Thursday, February 10, 2011

Davos and Asia

I was first invited to speak at Davos nine years ago, in 2002 — in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That year, however, the World Economic Forum was relocated to Manhattan in order to underline support for a beleaguered New York.

Aside from that, my interaction with the WEF has been ad-hoc until last year, when the forum invited me to chair its newly formed Global Agenda Council on Southeast Asia. The council is an advisory body for the wider forum and it’s supposed to deepen knowledge of and develop solutions for the region. Understandably, given my well-known passion for all things Southeast Asian, I readily accepted the appointment.

Indeed, the forum’s network of 72 agenda councils is truly global: It covers a broad range of issues, themes and geographical regions — from climate control to intellectual property and Latin America and Africa.

As a result, I was reinvited to the 2011 Davos meeting — but this time more as a Southeast Asian than as a Malaysian, something I’m very proud to assert.

Moreover, I can assure you that for every tycoon and corporate titan who arrives in Switzerland on a private jet, there are countless more journalists, think-tankers, analysts, writers and consultants — like myself — who travel on a much tighter budget. We buy provisions at the local Migros supermarket and eat stall food from the Promenade.

So while Davos is a gathering of the global elite, bringing together political and business leaders from around the world, there are also a host of others who accompany the heavy-hitters — entourages comprised of advisers, speech writers, drivers, bodyguards and flunkeys, with Azerbaijanis rubbing shoulders with Singaporeans, Brazilians, Russians, South Africans, Indonesians, Nigerians and Chinese.

Given my responsibilities, I spent much of the time at Davos meeting with my fellow Southeast Asians — including Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan, Garuda Indonesia CEO Emirsyah Sattar, Malaysian Minister of Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed and the aristocratic Zobel brothers from Manila.

However, the strongest contingent this year came from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, the Indians have emerged as the most determined self-promoters: confident, ambitious and resolute with their bold “Inclusive India!” ads strewn across both the town and local buses. They even set up a lavishly provisioned food stall, serving masala tea, pakoras and samosas alongside the much-loved Schneider’s cafe in Davos.

More crucially, this year’s forum helped me take stock of Southeast Asia’s future. Davos is a microcosm of the world, and it’s been interesting to view the extent to which our region has impacted the broader global narrative.

First off, Asean — despite its size and 500 million plus population — seems to have drawn very little attention. If anything, Indonesia has been the key player this year, a fact closely linked to the republic’s mounting international profile and the hard work of Trade Minister Mari Pangestu.

At a time when Europe and North America are stagnant, multinational corporations and investment funds are focused on countries that can provide growth — namely the BRICs and the other emerging giants included in the G-20. Indonesia fits the bill and it’s got people talking.

Indeed, I can still remember — nine years ago — sitting through a poorly attended and desultory discussion about Indonesia’s future at the 2002 New York meeting while Malaysia’s Mahathir took center stage during a high-profile plenary session. Today, the situation has been reversed. Very few people are interested in the smaller emerging markets.

Still, I came away with a sense that in a world obsessed by size and scale, Southeast Asia needs to work harder at regional integration. We need to act as one unit or else we’ll be swamped by China and India.

I feel that the recent turmoil in the Middle East will work to that region’s benefit as Southeast Asia has largely undergone — and survived — similar transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. Certain laggards like Burma notwithstanding, Southeast Asia is an example of how democracy can strengthen, rather than destabilize. The challenge now is to forgo our chauvinisms toward a common future. One idea that’s beginning to gain traction is an Asean-wide bid to host the World Cup. Maybe that could bring us together and deepen our cooperation.

I came to Davos as a Southeast Asian and as a Southeast Asian I remain disappointed. We can choose to either rise together or stagnate separately.

Karim Raslan columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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