The Asian Renaissance: Through Young Asian Eyes

A new historical era has begun. Many call it the rise of Asia. But it should be more accurately described as the return of Asia. From the year 1 to 1820, China and India consistently provided the world’s largest economies. Hence, the last 200 years of European and America domination of world history have been a major historical aberration. And all historical aberrations come to a natural end.

The Asian renaissance that we are witnessing today is therefore a completely natural phenomenon. Yet, despite its naturalness, there is no guarantee that there will be a smooth or easy passage to a new peaceful and prosperous era. Indeed, Asians will have to overcome many major challenges and obstacles.

The generation that will have to deal with these future challenges are the young Asians of today. Despite the important role they will have to play on the world stage, few know how they view the world or how they perceive Asia’s future roles and responsibilities. This gap in our knowledge explains why it was timely for the Asia Business Council, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Time magazine to launch the Asia’s Challenge 2020 essay competition in 2010.

This volume of essay extracts can play an important role in developing a better global understanding of Asian thinking. Of course, there is a wide range of perspectives, reflecting the diversity of Asia. At the same time, some common themes emerge. Despite the painful experience of colonialism and imperialism, there is little anger in these essays. Instead, the traditional Asian pragmatic streak comes through. Yes, Asia faces many challenges. But these young Asian writers do believe that these challenges can be overcome.

The essays reveal that young Asians are deeply aware of the major challenges to Asian societies: from demographic changes to educational challenges; from great power rivalries to domestic political challenges; from the environmental impact of Asia’s return to the challenges of a growing gap between rich and poor; from the despair of corruption to the hope of technology.

Despite the awareness of these overwhelming challenges, there is also a strong streak of optimism running through many of these essays. At the end of the day, the essay competition winners are confident that Asia will overcome these challenges. Youth from other regions, from Africa to Latin America, from Europe to America, will also benefit from reading these essays.

We at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy are proud to have co-sponsored the Asia’s Challenge 2020 essay competition and we are pleased that much of the hard work put in by the contestants can now be shared worldwide.

Kishore Mahbubani

Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

National University of Singapore


This book is the work of many minds. First, we want to thank the nearly 400 essayists who entered Asia’s Challenge 2020. These young Asians took the time to let us know what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the region over the next decade and what should be done about them. From among the many essayists, we want to particularly thank and commend the nearly 100 authors whose writings we drew upon for this book.

Thanks go also to our partners, Time magazine and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. We owe a special debt to the contest’s judges, two from each of the sponsoring organizations, all of whom made important contributions. Time’s former deputy managing editor and international editor, Michael Elliott, as well as Asia editor Zoher Abdoolcarim, generously donated their time as judges. Michael has since become president and CEO of the ONE foundation. At the Lee Kuan Yew School, Dean Kishore Mahbubani and Vice Dean Astrid Tuminez served as judges. Kudos to Kishore, who somehow managed to make time in his schedule to write the Foreword. Many others at both Time and the Lee Kuan Yew School helped in myriad ways to make the contest a success. Ambassador Tommy Koh’s moving speech at the award ceremony held in Singapore in December 2010 and his encouragement helped prompt us to embark on this book project.

At the Asia Business Council, we want to acknowledge the enthusiastic support shown by members, especially by the Board of Trustees, led by former Chairman Qin Xiao and current Chairman Marjorie Yang. Above all, we want to thank trustees Nobuyuki Idei and Lubna Olayan, who served on our judging panel and, along with the other four judges, undertook the time-consuming task of choosing the winning essays.

This project would not have been as comprehensive, as accurate, or as quick to come to fruition were it not for the help of our Asia Business Council colleagues. Council researcher Alex Zhang and Princeton-in-Asia fellow Kari Wilhelm drafted chapters, did much of the underlying research, and took on a great deal of the necessary work involved in a book like this, ranging from sifting through the nearly 400 essays to fact-checking. Publications editor Sheri Prasso pushed us to make this a far more coherent and well-thought-out book than it otherwise would have been.

The Council’s administrative director, Winnie Wu, and administrative associate, Bonnie Chang, continue to ensure the Council’s smooth day-to-day operations. Their efficiency, grace, and good humor made the task of juggling this book and our other tasks possible.

Rosalie Siegel graciously provided thoughtful counsel in structuring the book contract. At John Wiley & Sons, we want to thank our publisher, Nick Wallwork, for seeing the merits of this project, as well as his colleagues, Jules Yap, Janis Soo, and Todd Tedesco, who helped bring it to fruition.

