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Saturday, September 02, 2006 

Guy de Jonquieres: "Asia needs a more active market in ideas"

A good article I came across in the Financial Times the other day, in which FT's columnist Guy de Jonquieres argues that "Asia needs a more active market in ideas".

In spite of Asia’s growing global weight, much of the most illuminating research into its affairs, whether economics, business, social policy or international relations, still originates elsewhere, mainly in the west.

Asia has no shortage of brainpower, or of self-styled think-tanks. But most produce pedestrian work that often fails to grapple with – still less answer – the hard questions. Many simply churn out official propaganda, and few look far beyond their own backyard.

[...]

Asia will need a more active market in ideas if it is to respond to the huge challenges thrown up by its future development. Increasingly, these extend across borders, in fields as diverse as health, migration, transport and the environment. The region’s lack of common institutions and forums in which to develop joint solutions makes the need for smart thinking all the greater.

However, the biggest obstacle to harnessing it is not a shortage of good think-tanks. It is weak demand for what they offer. Hong Kong’s Civic Exchange is one of the region’s best think-tanks and a formidable campaigner for change. Yet its well-argued, fact-based critiques of policy have not stopped the government pushing ahead with ill-considered and unnecessary proposals, such as a goods and services tax, nor caused it seriously to get to grips with the city’s appalling air pollution problem.

Hong Kong’s government is, of course, not accountable to voters, either. But the story is not so different in young democracies such as Taiwan or the Philippines. They are in a mess, not just because of flawed leadership, but because opposition legislators are intent less on promoting positive policy agendas than on bringing down their governments.

All markets need buyers as well as sellers. Until more Asian policymakers are prepared to give them air time, critical voices advocating constructive change will struggle to make themselves heard.

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