17th Annual Academic Conference Of The Harvard Project For Asian And International Relations

“Beyond Borders: Asia on the World Stage”

Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

Salam Sejahtera

1. I am pleased to be here this afternoon to address this audience of distinguished academics, thinkers, policy-makers and students. My congratulations go to Harvard University and the University of Malaya for organizing this conference. I spent some memorable years as a student at Harvard and have benefited greatly for having been there. My own journey from Malaysia to Harvard is just one small example of how, for centuries, exchanges have been taking place between Asia and the West. Each of these exchanges has involved a physical border crossing. Each has also involved a significant social, cultural and intellectual crossing.

2. The theme of this conference, ‘Beyond Borders: Asia on the World Stage’ is timely and relevant, given the enormous social, political and economic changes taking place around us. Asian societies are now integrated into the global community as never before. Upheavals that rock Asia can no longer be dismissed as being of mere local significance; today what affects one nation or region affects the world. 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 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 need to make serious adjustments to their lifestyles to continue living on this planet.

3. While physically crossing a border can be a simple thing, crossing social and cultural borders is far more difficult. In the early years of these crossings social and cultural borders between peoples were rigidly maintained. Rudyard Kipling, the chronicler of the British Raj in India, famously began a poem with the declaration that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. The phrase has passed into general use, and has virtually become a cliché, signifying the impassable ideological gulf between the two. Indeed, with the economic and political dominance of the West over the last few centuries, these borders have at times seemed too deeply entrenched to be moved.

4. But what is less well known, is how the poem continues: Kipling declares that borders between East and West are rendered meaningless “when two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”. The two heroes of his poem gain deep respect for the strength and character that each displays, and part as blood brothers, no longer as enemies.

5. East and West, then, have always been able to meet, as long as each has recognised the strengths of the other. And each has come away enriched and ennobled by the experience. Today we recognise the fact that East and West not only meet, but they can also merge in challenging and thought-provoking ways.

6. In ways that are both obvious and subtle, Asia and the West are breaking free of the tyranny of geography. We see this freedom most obviously, perhaps, in the field of culture. Culture is porous and ever-evolving. It absorbs and adapts to whatever it comes in touch with. How else could a quintessentially British composer like Andrew Lloyd-Webber create a huge West End musical hit called Bollywood Dreams? Clearly, he recognised the immediacy of Bollywood and Indian pop culture within Britain’s cultural borders. In terms of cuisine, sushi is now eaten in New York, Indian curries in London and dim sum just about everywhere. Asian culture has gone global.

7. The mass movement of people across borders means that multiculturalism today is fast becoming the norm and that mono-cultural societies may soon be the exception. Already, there are significant numbers of Asians living in the West and an increasing number of Westerners living in the East ⎯ people whose movements across the globe muddy the waters of national identification, making precise definition impossible. Overseas Chinese are estimated to be about 40 million. Non-resident Indians are thought to number around 25 million. In the United Kingdom, Asians account for almost 6 per cent of the population, while the figure in the US is around 5 per cent and growing.

8. The historians among you will recognize that Asia’s influence on the world is not a recent phenomenon. Asia has long been a significant contributor to world civilization, although these contributions have not always been adequately acknowledged. For decades, cutting-edge advances in most fields of modern science have emerged from Europe and North America; but it was scientific discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India, in mathematics, astronomy and medicine, which laid the foundation for these modern advances. We take for granted today that we function in a knowledge-based economy, which is driven by information technology and cyberspace; but cyberspace would not exist without the ancient numeral system we use today, which has its origins in Asia.

9. My purpose in pointing this out is to underline the fact that no single society has a monopoly on knowledge. Rather we have societies that at their peak show exceptional valuation of erudition. Thus we went through ages where the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Indians, followed by the Greeks and Romans, and later the Islamic world, were at the forefront of learning. Today the western world is clearly dominating the knowledge chessboard, but the pieces may be shifting. But regardless of who is at the forefront, knowledge remains the shared embodiment of humankind’s wisdom, accumulated over millennia through sharing, application, innovation and exploration.

10. If Asia’s contributions have been overlooked, it is perhaps because of society’s longstanding habit of looking at the world in terms of binary oppositions. North vs. South, East vs. West, Asia vs. Europe/America, and so on. Along with this comes the tendency to devalue that which is different. For a long time, Asia has been that devalued ‘other’.

11. But this is no longer the case. Today, after centuries in the doldrums, Asia is resurgent. So much so that many are referring to the 21st century as the Asian Century. As economic growth has slowed in Western industrialised countries, Asian nations have begun to emerge as dynamic economic and industrial powerhouses. Japan and also South Korea are today leading players in technology. China and India, and the other tiger economies, stand pounding at the door of the West, wanting a voice, a presence, a recognition of their culture and their values.

