Asia’s Challenge 2020

Tuesday, August 31, 2009

Time and the University of Singapore posed the question:

“What is the most important challenge facing Asia over the next decade? Why? What should be done about it?”

Asia – the diverse challenge

Asia. Some call it the root of man-kind, while others call it the fastest growing region on the planet, with four of the five BRICS nations located within it. To me, Asia is just another home.

As a student, I have no extensive knowledge about Asia’s political situation, nor do I have any ideas to add to Asia’s already growing list of developing economies. What I know is what I can see. And in the face of ‘Asia’s Challenge 2020’, I see urban development and environmental issues being key areas in Asia’s continuous growth in the next decade.

As the fastest developing continent on the planet today, it’s not all smooth sailing for Asia and its multi-cultured nations. Asia’s speedy growth is in part thanks to its massive workforce, but it is also this massive workforce that causes Asia to be dangerously over-populated.

Asia is not small. Countries like China, which are overly crowded in the cities still have two-thirds of their land fairly underdeveloped. And even though governments know that development is bound to lead to rapid urbanisation, no one can really put their finger on exactly how “rapid” it’s all going to be.

The unpredictability of social changes coupled with underestimated growth figures often lead to underprepared cities being filled with a more-than-anticipated amount of eager citizens seeking jobs and long-term stability, which inevitably results in the imbalanced sharing of resources. Many major cities eventually end up like the slums of Mumbai or like the favelas of São Paulo.

The effects of when rapid growth meets unprepared urban areas are obvious enough in Asia, some worse than others. Mumbai, Jakarta, just to name a few, are amongst the more serious. Asia is in need of some serious crowd control, and sound urban development policies should be first on the agenda.

Let us not be mistaken – urbanisation is good, and is a “natural” process attributed to a developing nation. But it is urban malignancy that we need to be watching out for.

Taipei, the city in which I live, is a prime example of what rapid urbanisation is like, but unfortunately, it is also at times an example of imbalanced recourse sharing.

As small as Taiwan is, it still has many underdeveloped areas. For example, the entire eastern coast lies largely untouched when it comes to large scale urbanisation. Public transport remains scarce and public schools scarcer. It has become a place of paradise and refuge for all those city folk who can afford to resettle there, but there is still a lack of government policies to ease the pressure on the major cities.

Nowadays, development which took the West half a century to complete is completed in just half a decade in Asia. But it is also because of that speed of development that urban malignancy becomes more threatening.

Brazil’s Rômulo Paes de Sousa, Executive Secretary of the Social-Development Ministry, coined the terms “old’ and “new” poverty – on July 31, The Economist quoted “old” as being “the lack of food and basic needs”, and “new” as being “drug addiction, violence, family breakdown, and environmental degradation.” – I believe many Asian cities suffer from both “old” and “new” poverty.

In a city like Beijing, where capitalism booms on almost every street, one can still find on the outskirts of its world renowned airport, tens of hundreds of family-run car washes, which charge close to nothing just to make a basic living.

In Taiwan, where the nine-year mandatory education policy still does little to stop domestic violence and negligence towards environmental issues. A place where the middle-class to wealthy families can afford to provide high quality education for their children to ensure that they are enrolled in to public high schools and universities, and a place where the less fortunate children have to struggle to get a place in public schools. This leaves the rest to settle for private schools and universities where tuition fees cost four to five times more.

The problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer just keeps going on and on in a vicious cycle. Sure, the government provides aid in the form of educational funds for some of the less fortunate. But we all know that aid doesn’t reach all those in need.

“Aid needs to be met with suitable and well-thoughtout policies, otherwise it will just be more and more money down the drain.”

In the case of Asia’s more rural areas, where children still give up secondary and tertiary education to help their traditional agricultural families on the farm, policies similar to Brazil’s “Bolsa Família: don’t seem like such a bad idea.

But therein lies the challenge: Asia is unique not only as a continent, but also in the sense that each and every country is so different in tradition and cultural history. Thus, Asia could never be governed by policies like the EU’s Schengen Agreement or usage of the Euro.

