The Asian Young Leaders Forum: Strategies for Tomorrow's Asia,Kuala Lumpur, 24 October 1993

I would like to congratulate the Asean Institute and Asia-Australia Institute for their foresight and commitment to dialogue and reasoned discourse among fellow Asians. Indeed, it is a distinct honour for Malaysia to play host at this forum, with high level representations from Asean and Australia.

To my mind the singular challenge to us in Asia is to come to grips with the new realities. The world has truly changed in recent years and the changes had come so unexpectedly. Nonetheless, like many revolutionary changes in the past, the eruption in 1989 was none other than the culmination of decades of steady and far reaching movements which had gained momentum year by year.

We believe, the collapse of Eastern European and Soviet communism serves as harbinger of many of no less far reaching changes ahead. Because of their obsession with ideological rivalry, the West have failed to take full cognizance of the implications of some other equally, if not more, significant changes in other parts of the world. The dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa and the peace accord in West Asia are major events that will have great bearing on the shape of the world to come. For a very long time, the industrialized countries had done so much to prop up the Apartheid regime in South Africa that they themselves were taken aback how easy Apartheid would collapse. For decades the West branded the dispossessed Palestinians as terrorists and refused to open any channel of communication with the PLO. But when both now sit on the same table, it is the Israelis who remain largely recalcitrant about moving forward in the peace process. The Israelos are now adamant to maintain protectionist policies, feeling threatened by Palestinian proposals for free trade and a new and stable currency for Jericho and the Gaza Strip. At present, the West's handling of the post-cold war situation is, at best, confused and incoherent. Worse, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they manifest a total absence of moral sense and humanitarian concern.

For its lack of drama, the positive and fundamental changes that had taken place in Asia, particularly in East Asia, has largely escaped world attention. While many parts of world were embroiled in war and debilitating ideological struggles, we in East Asian worked hard and put in long hours to place our economies on a strong footing. For decades we produced for the export markets of North America and Europe. However, we soon realized that, while exports to those traditional consumers will continue to be important, we cannot remain dependent on them for much longer. Thus as each of us grew, the entire region began to assume the character of a market unto itself. Despite the prolonged recession in our traditional markets and the growing protectionist tendency there, our products have continued to enjoy consumer preference because of their competitiveness. It is precisely this reason that, while industrialized nations are bedridden with recession, we continue to register strong, vibrant growth.

Apart from East Asia, we are now beginning to witness the salutary effects of economic reforms in South Asia. An Indian economic revival will, as in the case of China, provide a powerful impetus to the economic dynamism of the entire region. For various reasons, we believe these countries would identify themselves as of and within the Asian growth sphere.

In the light of these circumstances prevailing, it is indicative of a veritable myopia, and ineptness, on the part of anyone who ignores, or trivializes, the desire of the peoples of this region to come closer together. There is a palpable feeling that we have become more dependent upon one another for our well-being and prosperity, inasmuch as we used to be at the mercy of decisions and events occuring in the far corners of the Atlantic coasts. That is why we say that the EAEC, apart from being a rational and pragmatic proposition, is the logical and necessary development for the continued economic strength of this region.

The changes in Asia, however, are beyond economics. The cohesiveness of this region will be further cemented by positive Asian values and traditions. Asia may not have a common civilizational heritage as in the Atlantic societies, which drew their values from the Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman heritage. Yet, far from being a handicap, it is precisely the very diversity of Asian cultures that will give Asia the understanding and preparedness to realize the immense potential of a multi-cultural and pluralistic world civilization that is fast taking shape. Asians as a whole have experienced centuries of close intercultural interaction and coexistence, and have learned many lessons about the need for tolerance and mutual respect.

For centuries Asia had been eclipsed under the blinding sun of western civilization. Now Asia is poised to rise again, but it will not be the same old Asia. It is an Asia that has been further enriched with the encounter with modern science, technology and modern political and civil institutions. Thus there is no question of revanchism against the West or Asia making a nostalgic return of old traditions. To be sure, a lot of the old Asia still remain. We need to jettison those elements that are harmful and incompatible with the new vision of global plurality and universal human dignity. Inasmuch as we decry the blatant hypocrisy in the moral posturings of some Western powers, we cannot be oblivious to, nor should we ever condone, the repressive and tyrannical intolerance of some of us.

In order for Asia to regain its respectability as the cradle of civilization the new Asian must consistently manifest, in addition to economic dynamism and industrial diligence, all the positive and noble qualities taught by the great religions and moral traditions. Chief among these are moral uprightness instead of corruption and perversity, sense of family and community instead of corrosive individualism, and humility instead of pompous pride and arrogance. Thus, in the political sphere, whatever we have adopted from the West in the course of evolving a viable and harmonious civil society must necessarily undergo adaptations. Our positive Asian values will remake and remould the received democratic institutions and practices, tailored to the nature of our body politic. Our democracy can never be totally that of Westminster or Jeffersonian. We need to balance individual liberties with the need to maintain societal harmony, rights with responsibilities, and to balance the pursuit of diversity with the achievement of common goals.

Thank you.