Managing National and Regional Transformation and Its Global Challenges
- I am very pleased to be invited to address this Fourth International Conference on International Studies. International Studies has always been a rich, diverse and important field, but perhaps never as much as the present. Nation states today have to survive and thrive in an increasingly interdependent and complex world. They have to engage in a constant stream of high-speed and high-stakes political, economic and social interactions. Decisions have to be made and actions taken, many of which will have long-lasting consequences.
- The theme of this conference, ‘Managing National and Regional Transformation and Its Global Challenges’, is a particularly hot button one. The world is undergoing tectonic upheavals in the political, economic and societal spheres. There is great fluidity, uncertainty and risks at the global, regional and national level. Power is clearly shifting, not only geographically but also in terms of its nature. Military dominance is not the be-all and end-all that it once was. Economic power has greatly balanced, if not overtaken, it. In the future, social power might well rise to be fore. We certainly live in interesting times.
- The opportunity to make great strides in human progress has never been better. Mankind now has the technology and means at its disposal. But so are the opportunities – if they can be called that – for human regress as well. We may have come very far in terms of scientific and technological breakthroughs. However, we have yet to demonstrate that we are capable also of making moral and ethical breakthroughs, ones that disprove the theory that we are all selfish and consistently choose the path of conflict over conciliation.
- My talk this morning will focus on three key focal points: management, transformation and global challenges – and I will be treating them in reverse order. Global challenges are not the only, but they are certainly a primary, instigator of national and regional transformation and management. We need full understanding of the political, social and economic forces affecting this planet and its inhabitants if we are to correctly respond. Transformations are the approaches and responses to the changes occurring at the global, regional and national levels. Finally, management encompasses the institutions and processes that will bring about the changes. I will only be able to address these in very broad but I hope helpful terms.
- There are a multitude of global challenges and I will try to identify the ones I think are more important. One that has already been mentioned is globalisation and interdependence. Partly by choice and partly by need, more and more countries have opened themselves to external influences. The latest country to do so is Myanmar, which had been closed for the greater part of 50 years.
- Openness brings many benefits to most countries but, of course, there are also costs. This is most evident in economics where liberalisation has enabled capital to flow to all parts of the world, promoting development and reducing poverty. China is a case in point. But capital flows are prone to volatility and can pose problems for recipient countries with sudden inflows and outflows. Indeed, the role of global finance today has reached such a scale that there is now growing concern over the power of a relatively small number of financial institutions.
- Openness has fueled rapid economic growth, which, in turn, has led to accelerated development. This is evident in East Asia, in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. As large economies such as China, India and Brazil have grown, so have their capacity to defend and promote their interests. They are fast becoming world powers.
- There has been much discussion about the implications for world order. In particular, there has been a lot of focus on the question as to whether the interests of these emerging countries can be peacefully accommodated or whether strategic rifts and rivalries are inevitable. As with most issues, there are contrasting points of view, ranging from the optimistic to the pessimistic. I do not believe that either trajectory is cast in stone. A great deal will depend on the actors concerned and how they respond.
- Western countries are unlikely to be as dominant as they once were. Nevertheless, by virtue of their size and capabilities, they will continue to be integral to the world system. Some have even forecasted the decline of Western powers to the point of leaving a power vacuum on the global stage. I believe this to be a gross exaggeration. I believe that it is in the interests of emerging powers such as China to maintain, and not to overturn, the existing international system.
- Certainly, there will be times when their interests will conflict with others. Emerging powers will also want a greater voice and influence, in accordance with their new standing. It is the responsibility and obligation of the world community to ensure that the process of integration is as smooth and peaceful as can possibly be engineered.
- Also along the political axis but looking more at the regional and national levels, it is clear that tolerance for authoritarian regimes are at an all time low. The trend towards democratization that began in Europe at the end of Cold War has now travelled to the Middle East in the form of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. I pointed out earlier that Asia has not been left out, with Myanmar’s recent political reforms. We should not forget that over the last decade, Indonesia has also undergone political transformation.
- The move towards democratisation, self-determination and human rights are positive for long-term peace and development. However, the transitions will not necessarily be smooth and problem-free due to existing political rifts and social fissures. In the Middle East, for example, the Palestinian homeland question remains unresolved. Sectarianism has risen to the fore and has led to violence that is ongoing. In Africa, renegade groups continue to destabilize bordering countries, while in South Asia, extremist atrocities have been carried out that have horrified the world.
- Related to this, we should remember that the curse of poverty and under-development are still far from conquered. Indeed, the countries of East Asia, including Malaysia, seem favourably placed to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by 2015 but this cannot be said for others. Many are not keeping pace with developments and therefore are falling behind in relative terms. Needless to say, a world riddled with increasing inequalities is not a positive development and can lead to tensions and conflicts.