The usual disclaimers apply: We are responsible for any errors. Much of the essayists’ material is, of course, opinionated; throughout, we have tried to make the distinction between fact and opinion clear to readers.

Mark Clifford would like to thank Melissa, Anya, and Ted for their continuing love and support.

Janet Pau would like to thank Jimmy, Jocelyn, Josiah, her parents, Wing Foo and Miranda, and her brother, Alex, for the love and joy they bring into her life.

Hong Kong

August 2011


Meet the Tiger Cubs

Over the next decade, a new generation will begin to take over the reins of leadership in Asia. The region they inherit inevitably will be quite different from the one they grew up in. They in turn will bring a leadership style that will be different from that of their elders.

The first half of the twentieth century in Asia was a story of war and continuing poverty punctuated by revolution. The following three decades saw de-colonization and its aftermath, with Japan and the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) engaged in a momentous economic transformation. The last 30 years have been a story of high economic growth interrupted by the sharp 1997–98 contraction and the 2008–2009 global financial crisis.

On the whole, Asia has gone through a time of remarkable peace and prosperity. Asians coming into adulthood today have been alive at a time when large-scale armed conflict has been absent from their lives, and when much of the region has witnessed the fastest sustained growth that our planet has ever seen.

Asia’s leaders of tomorrow will come from a generation that has known little but good times. What are their worries, and what are their ideas for solving Asia’s many challenges?

To help answer these questions, the Asia Business Council joined with Time magazine and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore to organize an essay contest for Asian nationals under the age of 32. It was open to youth from countries stretching from Japan in the east to Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the west—from the Pacific to the Suez Canal and the Bosporus. We followed the lead of the World Bank’s program for young professionals in picking an upper age limit that was still young, but was old enough that many of our essayists had finished their studies and had been working for some time.

By opening the contest to those born after 1978—coincidentally, when Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s economic reforms—we ensured that we would have Chinese writers who grew up under a reform agenda, and Indians who would have only dim memories of the era before their country’s sweeping economic reforms were introduced in 1991. South Korean contestants would have, at most, distant memories of the years when a military dictatorship ruled their country, and most Filipino writers would not remember Ferdinand Marcos, let alone the assassination of the father of current President Benigno Aquino III during Marcos’s administration. Japanese contestants would have only childhood memories of the boom years of the 1980s. Each of the writers tackled the challenge of outlining, in 3,000 words or less, what he or she thinks is Asia’s biggest challenge over the next decade, why, and what can be done about it.

Young people from 21 countries and economies around Asia submitted 385 valid essays. India had the most submissions, followed by the Philippines. The average age of the essayists was 23. This book, which draws on selected excerpts from the essays as well as broader information, including statistical and anecdotal data, reveals that the concerns of Asia’s new generation of young adults fall within two broad categories—Asia’s people and Asia as a region.


Nowhere in history have more young people been catapulted into the modern world with the speed and intensity of today’s young Asians. Three decades ago the region was poor, far behind the West. Today its cities and schools are emerging as new models. Its broadband speeds and Internet access rates, its high-speed trains and urban train networks, the facilities at many of its new university campuses, and even its soaring property prices in some cases have vaulted Asia ahead of the West. Asia is now a continent of promise and possibility.

The parents of today’s young Asians knew hunger and revolution. Now, no longer living in a world defined by poverty, today’s young Asians are better-fed and better-educated, and have access to the world through the Internet in a way that would have been unthinkable at the time they were born. Thanks to heavy investments in education, more of them can go to school and, once there, study for more years than their parents. They can aspire to jobs in areas of biotech, engineering, information technology, and finance that literally did not exist a generation ago.

Many of them grew up in Asia’s tiger economies—a term initially referring to the high-performing economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan but later more broadly describing economies that are growing rapidly on a sustained basis. They belong to the generation we call Tiger Cubs—they have protective parents who often use their newfound affluence to ensure that their children make the most of opportunities that the elder generation never had. And, as everyone from aunts and uncles to teachers and government officials warns these young Asians, they live in a modern jungle. Country competes against country, school competes against school, student competes against student. Resources are scarce, competition fierce, and survival is not guaranteed. Though competition is nothing new, the heightened expectations of the Tiger Cubs and their families make their desire for success that much stronger.

The result is a unique group. Increased economic prosperity, smaller families, and more resources directed to each child have given the Tiger Cubs a view of the world that is both privileged and insecure.

