WHILE charting a new course for Asia is daunting enough for the region’s veteran politicians, a group of university students took on the challenge with aplomb.
Twenty-four top Asian university students congregated for a week in Bangkok recently, to find solutions and propose recommendations that will help chart the way forward for the region.
Brought together by Hitachi Ltd for its biannual youth forum – the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (HYLI) – the student leaders spent restless days and sleepless nights discussing, debating, negotiating and arguing about issues pertinent to the region’s future.
It was indeed no small task. Said Hitachi Asia (Thailand) Ltd managing director Koji Tanaka: “The topics debated are not easy. They are topics that leaders grapple with each day and I have been most impressed with the debate and ideas generated by the students. The fresh perspectives and creative thoughts put forth by the students have shown me that Asia has some very bright budding leaders who will be quite capable of leading the region in the future.”
Platform for youth
First held in 1996, the recent HYLI demonstrated once again why many regard it as a key platform for Asia’s future leaders. The initiative symbolises Hitachi’s long-term commitment to Asia, and is aimed at providing a forum for the region’s brightest tertiary students to mingle and exchange views on current issues with fellow students, as well as leaders from the public and private sectors.
More importantly, it gives students the opportunity to foster cross-cultural understanding while broadening their outlook on regional and global issues.
In preparation for the Sixth HYLI, the student participants conducted research on their assigned topics for several months prior to the conference.
Nominated by their respective varsities, the participants were selected based on their academic achievements, involvement in extra-curricular activities and articulacy in current issues.
Each had to go through a rigorous selection process, including submitting essays on the topic of their concern.
Four students from each of six participating countries – Japan, Indonesia, Thailand Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia – were then selected and brought together for an all-expense-paid experience at the designated venue. For its sixth initiative, Hitachi returned to Bangkok for the second time.
Representing Malaysia were Tizreena Mohd Ismail of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Hazleen Mohd Zakaria of Universiti Malaya (UM), Lim Fung Kit of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Melissa Shamini Periasamy of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).
Under the banner, Charting a new course for Asia, participants explored three sub-topics, “Identifying Asia’s Engines for Economic Growth”, “Managing Asia’s Rapid Urbanisation for Social Progress”, and “Balancing Asia’s Growth and Environmental Sustainability.”
The movers and shakers of the region were invited to share their knowledge on the chosen topics in the main forum sessions.
Speakers included Thailand’s Education Vice-Minister Piyabutr Cholvijarn, Asean Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong, Malaysia’s National Economic Action Council executive director Datuk Mustapha Mohamed, Bangkok Bank executive chairman Kosit Panpiemras, the Philippines’ First Generation Holdings Corporation president Peter D. Garrucho Jr, Kobe University’s Prof Katsuhiko Kokubu and the Philippines’ Environmental Studies Institute executive director and founder Dr Angelina P. Galang.
Interestingly, the Sixth HYLI (just like the previous HYLI), held from Dec 8 to 12 last year, coincided with the Asean leaders’ meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in Tokyo.
Thus, following in the footsteps of their senior statesmen, Hitachi’s young ambassadors boldly came up with their own ideas of what the future should hold for the region.
Despite their age, many proved to be well versed in the current political and economic issues shaping the region, and were impressive forum participants.
The key speaker, vice-minister Piyabutr Cholvijarn, was bombarded with questions on Asia’s economic, social and environmental challenges and concerns. In his address, he highlighted the need for Asian nations to work together and forge close ties in order to help the region regain its prominent position in the world prior to the economic downturn of 1997.
Cholvijarn said later he was highly impressed by the students’ depth of knowledge on regional issues.
Also impressed by the participants was Datuk Mustapha Mohamed, who said: “I am especially impressed by our (Malaysian) students. This is the kind of people we need to develop in our universities. We are producing too many mediocre students who cannot compete globally; we need more of top quality students like these to represent Malaysia at the international academic arena.”
After the main forums, the students were divided into three workshops where they thrashed out their ideas on the different sub-topics before formulating possible recommendations and proposals.
Each workshop presented a working paper at a press conference. The working papers were later compiled into a “white paper” (see page 4) for distribution to governments, academics, and relevant non-governmental organisations in the region early this year.
Hitachi Ltd executive vice-president and representative director Yoshiro Kuwata said: “We have created this challenging and varied programme for the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative because we want to groom tomorrow’s leaders, from tackling the region’s pressing issues to caring for and engaging society’s underprivileged.”
Hence, in addition to the conference and workshops the students participated in community work, meant to nurture in them the all-around qualities of budding leaders.
This time, participants were given the responsibility of working with children with disabilities from the Christian Care Foundation in Bangkok.
However, it was not all work for the young leaders as they also got the opportunity to see a bit of Bangkok as participants of an exciting treasure-hunt-like-race, aptly called The Amazing Bangkok Race.
Experience to treasure
The best part of the experience, said Malaysian Lim Fung Kit, was meeting his peers from the different Asian countries.
