Speech by Mr S Iswaran, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry & Ministry of Education at the Award Ceremony for “Asia’s Challenge 2020” Essay Competition at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Monday, 6 Dec 2010 at 5.30 pm

Ambassador Tommy Koh,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good evening.

I am pleased to join you at this award ceremony for the “Asia’s Challenge 2020” essay competition.

Let me at the outset congratulate the joint organisers of this competition — the Asia Business Council, TIME Magazine and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy — on this excellent initiative to examine Asia’s challenges through the lens of a younger generation. It is no mean feat to elicit more than 400 essay entries from Asian nationals addressing profound questions like: “What is the most important challenge facing Asia over the next decade? Why? What should be done about it?” It is all the more remarkable, and testimony to the success of this venture, when you consider that most of the entrants are young professionals, under the age of 32, who are busy building their careers and yet have taken the time and effort to apply their minds to these important issues. I therefore would like to congratulate all three organisations on this successful outcome, which is a good foundation to build upon.

The motivation for this competition is twofold. Firstly, to encourage young professionals to consider and make an impact on public policy and business in Asia. Secondly, to encourage young professionals to generate fresh ideas and policy proposals to tackle challenges to Asia’s growth and development.

I understand that the judges were highly impressed not only by the number of submissions from across the region, but also by the quality of the essays and the insights of these eloquent young Asians. I have read several of these essays and concur with that assessment. They exhibit a maturity of thought, and grasp of the issue, well beyond the mean age of the 8 finalists — 25 years.

Asia’s renaissance, led by the rise of China and India, and its attendant challenges, is the subject of much commentary, analysis and even soul-searching. Asia, in all its diversity, needs to address economic inequality, overcome political instability, eliminate corruption, enhance health care and strengthen social security systems in order to better prepare for the social and demographic changes that we will see over the next few decades.

In the realm of economics — the relative role of markets versus governments; the need to rebalance our economies, to encourage domestic investment and consumption as a basis for sustained growth; and the ability to spur indigenous innovation and enterprise — are some of the issues that dominate the agenda.

These challenges have been recognised by several economies, and also acknowledged at many regional and international fora. Several countries in Asia have already taken some steps to deal with them. For example, China has passed several pro-consumption measures through wage increases and government subsidies, while the Indian government has announced expansion of automatic stabilisers for employment generation. Efforts have also been made to improve Asian infrastructure, a key enabler of economic growth. To enhance access to education, various Asian economies such as China have set aside funds to provide financial aid to children from poor families. But, these are deep-rooted challenges with long tails, and tackling them is neither straightforward nor an easy fix. Time, patience and perseverance, are important allies in the endeavour to resolve them.

The overarching concern is that of good governance. In other words, to have leaders and a system that ensures that economic growth with all its adjectives — faster, smarter, sustainable and inclusive — is attainable. Indeed, it is true that Asia’s bigger challenges require, as one of the essay title highlights, “getting the basics right”. The ability to take a long view of the issues, formulate sound policies, and implement them with minimal waste, with the occasional course correction as necessary.

The challenges are common but the solution lies in policies differentiated to meet each countries’ unique needs. There is no monopoly of this wisdom. As countries respond to these challenges, they must seek innovative ideas and proposals that can help improve policy implementation, as well as plug the gaps in our understanding and help us tailor solutions to the appropriate contexts.

This is where the second objective of this competition is pertinent. The prize winning essays and those that will receive an honourable mention have provided new and innovative solutions to key regional problems that I discussed earlier. One finalist put forward a technology-based solution to the corruption problems which beset the distribution of food to India’s poor. Another devised a framework for historical comparison of economic growth and inequality to demonstrate that rural development is essential to reducing the growing gap between Asia’s rich and poor. Others saw opportunities presented by regional challenges. One proposed ways to develop the human capital of Asia’s growing population and reduce the brain drain of Asia’s best and brightest to other regions. A number of essays focused on the importance of regional integration and learning from each other, recognising the interdependence of the challenges we face.

I understand that the winning essays will be published on Time.com and that the Asian Business Council is also considering a publishing a book containing the top 20 essays. Such a book should be on the required reading list of all policy makers in the region — not just for the policy ideas proposed, but perhaps more importantly, to gain a deeper understanding of the concerns and sensibilities of a younger generation of Asians who will assume the mantle of leadership in future.

The young minds involved in this competition have shown leadership and wisdom in their writings. This bodes well for the future of the region. It reinforces our belief that Asia is not just a region brimming with opportunities or fraught with challenges, but also one with the talent and ability to find creative solutions. I hope this competition will continue in years to come. Once again, I offer my thanks to the organisers and my heartfelt congratulations to the winners and finalists. You have done a truly outstanding job.