12. Does this mean that Asia will overshadow the West anytime soon? Will the much talked about “great power shift” to Asia turn the US and Europe into has-beens? This is an enduring fear among some in the West. But this fear is much overblown. A sense of perspective is in order. The US GDP today stands at about $14 trillion, while China’s is $3 trillion. Even if we assume indefinite Chinese growth of 7% per annum (a big if), that will double GDP to $6 trillion in 10 years and double again to $12 trillion by 2028. Assuming that the US will grow at its historical rate of 3.5%, GDP will measure $28 trillion in 2028, accounting for about one-quarter of world output. China’s defense budget may be the world’s second largest, but the US spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined. So China, and the rest of Asia, have some way to go before it catches up with the West. The United States will remain the “default power” for the foreseeable future.

13. If Asia-West exchanges are to be meaningful and enriching experiences, they should be based on three things that I wish to highlight this afternoon. The first is openness. It has been said that there is a reason why God Almighty gave us two ears and only one mouth. We should want to hear one another’s views, those that we can agree with as well as those that are different from ours. Second, there must be mutual respect. Mutual respect is about how we treat these differences. If we ridicule or suppress the views of others and make no effort to understand them, we do not practice mutual respect. The third is the willingness to change. We can listen and treat others with respect but if we are not also motivated to change for the better, there can be no progress.

14. There are Asians who continue to harbor animosity and resentment at what they see as grave injustices perpetrated by the West in the past. As Harvard historian David Landes has noted, the entire basis for Asian-West discourse is taken by some to be evidence of arrogance and oppressiveness intended to “justify Western domination over the East by pointing to European superiority”[1]. To be trapped in this mindset today seems to me self-defeating. We in Asia have the ability ⎯ indeed the obligation ⎯ to raise the quality of our discourse. It is not enough for Asians to just rediscover old glories, just as it is erroneous to simplistically argue that we can solve all our problems by returning to some past era. We should appreciate the past but our hope must look to the future. Asia has benefited enormously from being integrated into the world trading system operating in a peaceful and stable environment. In the coming years Asians will have to be more proactive in driving the process forward. Asian leaders must articulate clearly what new responsibilities Asia will take on in a new world order.

15. There are some who see Asia’s rise as a threat to the West’s continued hegemony and wellbeing. History teaches us that the rise of new powers has not been smooth. It has been fitful and, quite often, violent. I believe we have learnt from the painful lessons of history to avoid such a recurrence. I remain optimistic that the voices of reason and moderation will prevail and that the Asia-West partnership will continue to be a peaceful and productive one.

16. For that to happen, the West must be willing to accommodate Asia’s rise. The West must recognize that the many millions who are being lifted out of poverty, and the many millions who are joining the middle class, are a force for sustained global peace and development. And as Asia’s modernization gathers momentum, it is only natural that Asians will want a bigger say in world affairs. This in turn will mean a restructuring of the existing world order. Existing global institutions and international rules of interaction must evolve to reflect this new reality. A frequently-made suggestion is to restructure of the United Nations Security Council to give permanent member status to more Asian countries. Another is to discontinue the American and European monopoly of the top jobs at the World Bank and the IMF.

17. I want to end my speech by addressing the student participants in the audience. Many of you have been brought up taking it for granted that you can go anywhere in the world within a few short hours. You have access to all kinds of information literally at your fingertips. You can choose never to be completely out of touch with friends and family all over the world. You can work practically anywhere you choose. For many of you, national borders have become irrelevant in a way not possible for an earlier generation.

18. The fact that you are here today suggests to me you care enough about issues to want to take your place as future leaders, thinkers and scholars. More than a century ago, British statesman Benjamin Disraeli stated that “We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour. The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity”. This statement is no less relevant today as the world undergoes one of the most profound periods of change in human history.

19. At the present moment in Asia’s history, we have so much to gain. And yet there is so much threatening those hopes. Questions remain about the sustainability of Asia’s success. This success has relied principally on favorable external developments, which can be sustained only if all major countries act sensibly by allowing world trade to continue to flow freely. The foundation of Asia’s prosperity is threatened should the world turn protectionist. Even as Asia presses ahead toward a collective future of prosperity and social maturity, many of its inhabitants are being left behind. Sadly we have engendered a vast impoverished and disenchanted segment of society who have either been abused by developments in the globalised economy, or have been left out altogether. Two-thirds of the world’s poor live in Asia. They pose a significant challenge to our economists who must suggest ways of including them in our miracle, and to our philosophers who must explain how we can live side by side with our impoverished brothers and sisters while watching our wealth grow. And while we continue to debate the whys and the wherefores of the poor and disenfranchised, they are making themselves heard by drawing attention to their plight in ways both benign and violent.

20. All of which suggests that the spirit of openness, mutual respect and willingness to change need to be heeded more than ever. These are the three qualities I hope will undergird the discussions at this conference and perhaps one day infuse the border crossings between Asia and the West. Let us now, like the man of the East and the man of the West in Kipling’s poem, stand face to face and acknowledge our kinship with one another. Let us acknowledge our similarities and embrace our differences, and break down the barriers that keep us apart. I wish you all a productive and enjoyable conference.

21. It now gives me great pleasure to declare the 17th Annual Academic Conference of the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations open.

  1. David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Abacus; London, 1999), pg. 513.
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