SOME years ago, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia adopted ``Look East'' as the slogan for his country's industrialization campaign. Instead of taking Britain or the United States as the model, Malaysia would follow the Japanese path to economic development: strong government guidance, a regulated market, and restraints on competition.
Malaysia, along with its larger neighbor, Indonesia, has since become one of East Asia's ``new tigers,'' following the trail blazed first by Japan, then by Taiwan and South Korea. And as the Asian economies expand and prosper, a viewpoint that there is an Asian way to development - more disciplined, hierarchical, and hard-working than the European and American way - has gained ground. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is one of the chief proponents of this view.
Unquestionably, East Asia is the region where the world's most dynamic economic growth is taking place. Forests of glass and concrete towers are rising in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. Traffic jams in Bangkok, Seoul, and Taipei are horrendous, as are the fumes of pollution. Japan's trade surplus with East Asia surpasses that with the US.
So it is not surprising to hear voices in Tokyo saying that if trade frictions with the US grow and frustrations on both sides approach meltdown, closer links with Asia are a viable substitute for the trade and security ties Japan has had with the US.
As in Malaysia, so in Japan, some scholars, officials, and politicians assert that the Japanese way to economic development is a better model for latecomers than the American pattern of unbridled competition in open markets. Besides, no market is totally open anyway, this school contends.
Beyond the strictly economic aspects of this argument, there is the implication that Western democracy and notions of individualism need to be adapted for Eastern use, and that the East has its own proud, long-standing traditions - an emphasis on learning, the importance of harmony, coexistence with nature. The gardens of Suzhou or Kyoto are gracious illustrations of the last point, but a Westerner is tempted to ask what happens to that coexistence when factories belch fumes into the atmosphere or tropical forests turn into eroded hillsides.
Such questions can lead to angry, unfruitful polemics. But an opposite viewpoint is also possible. In Japan it has been put forward by Ichiro Ozawa in his book, ``Blueprint for a New Japan.'' And in the West, the Economist, the respected London weekly, has a long essay on Japan in its July 9-15 issue, suggesting that what Japan needs is not less but more Westernization. By this, the Economist means completing the process begun when Japan, after 200 years of feudal isolation, began to rush frantically to catch up with the West. According to this view, the reason Japan acquired a mystique when it built better cars or computer chips than Americans is not that the Japanese way of doing things is intrinsically superior, but that it is part of the advantage (and cost) of being a latecomer to the world's industrial sweepstakes.
Most analysts of Japan's modernization process note that in the haste to catch up with the West, many ideas and institutions coming from overseas were imperfectly absorbed. But since progress, particularly since World War II, has been so spectacular, the imperfections have largely been concealed behind a facade of gleaming Toyotas and store counters displaying the world's finest goods at the world's highest prices.
Today these imperfections are coming to light, exposed not only by foreign commentators but by the Japanese themselves. As the Ozawa book demonstrates, the Japanese do have the ability to look themselves in the face and come up with a long list of what is wrong with their society. Yes, their factories gleam, but people who work in them must live in cramped quarters and endure long commutes in jammed trains. Yes, high-school students consistently score peak grades in math, but university education is poor and there is no premium for original ideas.
The Economist notes that lifetime employment has become a heavy burden to employers in an age of rapid technological change, that com- panies no longer can afford the low-profit, high-investment pattern of the past, and that the cozy ties between manufacturers and designated suppliers (the keiretsu system) is breaking down as the yen rises steeply against the dollar.
As employment, investment, and manufacturing practices come closer to those of the West, Japan loses the advantages it enjoyed during the high-growth years. The effects on society are profound. The withering of lifetime employment alone can have enormous consequences for Japanese society. The downside is the sense of betrayal and uncertainty among workers who thought they had a contract for life; the upside is that doors open for creators and innovators who will be rewarded for achievement and not seniority. If that is Westernization, then Japan needs more of it.
But Western nations, including the US, are finding that, for themselves or any other nation, no model is set in stone. If Japan was first among the Asian nations to achieve Western standards of living, it is also the first to find that progress is not so much a matter of looking East or West as the continuous bursting of bonds.