It’s always those oratorical speeches that get to you. That sets you thinking, about the way you’ve lived your life so far, the way everyone else have lived their lives, and how you should start changing things to make this world a better place. If not for the entire global population, at least for yourself and the people you love. Ah, such speeches truly tug at heartstrings and warm the heart.
And the opening of this keynote address did just that. It takes balls for a chairman to admit that his generation screwed things up for the next. It takes guts for a businessman who earns millions to say that many out there are simply earning too much without truly deserving it. It’s truly admirable, the recognition he gives to other worthwhile causes – poverty alleviation, environmental conservation, the works.
Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for this man. This man who stands up and delivers this speech to the “Voices of the Future”. This man who subtly apologizes for the wrongdoings of the many generations before ours, urging us to take this inheritance and make it good.
Yes, we, the “young people of the future”, ought to do something, change the world, make it a better place. First, remember to be leaders. Next, remember to partake in poverty alleviation through social entrepreneurship. And always, always have good values that drive your every intention.
Moving. Inspirational. Motivational. For those who wish to better the world through equal distribution of wealth. For those who yearn to place long-neglected “civilizations” on the world map.
Not for those who care more about this world than narrowing income gaps and publicized Asian prowess. Yes, make the world a better place. Keep steadfast in values when leading the world to establish utopian human rights.
Environmental sustainability? Well, not easy. Difficult trade-offs need to be made. Personal efforts, individual efforts, really are just the tip of the iceberg. One person cutting down on consumption and opting for greener choices is great, but not that phenomenal. Nevermind that every individual (from the man on the street to the CEO in his air-conditioned office that incidentally also chooses to leave the lights and computers on every night for “good reason”) adopting the mentality of cutting down on consumption would mean a big fat impact.
Let’s not even talk about animal rights. Not about the abhorrent trade in sharksfin, foie gras, show-dolphins, I-could-go-on-but-it-just-takes-up-too-much-space. Because really, all that matters in this world, is us.
I’m told that the topic of this year’s APEC Summit is “Sustaining Growth, Connecting the Region”. It’s a laudable theme no doubt, but frankly, it doesn’t do much for me. I’ve been to more conferences than I care to remember with similar themes, with endless papers backed by endless statistics and platitudes.
So I asked myself, what does mean something to me? And more important, what means something to you? What unites each of you, besides the probably irrelevant commonality that each of your countries simply border the Pacific Ocean? You represent more countries than any other geographic grouping in the world. You are more diverse, speaking in a greater Babel of tongues than anywhere else.
What does resonate with me, and hopefully with you too, is that your voices are indeed the voices of the future. But these voices, I think, are quietly despairing even as they are yearning for meaning. We tell you that you are the leaders of tomorrow, but what world will we have passed to you to lead? If you do not despair for the state of the world today, you would be naïve. But at the same time, if you do not search for a way to create meaning in your lives, to make this a slightly better world than the one we will pass to you, you would be blithely irresponsible.
So what are you to do, the supposed leaders of tomorrow, whose voices are currently powerless and unheard? When we, your supposed role models, the leaders of today and yesterday, have screwed things up so badly, what right have we to lecture you on how to carry on from us, much less sustain growth or connect the region, as today’s topic would have you do?
When I was your age – and please don’t roll your eyes and say to yourself: here comes another old man who thinks he understands us – I thought that my parents’ generation had not done much to improve the world. True, they had survived or even fought in the worst war the world had ever seen, but it was that same generation which indeed, created the Second World War and all its suffering in the first place. They presided over the longest and fastest economic growth in history, but they were also responsible for the worst depression.
And my generation, the baby-boomers whose demographic surge created trends ranging from disco-partying to street protesting, we have dominated every generation after us, whether it be Generation X, Y, or Z. By our sheer numbers, we have defined global socio-cultural, political and economic trends. And you have grown up in our shadow.
But just as our generation pioneered tremendous innovations which have truly contributed to mankind’s progress, we too have failed miserably in so many other critical areas. In global poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, environmental protection – we are leaving this world no better than we took over from our parents.
This may be a harsh judgment, since the twentieth century, which my grandparents and parents created, achieved more than several previous centuries combined.
But if mankind’s progress is indeed a history of missed opportunities, then we have arguably missed more opportunities than we have seized.
So as you begin to inherit the earth, you must surely have asked the same question each generation asks when it comes to maturity, and that is: will each generation never understand and learn from history, and therefore be doomed to repeat these same mistakes? How can each generation lift itself from the quagmire bequeathed by the previous?
