Opening of the Conference on Asia in the 21st Century, Kuala Lumpur, 24 January 1994


Asia today is unmistakably passing through a period of time that is pregnant with new possibilities. We are witnessing the gradual decomposition of the old world arrangements, thereby creating new conditions and opportunities for the interplay of forces. For the first time in modern history, Europe and North America are looking at Asia with a sense of wonder. No longer is Asia considered "too much" or "too old", after Rudyard Kipling, but rather the fountain of youth, vigour and dynamism. In no other domain is this more pronounced than in the sphere of economics. Although there are encouraging signs of recovery in the United States, it is nevertheless to Asia that everyone is looking to relaunch the world economy after its longest post-war slump.

We believe that an Asian renaissance is very much in progress. Although the economic dimension is the most visible aspect of the current revival, it is in fact more holistic than generally supposed. Our endeavours are directed far beyond the mere quest for material wealth and prosperity. Indeed, the present revitalization of Asia is a continuation of the rejuvenation and reform movements which surfaced in the late nineteenth century all over the continent. Although those movements were primarily political in appearance and impact, especially when the various struggles for national liberation reached their height, their cultural and intellectual dimensions were equally remarkable and enduring. This is not surprising since most of the leading figures were intellectuals and creative thinkers.

While we commend this new wave of Asian resurgence, it is paramount to ensure that it remains benign in all its effects. This is vital, for although we owe a profound debt to the early Asian nationalist movements, we have reason to be critical of sone of their developments in the post- colonial era. Their strident anti-Western rhetorics led to tensions and conflicts. Their slogans of liberation became hollow because the masses were made to suffer under their regimes' incompetence and corruption. The economic stagnation of most Asian countries, or even decay in a few, was indictment of their misguided policies.

What we envisage for Asia in the 21st century, is that it should become a greater contributor to the advancement of human civilization. This would not be possible unless we fully restore our sense of confidence in ourselves and in the positive aspects of our past and traditions. But confidence, as in the past and clearly in our day, can easily evolve into arrogance. In this, we must be constantly reminded by a great sage of Asia that "he who can overcome others is strong; but he who can overcome himself is mighty." The greatest victory of all is in winning the inner struggle of conscience. Even as we regain our confidence, so must we imbue ourselves with the virtue of humility.

One of the greatest challenge to Asia in the coning years is still economics. The economic perfomances of Asian countries in the last two or three decades have been uneven. Thus, it is not only the question of  6  2  Šsustaining growth in countries which have achieved high growth, especially in East Asia, but also of spreading the growth to other areas. The most significant conclusion in the World Bank study of the eight high-performing economies in East Asia is that there is nothing miraculous about the East Asian economic miracles. If other parts of Asia are able to achieve political stability, to invest more in education than in defence, to release initiative and entrepreneurship rather than to stiffle them, to undertake pro-growth and market friendly policies, then those economic miracles in time will also be theirs.

The economic challenges before the high performing eight in the coming years are by no means small. The far-reaching issue now is whether the current economic difficulties in Japan and the slowing of growth in South Korea presages the inevitable future course for the others. I think East Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, is far from reaching its full bloom to undergo the long term relative decline ascribed to the industrial economies of the West. Only inept policies and excessive greed could abort Asia from realizing its fullest potential. The pain that Japan has to undergo should be a potent reminder for the NICs and Southeast Asian economies to exercise restrain or even impose discipline in sectors that are highly susceptible to excessive speculation, sectors where greed can create a fragile bubble economy. Any bubble and its eventual puncture will throw the entire economy off balance, erase all the achievements of macroeconomic stabilization and derail growth.

Impressive our economic perfomance may be, we must admit that much of the wealth that we generate through the export of manufactures are built upon the intellectual properties of the West. We have a very, very long way to go before we can rightly and truly be called producers of industrial goods in our own right. To be an industrialized nation is much than to have within our borders factories and plants. At the heart of an industrialized society is the brainpower -- the pool of scientists, technologists, designers, inventors, that is to say, people involved at the earliest stages of translating human imagination and scientific ideas into concrete and tangible goods. The factories and machines are in fact at the last stages of the total work that needs to be done. "Industrialization, properly so- called, requires the creation of a scientific culture that has become indigenized, something that has permeated the very fabric of the society and become inseparable from it. We in Asia, including the successful economies of East Asia, with the exception of a notable few, have yet to attain the state where the manufacturing sector is driven by an indigenous scientific and technological culture. All this means is that we are still largely dependent on the intellectual resources of the West. To remedy this situation, we need massive investments in education, scientific research and human resource development. We can do this singly, as individual countries, or more effectively, by strategic collaboration among ourselves.

The challenge for Asians in the 21st century is not only economic, technological or scientific. It is nothing less than civilizational in its scope. No civilization deserving the name can be based entirely on its industrial dexterity to produce material artifacts and gadgets, to satisfy the very human desire for consumption. The Asian intellectual community must also expend a significant part of its resources to nurturing and promoting our unique Asian heritage -- especially those elements in our culture and traditions which not only characterize our Asian identity but also contribute to the enrichment, and even survival, of universal humane society. Among the elements, I believe the most fundamental relate to the harmony of the society, through good governance, the sanctity of the family, tolerance towards diversity, and compassion for the weak and the unfortunate. Thus, while our objectives may coincide with those of others, we differ in our emphases and approaches. While we are open and willing to learn from others, nevertheless we are justifiably very much convinced of the efficacy of our ways, because our cultures have survived largely intact for millenniums.

No less fundamental, the challenge for us is to nurture an Asian aesthetique. In the last decades of this century, we have witnessed the overwhelming, almost imperialistic, diffusion of Western, or Western- influenced cultural products. This has been made possible, and will be further accelerated, with the opening of the skies to satellite TV networks. It would not be too difficult for us to gain control of the communication technologies, to empower ourselves with the means, as it were, to mount a counter offensive. Yet, that so-called empowerment would be substantive and meaningful only if we could ourselves offer cultural products that could successfully compete for the free choice of a universal audience. This is indeed a worthy challenge to Asian creativity and imagination. For us to remain truly Asian, the Asian aesthetique must also survive and flourish.

For the greater part of the post-colonial era, the Asian intellectual community has largely assumed the role of establishment critics as its raison d'etre. While this role is still relevant in some national contexts, in many others it could only be a snobbish affectation, if not a vain obsession. I believe the true vocation of the Asian intellectual is not only to articulate, but also to exemplify, with boldness and imagination, visions and ideas that contribute to the enrichment of our soul, the enhancement of our collective resilience, and the enlargement of our choices and freedoms. Of course, we must keep the flames of idealism alive. But, the cherishing of ideals must not lead to paralysis, or fear of action. There are times when activity is called for, even if we have to risk somewhat tarnishing the precious lustre of idealism by our actions. The imperative of action must, I believe, take precedence over the luxury of aloofness from the sometimes sordid reality of practical affairs.

All of us must rise to this urgent challenge of activity. Our increasing prosperity means that we are now in a position to offer serious alternatives to the dominant global political, social and economic arrangements. But before that, we must engage ourselves vigorously in the debate on the burning issues of our times, such as democracy, human rights, economic policy and cultural identity. In the same way as we define our economic and political priorities, we must also articulate and construct our own intellectual and cultural agendas.

Thank you.