The Kuala Lumpur Forum on Future Generations: "Emerging Thoughts and Philosophy of an Asian Century", Kuala Lumpur, 4 August 1994
Let me congratulate the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre and the Future Generations Alliance of Japan for initiating this forum. I for one feel encouraged because there is a growing awareness among Asians, especially the younger generation, to see the future of Asia beyond economic parameters. We cannot trivilize the role of economic endeavour in realizing many of our aspirations. Nonetheless, if what we seek is nothing less than an Asian renaissance, our undertaking must encompass the realm of ideas, culture and the arts.
One can scarcely overemphasize the need for profound reflection and an active engagement in the realm of ideas because the dissolution and the deconstruction of previously dominant and secure ideas has left many groping for direction. International relations is today so confusing to the former Cold War adversaries precisely because they have yet to discover a new set of guiding ideas to conduct their affairs.
For Asia, which for decades have lived under the shadow of the Cold War and as a theatre in the superpower contest for global supremacy, the new situation is hardly less challenging. It is a brave new world for us as well, and we have to proceed with confidence and boldness if we are to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. However, such confidence and boldness need to be tempered with wisdom and a sense of himility. We are conscious that in some quarters, overwhelmed by the remarkable perfomances of Asian economies generally, the voices of confidence tend to border on unseemly smugness and arrogance.
The economic success of East Asia is indeed exceptional, considering the prolonged difficulties of industrial countries and the continuing bleak prospects of other developing areas. However, one must remind oneself that the history of mankind is not without cases of fragile blooms, of nations that suddenly come into prominence, only to be eclipsed and dissolve into oblivion with almost equal rapidity. We must admit that, even in the economic sphere, we still have a long way to go before our economic prosperity is truly powered by indigenous capital, technology and expertise. If we aspire to rise to a position of greatness, then we must progress beyond borrowing and imitation. We must nurture original scientific minds, great technologists and creative investors.
When we advocate the idea of the renaissance of Asia, we have in mind the growth, development and flowering of Asian societies based on a certain vision of perfection; societies imbued with truth and the love for learning, justice and compassion, mutual respect and forbearance, freedom with responsibility. It is the perpetual struggle of our conscience to submit to these noble and sublime principles, and the commitment to identify ourselves with them. Of course, we are fully aware that Asian societies do not have the monopoly of these ideals, nor have all been always faithful to them, not even in times of their greatness.
We are not unaware that the issues are far from simple, but the current debate on the subject matter is mired in mutual misunderstanding and prejudice: with the fervour on one side to whitewash Asia matched by the eagerness on the other to carricature her. It is wrong to compare the ideals of Asia with the excesses of the West, nor is it fair to portray isolated ugliness, extreme positions and marginal trends as the embodiment of Asia.
If the rise of Asia is to contribute towards the greater happiness of mankind, then we must in the first place cease to view it in confrontational terms: economic, political or civilizational. True, wars and conflicts are the very stuff that history is made of, but there can be no greater war than the inner struggle of conscience, the commitment to submit ourselves to commonly shared ideals. We believe millions of Asians could be spared their present misery had the societies in which they live been true to their ideals. Likewise it will be a betrayal of those ideals if the present injustices are justified and perpetuated in the name of adhering to a unique cultural tradition.
Let there be no doubt that the rise of Asia will be a bane to civilization if it is only to provide the occasion for jingoism. Being the cradle of several great civilizations Asia is far from monolithic, thus jingosim against non-Asians will eventually turn against ourselves. One must not forget that some Asian nations are still struggling to tame religious, ethnic and tribal hostilities within their own boundaries.
In many developing societies the pull of nativistic tendencies is ever present and often manifested with great beauty in works of art and literature. In times of accelerated change those unable to relate themselves to new situations often withdraw to find security and comfort within their ethnic milieu. The potential mobilization of these sentiments into narrow nationalistic and tribalistic political forces cannot be underestimated. Even now we are witnessing the destructive consequences of the revival of extreme ethnic and primitive passions in the Balkans, especially among the Serbs, and in Rwanda. Asians in the new century must avoid this danger by transcending their particularities to forge a new civilization upon what they already have in common and upon what they can make universal from their own specific experiences.
Here in Malaysia we can with some justification claim to be Asia in microcosm -- a country with a truly diverse population in terms of ethnicity, culture and faith. Admittedly this has not come about by choice. One might even say that we have been forced by circumstances and history to become a nation, not by dissolving our respective identities and loyalties, but by transcending them. Although we still face many challenges to maintain national unity and harmony, nevertheless we have found the situation far more enriching than had Malaysia been overwhelmingly a single community. Likewise, on a bigger scale encompassing the entire continent, nations can actually grow and prosper by accepting the fact of cultural diversity, strengthening ourselves by learning about our differences as well as by reinforcing the values we share in common.
I believe that for multiculturalism to thrive it must be predicated upon an open civic culture. A political environment has to be evolved to enable full participation and open interaction of all the diverse elements of the society. There must not be the feeling of alienation among any sector, much less acts of suppression or denial of participation. In this regard, we must be more open towards the institutions, practices and standards of the modern political culture which have been evolved and tested, and found to be efficacious in preventing injustices towards individuals and minorities. This is so pertinent because virtually all Asian nation-states have minorities -- ethnic, linguistic or religious, and in many cases, the task of nation-building has yet to be completed. Although we must allow that not everyone can proceed towards the future at the same pace, there is however no question of turning back to the feudal past.