Hope for a better Asia rests on its youth

IN MY earlier article, "A jolt of reality to Asian Dream", I questioned Professor Kishore Mahbubani's overly optimistic idea of "the rise of Asia and the decline of the West". The next article, "Forging a unified voice in Asia", highlighted several critical shortcomings faced by Asia as it struggled towards a more comprehensive and sustainable development.

In this concluding piece, I emphasise that our "Asian Dream" will not end up as a mirage but eventually will turn into a reality. Hope for a better Asia comes from our Asian youth, especially those born after the 1980s.

First, there has been less hatred among young Asians. War always results in tremendous trauma and the hatred after war can last several generations. Until today, the Japanese invasions of Asian countries during World War II are still indelible nightmares for those elderly enough to personally experience it.

There have also been bilateral conflicts within Asia after the 1980s, such as the Sino-Indian skirmish (1987), the Johnson South Reef Skirmish (1988), the Thai-Laotian Border War (1987-1988), and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1975-1989), as well as civil wars in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tajikistan.

We have to admit that Asia is still not entirely peaceful today. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Indo-Pakistani conflict, Myanmar's internal strife, the Syrian civil war and the territorial disputes over the East China and South China seas are still going on relentlessly.

Nevertheless, very few Asian youth have personally participated in those conflicts or directly confronted their Asian counterparts on battlefields. Asian youth blessedly do not have irreconcilable enmity with one another. This certainly helps create a valuable foundation for building trust and cooperation among them.

Second, Asian youth share a similar vision of peace and development.

In this new era, war is a sunset business and going out of fashion. Instead, peace and development have become mainstream global objectives. With the exceptions of North Korea and Iran, most Asian nations are keen to build peaceful societies which focus on economic development.

Even in war-worn Iraq and Afghanistan, youth are searching for peace. The key to a peaceful Iraq was educating and enfranchising Iraqi youth, said the Centre for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.

Recently, a youth organisation called Afghan Voices renamed "Scud Hill", a symbol of Afghanistan's violent past, "Peace Hill".

China and India, the world's fastest-growing economies and the largest developing countries, have over 60 per cent of Asia's population. Most importantly, both countries account for the majority of Asian youth.

Moreover, most Chinese youth were born after the reform and opening up from 1978, while a large proportion of Indian youth were born after their country's economic liberalisation beginning in the 1990s. Chinese and Indian youth are more interested in doing business than entangling in conflicts. Their preferred vision for peace and development will help strengthen the foundation for a more peaceful Asia.

Last but not least, Asian youth cherish the value of mutual understanding and cooperation. They are the generation growing up with the Internet. In Asia, there are over a billion netizens and most are increasingly open-minded and actively involved young people in online communities. Information technology has made young Asians better connected than previous generations.

Mutual learning and exchanges have also helped young Asians better understand one another. For instance, China had only 1,381 foreign students in 1980. By last year, the number had surged over 200 times to 328,330 with 63.2 per cent of them from Asia.

At the National University of Singapore, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was established in 2004 to "inspire leaders, improve lives and help transform Asia". Since then, it has fostered hundreds of young Asian officials who are likely to seek win-win cooperation rather than zero-sum competitions with their Asian peers in the future.

Young Asians have grown up with booming intra-regional trade and investment. Free trade agreements (FTAs) were largely absent in Asia until the 1990s. But between January 2000 and April this year, Asia's concluded FTAs jumped from three to 76. The Asean-China Free Trade Area is the largest free trade area in terms of its coverage, with over 1.9 billion people in it.

Such fast-growing regional trade and investment dependency will encourage young Asians to pursue closer cooperation with one another.

There is a Chinese maxim, "A youth is to be regarded with respect (hou sheng ke wei)", in the Wisdom of Confucius. Young people are without doubt the hopes for a better future.

Even Deng Xiaoping, best known as the general designer of China's reform and opening up, said in 1978: "Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question (the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute). Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all."

Although we young Asians may not be any wiser than older generations, we definitely share a much more common consensus over the goals of peace and development. More critically, we are determined to deliver such goals through more creative solutions and win-win cooperation.

With this confidence in a better future, our "Asian Dream" will not just remain a dream.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer, a 1980s China-born graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an investment analyst and independent commentary writer based in Singapore.