The American and European counterparts of these young Asians—for the purposes of this book, those born from 1978 to the early 1990s—are generally known as Generation Y. This generation, also called the Millennial generation, describes a demographic cohort that is mostly comprised of children of the Baby Boomers, the generation born after World War II. In the United States, members of Generation Y are generally seen as digitally savvy, culturally liberal, and privileged as compared to their parents. They are also sometimes called the “Peter Pan” or “boomberang” generation, because of the perception that many 20-somethings delay or prolong their paths to adulthood after graduating from university.

The Tiger Cub generation, or Asia’s Generation Y, has a population of almost 1.5 billion and shares some of the characteristics, both positive and negative, with its Western counterpart.

In mainland China, children of one-child families growing up in cities and enjoying the undivided attention of their parents are called balinghou (“post-80”) or “little emperors.” They are seen as optimistic about the future, individualistic, and concerned with material comforts. Time calls them the “Me generation”—they are self-interested, pragmatic, and materialistic.

Those born in Hong Kong in the 1980s also are called the “post-80” generation. Commentators ascribe a range of conflicting characteristics to them: They are activist and entrepreneurial, yet they are also said to be overindulged, lacking in adaptive capabilities, not committed to regular work, and overly 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 saving for years.

In Japan, young males are called the soshoku danshi, or “herbivore generation.” In contrast with the previous generation, who were seen as stereotypical corporate warriors and workaholic salary-men, these young men are seen as uncompetitive, uncommitted to work, and dependent on their parents. Men and women in their twenties who still live with their parents rather than independently are sometimes called parasaito shinguru, or “parasite singles.” Freelance or unemployed workers are called “freeters.” Along similar lines, in Taiwan, members of the “strawberry generation” are easily bruised and cannot withstand social pressures.

Twenty-somethings in South Korea are called the “post-386” generation. The “386” generation, a play on the popular computer model of the era, referred to youths who were in their thirties as they led the pro-democracy movement during the 1980s. By contrast, the post-386s are more concerned about the increased competition for jobs and high levels of youth unemployment than about politics. Another nickname for this group is the “880,000 won” generation, referring to those who have worked hard and achieved at school but are trapped in low-paying, temporary, or contract jobs with a monthly salary around this figure (about $650).

While no doubt generalizations, these labels provide a glimpse of the opportunities these young Asians are presented with as well as perceptions of their preparedness for the future.

Many of the Tiger Cubs have grown up in the midst of the so-called Asian miracle, though the word miracle doesn’t capture the sheer grit and determination of hundreds of millions of people, notably in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, to 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 U.S. economy grew its GDP per person fivefold. Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, while starting out 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 globalization, and, thanks to free trade, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of it. Yet Asia is seeing the system come under strain, as young people who have been brought up during prosperous times and are taught to be optimistic about the future are confronted with brutal realities as Asia faces new challenges.

Asia in 2020

Asia holds an extraordinary potential for continued economic growth and progress, with growth in GDP, wages, and spending power expected to outpace the West in the decade ahead. A study from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) estimates Asia’s share of the world economy will increase from 35 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2020. China is expected to become the world’s second-largest consumer market, and the size of India’s consumer market is expected to rival Europe’s by 2020. China will send more tourists abroad than any other country. The majority of new jobs will come from developing Asia, with India alone making up 30 percent of the net increase in global employment. The share of households with annual disposable incomes of $5,000 to $15,000 is expected to grow from about one-third to about one-half of all households in both China and Indonesia in 2020, and from 15 percent to 41 percent in India.

However, the next decade is filled with a new set of challenges for the region—perhaps we can call them “mid-life challenges.” Asia’s rise faces many obstacles, as problems created from environmental neglect, the continent’s growing and aging population, and unbalanced growth become more prevalent. The increasing needs of Asia’s population, which is expected to reach 4.6 billion by 2020, will lead to pressure on food, water, and energy resources. Under a business-as-usual scenario, in the next 20 years, Asia’s overall demand for water will exceed supply by 40 percent. Meanwhile, a shift in the demographic makeup of Asia’s people—Asia will house 588 million people over age 60 by 2020, up from 414 million in 2010—will increase the region’s need for healthcare and social security. Some of Asia’s many simmering conflicts have worsened in the past decade as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Afghan and Iraq wars that followed. Compounding these issues is the ominous shadow of climate change, the effects of which could further jeopardize Asia’s food supply. The region’s pollution—already the highest in the world—is expected to worsen in the coming decade, leading to increased health problems among Asians. In a region where such major challenges are pushing in from all sides, continued growth is far from guaranteed.

