- It is a pleasure for me to be here this morning to address such a distinguished audience. Since its inauguration 40 years ago in Kuala Lumpur, LAWASIA has become more than just a conference. Bound by the common desire to promote the professional practice of law, it has become a veritable knowledge and networking institution. I am proud to be associated with this endeavour. I hope that the LAWASIA Conferences will grow in strength for many years to come.
Global economic crisis
- The theme of this conference is “Challenging Asia”. There is no greater challenge facing Asia today than the global financial and economic crisis that has engulfed the economies of western nations and which now is fanning out across Asia. Already some countries have become incapacitated, while others are close to it. Triggered by the financial crisis in the United States, it is fast transforming into an economic crisis of such mammoth proportions that it threatens not just our economic wellbeing, but also our social and political stability.
- It began following a prolonged period of excessive risk-taking activity in an environment of low-risk premia, loosening of credit-underwriting standards in housing mortgages and proliferation of complex financial instruments that masked excessive risk build-up. Complacency in the area of corporate governance compounded the problem as financial institutions accumulated high levels of leverage and depended on non-traditional wholesale funding.
- The global financial system has been severely weakened by mounting losses on impaired and illiquid assets, uncertainty regarding the availability and cost of funding, as well as unwillingness to extend new credit to the wider segments of economy. Market confidence has dwindled, leading to the collapse of key financial institutions, which in turn has necessitated wide-scale public intervention and cross-border cooperation to support a more orderly deleveraging process, while minimising the potential risk to global economic growth.
- At some later date, we will need to reflect thoroughly on the events leading up to the global financial crisis. Hard questions will have to be asked about how the unrestricted pursuit of profits could have taken such a calamitous turn. For now, the focus should be on how we can get out of the crisis we find ourselves in.
- More than ever, now is the time for cool heads and steady hands. We need to be consummately pragmatic and decisive, for the actions taken in the coming months and years will critically determine the collective security and stability of our people for decades to come. One would hope that the Group of 20 nations meeting next month will take into account not just the interests of the world’s financial centres but all those in one way or another are paying the price for the excesses of a few.
- I want to focus today on what Asia’s response should be. As a prime beneficiary of its integration with the world at large, Asian countries must step up to the plate and demonstrate ownership of the world’s current financial problems. They cannot afford to shy away from their responsibilities of contributing solutions for they are an integral and growing part of the world economy.
- The concerns I have about Asia are not so much about its economic strength. There is good reason to be quietly confident that countries can pull through given their past enterprise, ingenuity and dogged determination. Asia’s economic weight in world affairs is growing and this structural shift is unlikely to be halted by the highly damaging events of the current financial meltdown.
- The concerns I have about Asia have to do with the social fabric of the people. For Asia is made up complex societies that are stratified not just by class but also by ethnicity as well as linguistic and religious differences. The single biggest challenge, the dividing line on which its future hinges, is preventing the great global economic crisis from precipitating the great Asian social crisis.
- Let us consider some so-called realities of the modern age. Global trade has created a vastly wealthier society at all levels and has opened up a consumerist hunger that is historically unprecedented. What was once the domain of kings and emperors is at the reach of millions of people, with consumer goods driving economic growth as never before. Riding on this growth, we have seen new economic powers emerge in just the space of a generation. Nations like China and India stand pounding at the door of the west, wanting a voice, a presence, and recognition of their culture and their values.
- Sadly, we have also engendered a vast impoverished and disenchanted segment of society who have either been abused by the developments in the globalised economy, or have been left out of these developments altogether. They pose a significant challenge both to our economists who must suggest ways of including them in our miracle and to our philosophers and moralists who must explain how we can live side by side with our vastly more impoverished brothers and sisters while watching our own wealth and well being grow. And while we continue to debate the whys and the wherefores of the poor and disenfranchised, they are making themselves increasingly more noticed by drawing attention to their plight in ways both benign and violent.
- In short, Asia is a continent of incredible heterogeneity. Its successes are real but these cannot be allowed to mask the contrasts and divisions of its seething masses. This diversity is a source of great strength but it, like everything else, must be constantly and carefully nurtured. It cannot be taken for granted for a building block can very easily become a stumbling block. Diversity is only strength if the unity of the whole, and not the differences, are being emphasised.
- These are the realities that have to be negotiated. An Asia that degenerates into modern day tribalism and infighting will pose a danger to itself and to others and this must be avoided at all costs. What can Asian governments do to prevent the global economic crisis from unravelling the intricate relationships that give them the right to be called nations? What can ratchet up the social cohesion needed to make them stable and contributing members of the world community at this most critical of times?
Principle of inclusiveness
- It is necessary I believe to hold firmly to the principle of inclusiveness. No segment of society must be disrespected, discredited and disenfranchised. No group should feel that their efforts and contributions go unrecognised and unwanted.
- Bringing this about is one of the greatest challenges of governance today. We must abandon the ‘silo’ mentality where we only look up at what is happening and not beside us at what others are experiencing. We can no longer afford to formulate policies, laws and regulations on a discriminatory basis and in an ethical vacuum.
Case for empowerment
- To my mind, there is no better way to express the principle of inclusiveness than through the practice of empowerment. Only inclusive development through empowerment can societies become strong. Only inclusive development through empowerment can we achieve lasting outcomes.
