JOHN Naisbitt has done it again. America's international best-selling author
of "Megatrends" and "Megatrends 2000" has now brought us "Megatrends
Asia", which attempts, in a very readable form, to explain what many of us have
suspected for some time, namely that the Asian renaissance is the single most momentous
global development of the 1990's and beyond. In typical Naisbitt fashion, he reveals
the significant business, political, social and cultural changes that are transforming
the nations of the region in a dominant force in the rest of the world, through easy-to-read,
almost staccato soundbites, rather than lengthy and boring statistical tables.
This does not mean that he does not use statistics to prove his point. The strength
of Naisbitt lies in his ability to search through the masses of often confusing data
and opinion to identify the most relevant data which are central to the thesis of
the book. For instance, he maintains that in Asia, from India to Japan, from below
the ex-Soviet Union to Indonesia, the population accounts for more than half of the
world's total. Within five years or less, he continues, more than half of these Asian
households will be able to buy an array of consumer goods: washing machines, refrigerators,
television sets, computers, cosmetics, etc. As many as half a billion people will
belong to the middle class. That market, he continues, is roughly the size of the
United States and Europe combined!
When talking of Overseas Chinese networking, he quotes from Forbes Zibenjia, the
Chinese edition of Forbes magazine, which determined that in 1994, of the top 1000
companies from ten Asian stock markets, which accounted for 89 per cent of the market,
517 had an ethnic Chinese as the single largest shareholder. The Overseas Chinese,
whom he identifies as the new great economic power in the world, he believes, hold
between $2 trillion and $3 trillion in assets.
Naisbitt also identifies Muslims as a rising group of large investors in the region.
Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli of Malaysia Helicopter Services is no stranger to Cambodia.
In Asia's corporate world, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Pakistan,
many Muslim businessmen are taking the lead in many areas, and are completely at
ease with science and technology.
What about the plight of the poor? Naisbitt discloses that from 1945 to 1995, half
a century, Asia went from rags to riches and reduced the incidence of poverty from
400 million to 180 million, while its population grew by 400 million during the same
period. This of course still means 180 million too many poor are suffering in this
part of the world.
Thus, his emphasis is obviously economic in nature and business-oriented by conviction.
However, the story of the Asian Renaissance is not purely economical, Naisbitt argues.
It is a story of the miracle of the human spirit, driven by an awakening to one's
own potential and propelled by the power of determination, the progress achieved
by toil and sacrifice.
The major trends that shape this remarkable transformation are identified by Naisbitt
as the shift from primacy of nation states to business networks, from export-led
economies to consumer-driven ones, and from labor intensive industries to high technology.
To this, he adds the emergence of women, rapid urbanization and the shift from West
to East, and he says it is now clear where Asia is heading. The global axis, he states,
has shifted from West to East. Asia was once the center of the world and now the
center is returning to Asia.
The old Asia, he says, was divided by culture, language, political ideology, religious
philosophy and geography, whereas the new Asia, forged by economic integration, technology,
especially telecommunications, and travel and mobility of people, will increasingly
bring coherence to the region.
The trends described in the book will help us better comprehend what was happening
in Bangkok last week, when the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) took place, which for the
first time brought together Asia with Europe in a dialogue. The top leaders of ten
Asian countries (seven ASEAN countries plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea)
were sitting with 15 members of the European Union. ASEM reflects the need, identified
by Naisbitt, for Europe to take into account the unprecedented growth in Asia in
recent decades, rather than looking only towards the US. Naisbitt maintains that
as we move towards the year 2,000, Asia will become the dominant force of the world:
politically, economically and culturally.
According to World Bank statistics released in Bangkok, the Asia ten members of ASEM
have a combined gross domestic product of $5,426,720 million, compared to the $6,718,576
million for the 15 EU countries. Naturally, per capita income in many Asian countries
were far below that of Europe. However, Singapore, with its $19,850 per capita income,
equals or ranks higher than Finland, Spain, Greece, the UK, Ireland and Portugal.
Indeed, Singapore's per capital income equals the average per capita income of the
entire EU 15! Japan's $31,490 of course outranks them all except tiny Luxembourg.