Besides threatening to stunt Asia’s growth, these challenges, in a gloomy scenario, could destabilize the region. As evidenced by the youth-led uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, young populations have sparked unprecedented changes to governments and societies. The 2011 Arab Awakening was in part triggered by dissatisfaction with the ruling regimes and joblessness among youth. Although the rest of Asia hasn’t seen anything like the tumult of the Arab world, young Asians are concerned about problems that have been neglected as a result of an excessive focus on economic growth.

There are some signs that this generation may be the most protest-prone of any since the 1970s and 1980s. In 2005, South Korean students protested the high competitiveness of the education system, the first demonstration against education policies in memory. Post-80 protestors in Hong Kong staged lengthy and disruptive protests against the government’s plans to demolish the Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and to build a high-speed rail into mainland China in 2010, opposing the lack of a democratic discussion leading up to the decisions. Also in 2010, Filipino students pressed President Aquino to improve the quality of education following announcements of budget cuts in the educational system.

Despite the rosy pictures of macroeconomic growth, many of the Tiger Cubs are uncertain that they will have better lives than their parents. They are increasingly looking for change. They distrust those currently in power and question their leaders’ abilities to address longer-term economic and social issues. They can get organized to make their dissent known and make change happen. As one of the essayists, Poh Wei Leong, 29, Singapore, writes:

Let’s face it. The world is going to be increasingly populated, run, and led by Generation Y. Much as their attitudes towards work and life may be antithetical to those of the Baby Boomers, brushing them aside is akin to ignoring those people who build our future. They add more diversity in terms of viewpoints, ideas, and values, and are not keeping mum about it, at least in the blogosphere. Most importantly, many of the Generation Y Asians have parents who have lived under a different political era, and this allows them to witness firsthand whether they want to grow up to be like their parents, and whether they want their world to be the same as their parents’.

His sentiments may be indicative of broader views of young Singaporean voters, who in the country’s May 2011 general elections helped the opposition party win an unprecedented share of the vote. Young Singaporeans used online forums to rally support for opposition candidates.

The Tiger Cubs have a growing recognition that they must work to solve national and regional challenges. Those paying the price of inaction will not be the people in positions of power today. Instead, it will be them.

This book aims to present Asia’s challenges, and their proposed solutions, as seen through the eyes of these Tiger Cubs. The first set of challenges involves issues with Asia’s people. While school enrollment has improved, the education system remains deficient. Despite high growth, many people are left behind. Growing populations in already-populous countries strain governments and families, as does increasing agedness.

The second set of challenges involves Asia as a region. The physical environment is under great stress due not only to large populations and increased consumption but also to natural disasters. Governance is often corrupt and inefficient. Disputes between countries occasionally flare up. Asia as a region does not have a clear and common identity. Each of these challenges will be addressed in the book’s chapters.

By understanding the worries, ideas, and visions of the nearly 100 young Asians whose writing is excerpted in this book, we hope to give a better picture of those who will be at the helm of an Asia that is working hard to sustain its growth in challenging times ahead. How effectively will the Tiger Cubs be able to lead Asia in the future? The answer depends not just on whether they will be given opportunities and resources to do so, but whether they will seize the challenges ahead. The first step, however, is to give them a platform so that they can gain the confidence required to move their countries forward. The Asia’s Challenge 2020 essay contest and this book are a place for Asia’s Tiger Cub generation to find its voice.

Calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau international database, (accessed May 20, 2011).

Simon Elegant, “China’s Me Generation,” , last modified July 26, 2007, (accessed May 31, 2011).

Calculations based on data from World Development Indicators 2011, World Bank, (accessed May 26, 2011).

Euromonitor Global Market Research Blog, “Emerging Focus: Rising Middle Class in Emerging Markets,” last modified March 29, 2010, (accessed June 1, 2011).

Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, “World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision,” (accessed May 5, 2011).

Asian Development Bank, “Asia Must Address Climate Change Impact on Water and Food,” (accessed May 3, 2011).

Asian Development Bank, “The World Bank’s New Poverty Data: Implications for the Asian Development Bank,” last modified November 2008, (accessed May 31, 2011).

Choe Sang-Hun, “In South Korea, Students Push Back,” New York Times, last modified May 9, 2005, (accessed May 27, 2011).

Karen Boncocan, “Youth Group Protests Education Budget Cuts,”, last modified September 29, 2010, (accessed May 27, 2011).

Part I