Asia Must Free Itself From Western Chains

Financial Times Opinion

By Chandran Nair

The world is still reeling from the financial crisis, with Asia one of the few areas with strong future growth prospects. This should mark a new intellectual era. But policy makers across the region continue to turn to those very things that got the world into its current predicament – western ideas.

It is not just that we have failed to figure out how to live with the forces released by the industrial revolution, but that we are struggling with the ideologies it created too, notably the continuing stubborn belief that markets, technology and liberal democracy will deliver all the things we need.

Yes, those ideas, born in Europe and then refined in North America, brought great prosperity to a part of the global population. But their formulas cannot be endlessly repeated and applied everywhere.

With a population that could peak at 6bn by 2050, Asia does not have the luxury of exploitation of global resources that the west enjoyed in the building of the modern world. What Asia therefore needs is new ideas – ones that tackle the challenge of establishing what kind of prosperity can be spread across such a huge number of people.

The western paradigm sees Asia’s large population either as a tremendous market opportunity or a threat to its well-being. Similar ideas fill too many Asian minds. Instead, Asia must imagine a future in which urbanisation is not seen as inevitable and necessary, where its cities do not follow the car-driven ways of the west, where food is not produced in fields drenched in chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or where ever-expanding consumption is seen as the only recipe for economic well-being and political stability.

Among the specific questions countries must ask are: what level of per capita energy consumption is viable; how to pay for sustainable food production; whether people are better off sticking with low-meat diets; how transport systems should be built around mobility, not car ownership; and whether new technologies could be used to allow people to prosper in the countryside rather than being forced to migrate to cities for a life of urban squalor?

Universities and schools should educate students in ways that equip them to contribute ideas relevant to the country in which they live, rather than promoting unattainable western lifestyles. Much of this work will be in economics and public policy. But new ideas must also be sought across every major discipline – in the sciences and the social sciences, of course, but also in the humanities, in studies of values, of history and of culture.

To confront this challenge, the starting point has to be Asia’s universities. Sending the best young minds of the region to western institutions serves to reinforce that intellectual subservience. What Asia needs is for the best research about the region to come from universities within Asia – not from Harvard or Cambridge. Therefore Asia needs a rallying call – the launch of 100,000 PhDs. It must ask 100,000 of its smartest graduates to launch a revolution of original thinking and research that will allow the region to move beyond the ideologies that have driven it for the past 50 years.

This research must acknowledge that the needs of Asian countries are very different from those of the US or Europe. It must create a body of ideas in academia that can enter the public consciousness and aid national leaders in making the tough decisions about increasing populations, resource constraints, climate change and technology.

Universities across the region must focus their curriculums and research on a drive for new ideas applicable in their local contexts. They should be forced to ask themselves critical questions – ones that directly confront conventional thinking.

Above all, we must look to those who will have to live in Asia through the next half-century and beyond to come up with new ideas and ways of thinking – ones that look beyond the economic ideologies that enriched one part of the world at the expense of the rest, but which if continued to be applied in Asia will only create catastrophic outcomes for all.

The writer is author of ‘Consumptionomics’.



Chinese Translation:


《消费经济学》作者 程子俊 为英国《金融时报》撰稿





按 照西方的观点,亚洲的庞大人口要么提供了巨大市场机遇,要么威胁到西方的福祉。太多亚洲人脑子里也充斥着这样的观点。相反,亚洲必须设想一种这样的未来: 在这个未来世界里,城市化不是被认为不可避免、不可或缺的,城市发展不是效仿西方那种汽车驱动的模式,食品不是生长在化肥和杀虫剂浸泡的土地中,不断扩展 的消费不是被当作增进经济福祉和保持政治稳定的唯一秘诀。




要应对这一挑战,必须以亚洲高校为起点。输送亚洲地区最优秀的年轻人去西方机构学习,只能强化知识屈从的局面。亚洲需要的是,由亚洲内部的高校—— 而不是哈佛大学(Harvard)或者剑桥大学(Cambridge)——提供关于本地区的最佳研究。因此亚洲需要动员起来——培养10万名博士。亚洲必 须要求它最聪明的10万名毕业生发起一场原创的思考和研究革命,让亚洲地区突破过去50年间推动亚洲增长的意识形态。







Can De-Chemicalizing Agriculture Save the Planet?

No group has more at stake at the COP-18 climate summit than the world's farmers. With crop yields increasingly susceptible to severe droughts, desertification and other weather-related events, farmers are depending more and more on agrochemicals to bolster their harvests. While that may be good for agribusinesses, argues Chandran Nair, it is ruinous for farmers — and for the health of the planet.

The Globalist

Read More

4th OECD World Forum, India - Keynote Address by Chandran Nair

4th OECD World Forum, India - Keynote Address by Chandran Nair

Chandran Nair identified three principles that should inform policies in the Asian continent. The first is that, if resources are limited, we should make economic activity subservient to maintaining the vitality of these resources. The second principle is that collective welfare should take precedence over individual rights. The third is that we should re-price resources, to reflect their importance for collective well-being.


