How Asia Can Shape the World

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


How Asia Can Shape the World
by Jorgen Ostrom Moller
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

For most of recorded history, the globe's economic, cultural, and political centre of gravity clearly sat with the massive empires and multitudinous peoples of Asia. Whether the 'West' - less populous, historically less powerful except for a colonising blip driven by steel and gunpowder - will continue its agenda-setting for the world is a hot question today.

This makes a systematic study of the cultural, economic, technological, political, and environmental consequences of an ascendant Asia timely.

Amid many flash-in-the-pan, big-idea-little-research volumes that seek to chart Asia's ascendance, How Asia Can Shape the World has the opposite problem. Its author, retired Danish diplomat Jorgen Ostrom Moller, clearly does not lack for regional experience or a grounding in economics and geopolitics.

But long, ponderous chapters cry out for a firm editorial hand. There is an interesting book in these 500-plus pages, but it is too difficult for the casually informed reader to find and follow. Whatever editing there was didn't manage to catch basic misspellings such as 'Hilary' Clinton or the cartoon 'The Simpson's'. If other 'big trend' books are too concise, smug and glib, this is too sprawling, whatever the quality of the information inside.

That quality varies. A former ambassador to Singapore, Moller is clearly well-informed. His opening point on the flaws of Anglo-American economics - structured around the assumption of endless consumption across continents and colonies without harsh scarcities - is a welcome, if not entirely original, corrective.

It is certainly true, as the majority of the world's production and consumption moves to Asia, that Asian ideas and agendas will alter economic practices. Whether Asian philosophies of 'balance' and man's relationship to nature will infuse future economic thinking is more questionable, and perhaps overly romanticises things.

Some sections are rich with specific citations, but others break down into vaguely worded generalisations that carry the flavour of an undergraduate textbook, or a PowerPoint presentation. As a work of synthesis, it does not always cohere, and can be difficult to read from beginning to end.

Moller must be commended for his erudition, even if little of it surfaces in the actual text. Each chapter's citations form a comprehensive list of reading on contemporary Asia, from news reports to academic papers, which would prove a valuable summary for anyone looking for a grounding in the region's current and future possibilities.

The book remains valuable in two essential ways: as recognition of how the centre of gravity is shifting back to Asia; and as a reminder that glib, trendy and attention-grabbing books are often inadequate in tracing the phenomenon.