Professor, Tamkang University, Taiwan, Adjunct Professor, University of the Sunshine Coast and associate, Queensland University of Technology
“The reported discovery of an accurate map of Asia by a 16th century Chinese explorer could create the context for Asia to transform its self-image, according to Professor Sohail Inayatullah of Tamkang University in Taipei and the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia., Speaking at a meeting of Bristol-Myers Squibb in Singapore(January 7th, 2006), Dr Inayatullah said that the discovery of the map could change the future for Asia.”
Is a new Asia emerging? Growth rates are important but the alleged discovery of a map showing that Chinese explorer, Zheng He knew of the new world – indeed, had a decent map of the entire world – strengthens the confidence of Asia, creates the possibility of cultural transformation.
While the map may be a forgery, its impact on the emergence of an Asia that can say Yes! to itself is pivotal. “We discovered you,” is the new story. Add this new confidence to the emerging reality of China and India joining the East Asian economic miracle and suddenly the future can look quite different.
A new fusion Asia – traditional but far flatter than Confucian (or Hindu, Muslim, buddhist) hierarchy – may indeed be possible. This Asia would continue to learn from others, but instead of only copying, it would see that innovation is the path forward. South Korea has already begun to heavily invest in the creative industries – connectivity through the eyes of the artist not just the corporate executive. And with South Korea having quickly moved up the ladder to near the top in new patents – joining Japan and the USA – new futures are indeed possible.
However, along with the bright future of Asia Fusion is another scenario. This is Divided Asia. This scenario imagines continued conflicts between the two Koreas, between China and Japan, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, to mention just a few fault lines. Add to that corruption and mindless bureaucracy, tempered with hundreds of years of feudalism, and any bright future for Asia seems impossible.
The past few years of crisis provides testimony to this. The financial crisis, SARS, HIV, the tsunami, extremist Islamic terrorism all point to deep systemic problems. These cannot be solved merely by more efficiency but must be addressed by changes in worldview. Surveillance helped stop the SARS epidemic but now it is bird flu. Farming practices, certain diets, men searching for exotic foods to enhance sexual potency – all need to change in Asia. The pathologies of tradition must be transformed.
And yet it is in tradition wherein lies the future of Asia.
Meditation, yoga, tai-chi, feng shui, jain paradoxical logic, future generations thinking (life for our children’s children) all are part of the solution to a sustainable and transformed planet. After all, Grameen Bank’s micro lending program was a dramatic innovation and yet at the root of it was a depth understanding of community, the local village economy, and Muhammad Yunus’ realization that the dignity of the poor and their desire for a better material life were both necessary factors for change.
USED AND DISCARDED FUTURE
The last fifty years, however, has not been the story of the village economy but of the city. Asia has purchased the used and often discarded future of the West. Bigger buildings, endless shopping malls, designer clothes and the attendant problems of pollution, congestion (billion dollar problems) still seem unconnected to many Asian city planners. But with more and more evidence showing that car exhaust, the effects of suburbanization are bad for your heart, for your breathing and for your immune system generally, something has to give. It is western cities that are now looking for ways out, for a return to the garden city – the urban village – even as Asian mayors battle it out for the world’s tallest building (K.L. to Taipei to Shanghai to Dubai – is this Hegel’s geist but returned as a demon?). Some mayors in the West are even asking the age old question of what would a spiritual city look like? How can urban spaces be linked to green spaces to create a feeling of well-being and even invite the presence of the transcendental? Seoul, for example, to bring back nature, has just ripped up a huge chunk of motorway to open up its main river that had been covered over 50 years ago
SNAKES AND LADDERS
But many Asian cities continue the rise. And yet, along with the rise is the fall. Perhaps it is snakes and ladders that is the more appropriate image of the future. Hard work, capital, savings have led to the rise, but since the problems of patriarchy, environment, feudalism have not been resolved, the snake is next – the slippery road back to poverty. After all, it is still men who run things, still the male gaze that dominates, the environment is not yet respected and it is the big man who demands respect.
Underneath all this is worldview – karma. The future understood is that which the astrologer sees not that which we create. It is fear of disaster and not the imagination of a new future that holds sway. And the leader uses this fear to ensure that innovation does not become epidemic.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
For Asia to transform – to avoid the problems of the endless rise, the second-hand future of the West; the grand divisions of politics and nations; and the fall of the snake- much needs to be changed. Here are some starting points.
1. Design cities that are green – that create community, that are soft on the earth, that recycle at every level (as per the work of Malaysian architect Ken Yeang) and even as they grow financially retain equity.
2. Move toward resource taxes in order to promote sustainability.
3. Transform bureaucracy from red tape to green tape – rules that help innovation –
Real innovation not just Poweroint presentations from representatives of the Ministry of Science and Technology (Asia has its own version of the Ministry of Funny Walks)
4. Move toward increasing cooperative enterprises of all sorts (academic coops, food coops, for example).
5. Globalizing but enhancing local and regional economies to protect local food, bio and cultural diversity.
6. Integrate consciousness technologies in education – meditation and yoga for primary and secondary schools, in government and certainly in business
7. Ensure that Asian leaders leave instead of staying way past their welcome – deep democracy, not just regular elections.
8. Heal the wounds of past genocides – thinking of desired future, not who was right or wrong – transcend peace solutions, as in South Africa. And, most importantly,
9. Create gender partnership – women and men working together.
If change can move in this direction then a new Asia is possible. If not, then it does not matter if Zheng He did discover the new world – he is not here now to create it.
But we are.