The voice from the future usually looks back and says, “I hear you, but I don’t understand you. We are simply not talking on the same wavelength.” You look at the world and you look at your parents, at business, religious and political leaders who have failed themselves as well as their communities, and you probably wonder: How can you tell us how to run our lives, when you cannot even run yours properly?
How can you, the voices of the future, ever hope to lead your generation towards the light?
I ask this question because we are just beginning to emerge from the greatest recession the world has ever seen. A global near-depression caused by the hubris and audacity of the brilliantly greedy leaders of my generation – our best and brightest whose collective intellect and wealth could probably have created the proverbial cure for cancer, but which instead, applied its brilliance towards simply demonstrating that there is no limit to greed and hubris.
I am particularly ashamed because I purport to be a business leader, as these shameless investment bankers, private equity and hedge fund managers also called themselves.
In public talks I feel compelled to defend my kind, to say to those who will listen, that not all of us believe that short term profit maximization and self-aggrandizement are the only values we hold; that some of us do truly believe, naïve though it may sound, that the mission of business — the strongest driver of economic well-being in the world — is to help build a better society.
I mentioned values just now. As I try to understand what really led to the parlous state of the world economy today, and although I am trained as an economist, to analyze issues from a coldly economic perspective, I can only conclude that there was a massive failure of values.
Not just a failure of regulation, with the solution being more regulation by governments of banks and even CEO salaries. That may well be necessary, but it will never be enough to prevent the next great disaster.
It is above all, values which determine who we are and what we will be, and what we will do when confronted by temptations or by challenges. It is the values of our community, our families, and ourselves, which will guide us – and you – as you attempt to solve the huge problems and shoulder the massive financial burdens we have so blithely left for you.
I thought I was alone in holding these quaintly antiquated, old fashioned views. But in a recent talk, when I was asked to list the things I would do if I could remodel society, and I said somewhat tongue in cheek, that I would levy a massive tax on all investment bankers’ bonuses and redistribute this to all the primary and secondary school teachers, because that was the only way to ensure future investment bankers would not repeat the same mistakes — there was massive applause.
My audience, which comprised mainly young people, immediately saw the connection between investment bankers and school teachers. The first create enormous wealth, almost wholly undeserved, and do nothing to make this a better world. The second, almost wholly underpaid and under-appreciated, create the values which can, when passionately conveyed, provide us the anchor for our lives during the most impressionable period of our lives.
What we need in society are more values-creators than wealth-creators, more idealistic young school teachers, social entrepreneurs, environmental activists, who believe passionately that what they are doing is far more valuable than creating complex financial instruments with endless acronyms.
Before the financial crash, the top 40% of the highest scorers from universities around the world, went into investment banking. Thankfully and at least for a short while till it becomes possible for a young university graduate to earn ten times more than his other peers, banking will hopefully not attract most of you. There is more nobility in being a school teacher or a policeman than a banker who peddles toxic mortgages as shamelessly as a snake-oil salesman.
If I sound bitter, it is because I am. When I was an university student, I truly thought I could help to change the world. So I manned student barricades in the name of social progress, I got thrown out of university and thrown into prison, and I have in my own small way even as I entered the big bad world of business, to help make the people I affect, live more meaningful lives. But in a single stroke, the most intelligent peers of my generation have blown it. And if you don’t believe a single word that my generation now claims about how idealistic it is, I wouldn’t blame you.
But you know what? The same people who wrecked the lives of millions of people, are busily now profiting from the economic recovery. There is at least one lesson here: if you’re smart and you only look out for yourself in a very consistent, single-minded way, you’ll always be OK.
And that is why I much prefer talking to young people like yourselves, who hopefully are not as disillusioned or cynical as my own peers. In fact, I NEED to talk to young people, as I do to the students in Singapore Management University, which I have been fortunate to be the founding chairman of, to ask your generation to focus on creating the values which will guide you through the challenges which will inevitably face you.
Values are particularly important because the problems you will face will have no easy, win-win solutions. They will inevitably involve trade-offs – the classic economist’s dilemma where one positive action will invariably have negative impacts, and you have to negotiate this minefield of endless options, to settle on the course of action which achieves the greatest social good for the least public harm.
What are some of these “big “challenges?
First, We are seeing a Civilisational Shift of Historic Proportions.
We are in the midst of a historical transformation which, like the rise and fall of a Chinese dynasty or a Mayan civilisation, comes about only every few hundred years. The change we are witnessing is no less than an entire paradigm shift in the civilizational relationship between East and West, North and South.
I use the word “civilisation” quite intentionally. Civilisations are not just about geo-political power balances or economic growth. They involve a people’s collective view of life, their value systems and belief structures constructed from centuries of shared experiences.
