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Views of Asia's next generation
Thursday, 07 June 2012 15:21

The world of tomorrow belongs to our youth -- especially in Asia where there is an enormous "youth bulge" entering the work force.  But in Asia's hierarchical, seniority-based and male-dominated societies, the voice of youth is not sufficiently heard.

Fortunately, we now have an insight into the views of our youth in "Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia's Next Generation", based on an essay content initiated by the Asia Business Council, Time magazine, and the National University of Singapore.  There is very much food for thought for Asia's leaders.

A new generation is coming to power in Asia.  A generation born from 1978 to the early 1990.  This is Asia's Generation Y or Millennial generation.  They are almost 1.5 billion in number.

The parents of today's young Asians knew hunger and revolution.  Now, no longer living in a world defined by poverty, today's young Asians are better-fed and better-educated, and have access to the world through the Internet in a way that would hve been unthinkable at the time they were born.  Thanks to heavy investments in eduction, more of them can go to school and, once there, study for more years than their parents.  They can aspire to jobs in areas of biotech, engineering, information technology, and finance that literally did not exist a generation ago.

But what are the worries of Asia's youth, and what are their ideas for solving Asia's many challenges?

(i) Education

While Westerners are in awe of Asia's education test scores, Asia's "tiger cubs" see all-too-closely the many problems of Asia's schooling.  Most Asian schools are focused on stuffing students' heads with facts.  The notion of producing critical thinkers, of making students learners for life, has been slow to come to Asia.  There is recognition that China, and indeed much of Asia, has a long way to go in winning this space race of education when it comes to quality rather than test scores.  Despite recent years of economic growth, the eduction system is archaic.

Tiger cubs who have gone through their countries' education systems lament that there is an overemphasis on rote learning and a lack of emphasis on creativity and workplace skills.  Many of Asia's economies are transitioning into postindustrial societies that require workers to produce ideas rather than basic manufactured goods.

Another problem of concern for young Asians is unequal opportunities for education for different population groups, mainly those living in poorer areas, and girls.  Large populations of rural children are not enrolled in school, compared to their urban counterparts.  Girls have traditionally had fewer educational opportunities than boys, especially in South Asia.

Education is important not as an end in itself.  It is the means through which people gain financial access to a better life through employment, and countries become able to provide this better life through economic growth.  It is also the means through which people come to play a more active role in shaping the cultures of their communities and influencing the governance of their countries.

(ii) Inequality

While most Asian countries have experienced very rapid economic growth, inequality has also widened in much of Asia, and could lead to violence and social disruption.  Unevenly distributed economic growth offers uneven opportunities across peoples, translating into unevenly distributed income.  But in the long run, it is opportunity and not income that we should strive to equalize, and education is key.  

Poverty, along with weak and ineffective governments, means that the poor are by definition vulnerable to everything from natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes to global economic meltdown.

Very few young Asians look to government for solutions to poverty, and some worry that government corruption may decrease the effectiveness of poverty-reduction programs.  In Asian countries, there is no dearth of schemes for the poor, but the management and implementation is often in corrupt and inefficient hands.

Some young Asians look to social enterprises as a way to effectively distribute aid to those in need.  For example, Grameen Danone Foods, a social enterprise started by Group Danone and Grameen Bank of Bangldesh aims to provide Bangladeshi children with key nutrients otherwise missing from their diets.

(iii) Demographics

Asia faces two extreme demographic futures.  First, developing countries like India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines have large and growing populations, putting a heavy burden on sustained economic growth.  Asia will remain the largest contributor to global population growth in the next four decades.  Population growth means growing demand for basic education, healthcare, food and shelter, as well as for employment.  A big concern of the tiger cubs is that governments do not have the capacity to provide for these basic needs.

Second, developed economies including Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong are facing the challenge of ageing and declining populations, which puts pressure on the nation's finances through rising pension and health costs.  While immigration could help, there are many restrictions on the movement of people in the region. 

Over-urbanization due to unplanned and hurried growth of cities and metropolises, which is true of most Asian countries, is going to increase in the next decade and has been a major factor in lack of appropriate sanitary conditions, overcrowding, inhuman living conditions, poor health facilities, and lack of basic necessary amenities of life.

(iv) Environment

Tiger cubs regard energy and environmental issues as the most pressing challenges of Asia. 

Asia's economic and population growth have taken a brutal toll on the region's environment.  According to the World Bank, 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities are in China.  The World Health Organisation estimates that Asia accounts for two-thirds of the 800,000 premature deaths caused globally by air pollution. 

Asia is on the front lines of climate change.  Hundreds of millions of Asians live near oceans or rivers.  Rising sea levels and ever-more-frequent flooding and other natural disasters mean that more people -- especially the poor -- are likely to be hurt by the impact of climate change.

Water is increasingly scarce, and a shortage of clean water could bring a range of problems from disease to war.  The bigger problem for many Asians is less absolute scarcity than the problem of flilthy wter -- water contaminated by chemicals, disease, or animal or human waste.  As weather becomes more erratic, ever-larger groups of people are buffeted between too much water and not enough.