“We had a really good time sharing ideas and views. There were not a lot of differences between us, no big conflicts. We were focused on getting the job done, so we worked through consensus and everyone had a chance to speak up. The best thing is really to just talk and have fun, sharing experiences and activities,” added the USM engineering student.
Fellow student leader Melissa Shamini Periasamy also enjoyed making new friends and learning about new cultures. “The sad thing is that it is too short. I wish we can have more time to get to know each other and exchange more ideas,” she said.
It was an invaluable experience for Thai student Gobind Rattivarakorn, who is interested in working internationally in the future.
“I was born in Thailand but grew up in India, so I have had the best of two cultures. It has taught me that people everywhere share more similarities than differences. Meeting fellow students from diverse cultures in the region has further proven to me how similar we all are, so it has been really interesting,” said the computer science student who is doing his fourth year at Mahidol University International College.
Right on track
The findings and recommendations gathered from the workshops nevertheless raised doubts on participants’ grasp on real world situations. Generally ambitious, and a tad idealistic, the white paper betrays the youthfulness of the Sixth HYLI participants.
However, after speaking to a few of the young leaders, it became apparent that despite the loftiness of the ideas put forward, and their over-brimming optimism, these students have their heads screwed on tight, and their feet firmly on the ground.
One example is Anggia Prasetyoputri of Indonesia, who is the first to admit that as students they can’t help being idealistic. Nevertheless, she believes that a dose of idealism is good for the region’s future.
“Some optimism is good for us. There is a wide age gap between the leaders and us students, so it is good for them to find out what we think. I believe that at the very least it is an input of our ideas and views which, combined with their knowledge and experience of the real world, will be essential information for policymaking,” said the fourth-year mathematics and natural sciences student at the University of Indonesia.
She felt that the Sixth HYLI had been effective in getting Asian youth of diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives to share their ideas and views.
Filipina Katrina Camille M. Ng, a fourth year Business Management student at Ateneo de Manila University, is also of the opinion that the white paper is just to put forth the participants’ ideas and views on issues affecting Asia. “I believe the idea is really to get us to sit together and talk about the issues, then come up with recommendations and solutions. On that basis, the practice has been successful,” she added.
Tizreena Mohd Ismail said the experience of working on the white paper was more valuable than the actual results.
“We had to work on it together, it was stressful – things fell apart and we had to support each other and boost our morale. Yet, things worked out well in the end, and we managed to finish the task. This proves that as Asians we can work together despite our differences,” said the experienced debater, who is currently pursuing an English and Communications degree at UPM.
Fellow Malaysian Hazleen Mohd Zakaria said the experience was an eye-opener, giving her a glimpse of how the real world works. “The experience gave me some new ideas of addressing issues. I also now understand why some problems take very long to resolve.
“Working with the other people in my group has shown me how difficult it is for leaders, especially politicians. As there are so many perspectives and sets of belief, and people have so many different agendas, it is difficult to come to an agreement and please people. I can see now why development happens very slowly sometimes.
“I don’t know how much of our white paper they will take note of, but if they implement one or two of our recommendations, that would be a bonus.”
THE WHITE PAPER
Conclusions and recommendations
Group One: Identifying Asia’s Engines for Economic Growth
Four engines have been identified for Asia’s economic growth:
A. At the domestic level
1. Human capital development: To be achieved by the two-pronged model of vocational schools to harness employment potential and business accelerator programmes to foster entrepreneurship.
2. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs): To channel the entrepreneurial spirit to promote productivity with the support of the education sector, the government, the private sector and external organisations.
3. Corporate governance: To introduce independent agencies to institutionalise transparency and accountability and complement the existing checks and balances in the stakeholder model
B. At the regional level
1. Free trade agreements: To support the economic growth of individual countries while serving the interests of the region and eventual global integration.
Group Two: Managing Asia’s Rapid Urbanisation for Social Progress
Rapid urbanisation has caused economic and social problems. The solution to these problems lies in decentralisation and cooperation.
1. Establish economic hubs close to rural areas to speed up the pace of development. These hubs will serve as a market for rural products and provide better basic services to rural communities, encouraging farmers to stay in rural areas.
2. Provide training and financial assistance to the urban poor to help them set up and manage their own businesses. This initiative should involve all members of the community, particularly in the cities.
Group Three: Balancing Asia’s Growth and Environmental Sustainability
To achieve a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability within Asia, greater emphasis must be given to education, implementation and enforcement of policies on three main domains:
1. People – Advocate practical lifestyle changes through education. Local communities should be engaged in the decision-making process with issues concerning their immediate environment.
2. Public sector – Coordinate inter-government sharing of best practices to solve trans-national issues like haze and oil spills. Prioritise legislation pertaining to environmental sustainability.
3. Private sector – Integrate environmental best practices in their production processes like energy conservation and wastage reduction.
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