jose Rizal, wrote his "Ultimo Adios":
It is now close to one hundred years since his execution in this very city and his parting poem which heralded the birth of a new century. It was Rizal, at the turn of the century, who imbued us with a new consciousness of our predicament as peoples and nations subjugated to the might and will of outside powers.
As we ourselves enter a new century, -- with its manifold social, political and economic convulsions -- it is fitting that we remember his boldness, courage of conviction, imagination, and his unrelenting efforts for the upliftment of his compatriots.
At a time when the rest of the world, include the political and industrial might of recent years, is clouded by pessimism; Asia, however, is imbued with a new sense of confidence. Japan has tilted the balance of economic might; ASEAN and the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) continue to storm ahead in prosperity; China, dubbed as the sleeping giant by Napoleon, has finally awakened; and Indochina especially Vietnam is rebuilding its economy from the ashes of war. There are, of course, areas of instability and uncertainties -- south and central Asia for example -- but their prospects are still better than some countries in other continents. There are tensions and potential conflicts which must be addressed, but can be contained, even if not immediately resolved.
This new sense of confidence must be harnessed to face the challenges of a new century, which certainly will be more complex and mystifying than the present one. Only a clear sense of direction will enable us to navigate the perils of the 21st century.
The quest for a stable yet dynamic social and political order will continue to be of paramount importance. Thus each society must learn to tame its own divisive and violent tendencies to avoid descending into chaos and anarchy. But above all we must strive to establish justice in social and economic spheres and democracy in the political domain for it is within that order violent threats to civil society such as racial prejudice and religious extremism have the best chance of being contained, diffused and even resolved. This path will ensure our societies progress towards greater openness and transparency and have the essential pre-requisite for an active participation in the globalized future.
Despite Asian collective economic strength, we have yet to forge an effective common stand, forceful enough to command the attention of the present industrial powers. In this era where economics takes the centre stage, ASEAN is in danger of losing its relevance unless it transcends its present limitations as primarily a political grouping. By virtue of its cohesiveness, ASEAN must have the resolve to aggressively pursue an economic agenda and become an active vehicle in promoting a regional order. Measures to promote trade, investment and other forms of economic cooperation both within ASEAN and between ASEAN and our other Asian partners must be intensified. AFTA is, of course, one of the concrete ideas that must be realized within the shortest possible time. The economy of this region should move towards greater integration and thus artificial barriers must be reduced to the absolute minimum.
ASEAN was created in the conviction that we are stronger when we stand together. While we are sovereignly independent, in everything else we are interrelated and interdependent. This is the spirit that turned ASEAN into a success story and this spirit should be harness to create a greater ASEAN and a cohesive Asia.
The foundation laid down by ASEAN could serve as the catalyst for collaborative efforts on an Asian scale. The EAEC, a concept conceived on regional cooperation in trade and economic development may eventually take off as the new determinant in the East-West economic divide. All these could become possible if every country in Asia attains economic liberation and her people given the fullest opportunity to learn and to trade with each other. One could imagine the might of this entire market. This scenario is not a dream anymore. It is already unfolding before our eyes even now.
The economic empowerment of Asia would not be sustainable unless the new quest for prosperity is inspired by a new social philosophy that is not motivated by pure greed or narrow material pursuit. The new Asia that we envisage will be a lot richer in the broadest sense of the word, if profitability is integrated with social responsibility. Wealth creation is not intended only to enrich the few but also for fair and equitable distribution among the society at large, for this is the path that had and will continue to liberate millions from the scourge of poverty and destitution.
Thus it is imperative that our individual country's efforts to create a competitively efficient and modern economy be supported and enhanced by ethical business practices that will help to create our own unique regional ethos. A regional ethos that emphasize justice and equilibrium that will decidedly become the hallmark of an emerging paradigm. We need to evolve a new pattern of relationship, a partnership among people, with our pursuit for wealth matched with our care and compassion for the less fortunate and the disadvantage; and our drive towards modernization and industrialization balanced by our confidence in the relevance of positive Asian values and the consciousness to protect the integrity of our environment. We must not repeat the mistakes and excesses of the past inflicted upon us by multinational corporations in their pursuit of profits but with total disregard for the adverse long term impact of their actions on the social fabric and the environment of the host countries.
Our common yet pluralistic future must transcend beyond economics. As in Rizal's time Asia needs a 20th century man to liberate itself from colonialism, Asia of the future needs people with a global outlook yet rooted in traditions, having the inner strength and conviction but at the same time the humility to learn and accept truth and goodness in others. The vanishing cultural borders requires respect for our varied cultural and religious heritage and sensitivities, and regard for universally accepted ethical values and practices. We must make this diversity our strength and richness rather than a source of conflict and mutual suspicion. If we can achieve this, we can be assured that the 21st century will indeed be the Asian century.