Asia can do more to meet full potential: DPM Tharman

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam today urged policymakers in the region to give serious thought to reforms that will ensure sustainable broad-based growth, as he cautioned that Asia's economic ascendancy should not be taken for granted.

These include adopting an outward orientation instead of protectionist inclinations, and making education systems less focused on academics and more conducive to the lifelong learning of skills.

Amid the current "despondent" mood about global economic growth, Asia has "a bit more of a tail wind" in the form of favourable demographics and a growing middle class.

"But it's important to remind ourselves that nothing is preordained," Mr Tharman said to around 250 current and former Asian ministers, corporate bigwigs and thought leaders at the inaugural Singapore Forum.

The two-day event to discuss issues facing Asia's development at the Shangri-La hotel began with a dialogue and dinner with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday. Former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the keynote speaker at the conference on Saturday.

In his remarks at a lunch dialogue, Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, said Asian nations are not meeting their potential to converge with the developed world.

For countries in the region to achieve their full potential, they must overcome the instinct to cater only to growing domestic markets and to replace imports with locally-produced goods and services.

"The new mantra is that of moving away from export-oriented growth towards domestic demand. And on the face of it there's some sense in it because... domestic demand in Asia is growing," he said.

But this mantra has been "vastly overstated" as demand is only part of the equation.

"What fuels growth at the end of the day is not demand but supply - skills, entrepreneurial ability, technological progress, productivity," he said, adding that international engagement is a clearly superior strategy in these areas.

Protecting domestic markets from imports also tends to favour "the existing elite" of incumbent producers, Mr Tharman added.

He also advocated relooking the current approach to education in order to create a workforce equipped with skills relevant for the future.

Across Asia, education tends to be too academically focused, leading to many university graduates having trouble finding jobs without further training in specific skills, Mr Tharman observed.

Learning should also not be "front-loaded" in the first two decades of a person's life, as that fails to prepare workers for a future of machines becoming exponentially cheaper and smarter, he added.

Instead, he proposed a system of lifelong learning "that's integrated with the real world, developments in technology".

Economic obstacles aside, Asia also faces the challenge of keeping its societies together at a time of increasing sectarian conflict across the world, Mr Tharman said.

He suggested giving each group "the pride of their own religions, beliefs and cultures", but also developing a larger common space and a common identity to ensure better integration.

Discussions about smart cities and the quality of life are not just about economic opportunities, he added. "It is about shared futures. We have to place that foremost in our minds as our objective."

fiochan@sph.com.sg