While economic and political changes occur in short-wave cycles, civilisations rise and fall in very long cycles. The past two hundred years saw the rise of Western civilisation to global dominance through a combination of military and technological prowess, backed by vibrant political and economic systems, and a culture of innovation. Throughout this entire period, Asia and Latin America suffered a protracted, almost unstoppable decline.
But the weight of history and demography is now tilting in the opposite direction, towards an equally long term, sustainable rise of the two great and ancient Asian civilisations, India and China. And increasingly, the reformed and dynamic cultures of Latin America are asserting themselves.
Already we see that Western norms of human conduct, religious belief, gender relations, family relations, individual to state relations, and so forth – are all being challenged. Western norms are no longer the yardstick by which non-Western societies measure themselves and aspire towards. Ancient civilisations steeped in their own values, some of which may be very alien to Western sensibilities but which have their own historical justifications, are straining to establish their own space, their own place in the sun.
We are moving towards is a world order with not one but multiple centres of influence; this century is thus one where we will see broadly equal civilisations co-existing – something not seen since the rise of imperialism in the 18th century. You need to realise the truly historic situation you are going to live in if you are going to be voices of the future.
Second, each socio-economic community needs to create its own form of capitalism.
The recent global financial crisis exposed the fact that capitalism is not universal, but is projected thru the lens of culture. The dominant form is Anglo-American – rooted above all in individualism as a philosophy, and high income inequality and high risk taking as the drivers of wealth creation. This famous “Wall St Capitalism”, with its masters of the universe investment bankers, was during the boom years, portrayed as the ONLY model of capitalism worthy of emulation. Now it is seen as an excessively aggressive, almost deviant form of capitalism.
Other variants derided in past — Western European, Nordic, Japanese, all with their own culturally and historically influenced characteristics, are increasingly seen as alternatives by economists and policy-makers.
After fifty years of virtually unchallenged supremacy, should Anglo-American capitalism remain the unquestioned model for a newly resurgent East Asia? And if not, what alternative model can Asian Pacific thought leaders devise, drawing upon their own unique history and socio-cultural heritage?
But as Asia rises to economic dominance, there is no clear definition of Asian capitalism. The common, recurring socio-ethical tradition of Asia is its communitarian, family-focused, webs of mutual obligations. I contend that this communitarian characteristic of Asian and indeed, Latin American culture can, if thoughtfully enhanced, nurtured and developed, replace the highly individualistic, Darwinian ethos of American capitalism, or the state-welfarist tendencies of Euro-capitalism.
Communitarian capitalism would be stakeholder-driven and not shareholder-driven capitalism. The interests of the community of stakeholders in an enterprise – the owners, the employees, the larger community, would be a higher consideration than simply return on capital. Several Latin American leaders are interestingly, have been saying the same thing for many years.
We ignore at our peril, the need to pro-actively create an entire values system rooted in the symbols and fables of our own cultural traditions. There are similarities in the communitarian ethos of East Asia and Latin America which bear more exploration and discussion. Thought leaders on both sides of the Pacific need to engage in the debate as to what Communitarian Capitalism actually means. If we do not, we will have abdicated an historic opportunity – one which presents itself after 300 years of civilisational decline – to help shape the new world for succeeding generations.
Third , “ End Poverty Now” is both the most important Call for Action and also the most empty slogan.
Just as we study in our history books about slave societies and wonder how it was even possible for people to accept such a social system, future generations will marvel at how the unbelievable inequality on this planet.
Never has human-kind been so rich, and never so poor. Income inequalities globally are now more pronounced than ever in world history. The solutions for poverty eradication are so obvious that rock singers can point them out. Yet they are so impossible to achieve that no national or international leader has ever made the slightest difference.
Young people have quite correctly, rejected the celebrity-driven campaigns with catchy but meaningless slogans like End Poverty Now; they have also become cynical towards ex-presidents and prime ministers starting their own Initiative this or that.
Instead, many young people have opted for direct action, and have seen that the future way to alleviate poverty is to marshal the power of business with the cause of social activism. Social entrepreneurship is therefore one of the most dynamic and most promising responses to global poverty – and it is being done at community, not state level.
In SMU and other centers of thought leadership, social entrepreneurship is a hot topic, one which I hope more of you will debate about and even think of doing, in your own particular areas.
Fourth, there is no win-win solution for Climate change, but only difficult trade offs.
Idealistic but sometimes naïve people think that there are easy solutions for climate change problems, if only people were more disciplined personally. So, for example, they eschew imported mineral water for tap water, in order to save on carbon emissions from sea or air freight. They buy local vegetables, and switch to driving nearby for a vacation rather than fly by plane.