Asia has more natural disasters than any other region in the world, with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan being among the countries most vulnerable to to natural disasters.  One factor is that the 4.2 billion people living in Asia represent about 60% of the global population, yet live on just 30% of its land area, and many live in coastal regions or along rivers.  Natural disasters have a disproportionate impact on the poor.  The poor have little to lose, yet they often lose everything.  Those at the bottom of the pyramid typically don't have insurance, government grants, or loans to help them get started again.

Decades of underinvestment in agriculture, coupled with demand for more meat and dairy by Chinese and Indian consumers, mean that it's likely that food prices will remain on a sustained upward trend.

There is a hunger among the tiger cubs for regional solutions to tackle environmental problems.  But Asia's various institutions have been of limited effectiveness.  But young Asians over and over again look for regional solutions.  Does this reflect a lack of imagination, a lack of political reality, or a yearning for a more unified Asia?  The answer is probably a mixture of the three.

(v) Governance

Young Asians are concerned that Asia's governing practices are too weak, corrupt, or too underdeveloped to properly manage Asia's rapid expansion.  From governments that cannot successfully provide food to rural citizens, to corporations that disregard the environment, the problems with governance in Asia continue to exacerbate problems in the region.

The World Governance Indicator gives poor marks for many Asian countries in areas ranging from rule of law to peace and security.  Asia's history of social hierarchies and economic inequality has contributed to a dynastic system of governance in South Asia, typically leading to corrupt systems and a deep mistrust of government.

From developed countries like Japan to developing countries like Thailand, from democracies like the Philippines to authoritarian regimes like China, most Asian countries continue to be plagued by volatile domestic politics despite economic growth.  Such instability can be partially attributed to the fact that Asia leans heavily toward elite governance, which is deeply embedded in Asian culture.  It is virtually impossible for unknowns to make their mark.  Political leaders are usually descendants of political pedigree or foreign-educated elites.

Across the board, young Asians concerned with the lack of effective representation advocate a greater role for ordinary citizens in choosing their leaders.

With young Asians demanding more transparency and efficiency, governments and corportions are becoming increasingly accountable to the people of the region.  Young Asians want to see leaders who represent them and the interests of their community.  They see advances in technology as an opportunity to improve the quality of the region's governance -- from digitizing governmental food distribution programs to encouraging civic engagement.  This generation wants a voice.

(vi) Geopolitics

China is seen as a key to regional peace and prosperity -- but it is not clear whether China's rise is to be applauded, feared or both.  Terrorism and a variety of conflicts continue to tear apart the region.  Whether international organizations will be able to help is debatable -- Asia already has an alphabet soup of organizations.

Young Asians hunger for a more peaceful and a more integrated region.  And if this is to be Asia's Century, Asia must enhance its cooperation on everything from trade routes to regional institutions.  While young Asia's talk of "decoupling" from the West, this should not mean divorce.  However, a more prosperous, more confident, and more secure Asia can and must start charting its own course.

(vii) Asian Identity

Is there a single Asia?  Asia is diverse region.  It is home to the largest number of living languages in the world -- more than 2,300 are spoken by at least one person as a first languge.  Asia is also ethnically diverse.  China has 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups.  India has more than 2000.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Sikhism are all major belief systems.  Political systems include constitional monarchies, one-party states, federal states, liberal democracies and military dictatorships.

Amid these differences, one common element drawing the region closer has been economic development.  Nevertheless, the tiger cubs are critical of some of its aspects like short-term thinking, materialism, inequality and the erosion of moral values.  They are hopeful that in the longer term, mindsets can be changed to embrace what they perceive as common values among Asian cultures, including social harmony, morality, and pragmatism. 

These various sentiments are perhaps indicative of the tiger club generation's deeper search for what might be called the "Asian soul".  At the same time that Asians call for a search of common values, some are concerned about the loss of local culture and are passionate about preserving the elements that make countries distinctive. 

Concluding Comments

The tiger cubs bring with them a new set of aspirations for Asia.  This rising generation is demanding, and very distinct from their predecessors as employees, consumers, and citizens.

Second, the tiger cubs are "wired", empowered by technology.  This puts pressure on governments and companies to be more accountable.  There's no more information monopoly.  Where censorship does exist, the censors are fighting an increasingly difficult battle.  Third, the tiger cubs increasingly think of Asia as a region, their vision goes beyond their borders.           

Asian leaders would do well to listen closely to their youth.  As evidenced by the youth-led uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, young populations have sparked unprecedented changes to governments and societies.  The 2011 Arab Awakening was in part triggered by dissatisfaction with the ruling regimes and joblessness among youth.

While Asia may not be such a hotbed for discontent, the looming lost-decade, caused by the global financial crisis and European sovereign debt crisis, will no doubt foster growing dissatisfaction for the region's youth.   



Clifford,  Mark L., & Janet Pau.  "Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia's Next Generation".  Asia Business Council, Time, and National University of Singapore.


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