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As Hong Kong dims, Asia can learn much from Singapore, East Timor and Bhutan

Curtis Chin says while the region’s fate may rest largely on the major powers, to truly prosper, Asians must pay attention to such ‘small state ideas’ as a commitment to a more sustainable and more representative society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 5:25pm

Twenty years ago in Asia – as Hong Kong returned to China under the “one country, two systems” formula, there was hope that the former British colony would set an example for a freer, more progressive China.

Those days, for now, seem past as China cracks down on dissent in the run-up to a landmark Communist Party congress, and as Hong Kong jails democracy campaigners over anti-China protests. Hong Kong may no longer be the role model it once was, should Beijing’s moves, unintentional or not, transform this economic showcase into “just another Chinese city”.

Yet, at a recent Milken Institute Asia Summit that looked back 20 years to 1997 and ahead 20 more to 2037, I found hope that, amid the diversity of Asia, there remain numerous examples of a way forward for all of the region.

The story of Asia today remains very much one driven by its largest nations and economies. An increasingly assertive China, a slow-growing Japan, a rising India and a still emerging Indonesia dominate the headlines, along with mounting tensions from the Korean peninsula. Yet, all of “Asia rising” can take a lesson from some of the region’s smallest countries.

From three small countries come three big lessons for a greener, more representative and more transparent Asia. My hope for Asia 2037 is that these small nations – Bhutan, East Timor and Singapore – can inspire and show the way.

“Going green” is a phrase that has been thrown around for many years by both countries and companies. But despite the rhetoric, Asia is increasingly polluted, with man-made forest fires and smog-enveloped cities an annual occurrence. At least one Asia-Pacific nation, however, both talks the talk and walks the walk.

The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan – 790,000 people in a nation of 38,000 sq km – offers an example that its much larger neighbours (China to the north and India to the south) can learn from.

Bhutan’s leaders have put conservation at the heart of their environmental agenda, pledging to keep the country carbon neutral and writing into their constitution the requirement that 60 per cent of the nation must remain forested. Other initiatives include bans on plastic bags, restrictions on private vehicles in the capital Thimphu, and a commitment to become the world’s first 100 per cent organic-farming nation.

Money can’t buy you happiness

All this is in line with the philosophy of a “gross national happiness” index, as advocated by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. This approach to development goes beyond traditional economic measures, such as the gross national product, which only captures the economic value of goods and services produced. In addition to environmental conservation, the Gross National Happiness Commission also considers sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.

Deep blue: Hong Kong tumbles to 75th in world happiness rankings, lowest since UN report debuted

Another of Asia’s smallest countries, East Timor, with 1.2 million people and 14,875 sq km, offers an example of how people can move forward post conflict and take control of their own destinies, when given the chance.

I returned recently to this former Portuguese colony located on the eastern half of an island shared with Indonesia. The trip was as part of an international election observation mission from the Washington-based International Republican Institute. The East Timor government had invited observers to monitor the first parliamentary elections administered without UN oversight since the country regained independence in 2002 from Indonesia. The results were a peaceful and powerful example to many nations, big and small, still struggling to put the power of the vote in the hands of their citizens.

East Timor votes in presidential election, signalling age of stability in Asia’s youngest nation

While significant economic challenges continue, the people of this newest of Asian nations deserve praise as they progress from decades of conflict and centuries of colonialism. East Timor was ranked first in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016 for Southeast Asia and fifth in Asia, behind the well-established democracies of Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan.

Why Hong Kong can never be Singapore: just blame history

The densely-populated city state of Singapore, 5.6 million people on an area of only 719 sq km, is perhaps the leading example in Asia of a small nation that thinks big – and succeeds big. With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in the world, Singapore showcases the economic benefits of transparency and the rule of law. Its neighbours would do well to adopt this nation’s embrace of free markets and free trade in their own search for drivers of growth and foreign direct investment.

Singapore is perhaps the leading example in Asia of a small nation that thinks big – and succeeds big

Understandably, the pushback was significant when Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, recently argued that small states “must always behave like small states”, in remarks that were perceived to be a criticism of Singapore’s recent foreign policy.

Singapore did not succeed by thinking small, nor has it reached global prosperity by conforming to “small-country guidelines”. Having developed from a fishing village to a first-world country in just a few generations, Singapore also has become the leading finance and trade hub in Southeast Asia and a role model for rule of law. This prosperous Lion City is now ranked the second-easiest place in the world to do business in the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2017” report, behind New Zealand, and the seventh least-corrupt economy in the world, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

As a small state, should Singapore hide when ‘elephants’ fight?

Being ambitious is not a bad thing. Small in geography need not mean small-country mentality and policies.

Over the past 20 years, I have seen first-hand the accomplishments and continuing challenges of Bhutan, Singapore and East Timor. Still, as small fish in the big pond that is Asia, these three nations have futures that are by no means certain.

Being ambitious is not a bad thing. Small in geography need not mean small-country mentality and policies

In the two decades ahead, Asia will continue to transform. According to United Nations estimates, India will trade places with China six years before 2030 to become the world’s most populous nation, en route to 1.66 billion people by 2050. Wealth and inequality are likely to grow, as will the risk of military conflict amid competing demands for energy, water and other resources. Paradoxically, a more populous Asia dominated by large nations might also prove “smaller” as trade and technology further link the ­region.

All share a vision for an Asia-Pacific that is prosperous and at peace in 2037. Much, though, will depend on the world’s biggest powers and the region’s largest nations.

Here’s a prediction. Large countries will seek, in the years ahead, to apply economic or military pressure to shape their smaller neighbours’ behaviour and policies – no different than today. Asia and the Pacific, however, will be better off if all nations adopt some modern-day, “small state ideas” offered up by Bhutan, East Timor and Singapore – namely, the embrace of a greener, more representative and more transparent future for all their citizens. That ideally will ring true in both Hong Kong and Beijing one day.

Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group and the inaugural Asia fellow of the Milken Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin