By Kalinga Seneviratne
At the Rio+20 Conference from June 20 to 22 in Brazil, Bolivian President Eva Morales described the ‘green economy’ as new colonialism that rich countries sought to impose on developing countries. “They want to create intervention mechanisms to monitor and assess our national policies using environmental concerns as an excuse,” he said.
Such feelings are shared in Asia as was indicated by a forum on social justice and Asian Century, which was organized early June in Singapore by the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), where the Secretary General of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Dr Surin Pitsuwan, delivered the keynote address.
Dr Pitsuwan said that as the West is in decline and its economic model is being questioned, the success of Asia or the dawn of an Asian Century will not be judged on “how much we earn, how much we accumulate or how much we export”. The real success will be seen aside from distribution of wealth and social justice on “how much we contribute to global institutions’ governance and the welfare of the global community”.
Chandra Nair, founder of the Hong Kong based Global Institute for Tomorrow, explained that for Asia to contribute to global governance, also by way of influencing the operations of institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, the Asian intelligentsia will have to get rid of its subservience to the West. “Asians that are bi-lingual are so intellectually subservient that they seek legitimacy from western institutions (in whatever they do),” he noted.
Nair believes that the idea of the Asian Century is based on the western narrative of dominance. The 19th century is regarded as the British Century, and the 20th century the American Century. The idea behind such a narrative is that some countries dominate and others are dominated. “If the Asian Century is about dominance by Asia, it will be catastrophic to others,” he warned.
Aping the American
“Six billion Asians in 2050 cannot and should not aspire to live like the average American,” he said. “Now we think, with the colonies having been taken back we are free. We want to be like them, the truth is we can’t. It’s simply not possible.”
Chris Ng, Regional Secretary of the Union Network International (UNI) Asia-Pacific Regional Office believes that Asia is sitting on a time bomb waiting to explode. “There are millions of poor people in Asia who are neglected,” he said. “When the last financial crisis struck, governments gave people money to spend to become consumers (because) the governments realized that people did not have money to spend.” He argued that the “consume, consume and consume” model of western capital only encourages people to live beyond their means and this is not a good thing for Asia.
According to Nair, if Asia is to contribute in a positive way towards global governance the concepts of human rights and social justice promoted by the West need to be challenged. “Social justice is not about standing in Tiananmen Square and shouting ‘Chinese are fascists’,” he said. “Social justice is access to water and sanitation, affordable and well-designed housing and public transportation. Saying that it will come from the trickle-down economics of the last half century, this is simply not true.”
Nair describes the consumption based economics prescribed by western business schools as a form of hoodoo economics. “If an average Asian consumes like an average European we will more than rock the world,” he said, adding that “preaching following the western model is the height of irresponsibility”.
Ng tends to agree. He argues that when globalization came to Asia everything turned towards the American model based on shareholder interests, whereas before that, unionists in Asia were inclined to negotiate according to the Confucius-Japanese model where lifelong employment was about loyalty to the company and based on making sure the company makes money for everyone to survive. “If these values are adopted by Asian companies the wealth created will be more equally distributed,” he argued.
According to Ng, the globalized model of production by itself is a violator of human rights or social justice. He recalls a conversation with a company director from Britain who has outsourced his operation to India because it works out cheaper for his company. “I asked him (the company director) if a British person earning Indian wages can live in London. If you can do that it makes sense,” Ng noted.
Globalization has created an economic model where a CEO (chief executive officer) earning hundreds of thousands of dollars can fire thousands of workers in the name of economic rationalization, says Ng. “How can you explain to ordinary workers that this is social justice?” he asks.
Sufficiency Economics model
At the height of the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, the Thai King proposed the Sufficiency Economics model based on the Buddhist principles of the ‘middle path’ where modest economic growth of about 3 to 4 percent is encouraged, based not on unfettered consumption but a closed cycle of economic self-sufficiency.
In an interview with this writer, Nair, who is a Malaysian national, said that the economic model proposed by the Thai King deserves a good look in Asia. “The Thai elites will not listen (to their King) because their understanding of economics comes from the Harvard business schools. That’s in the sub-consciousness of the elites because they have studied in those institutions. They think those institutions are the best.”
“We need 100 business schools in Asia looking at sufficiency economics,” opines Nair. “Sufficiency economy will also define social justice. We in Asia should start our own conversation, not because someone from Harvard came and told us free market is this and social justice is that.”
He suggested that taking a leaf out of China’s one-child policy and promoting a one-car policy for families to save the environment might be worthwhile.
To create social justice, which encompasses human rights, one needs to design economic systems in Asia that put collective welfare ahead of individual rights. “This flies in the face of western narrative of democracy and freedom, where individual is the king,” admits Nair. “If you allow every nation to hold the individual right to own a car, we will have a collective nightmare. So we have to curb the individual. How to do that is a matter of political debate,” avers Nair.