Photo: Straits Times foreign editor Ravi Velloor (left) with Professor Kishore Mahbubani. Credit: Straits Times: NG SOR LUAN - Photo: 2014

Asians Told To Look Near East For Prosperity, Not Far West

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) – Eminent political analysts, academics and journalists have predicted a promising Asian resurgence in 2015 and called for Asians to learn to look to the Near East for inspiration and not the Far West. They included participants in the annual ‘Global Outlook’ conference organized by Singapore’s Straits Times group on November 21.

“The export-led growth model of the past will no longer work for the major Asian economies,” warned keynote speaker, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy addressing a gathering of over 400 business people, bankers, academics and media practitioners.  But he argued that Asia will experience a “new golden era of peace and prosperity” driven by its own burgeoning middle classes and visionary new leaders.

“It is an almost unbelievable accident of history (and) truly remarkable that the three most populous Asian countries, China, India and Indonesia, have simultaneously put in place dynamic and reform-minded leaders who can be expected to transform their countries over the next decade,” said the former Singaporean diplomat. He was referring to President Xi Jingping of China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia.

“(President Xi Jingping) probably regards himself as the ‘owner of the house’, unlike his predecessors who very much regarded themselves as ‘managers of the house’. Because of that mindset and self-identification, Xi Jingping has the vision and strong desire to transform China,” noted Dr Li Mingjiang, coordinator of the China program at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological Univeisty in Singapore.

“The new leadership is more united, very ambitious and reform minded (that is indicative of the) unprecedented anti-corruption drive in China,” added Dr Mingjiang. “These reforms seen as the ‘new norm’ will lay the foundation for more sustainable economic growth.”

“Modi is a manager of reform. He fixes problems, he attacks issues he sees before him, he is not in the classical market-oriented reform mode,” argued T.N Ninan, chairman of India’s Business Standard newspaper. He pointed out that Modi’s pet projects, smart cities, fast trains and clean (solar) energy, are politically accepted reforms to modernize India and he will not indulge in across the board privatization. “His path to get things done is now being followed by many state leaders,” added Ninnan.

Editor of the Jakarta Post, Endy Bayuni said that Jokowi (as the Indonesian President is popularly known), although very popular with the people, is not necessarily a powerful president because he does not control the parliament. “(But) he will bring changes for sure,” he added. “Most significant is that he has vision and (one of this) is to turn Indonesia into a maritime power (like in the past before European colonialism).”

Bayuni pointed out that within a month of coming to power he has put his welfare program in place with identity and welfare cards for the poor, and he has also spelt out Indonesia’s foreign policy priorities during his recent foreign visits saying that trade deals will depend on what Indonesia gets out of it.

Another keynote speaker at the Forum, Indonesian economist and former Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Dr. Mari Elka Pangestu also argued that the new Asian resurgence would be driven by internalization of trade.

“We tend to look outside our region,” pointed out Dr. Pangestu, who teaches at the University of Indonesia. “Hey guys, ASEAN is where it’s happening, look at all the numbers – if you take ASEAN as one country, we are the seventh economy in the world. If we grow at this (current) rate, we are going to be the fourth.”

ASEAN – the 10 member grouping of South East Asian Nations – is due to become one integrated economic community at the end of 2015.  “It means ASEAN economic integration is no longer just about ‘let’s have an economic base so that we can be more competitive to export to outside ASEAN’, but ASEAN itself is now becoming a final market,” argued Dr. Pangestu.

Prof Mahbubhani pointed out that Asia’s middle classes would increase from 500 million in 2010 to 1.75 billion by 2020. He cited the growth in Chinese tourists from almost zero in 1980 to over 100 million today as a typical example of how Asia’s economic growth is being fuelled by regional demand. “Most of these tourists will visit this region and ASEAN economies will benefit,” he noted.

“There is a remarkably wide and deep consensus among regional leaders that they should focus on modernization and pragmatic development,” argued Prof Mahbubhani. “Our region has been infected by a silent, healthy virus of modernization. Because it is silent, Western media has not noticed it and continue to predict gloom.”

Gloom and doom predictions

Many speakers at the Forum referred to the gloom and doom predicted by the Western media at this time last year on a possible conflict in the South China Sea between Japan and China. But they pointed out that silent diplomacy in the region is turning this potential conflict into an area of regional cooperation.

“In 2015 China’s regional security policy will change to the better,” predicted Dr. Mingjiang. “They will become less assertive, more moderate and accommodative. There has been a serious reflection on foreign policy (and) China has realized they need to change regional development policy to improve security.”

The outspoken Singaporean professor, who appears regularly in the international media asked the Asian media not to rely on the “Anglo-Saxon media” such as Britain’s Financial Times and America’s New York Times for its analysis and instead Asia needs to develop its own powerful media houses that could compete with them both regionally and internationally.

Prof Mabubhani argued passionately that Asia badly needs the media that gives a better voice to Asian viewpoints and he cited the American government’s and their media’s “ferocious campaign” against China’s recently announced Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as an example.

“Time has come for Asian newspapers to service Asia,” he argues. “To understand their own futures Asians must believe in themselves and develop new positive global narrative to supplement the dominant negative Western narrative.” *Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 23, 2014]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Photo: Straits Times foreign editor Ravi Velloor (left) with Professor Kishore Mahbubani. Credit: Straits Times: NG SOR LUAN

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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