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. . . .''

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.

Faced with high interest rates for loans from Western banks, and more protectionist barriers to exports, Asian countries should take the following steps, Mr. Patel suggests:

* Boost domestic savings even higher than current rates, despite lingering poverty, through such steps as spreading rural credit institutions.

* Raise productivity of workers through better management and mechanization.

* Resist tendencies to protect home industries form international competition , which can help bring greater efficiency.

* Create a better understanding between labor, government, and business - in essence, follow the Japanese model.

''How do we make countries independent of imports without losing efficiency?'' he asked, during a conference at this year's Asian Development Bank meeting in Manila. ''Agriculture has done this in Asia, and energy has done it to some degree. Can industry follow?''

More fundamentally, asks Philippine Prime Minister Cesar Virata, ''How do we increase income and internal demand?

''We had export-led growth in the 1960s and 1970s. This has become the model for developing countries, . . .'' he says. ''(But) there are doubts whether boosting exports and reducing imports can be sustanined.'' He suggests growth in domestic market as well as between Asian countries and less dependency on commercial financing from international banks.

For some time ahead, however, small nations such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka will rely heavily on external trade and finance.

''Our countries are constantly shooting at a moving target. Already we have cut our consumption drastically to direct resources to investment,'' says W. M. Tilakaratna, Sri Lanka's secretary of finance. ''The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in the majority of (Asian) countries. . . .''

Other nations have their own internal dynamics and can spurt ahead on their own - as have Burma (7 percent growth last year) and China (5 percent) - because their economies hibernated during the golden decade of the 1960s and the turbulent '70s without a great dependence on exports.

The giants of Asia - India, China, and Japan - have begun to open their markets slightly to the winds of either foreign or domestic free enterprise.

Even though Asian exports have been oriented to Western markets, a larger and larger share of manufactured goods is going to other developing nations. Such diversification, bypassing protectionist walls or done on a barter basis, reflects the more conservative, more flexible, more pragmatic thinking among Asian leaders.

What matters today, it seems, is respect for uncertainty.

''The East and Southeast Asian economies recognized, as most other developing countries did not, that uncertainty is the normal and pervasive state of the economic environment,'' says Helen Hughes, director of the development studies center at the Australian National University.

''To grow rapidly, countries require high levels of domestic savings and investment,'' she says. ''The East and Southeast Asian countries have by and large achieved this.'' Only Indonesia, a largely Muslim nation whose development really began in 1966, after it removed the scars of Dutch colonialism, has lagged in savings.

Such an admirable savings record, which has beat out other regions of developing nations, will be hard to maintain as Asia's population grows older and its joblessness gets harder to shake.

Countries with abundant resources, such as India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have had a mixed blessing. During the last decade, they were able to rely on export earnings to pay for development, but lower prices for their raw material have now forced renewed efforts to boost export industries, such as manufactured goods, and to spur people to save and invest.

In general, grass-roots wealth is now available.

In most East and Southeast Asian nations (including China, but excluding Japan), economic growth averaged 5.3 percent from 1973 to 1981, compared with 2. 3 percent in industrialized nations. And gross domestic product per capita doubled, reaching $2,600, the world average. And this region reduced its dependence on less costly international public loans, raising the share of private international loans from 37 percent in 1957 to 61 percent on 1981 of its external borrowing portfolio.

If one country could represent the average Asian economy, it is Thailand. Having successfully absorbed its Chinese immigrants, this Buddhist nation has a 24 percent savings rate (as a percentage of GNP) that compares with Hong Kong's. It has one of the worst urbanization problems (Bangkok) surrounded by a sea of rural poverty. Yet it is the ''rice bowl'' of Asia, building new industries on its surplus farm wealth. The oil shocks forced Thailand into foreign borrowing, including some funds from the International Monetary Fund. Reduced exports and the high cost of loans have helped drive Thailand to explore for oil and gas, to extend more rural credit programs, to readjust tax policies, and to try to reduce government price supports for rice. As Thailand goes, so goes Asia. The government hopes to have about a 6 percent economic growth rate in the early 1980s.

Most of the success stories of the last 10 years, US Treasury Secretary Donald Regan said on a recent trip to Manila, have been written in the Asian basin. Most of this success, he says, came because Asian governments knew how to set the ground rules for private business.

''In these days when all of us in the industrialized world are having trouble with our economies, (Asia) will have to husband its resources rather carefully, '' he said.Japan's export-dependent economy could not withstand another world recession or oil shock during the 1980s, according to some analysts.

An economic slowdown for Asia could be a blessing in disguise.

Political leaders could seize the opportunity to rally the people to support institutional changes - the basic factor in development - such as expanding home markets rather than reaching for sometimes-elusive overseas buyers.

''A low-growth era could imply low growth of capital and technology,'' writes Dr. Oshima in the Asian Development Review. ''If so, improving institutions to enable manpower to use the existing means of production more productively will be a major, if not the major, source of growth.'' Examples: more efficient cooperatives for farmers, better agricultural extension services, and improved irrigation management.

Such new policies come easier with an emerging new generation of leadership, a transition that is moving as slowly as the earth'scontinental plates. The post-World War II, post-colonial leaders are giving way, often reluctantly to a younger, more Westernized crop of leaders.

This transition, however, may take most of the 1980s to complete. Ne Win of Burma, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, General Suharto of Indonesia, Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan, Indira Gandhi of India - these Asian leaders are troubled with how to pass the scepter and orb.

''The post-post-World War II, post-colonial leaders are more attuned to domestic development, looking for their own national roots for guidance to the future,'' says Victor Lee, head of the East-West Center in Honolulu.

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