But aside from the feel-good factor, this does not really rescue the planet from global warming, and instead can exacerbate global inequalities.
Trade is one of the most powerful forces by which developing economies can uplift themselves. Trade not only in goods but also services like tourism. If everyone in the rich countries were to cut carbon emissions in their lives by opting to not consume goods and services which require long air or sea travel, the biggest losers will be the developing world.
This is just one example. Another one is the fact that no matter how much wind or solar power can generate, it cannot sufficiently replace hydrocarbon-based fuels. Nuclear energy remains one of the most sustainable and rapidly scalable forms of energy. But this is not a trendy, politically correct solution.
It is your duty as voices of the future, to not only opt for the feel-good, trendy and sometimes celebrity-driven solutions to climate change, but to recognize that this will never be a simple win-win game, but one where there must be difficult trade offs which affect different players differently. Your duty is to understand all the issues from all angles, and add your voices to the debate in a responsible and thoughtful manner.
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Finally, how can you become better leaders in order to confront these challenges? I say better because by being here, you are surely already leaders in your own way. But the challenges of leadership will only become more onerous, not less.
I’m often asked to talk about leadership. I’m not interested in the false dichotomy, the fruitless debate about whether leadership is born or bred, or nature vs nurture.
I’m only interested in conveying to young people that the essence of leadership lay within each of us, and that we can by listening to our true selves, nurture our own ability for leadership. You need above all, to learn to listen to your inner voice, that part of all of us which intuitively knows what is the right thing to do, even if it means a personal cost to us.
What, after all, is leadership?
The most important attributes, I believe, is the clarity of mind to think independently and analytically, the wisdom to take yourself out of the thinking, and then the courage to act on your conclusion.
After all, the very definition of a leader is the person who does not follow others, but inspires through the clarity of his thinking and scope of his vision, others to follow him or her.
In my view, the most important word which has created leaders is a three letter word: Why? Why is the daring to question everything until you are satisfied with the answer. Asking why has created thought leaders from Albert Einstein to Karl Marx.
Asking Why can land you into trouble – my own history is a case in point. I have been thrown out of university and into prison for asking a series of Why’s. But if there is a single reason why I have perhaps attained some modest achievements, is because even now, I always ask Why? to every single thing I am told to do or to believe in, and until I have satisfied myself with my own answers.
How can you as young leaders, build up the character to be leaders? Not by being more macho than the next guy. Not just by honing your oratorical skills. Asking Why’s is only the first step which fundamentally separates a leader from a follower. The next requirement is how, after having answered your own questions, you act upon your convictions.
Just as the saying that lying becomes easier the more you do it, so too does difficult decision-making become easier the more you are able to reach deep into inner reservoirs of strength at each challenge. I have when confronted with difficult choices in my adulthood, tapped deep into my youth when I actually made decisions against my self-interest in order to do the right thing.
( Stanford example )
Such decisions – which all of you have had to also make in your life, I’m sure — form the foundation of values, the reservoir of integrity, which you can call upon when even more difficult and momentous decisions need to be made.
I have often said, that most of us know, when confronted with a challenge, what is the right decision to make, but it is our own selves which prevent us from making them. A leader is someone who has taken himself or herself out of the equation and can with a clear mind, know what to do.
Are you destined for great things? Will someone from your generation find the cure for cancer? Or stop climate change? Or solve the Middle East conflict? Or end poverty?
I don’t know, and I daresay neither do you. But I and you know that if you do not aspire to try, you are destined to fail. Dream big, aim high, and you will inevitably fail, but in that failure you will have done far more than those whose lives are marked by safety and security, and looking only after themselves.
Barack Obama talked of the audacity of hope and the fierce urgency of now. That resonated amongst young people around the world, because there is nothing more audacious than the hopefulness of youth, and nothing more urgent than voices of the future.
In my youth I read Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, where he found his destiny while searching for Simon Bolivar’s dream of an united Latin America, and I was inspired to backpack across South East Asia.
In her youth, my daughter dreamed on standing on top of Macchu Pichu, and so after university she spent three months working at an orphanage in Peru and then achieved her goal.
Next month, Banyan Tree’s second hotel in Mexico, near to Acapulco on Pacific Coast, will open, and it will herald the start of my dream to string a necklace of jewels along both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
As we celebrate the Asia Pacific community, and as you increasingly find that your lives and those of your counterparts around the Pacific Basin become intertwined through the most important of ways, people to people contact such as this, remember that the only sustainable growth which connects the region, must be based on the fundamental value that the mission of business and the purpose of growth, is to build a better society for all, and not just for its own sake.
Have a great day.