Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Feb 22, 2011

Learn from the past but do not reproach

By Cheong Suk-Wai
ONE day in 1976, Danish tourist Joergen Oerstroem Moeller approached a Singapore immigration officer to have his passport stamped. When the officer asked him, 'How long are you going to stay?' he replied, 'Three days.' 'Three days only?' said the officer. 'You should stay longer with us.'
Recalling that, Professor Moeller, 66, says: 'His kindness, and pride for his country made a lasting impression on me. I can still hear him saying it!'
The Dane came back in 1997 - and has lived here since, first as his country's envoy to Singapore and Brunei and, from 2005, as a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
His wife hails from Vietnam, which, among other things, means that they and their two children speak a total of nine languages, including Mandarin, Norwegian and Vietnamese.
Earlier this month, this prolific scholar launched his latest book, How Asia Can Shape The World: From The Era Of Plenty To The Era Of Scarcities. I sat down with him last week to learn more about his tome:
Why are you so keen on forecasting the future when that is speculative at best?
I became interested in forecasting in 1971, when I read the late management guru Peter Drucker's book, The Age Of Discontinuity. It rang a bell in my mind because already in 1971, you could see the world jumping from one stone to another; development was not continuous.
So where does one begin in forecasting the future?
If you look at the X-ray of the world today, the four largest economies are the United States, Europe, China and Japan. But what is going on in Asia is more fascinating than what is going on in the US. What's important is not to be misled by either the X-ray or the trend. Many today talk about the phenomenal growth of China and India, but the US, Europe and Japan still account for two-thirds of the global economy. So you will not have a global recovery unless these countries get going again.
What is most essential in all this is: Where do you see the new mindset? The mindset in the US, Europe and Japan is still driving in the same lane, but that in China, India and South-east Asia is changing. I don't know whether it's correct to say they welcome change, but they are ready to change.
So Asia's edge comes from adapting faster than others?
Yes. On top of that is its population mass of approximately four billion, which makes it more likely that new mindsets and developments will be born out of these four billion than from the fewer than one billion in Europe, Japan and the US. That's because Asia now has enough purchasing power so that its large population can control things. Thirty years ago, Asia also had the world's largest population but it was poor, so nothing happened.
But how influential would Asia's mindset be, given that it has bought into much of Western thought?
For the last 50 years, Asia has basically been catching up with the West and in that game, it has adopted a large part of Western values. But now, Asia has arrived at the point where it has to ask the pertinent question: 'Should we still adopt Western values or reinvent our own traditional values?' As I see it, Asia will reinvent its own values.
But aren't Asian values really universal values, perhaps just emphasised more by Asia than elsewhere?
In the Abrahamic religions, God gives nature to Man. So I can do with it what I want. God is not stopping me because He has said: 'Here is nature. Do what you want with it.' So during the Industrial Revolution, there was no foot on the brake in using resources. But in Asia's religions, Man has not the privilege of owning nature. God is found everywhere in nature, which means that there is an inhibition in exploiting nature because if you did so, you are offending God.
So now that the Western model does not deliver answers any more, Asia might fall back on its traditional values. And in traditional Asian philosophies, it is much more rule by Man in the sense that norms and values govern the relationship between individuals within particular communities and groups. A main point in my new book is that because the world is moving from individualism to groups, Asia has a better chance of (shaping) this change.
But how can individualism be dying in a me, me and me world?
First, because knowledge is the most important production factor today and knowledge can enhance productivity only if it is shared. And you can share only if you're convinced that the results of such sharing will be distributed in an equitable and acceptable way. To get to that, you need to operate on trust and you can do so only if you have shared common values - that is, if you're convinced that the other members in your group will behave in the same way as you do.
Second, we have moved into an era of scarcity and so there will be less to distribute all around. What this means is that we are moving from a distribution of benefits to burden-sharing which, again, emphasises the group because if you're asked to share the burden, you will say, 'Yes, provided that the other members of the group also do so.'
So in these two essential factors, the common denominator is trust and shared common values, which points to Asia.
But how can there be trust and shared values when there is no one Asia, but many Asias?
That's a very good question. But the main thing driving trust in Asia will be economic integration. We know from history that trade and investment also have repercussions on mindset and cultural patterns. You don't need to get to a uniform cultural pattern; you only need to get to a point where there is sufficient trust to cooperate.
And I think this will happen in Asia because compared to European powers which have fought with each other for centuries - and constantly - you have never had a great war between China and India. The lone threat to Asia is the water on the Tibetan plateau. If China starts to divert the rivers that flow through the region to it instead of allowing the rivers to flow into India, there will be trouble. Otherwise, China and Japan quarrelling about offshore islands is not vital.
Isn't it, though, with oil and national pride at stake?
The oil which could be there is, of course, important for their future. But if the oil goes to China, Japan will survive. If the oil goes to Japan, China will survive.
Speaking of survival, why does the West keep insisting that Asia must discipline itself as it grows when the West didn't?
We wouldn't be where we are today without the West and industrialisation, so I don't think it's very propitious to criticise the West. Of course the West has committed mistakes but it has also taken the world through 200 years of tumultuous progress. Now the time has come for some of the mistakes to be redressed but the time has not come to reproach the West.
Why not?
The mistakes committed by the West were honest ones in that the people who made them did so because they saw that, at that time, it was the right way to go. So learn from the past, but do not reproach. Turn around and look ahead.

Optimist mistaken for a pessimist

DEFT, definite and with a dry wit, retired Danish diplomat Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is certain that the future will benefit from Asia's values. Here he is on:
How the West and East look at resources
'When a Westerner wants something from a tree, he chops it down. When an Easterner wants something from a tree, he plucks what he needs and lets the tree continue growing.'
The argument that it is against the values of Asians to plunder nature
'The counter-argument to that is Asian mass consumption over the past 30 years. But my counter-argument to that counter-argument is that that is because Asians have adopted Western values.'
'There is only one way forward in today's world and that is to share influence and global responsibility and seek compromises. But what is China going to do about it?'
How the world's future might be a nightmare
'If, on the one hand, we see the US waning as a global power, but on the other hand, we see no global steering mechanism emerging from China.'
Why he is an optimist
'I subscribe to the view of historian Arnold Toynbee that civilisation is a response to challenge, by which he meant that when people run into difficulties, they are likely to find answers.'
Why people mistake him for a pessimist
'Because I focus on the things that need to be repaired and that, of course, gives others the picture of a man who constantly sees problems.'
'It has had consistently high economic growth and has been hit by a recession only a few times and (then only) because of global recessions.'

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