Asia to turn Japanese

June 9, 1995

Universities in Asia are paying a great deal of attention to the people who have made the region's economic revolution possible. These are the wealth-minded national leaders and the businessmen whom they have encouraged. Even the Chinese, who had always placed the merchants at the bottom of the social scale, have revised their views on the new breed of businessmen and the impact which their activities have brought to the region.

There have always been traders and merchants. But we are talking now of entrepreneurs, industrialists, financiers and the products of contemporary business schools, new species of businessmen who have the skills to make economic transformation possible for one country after another.

The role of the businessman in Asia has been greatly enhanced during the past two decades. There is a new appreciation of what businessmen can do to enrich their countries, and that universities are now in the forefront of making them function successfully.

Much depends on the tertiary education available, either abroad or in their own countries. The necessary science and technology has to be acquired. Banking and credit principles, commercial law and accounting practices all have to be taught and incorporated into the new Asian enterprises. A whole new generation of executives and technicians has to be trained to manage the businesses and industries.

And, as each country became increasingly urbanised, universal education followed and, soon afterwards, better education for girls. Women joined the workforce and that changed the nature of the nuclear family, as more of them became dependent on two incomes. Many of the women themselves became modern businesswomen, and some would compete with the men.

Clearly more changes can be expected, possibly too much and too quickly. Thus the cry around Asia is to put a halt to the tendency to tread the path taken by all countries in Europe, North America and Australasia. Warnings have been sounded against excessive individualism, environmental degradation, and the exponential growth of the social welfare system.

The example of Japan, the forerunner in Asia, is ambivalent. Almost the most isolated Asian state until the mid-l3th century, it built the first modern Asian universities and went furthest and fastest in adapting to Western science and technology. Yet it appears to have preserved its basic cultural values. No one, however, is certain that Japan can be a model for other Asians. Itscultural values have little in common with the rest of Asia. Even the Buddhism from India and Confucianism from China have distinct Japanese characteristics. It is one thing for Japan to adapt what it borrows from the rest of Asia, but quite another thing for the rest of Asia to try and take from Japan what it had uniquely shaped through its own chemistry.

But in the realm of business, there may be something that is less Japanese and more in line with the inclinations of other Asian countries. This is the cozy relationship between government and business that has been diagnosed as the secret of Japan's economic success. But a cozy relationship between government and business does not always work. There have been countries in which government partnerships with business has ended with disastrous results because those governments had not prepared themselves properly for such complex relationships; or perhaps their cultural backgrounds were a handicap; or the sharpest brains in those countries had gone into business and not been recruited into the political and bureaucratic arena.

What is clear is that many governments in Asia have successfully directed economic development and have attracted the most talented graduates to work for them, widening appreciation of the importance of the private sector. Therefore, the model of the government as a superior business strategist doing the instructing, and businessmen as loyal servants acting along the guidelines provided, has become one that many countries have chosen to follow.

If this continues, what is the role for higher education? I am struck by the success of modern universities, all modelled on those in the West, in providing education to new generations of civil servants and businessmen. Is this going to make the products of all this education, especially the businessmen, more like Americans and Europeans?

On the surface, this is happening. Questions of standards and quality control, of accountability and transparency, of law and the protection of private property, and of the protection of political and individual rights and the environment, have been raised everywhere. There have also been the growth of new social classes, the advent of party politics and the communications revolution that has made global interdependence a necessity. All these would suggest that, as the businessmen in Asia have increasingly to cope with social and political problems similar to those faced by businessmen in the West, they simply will have to become more like their Western counterparts.

But there are strong undercurrents. There is evidence that, by speeding up the acquisition of the latest advanced scientific skills, governments in the region have increased their ability to direct patriotic businessmen to enrich their countries in traditionally acceptable ways. If Japan is any guide to the future, Asian businessmen will contribute their share of Western learning to serve an essentially Asian base.

This is likely to happen for one important reason. Deep-rooted traditions are no longer being rejected as backward and irrelevant. Everywhere, there are calls for revival or restoration of religions, ethical systems and cultural artefacts of every description. Certainly nationalist elites all over Asia are trying to bring back respect to their respective traditions. They use the government machinery to support popular demands for cultural revivals. Asian businessmen could model themselves on Western entrepreneurs and depend on large management structures. They could also become close partners of the state in commercial and industrial enterprises and receive not only strong support against foreign competitors, but also rich rewards as national economic heroes.

For most of those who are less ambitious, they could focus on the family firm as the basic unit of business as it has always been. The majority of firms commonly found among the Chinese, and also among the Indians, are based on extended families. These firms are never more than small-to-medium sized, but are always great survivors, quick to grow and easy to defend and revive, always manoeuvrable, flexible and adaptable.

There are many varieties of response to the astonishing impact of Western civilisation. That variety should not dazzle us too much. Instead, we should note the power of rejuvenated traditions in the future of Asian development, even among its most progressive businessmen.

The modern universities should stop thinking of traditional cultures as something exotic and belonging to the past. In the new context, they should begin to turn to the great traditions of Asia in order to understand what the new generations of Asian businessmen hope to achieve in the 21st century.

Wang Gungwu is vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

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