Speak up, Asia, or the west will drown you out

By Chandran Nair

This OpEd by Chandran Nair appeared in the Financial Times on Monday 17 December.

Asia is booming – but who is telling the world about this? On television and the internet, in newspapers and magazines, at conferences and forums, it is by and large the same faces – western ones. I am not talking about the token Asians hired to read the news on the global television channels. I mean the real thinkers – the “thought leaders”, as business-speak has it.

Go into a bookshop across the region and who is telling us how to decode politics or profit from Asia’s – especially China’s – growth? Who staffs the main regional business papers and magazines? Who heads up the leading Asia business forums?

There is no conspiracy here. There does not need to be. It simply reflects the realities of power – business and political – that have been dominant worldwide for the past two centuries.

But as globalisation changes the world, having a worldview of Asia that is essentially shaped by western outlooks and prejudices is not just narrow-minded, it is also potentially highly dangerous. It is a view that sees economic advances by Asian countries as threats and Asian business practices as inferior. We saw this with Japan in the 1980s. We are seeing it again today with China and India.

Such an outlook alienates Asian leaders, encouraging them to take nationalist positions in response. What is needed is the emergence of a confident body of Asian intellectual leaders. Not ones who speak on behalf of Asia as a whole – that leads to the kind of “Asian values” nonsense that we heard far too much about in the 1990s.

Rather, we need ones who will give voice to the disparate interests and outlooks of countries across the region, the forces at play within these countries and how they relate to the flows of goods, services and money that make up the world economy.

Among business leaders and intellectuals in Asia there are a host of perspectives that are different from those in the west. But their voices are rarely heard at global forums. There are various reasons for this, from feelings of educational inferiority to worries that business relations might be harmed. The tyranny of English also plays a part.

The global media cannot be blamed – it is their job to fill their screens and pages with opinions and arguments that interest their existing audiences. If they are successful, then why should they change? Nor should the region’s intellectuals be held responsible. Given the lack of support they receive from their governments and businesses, then hot-tailing it to Princeton or Oxford is always a rational response.

Instead, Asian business leaders have to step up to the rail – for example, by funding think-tanks and research bodies. Business associations, likewise, instead of narrowly focusing on the short-term interests of their members, should be pushing bigger and broader issues – ones that affect not just Asia but the world. From global warming and energy security to corporate governance and currency markets – all such issues need to be considered in the context of the different countries of the region, not in the one-view-for-all outlooks that are typically handed down from Europe and the US.

Governments should also be doing much more. Some of this can be via greater support for independent educational institutions and think-tanks. They should also be far more assertive in addressing global issues.

To do this they also must play a far greater role in promoting divergent views. That might be difficult to swallow in Beijing, but it should not be in the region’s democracies – India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the rest. Even the semi-democracies such as Hong Kong have far more to contribute than they have offered to date.

Finally, there has to be a role for Asia-based media that reach out to the region and the world by arguing that global understanding and prosperity will be enhanced by giving viewpoints emerging from Asia a voice.

These measures would foster an intellectual environment where Asians would be better placed to express views and argue cases, while providing a useful counterweight to the growing number of think-tanks from the west peddling their views on the region.

But for influential Asian thinkers to emerge there needs to be more competition – more discussion, more disagreements and more arguments. Then, not only will Asians have a better view of what is going on in their part of the world and what it means to them – but so, possibly, might everyone else.