Asia’s challenge lies in the fact that copying other countries policies will never work. What works for China, for example, would not work for, say, Indonesia. Not only because of their differences in political stances, but also because of their population’s cultural values, traditions and religions, etc.

So, as Brazil requires the level of education to be raised, Asia doesn’t really have problems that severe. “Bolsa Família” might work wonders in South America, but when brought to countries like Taiwan and the Philippines where the level of education is relatively higher, other issues like post-graduation unemployment, take up more priority.

These two countries will need to have their own political breakthroughs which will meet their needs and their unique needs only. But where some countries can go it alone, others might require direct or indirect aid. But where aid is available in the form of funds or trained personnel, it needs to be met with suitable and well thought out policies. Otherwise it will all be put to waste and will just result in another failed attempt and more and more money down the drain.

Asia’s environmental issues have always been an elephant in the room when discussing plans to develop further. In Taiwan’s case, it is often used as a rubber stopper to halt the government’s plans to further develop the underdeveloped areas in the country.

As the initiators, the government should make environmental-friendly policies a given when proposing for elections instead of throwing tea cups at each other and making a fool of themselves on public television. But it seems most politicians are afraid of not being supported if they elect to sacrifice a little bit of the economy for the betterment of the environment.

It is not all downhill though. Taiwan’s recycling policies are some of the best in Asia, if not the whole world. It is at least better than what I saw in South Africa, my place of birth, where all rubbish goes in to one big bin and is collected weekly. On this front, at least Taiwan is one step ahead of the rest.

Researchers say that Taiwan, amongst other Asian island-based nations, is going to be one of the first to be hit by climate induced displacement (similar to what is happening to the Maldives) and its people becoming environmental migrants. Strangely enough, though, this I heard not from government reports, but from my teachers at school.

Countries like Taiwan will need assistance in dealing with environmental issues, but how can others help us if we don’t even want to help ourselves?

Environmental awareness is lacking in our everyday lives. Something which is supposed to be transmitted from top to bottom (government to citizen), is becoming reversed. And perhaps that is the only solution.

Environmental movements by NGO’s and the like is becoming more and more important as we try to make everyone aware that it need not be a duel between economy and environment. But rather, like so many Northern European nations have shown, a harmonious relationship for both humans and the environment.

I believe Thailand has set a good example for Asia, decreasing their reliance on industrialisation and turning to show the world the beauty of Thai cuisines. Chefs from all over the world travel to Thailand to get a taste of what makes Thai food such a speciality, boosting Thailand’s economy and international status at the same time.

Asia has the potential, all we need is self-value. As China has proven on countless occasions politically and economically, there is no rule that says the way to success is by emulating the West. Countries like Singapore have also proven that they have the ability to form sound and reliable policies on their own, and are even taking their own measures in countering climate issues, encouraging the usage of public transport by limiting the amount of cars which are allowed on the road depending on their license plate numbers (odd or even).

“Asia will have its own success story, but the route Asia takes to success will differ from country to country.”

Some people tell me that the only way Asia will ever come to the realisation that environmental awareness is essential, is if they are punished by nature first. Like Pakistan’s flooding or Taiwan’s typhoons.
I would like to think about it more optimistically, though, because I think the warning signs are out there already, loud and clear, and there is no excuse for us to not be on alert.

Concluding, I believe Asia’s challenge, environmentally, will be to put all the great minds to work, think up a good and long-lasting environmental policy, and take action. A firm, decisive decision with at least the nation or region’s best interests in mind is needed, because Asia doesn’t lack the innovation, nor does it lack the personnel necessary to initiate what is needed. All policies have their goods and bads, so what Asia – or at least some countries – really lacks, is decisiveness and the guts to make a decision while under pressure from the nation.

Asia is by far the most diverse continent, and therefore each country’s policies will have to take into consideration their own cultural background and history. I believe if Asia can conquer that challenge, then Asia will have its own success story. Asia will develop to the standards of the West, and possibly even overtake them, but it is without doubt that the route Asia takes will differ from country to country. JSF.