What Do Asia’s Future Leaders Think?
Who will be Asia’s future leaders?
They are a generation who we call the Tiger Cubsi. They grew up under protective parents who often used their new-found affluence to ensure that their children made the most of opportunities the elder generation never had. By and large, they are English-speaking, well-educated, and technologically-connected.
These are all traits that should equip this new generation to lead Asia in the future. Yet media commentators often ascribe to its members a range of less-than-flattering labels and contradictory qualities. In the Chinese mainland, children of one-child families growing up in cities and enjoying the undivided attention of their parents are called balinghou (post-1980) or “little emperors.” They are seen as optimistic about the future, individualistic, and concerned with material comforts. Time calls them the “Me generation” - depicting them as self-interested, pragmatic, and materialistic.
Those born in Hong Kong in the 1980s are also called the “post-80s” generation. They are activist and entrepreneurial, yet they are also said to be over-indulged, lacking the ability to cope with adversity, not committed to regular work, and over-critical of the government and business establishment.
Young Indians are described as being “in a hurry.” They are impatient to graduate and in a rush to take advantage of job opportunities that have arisen from the country’s IT services boom. They look for jobs that pay well and enable them to buy things quickly without having to save for years.
In Japan, young males are called the soshoku danshi, or “herbivore generation.” In contrast with the preceding generation of males, who were seen as stereotypical corporate warriors and workaholic salarymen, these young men are seen as uncompetitive, uncommitted to work, and dependent on their parents. Along similar lines, in Taiwan, members of the “strawberry generation” are so described because they “bruise” easily and cannot withstand social pressures. Twenty-somethings in South Korea are called the “880,000-won generation”, referring to those who have worked hard and achieved at school but are now trapped in low-paying, temporary, or contract jobs with a monthly salary around this figure (about US$650).
While no doubt sweeping generalisations, these labels hint at the greater possibilities these young Asians are presented with, as well as perceptions of their preparedness for the future.
Many of the Tiger Cubs, who are all under the age of 32 and born after 1978, when Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s economic reforms, have grown up in the midst of the so-called Asian miracle, though the word “miracle” does not capture the sheer grit and determination of hundreds of millions of people, mostly in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, to build better their lives.
The economic transformation of Asia has meant dramatic improvements in living standards. In the 30 years from 1975 to 2005, the high-performing US economy grew its GDP per capita fivefold. Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, while starting at a lower base, each grew theirs more than 10 times.
This new generation has come of age at a time when Asia and the world have undergone dramatic transitions. Its members live in an Asia that has embraced globalisation, and, thanks to free trade, has been one of its biggest beneficiaries.. Yet Asia is seeing the system come under strain, as young people who have been brought up during prosperous times - and who are taught to be optimistic about the future - are confronted with the brutal realities of the region’s new challenges..
The Asia Business Council, together with Time and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, held an essay contest to understand what concerns young Asians have about the future. The winning essays provided a glimpse into the worries and hopes of these young Asians.
Through their eyes, Asia faces dire problems. Winner Sarabjit Singh, an IT professional, worries that “the under-privileged can now more easily gape at the affluence of their fellow countrymen, potentially inflaming their grievances even further.” Runner-up Gemlyn George, a medical student, is concerned that “the two big engines of economic growth in Asia (South Asia and China) have healthcare systems that are fragmented, suffer huge deficits of manpower and facilities, and are potential flashpoints of anger for young populations that are increasingly demanding the best possible care.”
Another student, Rohit Pathak, points out that “the biggest hurdle in the way of good governance is corruption, as it is, undoubtedly, the direct and indirect cause of almost the entire spectrum of our problems such as poverty, terrorism, illiteracy, poor infrastructure, and others, which probably, in its absence, could have been solved by now.” Loh Su Hsing, a PhD candidate in international relations, laments that “most Asian countries continue to be plagued by volatile domestic politics despite economic growth. Such instability can partially be attributed to the fact that Asia leans heavily toward elite governance, which is deeply embedded in Asian culture. It is virtually impossible for unknowns to make their mark.”
Solutions suggested by these young Asians range from bringing growth to the countryside, to strengthening primary healthcare at the community level, to digitising government services, to investing in innovations in infrastructure, environmental management and education, thereby leapfrogging those of the West. In short, they have hopes for a better future. More broadly, essayists advocate market-based solutions, greater regional integration, and global engagement. Yet many recognise that fixing the problems requires incremental, tedious work. They have high ideals and yet demonstrate pragmatism.
The Tiger Cub generation faces an Asia that can forge a vastly different path. To these young people, Asia’s rise is a given, not a question. For the first time, the region is not militarily preoccupied with settling major border conflicts or with post-colonial disputes and has turned its attention to building itself up economically and politically. Asian countries have a larger proportion of tertiary-educated people e, and these graduates have a higher level of global exposure and are more technologically savvy than their elders.
At the same time, while Asia’s economic miracle was built on hard work and the promise of better lives, youngsters feel that they do not have opportunities to climb the economic ladder. The kinds of underlying pressures bubbling up through the Occupy Wall Street movement are very real in Asia, too. Some of the protestors are young, educated professionals, a demographic that, just a generation ago, would be elite workers who might not worry about whether they can have a job or a home. The sense that meritocracy and opportunity may come to an end after graduation risks making young people lose their drive and optimism.
The older generation is handing the baton to a younger one that is looking for validation of their voices and ideas, so that they can gain the confidence to lead Asia in a much needed, different direction. Those in power in Asia now should think about how to prepare this new crop to take the reins of leadership.
iThrough the Eyes of Tiger Cubs – Views of Asia’s Next Generation, Mark L Clifford and Janet Pau, John Wiley &Sons (Asia) Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2012.