Read More

From Authenticity to Intellectual Honesty - The New Challenge for Business Leaders

Singapore Management Review
By Chandran Nair 

One of the most tedious experiences for any professional these days is to be told to attend another leadership talk by a management guru or being asked to read yet another one of that multitude of management books that are found in every airport bookstore in Asia.

Despite the common acknowledgment that there is hardly anything new being said, there is a proliferation of these books and talks being promoted by a range of strange bedfellows, from conference organisers (who typically have no understanding of the content), speaker bureaus, management consultants (remember those who promoted Tiger Woods as an exemplary leader and miraculously linked hitting golf balls to sound business strategy), to the leading business publications and media groups.

This quasi-religion of business and leadership believes in regurgitated one-liners such as X ways to be a leader, how to innovate or reverse innovate, good to ever more greatness and how to be the ultimate salesperson, irre­spective of the value of what one sells. If you want a view on anything, you can get it from a CEO, because they know and of course, pay for the adverts too.

This global industry was spawned about 30 years ago, initially originating in the US, and its tentacles have reached out to an unsuspecting Asia where it is now sadly entrenched. Asia was and is unsuspecting because of a deep-seated intellectual subservience born out of two to three centuries of dominance by western thought.

This intellectual assimilation begins in Asian schools and is refined in its universities and in the majority of graduate management programmes the region has to offer. Much of it draws on an American and Anglo-Saxon worldview of economics, free markets, business strategy, the role of technology and political ideology.

So much of this thinking is crafted in the world’s best business schools, which apparently produce the smart­est people (those who work for the investment banks and western-headquartered multinationals). Some of the best minds in Asia are being lost to this archaic worldview.

Apparent across this rapidly developing region, much of this worldview is not relevant to Asia’s needs and current challenges. However, the train keeps hurtling forward as there are few question it and those with vested interests have too much to lose.

At the core of these phenomena within the Asian manage­ment and leadership landscape is the issue of intellectual honesty or lack thereof. So what are the key aspects and examples of this intellectual dishonesty? Why does it per­sist, despite all the evidence that it is built on a narrow edifice of thought and a historical perspective of domi­nance and privilege?

Let us start with a favourite term that is used a great deal these days in management and leadership circles in an attempt to suggest that business managers can be better people and serve a multitude of purposes by striving to be authentic—something about being yourself apparently. This simply denies the fact that being authentic in most business settings (unless you are the boss) will typically not get you far and in the higher echelons may well get you fired.

Despite the fact that most people working in large or­ganisations knowing that, it is virtually impossible to be authentic in a leadership role yet the mantra continues to be spread, even preached. It is time to replace loose talk about authenticity with intellectual honesty so that some managers may find ways to be authentic and make a dif­ference to their companies and communities. It is clear that society is demanding and would welcome greater intellectual honesty (not the same as transparency) from companies. Less spin and more substance should be the mantra going forward.

At the heart of this intellectual dishonesty is the fact that so many business leaders are unwilling to recognise or remain unaware of the inherent contradictions which are at the centre of the business models they embrace. These are, in turn, driven by an economic system that thrives on promoting relentless consumption—buy one get one free.

Original article: 

According to this conventional economic wisdom, hu­man beings are “homo-economicus”—rational beings who always act to improve his or her well-being. But the truth is far from that and relying on this is deeply irration­al. To make matters worse, it assumes that progress can only be realised if we accept the supremacy of capitalism. Markets, technology, and financial innovation are, there­fore, the intertwined solution to all our problems, and no competing economic system can deliver better results.

Finally, the edifice of this ideology is built upon the fal­lacy that nature has an essentially limitless capacity to supply materials and absorb abuse, thus creating a system that excludes environmental and social costs. Businesses then constantly seek to underprice resources or labour and externalise costs—creating competitive advantage in biz speak.

To achieve this, it fights regulation and thus seeks to un­dermine the role of the state in preserving the well-being of its citizenry. It then argues that this is the only way to create growth and hence prosperity. This behaviour is aid­ed by the finance sector, which over the last three decades has fine-tuned a scheme to ensure the ubiquity of cheap credit to allow the public to live beyond their means, very often supported by compliant, often toothless, regulators.

Let us look at some examples of how this dishonesty is sadly lauded in management circles and in case study after case study.

Businesses have increasingly been affirming that they are “carbon neutral” or operate with “zero emissions”. It has become trendy for companies today to make a “green” contribution to the world on one hand (like Rupert Mur­doch boldly claiming that News Corp is carbon neutral) while carrying out environmentally damaging activities.

Needless to say, Fox News (whose parent company is News Corp) has made significant contributions in the public discourse to stymie the United State’s govern­ment’s attempts to pass clean energy legislation. So let us clear the air: carbon neutrality is a fallacy. The only people in the world who might be carbon neutral are the indigenous populations of Papua New Guinea, the Bed­ouins in the Sahara, or pygmies in the Congo.

The automobile industry is another striking case in point. It is ironic to hear CEOs of car companies’ talk about greening and sustainability in a world where readily available oil reserves are rapidly depleting and resources are being squandered to promote the “privilege” of pri­vate car ownership. The denial is then compounded by the media who feature zero emissions vehicles as if they are ordinary day toys.

The brutal truth is that if China and India were to reach the levels of car ownership taken for granted in the West, as the automobile industry hopes and pushes for, there would be up to 1.5 billion cars in just these two countries—which would require almost all of the daily oil output from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, to drive. Not to mention the catastrophic impact of cars’ gas emissions on the environment and the implications of build­ing the required infrastructure that neither of which car owners or companies pay for.

Let us look at something closer to home and be clear that there is no such thing as a sustainable production of palm oil. In reality, producing palm oil, which is found in a staggering array of household and food products, accelerates deforestation and contributes to climate change. Despite what has been claimed by businesses with vested interests in palm oil exploitation, it is not possible to double production whilst protecting rainforests.

In Indonesia alone, deforestation to provide palm oil to feed the thirst for fastfood has contributed to more than one quarter of all carbon diox­ide emissions. The irony is that, in spite of such warnings, the country, which leads global production of this crucial crop, is expected to sup­ply more than half the palm oil that the world will demand in the coming years.

Intellectual dishonesty runs even deeper when it comes to the food industry. It is almost embarrassing to hear occasional CSR statements from CEOs of food companies (fast­food in particular), advocating that they are proponents of healthy and nutritious lifestyles and sustainabil­ity. The reality is that these compa­nies are aggressively promoting the consumption of junk food and clear­ly have little interest in sustainable agriculture (meat produced and so cheaply priced for a burger is inef­ficient in terms of converting grain to meat and water-intensity).

In addition, this industry is incapa­ble of solving the hunger conun­drum. Instead, it has contributed to changing traditional healthy diets by increasing meat consumption and facilitating obesity with underpriced packaged foods that contain high amounts of fat, sugars, and refined carbohydrates.

What about labour rights? Contrary to rhetoric of MNC CEOs about creating jobs in their own economies, the truth of the matter is that they do not care where these jobs are created as long as they are in the most cost-ef­fective locations. Although Nike has installed a code of conduct in its supplier’s factories and allowed third-party factory inspections, its progress to date in dealing with labour rights is a drop in the ocean.

While the company sells millions of shoes and clothing items each year and makes hundreds of millions of dol­lars in profit (Nike’s profit increased by 15 per cent in the first quarter fiscal 2012 to US$645 million), it pays wages to foreign workers well below the minimum rate (US$1.25 a day for employees in Indonesian factories). This sheds light on the underlying premise of outsourcing strategies which in most cases is to shift the true costs of goods and services.

This applies to some of the most iconic brands. What would be the true cost of Apple’s iPad if its producers took into consideration the cost of labour of Chinese em­ployees working in factories like machines, and the envi­ronmental implications in its much vaunted but heavily guarded supply chain?

This is not to argue that companies producing any of these goods are evil. They produce goods and services which serve a need—not necessarily all socially useful, but society will increasingly demand a more accurate and honest explanation of how they operate, how they suc­ceed, how profits are generated, and therefore how their claims about being responsible measure up.

Thus, business leaders must shift away from vague no­tions of authenticity to intellectual honesty. Given the crisis of capitalism they must do so now to contribute to the pressing challenge of exploring the role of busi­ness in society. The ongoing financial meltdown, along with the steep decline of the public's trust of business in general and financial institutions in particular, has sent a strong signal to executives: You should articulate values that address issues from community commitment to envi­ronmental sustainability and resource constraints.

Despite Milton Friedman's passé phrase “the business of business is business”, the good news is that the world is now seeing a fundamental shift away from this conven­tional wisdom, espoused by western marketers and econ­omists, to a worldview where sustainability issues really matter to business leaders.

Sadly, many of the management magnates and the busi­ness media do not seem to be asking the right questions. Institutions in Asia should know better than spread man­agement hubris refined in the West.

Redefining the contract between business and society as then overseen by government is of critical importance in shaping the future of Asia in particular. Management in the region will need to decide “managing what for what outcome” rather than the narrow definitions around man­aging the self-interest of companies only.


To download original article, click here.

Focusing Science on the Damage

Science must be directed to serve the public good by helping governments to make more informed decisions rather than just aiding the development of new technologies. Chandran suggests having rules that restrain the development of extractive technologies can become a catalyst for other new technologies that allow us to live within our resource and environmental means.

The International Herald Tribune

Read More