The Asia Society's Conference: Economic and Non-Economic Dimensions of the Rise of East Asia, Singapore, 19 May 1994
Some four years from now we will reach the half millennium of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut. He ushered in, as described by the historian K.M. Pannikar, the dominance of maritime power over the land masses of Asia; and the imposition of an international commercial economy over communities whose economic life had been based mainly on agricultural production and internal trade. And most significantly, the Portuguese heralded the dominance of the people of Europe, who held the mastery of the seas, over the affairs of our region.
It has taken Asia almost 500 years to regain that loss of control over her own destiny. But even before the European domination was about to reach its zenith in the late 19th century, the seeds of its gradual dissolution were already being sown. From about the middle of that century Sayyid Jamaluddin al-Afghani began his agitation against colonialism in the Muslim world. This was one of the earliest stirrings of Asian resurgence. Some years later, Jose Rizal, through his novels fought to liberate his people from the captivity of their own minds and their collective sense of inferiority.
Like their forefathers, Asians today equally need to free themselves from captivity, the captivity of the old mindsets, too have the courage of conviction to address the great issues of our time. She must henceforth galvanize herself into action to engage the rest of the world in dealing with a host of new global challenges. For instance, because of the rigidity and entropy of international instutions such the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund there is an urgent need for us to push for their reform, and develop new ones in partnership with others in Africa and Latin America to deal with common problems. The direction of such reforms must be towards a greater empathy as regards the realities and aspirations of the larger portion of the world community.
In recent years, Europe and North America have had to contend with a host of economic, social and political problems which earlier generations did not encounter. The current leadership in those countries could not easily fall back on precedents, and have had to find their way out of the new perplexities more or less by trial and error. This sense of indirection is best exemplified by the attempt of some of them to undermine the overall benefits of the recently-concluded Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations. By pressing for the inclusion of the social clauses into the World Trade Organization, not only are they trying to deprive developing countries of their comparative advantage in terms of production costs, they are succumbing to the lobbies of the powerful but beleaguered industrial interests, at the expense of the ordinary consumers. While calling for more open markets from their trading partners, they send the wrong signals by promoting a thinly disguised protectionism. The debate has gone by far too long. While Asian countries have made the necessary adjustments, the West to need the will and vision to steer their societies out of the present morass. Our expectation is that a new outlook will eventually emerge and their societies reenergized. It is to this reenergized West that we Asians must look to engage constructively and positively as partners in the creation of a new global society.
The economic rise of East Asia has provided a clearly beneficial demonstration effect on the rest of Asia, particularly on South Asia. Inevitably, the generalization of prosperity throughout Asia will bring the whole continent closer and more interdependent than ever before in her long history. The market realities will induce greater movement and inter- penetration of people, capital, technology, and goods and services. The Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River, bilateral ventrures, joint productions and growth triangles are such enterprises and linkages that will disperse growth and prosperity to even the remote parts of Asia. Such a confident, prosperous and integrated Asia must certainly have great bearing on the health of the global community. For one, it will give rise to greater Asian responsibility in global affairs. It is therefore to the nature and quality of that interaction, engagement rather, with the rest of the world that we, as Asians today, must seriously look into.
We have to admit, in all humility, that the so-called East Asian miracle is far from the ideal. Complacency on our part would be disastrous. We have to be realistic enough not to assume that it is easily sustainable, only because we have done so for the last thirty years. For sustainability, progress in the social and political spheres must be in tandem with achievements on the economic front. There cannot be an obsession with economic indices to the extent that one ignores the fact that there remain in our midst considerable pockets of abject poverty and destitution. The pain and misery of exploited labour, including women and children, are very real wherever they occur. Social inequalities, corruption, denial of basic liberties and downright oppression are still rampant. Although we reject the condescending attitude of outsiders in respect of our efforts to deal with these issues, we also deplore at the same time the arrogant elites within our own societies, who either condone or seek to perpetuate the excesses. If we detest the patronizing attitudes of outsiders with regard to our record on human rights and democracy, we must also not practice the condescending disposition towards our fellow citizens. While some of these problems are residue from the colonial era, one cannot deny that many of them are compounded by irresponsible post-colonial regimes. These are complex and difficult issues which require patience and time. They call for moral commitment and relentless exertion to redress. Lest we forget, it took the United States almost 100 years from the Declaration of Independence to the abolition of slavery; and, after that almost another 100 years again, to the historic decision of the Supreme court in Brown Vs the Board of Education in 1954 to outlaw colour segregation within their school system.
Prosperity in Asia must be accompanied by not only higher living standards for the general population, but also the political empowerment of the ordinary citizen. Fundamental freedoms such as the freedom from hunger, freedom from fear and insecurity, freedom from economic exploitation, freedom from coercion, and the freedom to peacefully practice one's religious beliefs are so basic for the growth of a truly human society that we must continue to emphasize them. We cannot speak of a human society if it is to be a faceless society. So long as each individual gives due regard to the shared values of society, he or she must be entitled to the full expression of his or her unique personality. It is very much within the Asian traditions, I believe, that society itself nurtures the growth of the individual, giving him the greatest scope possible within the bounds of societal norms.
The Asian traditions themselves need to be revitalized, and purified, for instance, from the excesses of an oppressive, autocratic and feudalistic past. We must recognize that not all parts of our traditions are worthy of retention. Some are plainly anachronistic, others not conformable to more basic universal moral norms. To my mind, the present debate about democracy and human rights has been rendered unfruitful because of the inflexibility and semblance of cultural arrogance. There are those who consider they still have a civilizing mission in Asia, namely to sermonize Asians about freedom and human rights. We do acknowledge that we have much more to achieve in all fields of endeavour. But to allow ourselves to be lectured and hectored on freedom and human rights after 100 years of struggle to regain our own liberty and human dignity, by those who participated in or benefited from our subjugation, is to willingly suffer impudence. The only way out of the present impasse on the subject is surely through continuous dialogue and a genuine search for understanding. Each party must be prepared to vacate their mental cocoons and transcend the limitations of their own categories of thought. In this respect, Asia too has still as much to discover about the West, inasmuch as we feel that the West has to do more to understand and appreciate Asia.
For Asia, the imperative for dialogue is not only with the rest, but also among ourselves. Asia is far from one. It is diverse: racially, culturally, and more recently, politically. It is in that diversity that Asia is likely to remain. And it is in that manner that it would be a force towards multiculturalism and more equitable patterns of power relations.
As Asians, we are fortunate that less 500 years after da Gama set his foot in India, we have successfully deconstructed his entire legacy of political subjugation and economic dependence. While Asia, especially East Asia, can be justifiably be proud of its economic rise, its effectiveness on the global stage largely depends on its ability to project itself as a voice of conscience in the global community. It must not emerge as a new hegemon, but rather as catalyst for global economic growth and to fill in the vacuum following the moral abdication of the West, plainly manifested in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and lately in Rwanda. In fact, we are now ready to begin a new history of East-West relations. A search for a new beginning, and for that matter, a new spirit of partnership and shared destiny between East and West, must necessarily entail a readiness on both sides to abandon extreme positions. Rather than sound the trumpets of triumphalism to announce the rise of East Asia on the world stage, it is preferable that she does so with caution and humility, and concern that her children will exercise their rediscovered potentials in a way that would be faithful to her own ideals, and for the greater good of humanity.