- Another unfortunate consequence of globalization has been the rise of what are termed non-traditional security threats. These include a long menu of terrorist acts by non-state actors, nuclear proliferation, transnational crime, including cybercrime and human trafficking. Also included are global pandemics and the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. I am pleased to note here that the latter has been included in your deliberations at this conference, particularly as the Doha Conference on Climate Change is going on as we speak.
- Connected to climate change are issues of food and energy security. Indeed, the sharp rise in food prices was one of the causes of societal unrest in the Middle East. The fact that many food commodities are now the objects of speculation may have greatly assisted producers and traders but not so for consumers, especially the poor, who have had to pay higher prices. For energy dependent countries, ensuring stability of supply is critical and there have been major efforts to develop alternative and green sources of energy to balance that of fossil fuels. The former, however, still make relatively small contributions to the energy mix and there is still a high reliance on carbon-based energy.
- A final issue, from among the many that I could raise, is what I consider to be of great importance for the future: demographics. As we are aware, advanced countries are experiencing an aging of their working population, with a few like Japan witnessing an absolute decline in their population. At the same time, and despite gradually falling fertility rates, developing countries are experiencing population increases. This is placing pressures on countries to educate and gainfully employ their youth.
- Many are not succeeding and the consequences of this are not hard to imagine. The effect of unemployed and unempowered youth is a factor that no country should have to deal with. The best and the brightest of the young can be drawn to countries seeking to enhance their competitive edge through the so-called ‘STEM’ disciplines or science, technology, engineering and medicine. This quite often leaves behind, a significant pool of listless and restless youths who, unable to engage in socially productive activities, gravitate to socially unproductive ones.
- Many of the issues that I have raised have been discussed for many years. Invariably, the more practical-minded among us will ask two questions. First, can these challenges be met and addressed by existing organizational entities, institutions and mechanisms? If not, what kind of change is required? I know that the term ‘transformation’ has become very popular in recent times, even to the point perhaps of being over-used. To me, transformation defines the uppermost limits of change. When something is transformed, its nature is no longer the same. It is not about making minor adjustments at the margins.
- The countries and regions that will find success are those whose societies are adaptable and cohesive, whose leaderships are able to sell their visions of transformation and to align the diverse outlooks and interests of the different constituencies in their country.
- Let me now turn to the third area, that of management. Here I will state what I think are the management goals countries should strive for. There are many but I will just touch on three. The first is obviously the need for good governance. Without this, all other goals become mere lofty ideals. Good governance, in turn, requires public sector capacity, accountability and transparency.
- I believe that all good governance start with the legitimate acquisition, distribution and use of power. There must never be serious doubts about these processes or else trust and confidence in the system will begin to be eroded to the point of eventually being unable to function. The fact that international surveys show declining levels of trust and respect for governments, including those in the advanced countries, is an indicator that there is a gap between public expectations and the quality of governance, thus making inclusiveness one of the key themes in governance today.
- Within countries, the idea that some communities can be sidelined while others are promoted is a recipe for failure. A lack of inclusiveness has been a major stumbling block for many countries, and most have paid a heavy price in the form of long drawn-out conflict. But it should not have to take generations of bloodshed, violence, grinding poverty and lost opportunities for parties to break deadlocks, resolve conflicts and act inclusively. We know the theory and we have the case studies. What we require is the concentrated focus and political will to practice inclusiveness.
- Success, it has been said, comes to the prepared mind. The second goal of management is to instill a forward-thinking society. The need to constantly look ahead and anticipate events is not only an integral part of good governance but also of economic and social dynamism. If we look at countries that are dynamic, they are constantly gathering information to try to make sense of the future and act on it. Of course, there are always unexpected black swan events that will blindside countries, companies and communities. But the culture of forward-thing is something that ensures that countries are constantly kept on their feet and ready to act to defend and extend their national interests.
- So long as we are locked in the here-and-now, management problems have a very strong zero-sum or win-lose outcome and the tendency is for problems to become intractable. There is little incentive to engage with stakeholders and work through problems. Forward-thinking, planning and credible actions help to break these constraints by introducing the time dimension and obtaining stakeholder buy-ins to the promise of a brighter and more rewarding future.
- Third, the need to develop collaborative and cooperative behaviour is, in my view, urgent as never before. The scope and scale of global challenges are such that no one country, no matter how powerful, is able to go it alone in order to ensure its interests are protected. Countries therefore must do more to invest in their bilateral, regional and multilateral relationships.
- I commend the School of International Studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia and the Association of International Studies for organizing this timely conference. I wish participants an enjoyable and productive conference. Thank you.