The 4th Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, Kuala Lumpur, 26 October 1993
This conference, held in the context of Asia's march towards the 21st century, brings into focus several issues which are still unresolved. Chief among these is the question of the relationship between the rate of population growth and development. The rate of growth of Asia's population, which will in a few years exceed 3.5 billion or about 60 percent of the world total, will undoubtedly impose severe constraints on resources. Yet, they do not warrant a kind of Malthusian angst that bred ill-conceived population policies in the past.
In recent years, there has been a major shift in the attitude of international developmental agencies towards the issue of population. Some two decades ago, a high rate of population growth in a developing country was considered detrimental to development. International aid organizations and donor countries, in those days, imposed population control as a major condition for economic aid, much in the same way they now prescribe rules about human rights, democracy, and the preservation of the environment.
The basic fallacy stemmed from the view that population growth would always outstrip the food production capacity of the developing nation. We now know that the so-called Green Revolution in developing countries in the sixties and seventies had achieved a doubling of food production, thus debunking this view.
Therefore, instead of the old mindset, we must rather look upon population as a principal resource. Consequently, the development strategy must be directed, first and foremost, towards improving the quality of the human resource pool. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, improvement in population quality or investment in human capital via basic education, training and health care, has not been given the priority it deserves. It is very revealing that in the poorest parts of Asia public expenditures on defence far exceed the amounts on education and health combined.
Even in countries that embarked on serious development, the emphasis had not been on developing human capital, but on industrialization programmes which siphoned off scarce resources to ostentatious projects requiring massive protection. It is rather unfortunate that most Asian nations gained independence at a time where the ideas of socialism were at the height of respectability. Most countries embarked on dirigistic economic policies, preferring to protect industrial producers to providing cheaper goods for the general population via free trade.
One can never overemphasize the vital role of education in the development process. The residue of harmful traditional practices in some societies has resulted in gender discrimination, condemning half of the population to wallow in ignorance. There is ample evidence now that investments in female education have some of the highest returns for development. Thus, expanding educational programmes for girls and employment opportunities for women, and improving information on health and nutrition, will certainly result in smaller families.
Development is primarily contingent upon the political conditions, whether or not they are conducive to taking the necessary actions and making the appropriate reforms that would stimulate economic activity and social progress. In many parts of Asia, political instability imposes severe limitations to any form of developmental effort. At the same time, corruption, abuse of power, and lack of accountability often serve to divert resources, either domestic wealth or foreign aid, to the pockets of irresponsible elite groups.
A stable political framework is essential for development. However, repressive authoritarian measures are not the only, nor even the most effective, path to stability. We cannot compromise on the basic goal of development, that is, to liberate the masses from poverty and ignorance. But physical and material development alone is not enough, nor sustainable without the accompaniment of social and civic development. Sustainable political stability requires the growth of healthy political institutions, which enable the expression of divergent views in the society without threatening societal harmony.
Most developing countries suffer from the adoption of extreme positions in their political practices. On the one hand, there are the various forms of repressive authoritarianism which blatantly deny the basic rights of the citizens. On the other hand, there are those which have embraced uncritically Western liberal democracy to the point of paralysing the process of government itself. While we are committed to the ideals of democracy, its practice must relate to the realities and specificities of our respective societies. Above all we cannot be dogmatic. We must have an acute sense of our own national and societal priorities.
What should be obvious is that the so-called the East Asian "miracle" economies have each of them departed radically from the path of development trodden by the established industrial societies in the West. For one thing, economic development in East Asia has been achieved "sans imperium", unlike the case of Europe from the 17th century onwards. There was a conspicuous absence of that corrosive individualism, so predominant in Europe during her economic ascendancy. Instead, the free enterprise of East Asia is largely communitarian in substance, combining individual initiative and the pursuit of profit with societal goals and social responsibility. Western capitalism attempts to displace traditions, while we in East Asia integrate the positive values from the past within the dynamic framework of modern technology and commercial practice.
For centuries, Asian societies were divided and ruled separately by the competing political and economic powers of the West. After independence, we remained divided by ideology and orientation. Now that the era of colonialism and the great ideological divide is behind us, it is time for us to come together in the pursuit of peace, prosperity and respectability. We must devise practical mechanisms and institutions that would accelerate economic collaboration, to uplift the quality of life of the Asian population of the 21st century and beyond.
I believe the moment is ripe. It requires political will, of course, and the courage of enlightened leadership. With the long-term interests of our peoples in mind, we must tear down all the artificial barriers that hinder the fullest realization of the Asian economic potential. That, however, is not enough. Our Asian values and traditions, our uniqueness requires that we advance also a coherent social agenda to reflect and reinforce those values and traditions. Foremost of all is the preservation and strengthening of the family unit as the basic institution of society. According to a Chinese proverb: If the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper. Inasmuch as we say that progress is not synonymous with Westernization, we must also affirm that the breakdown of the family (and its attendant social problems) is not inherent with industrialization.
For the future, we need to construct a framework of society which seeks to maintain a comprehensive and composite view of social development, in which economics is to be pursued and understood within a perspective of ethics and morality. The social and economic system must be characterized by justice, fairness and compassion. Asian society, in its robustness and dynamism, will remain harmonious, for as long as we continue to maintain a just balance between the demand for rights and the fulfilling of responsibilities. Each member of the community owes something to all the rest, and the community owes something to each of its members. This idea of reciprocity must be at the heart of our understanding of social justice. The erosion of the sense of community in the West has been largely due to the ceaseless minting of rights, while "passing the buck" when it comes to responsibilities. On the other hand, much of the injustice we encounter in Asia is attributable to the denial of the rights of the individual, so much so that the individual virtually disappears in the faceless collectivity. Surely the truth is somewhere in between. And therefore we must heartily commend the middle path and the golden mean.