- We do not need to be overly cerebral on what empowerment is or is not. The term ‘empowerment’ was originally developed in the context of gender equality but it has now gained much wider currency. It embraces not merely the under-classes but all those who do not walk the corridors of power and who have little say in what affects their lives. It is about giving the opportunity to those who do not have them to live self-fulfilling lives.
- The consequence of not empowering citizens or, worse, disempowering them, is to create a deep sense of alienation and hostility. Indeed, it is very often an overwhelming sense of alienation and powerlessness that causes the rash acts of violence that fracture societies. It gives these citizens every reason to seek to divide society in order to redress their dissatisfactions. This is bad and insensitive politics. On another level, we cannot morally turn our backs on the fundamental responsibility of ensuring that all stakeholders in our society, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, have a place under the sun.
- We can, of course, ignore the more troublesome elements in our society. But closing two eyes to the problem does not build the unity and integration required to face the economic and social turmoil that is likely to result. Where there should be cohesion, there is fragmentation. Where a progressive middle class should be created, there is instead impoverished sectarianism. This is not theoretical speculation. We see evidence of it throughout the world and not least within Asia.
- Empowerment is a precondition for an integrated and progressive Asia. Interestingly enough, the forces that can connect Asia also have the potential to empower its people. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has said that “development is freedom”. In the context of Asian integration, the development of these forces through effective regional institutions can indeed free its peoples from the burdens of poverty, stagnation and ignorance. Allow me to suggest five areas that can drive both the connecting and empowerment of Asia.
- The first prerequisite of empowerment must be to strengthen the rule of law. The law has the capacity to unite and enfranchise the people of Asia like no other. Countries only begin to empower their people when the latter are regarded as individuals with rights and aspirations. When these rights and aspirations are disregarded, those who are most capable depart, leaving behind the less capable and resilient. Individual rights must, of course, be balanced against larger societal rights. The two are not always compatible in every respect but they are also not as diametrically opposed as might be commonly perceived.
- The second source of empowerment is greater political participation. One of the essential tasks of Asia’s leaders is to convert residents into citizens and citizens into stakeholders. Empowerment is never a passive act. It is only when citizens are also stakeholders will there be the widest sense of ownership of problems and challenges. In order for Asian countries to weather this storm, governance systems must be broadly based and consultative to minimise non-cooperative behaviour.
- A third prerequisite is the reform of societal ‘software’. Values and beliefs need to be changed and this is never a straightforward task. True empowerment is not mandatorily taught as much as voluntarily ‘caught’. All societies comprise intricate sets of political, social and economic incentives and disincentives and these are not always consistently aligned to arrive at the targeted outcomes. Strenuous efforts must be taken to ensure that desirable behaviour such as entrepreneurship and innovation are rewarded, while undesirable behaviour such as corruption and abuse of power are penalised.
- A fourth source of empowerment is technology, particularly information and communication technology. We are faced with an increasingly informed society, enlightened by the mass spread of information through ICT, ranging from the internet to the mobile phone. Ironically, we are also living in a vastly misinformed society, where wrong information can spread as quickly and as widely as correct information. At no time in our history has information been of more value to the average human being, to his or her government, and to the private and public enterprises that serve the individual. And at no time has the value of accurate information been more important. We are also faced with a much shrunken world, where distances have been immensely shortened not only physically through the development of affordable and reliable transport systems, but also temporally, where ICT has again made distance an irrelevant feature of communication. For the first time in history, we can share ideas across oceans in real time, without needing to wait for conquest for our ideas to be spread. We are also watching a shift in the value of social and economic priorities as the globalised economy comes into its own. We now place more emphasis on non-material assets such as knowledge and skills than on material assets that have defined human society for so long. Technology has radically and dramatically changed lifestyles, leisure and business. Access to technology may be comparatively better in Asia than the rest of the developing world but it is still highly skewed. The digital divide among and within countries remains large. Failure to address it will create a new class of digital illiterates who are unable to participate in the new economy.
- A fifth source of empowerment is education that breaks the chains of oppressive traditions and extremism. Education has paved the way for many to find their way out of poverty and for countries to sharpen their competitive edge. Unfortunately, a good quality education is still a dream for many. Where education facilities do exist, there has sometimes been the tendency to ‘dumb down’ to the lowest common denominator rather than seek world class excellence and distinction. Just as we have embraced free trade and globalisation as the engine of economic growth, so too must we embrace education as the engine of social rejuvenation and development. We are potentially entering an age where we will for the first time in history share a global calamity of our own making in the guise of man-induced climate change. Not only can we share information and knowledge and hard technology across borders as never before, we can also share our pollutants and our toxins, to the point where all the inhabitants of our planet may potentially need to make serious adjustments to their lifestyles and their livelihoods to continue living on this planet.
- These societal challenges require a new approach and as we make our first strides into the 21st century, we find that no other institution is as well placed as our educational institutions to help us meet these challenges. These institutions can provide support by promoting participation, discussion, research, innovation and collaborative action across boundaries on a scale that no other institution can. It is through such efforts that we can bridge cultures and foster international cooperation and solidarity within and between nations, and to build truly functional networks that can provide solutions to common problems.
- In the final analysis, ‘Challenging Asia’ has as much to do about deepening the relationships that connect Asians together, as it is about common policy responses to the forces swirling around us. I wish to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts. I wish you all the very best in your deliberations in the coming days.