Neither Naisbitt nor ASEM refer to the whole of Asia. The criteria for future additions
to Asian membership of ASEM will be discussed in a committee on membership. In his
book, Naisbitt deals with more than 30 countries in the area but the emphasis is
on China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. He says that is where the main dynamic of
growth and change is located. This does make many of the conclusions more dramatic
and crisp than if he dealt with the whole of Asia, including Afghanistan and the
Middle East. Nevertheless, his shifting definition of Asia makes some of the statistics
confusing as the reader is not sure where the boundaries are whenever he mentions
What does all this mean for Cambodia? Naisbitt does not include Cambodia in his core
analysis but the implications for the country of his trend forecasting are quite
clear. Located in the middle of all this dynamism, Cambodia has an advantage that
other post-conflict countries elsewhere do not have. It had no choice but to be lifted
up in the dynamism of the region surrounding it as soon as peace returned after the
elections. First of all, the donor countries who have long awaited the moment of
the return to normalcy heralded by the UNTAC elections are pouring in massive aid
which during the last three years amounted to $1.3 billion out of a total $2.3 billion
pledged, quite an achievement considering the acute financial crunch everywhere and
the mood for cutting aid.
While foreign aid is rebuilding Cambodia's physical and social infrastructure, the
dynamism of the private sector which has been galvanizing this region has not overlooked
Cambodia. From small computer service companies, trading companies, to giant hotels,
resorts and apartment buildings, to beer and cigarette manufacturing and trading,
the influx of private foreign investment into Cambodia, mainly from the region, reflects
largely what Naisbitt calls the networking approach by Overseas Chinese. Of course,
development will not come overnight without hard work. Investors by definition are
out for profit and are by no means altruistic "angels". Unless a country
like Cambodia builds up a strong countervailing power to deal with complex deals,
and implementation thereof, some of the unscrupulous ones may be able to do a lot
of damage while bonafide investors may stay away.
Some of Naisbitt's generalizations for the whole of his Asia, such as the move from
labor intensive to high technology industry and Asia's move from export-led to consumer-driven
industries, are not yet applicable to Cambodia. For such a small country, with a
low per capita income, labor intensive export industries including agro- and aqua-
based industries and garment manufacturing, as well as the foreign exchange-generating,
labor intensive tourism industry can and should continue to play a role. At the same
time, precisely because the country is a late starter, it can catch up fast and use
the latest technologies for such industries as telecommunications and port cargo
handling and construction.
Cambodia fits in very well with his description of the move away from the government-controlled
to market-driven decision making. In fact, while the Europeans at ASEM demand equal
rights for their business companies to local companies, in a recent seminar sponsored
by Dataconsult in Bangkok, Cambodia was selected as the first choice among Burma
and Indochina for investors, because of its freewheeling liberal attitude towards
foreign investment, with no discrimination against foreign investment.
Using published statistics, Naisbitt comes to the stunning conclusion that in the
year 2010, Asia will have 30 cities with populations of five million or more as compared
to only two in the US and six in Europe. The implications for investment in urban
development are quite obvious. Another trend observed by Naisbitt is the move away
from male dominance to the emergence of women. Here again, Cambodia is not far behind.
Professional women are rapidly filling important posts in banks and service industries,
and the rumored appointment of a woman minister should help this trend even more.
Mr Naisbitt, in conversations with government officials, academics, business leaders
and journalists in Asian capitals found overwhelming self-confidence, even assertiveness.
A collective consciousness of being Asian is emerging, he concludes. The intellectual
debate between East and West has intensified the debate about "Asian values".
He continues that, when trade issues are linked with human rights, "Asia is
increasingly impatient with, and even aggravated by, what it views as the West's
patronizing 'big brother' attitude." He quotes Kishore Mahbubani, the permanent
secretary of Singapore's foreign ministry as calling for the West to "stop lecturing
Asians". And, yet, Naisbitt observes that there is no consensus as to what should
be regarded as Asian values. Nevertheless, his book will help us understand headlines
from the daily newspapers these days, such as "Sensitive issues off agenda of
ASEM", reflecting Asian reluctance to discuss human rights and labor rights
at ASEM, which does not have a fixed agenda. In a mood of assertiveness, many Asians
believe that Westernization is not necessarily equal to modernization, Naisbitt concludes.
- Benny Widyono is the United Nation's Secretary General's Representative in
Cambodia. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those
of the organization he works for.