Looking inward, digging deeper into its own pockets
In the poor mountain kingdom of Nepal, with its turtle-paced economy, King Birendra last year opened the door to rabbitlike private investment. China, too, moved like a waking giant to an incentive system, allowing commune farmers to grow crops beyond a government quota for sale in the marketplace. ''After the peasants become rich,'' Communist Party Secretary General Hu Yaobang says, ''we must guide them to invest. . . .''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
India lit a fire under its stock market and tried to draw investments from overseas Indians. Thailand pushed forward with a rural credit program for farmers and revised its taxes. Indonesia cut gasoline subsidies for urban car owners and started to restructure its taxes to encourage savings. Southeast Asia's five free-market nations cooperated on joint industrial projects. South Korea denationalized its banks. Singapore raised workers' wages to entice companies to make products of higher value. Taiwan campaigned to sell its new computers - to Taiwanese companies.
These steps are small signs that Asia's style of creating wealth may be shifting . . . slowly.
The wealth is built on a subtle confidence and a humble enthusiasm that pervades Asia, as witnessed by this reporter during two years of travel through the region. Asia is different from the West, and it is not hard to see it in the eyes of a newly rich ($800 a year) Indian peanut farmer who just joined a cooperative in the home village of Mohandas Gandhi, or in the quiet work of the mighty and revered King of Thailand, who trudges through the rice paddies, advising peasants on irrigation ditches, fish culture, and wood-burning electric generators.
With their fast-growth economies crimped by lower exports, less foreign aid, and more expensive loans, many Asian nations are being left to their own devices.
And in the Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian tradition, the region is looking inward - for both money and markets.
Public spending growth is generally being pruned, private enterprise has a looser net of controls, and taxes are being directed to promote domestic as well as international trade.
''The 21st century, hopefully, may witness the shift of the center of world economic growth from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but only if Asian countries, especially the larger ones, substantially expand their domestic markets,'' says University of the Philippines professor Harry T. Oshima.
The task ahead is best seen in one statistic: the need to create a half-billion jobs by the year 2010 in the region that holds half of humanity, from Pakistan in the west to North Korea in the east.
Despite the star-studded growth of most of Asia, the post-1979 oil shock has not been easy, and low-growth strategies are being drawn up for the 1980s. Export-led growth may no longer be the only locomotive driving most Asian development.
''This recession in its wake has left many Asian countries, particularly the poorest ones, on the verge of economic disaster. Even those countries of this region who in the past achieved economic miracles do not seem to have been able to withstand the onslaught of the constellation of adverse external economic factors,'' says A.M.A. Muhith, finance minister of Bangladesh (a country known as ''the most least developing nation'').
One path out of the difficulty lies ''in doing more of what it already does best,'' says I.G. Patel, director of the Indian Institue of Management in Ahmadabad and former head of India's central bank. That would mean putting aside more savings by both government and peasants, recycling the money into productive investments, such as irrigation pumps for farms or small industries in rural areas, where most Asians live.