Look east, we're lagging behind

August 4, 1995

Every now and then the world's attention shifts. For much of the post-war period it focused on the Third World, on Korea and Vietnam and the struggles against colonialism. In the 1980s it was the Cold War. In the early 1990s, journalists and tourists flocked to eastern Europe, and for a time to South Africa.

Now attention is turning firmly to east Asia and the Pacific. For years pundits have argued that global power is shifting eastwards. Only now is it beginning to sink in.

One recent straw in the wind was Tony Blair's visit to Rupert Murdoch in Hayman Island. Most commentators analysed it in terms of domestic politics or the power of the media. But in the long run its significance was also that it symbolised that the centre of gravity is now somewhere on the semicircle that joins Tokyo and Singapore, Sydney and Seattle. The decisions, whether over cars or microchips, that have a far-reaching impact on British life are as likely to be taken in Tokyo or Seoul as in Frankfurt or Chicago.

It is strange, however, how little of this new reality has filtered through in Britain. There has, for example, been a spate of grand policy commissions in the past few years on everything from education to welfare. Yet without exception, they work within a western framework. It is as if we can learn nothing from the 87 per cent of the world's population which is not white. Nor have many social scientists acknowledged that we might now have more to learn from Singapore's booming Central Provident Fund than from Sweden's ailing welfare system. Or that on schooling Taiwan may teach us more than Germany.

This shift is hard to handle. It sits ill with centuries of assumed superiority and offends the left-liberal sensibility that stereotypes east-Asian societies as reactionary and authoritarian, conformist and workaholic.

Yet the facts are so compelling that this complacency is unsustainable. Already China is the second largest economy and forecasters expect it to be the largest by early next decade. By then even Thailand may have overtaken the United Kingdom, and Indonesia, already in the world's top ten, will have established itself as a major power.

Nor is it easy to ignore the data on educational performance. For many years the east Asian nations have been outperforming the west on maths and science. As David Reynolds of Newcastle University has shown, the commitment to high reliability means that schools are designed to ensure that no one fails, rather than accepting, as we do, that a substantial minority flunks, thus becoming a drag on the whole society.

This is not to say that we should unthinkingly adopt methods which grew up in quite different cultures. It is the nature of learning and adaptation that they are active processes, reshaping rather than simply adopting. But if we are to get anything right in the years ahead we have to start with humility - recognising that the west no longer has the pre-eminence it once had, whether in business or science, in social policy or governance. We have to accept that whereas in the past we could see ourselves as teachers we now have to become learners as well.

For universities this has an obvious implication. It means not only maximising the numbers of Malaysians and Taiwanese coming to the UK (which we are doing pretty well) but also putting even more effort into increasing the flow the other way. For in the long run, our prosperity will depend less on making a few pounds from fees and far more on ensuring that our population is at ease with a more open, plural world in which our position is bound to be one of relative weakness.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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