The well-known economic historian Professor Angus Maddison claims that Asian economies accounted before the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th century, for nearly 60% of the global GDP. However, as industrial development has covered in the following two centuries primarily Europe and North America, by the early 1950s, the Asian BDP represented just over 15% of the global. But over the last half century, things have turned again, and Asia was back at about 40% in 2020.
The phenomenal economic growth in Asia remains for many a secret, though most economists around the globe basically agree that behind this unique achievement there is actually no real secret, but a little more than the common-sense performance and determination of the Asian nations. By saying this, one does not wish to underestimate the dimensions of the growth and change achieved, but simply states that there was no magic applied and that any nation can do this if sufficiently determined to do so. To put it simply and directly, the "secret" behind Asian achievement is two connected elements: competent leadership and motivated people.
And the results are rather well known: over the last 30–40 years, most Asian countries enjoyed average growth rates between 4% and 6%, while Singapore lifted its GDP per capita since 1966 from about 500 USD to over 50,000 USD, which is more than impressive.
The contribution of competent leadership, as everywhere, is undoubtedly decisive for the success of Asian countries. Importantly, the leaders were not captives of any economic doctrine—neither neoliberal nor etatistic (government control model). Most leaders understood that the power of the market should not be restricted. At the same time, they accepted the responsibility for formulating adequate development strategies and providing stable and productive economic systems and policies. Equally important, excessive economic differentiation was not allowed, which had important socio-political and economic benefits. No surprise, therefore, that politically Asian countries were and remain very stable, though, measured by Western standards, sometimes operating in a rather autocratic manner. Yet, there were no major upheavals, meaning that people willingly accepted that there are limits to the democratic debate and individual behaviour, particularly when it was agreed that intensive growth is the best way ahead and understood that it will reward everyone.
The leaders are also to be credited for understanding that the basis for intensive growth is to increase human and physical capital, and that was done mostly in an open economy, relying to some extent also on foreign investors, combined with the use of external brains and experience, with investors being allowed to take out their profits at an acceptable level. Education and research have also received proper attention, which has contributed to the growth achieved.
From the start, it was clear that growth was not enough. What these countries needed was structural transformation from an agrarian and, in many cases, colonial economy into a modern (post)industrial economy with an emphasis on knowledge and usually the latest technology. And this is what actually happened!
This was the general pattern, but it is important that each individual development model be applied pragmatically and by taking into account the specific cultural, historic, and political circumstances of the respective country. Let us have a look at some of those specific features that have been applied in some countries in order to properly interact with the circumstances in various economic and political contexts.
The People's Republic of China is surely in a category of its own. The size of the country, with its ancient civilization, now a socialist country of Chinese character, and the current ambition to become global power number one, undoubtedly explains how the modernization and development process has been conducted. Without much public reference, the country has definitely given priority to building a knowledge economy, intensely strengthening its human capital, and recognizing innovation as the key to accelerated development.
The government has selected five broad, strategic priorities (electronics and informatics, advanced manufacturing, energy and environment, biology and health, and maritime development) and is intensely increasing the share of GDP devoted to funding research (GERD in 2022 would already be 2.55%, well over the EU average).
It has to be pointed out that the country has successfully maintained a simultaneous emphasis on supporting research and entrepreneurship (not typical for socialist countries). In China, there are 4,298 market spaces, 400 accelerators, and an innovation fund for technology-based firms, annually supporting some 4,000 SMEs. The role of the government is very strong, not only in determining science and technology policies, but even in deciding which research projects should receive public funding. But it has been accepted that decisions about selecting promising research projects should be left to experts.
The entrepreneurship development situation is illustrated by these two figures: during 2022, there were 23,800 new companies registered daily, and the total number of SMEs on January 1, 2022, was 52 million! The graphic below demonstrates some of the typical features of Chinese strategy:
India, now already the world’s most populous country, has for a long time registered very modest economic progress, but now, almost after a decade, India is among the fastest-growing among the major economies of the world. It is estimated that, in total, India has contributed about 12% to global growth over the last 5 years.
In its World Economic Outlook Update, the IMF maintains the growth rate for India in 2022–2023 to be 7%, and the forecast for 2023–2024 is expected to be 6.5%. Former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, D. Subbarao, says that India’s big challenges are sustaining the growth rate and lifting millions of people out of poverty. "The medium-term challenges are in improving education and health outcomes," he says, adding that around the world, countries that have moved from low income to middle income over the past 50 years have all done so by investing in education and health. Subbarao also cautions that unemployment is the biggest challenge India faces today: "Twelve million people are joining the labor force every year." We are not even able to generate half as many jobs. "The problem is reaching explosive proportions."
Private consumption on a year-to-year basis has grown by 25.9%, while investment has registered a 20.19% growth rate. It has to be taken into account that the country is still facing massive poverty, especially in rural areas, where population growth is still very high (the WB estimate is 0.063% annual growth rate of the 909 million people living in rural areas).
Many experts expect for India still higher growth rates from fiscal year 2024 onwards. However, such a recovery would require the country to tackle many of the economy’s pressing problems. Some of these are hangovers from the past, and some have been exacerbated by COVID. The biggest concern relates to employment, an issue that has persisted over the last two decades. It is clear that the country has not generated enough good jobs to match the scale at which the economy has been growing.
Singapore is a special case. There has been no country in history that managed a transition from a miserable fishermen's village into a rich, highly developed post-industrial city-state of 2 million people in half a century. It is a real economic miracle, with the globally highest value added per person of 83,000 dollars (Japan 65,000 dollars, China 20,000 dollars, Indonesia 7,000 dollars, and Cambodia 2,600 euros). Singapore is also globally among the 5 least corrupt countries, with exemplary public services and infrastructure to be envied even by the richest countries of the world.
After becoming independent in 1965, Singapore was first joined to Malaysia, but soon decided to declare independence. There is no doubt that the main reason for the incredible progress of the country is its president, Lee Kuan Yew, Secretary General of the People's Action Party. He was re-elected four times, followed in 1990 by his son. While they were still rather poor, they introduced demographic limits, "Stop at 2" children, but later offered rewards for highly educated mothers to have more than 2 children. This demonstrates that he was fully aware that the quality of human capital is decisive for the socio-economic progress of a country. While in the early stages, immigration was practically not allowed, later it became acceptable, particularly for educated people and businessmen. Citizens have been taken care of in every respect, from education, work, health, a clean environment, and safety. Any attempts to disturb social harmony and create conflicts based on race or religion were strictly and effectively sanctioned.
The government has adopted a clear development strategy, taking advantage of the country's favorable geo-logistic position, which has enabled it to become one of the world's largest oil refineries and an international shipping hub.
Singapore, being one of the best organized countries, is a case demonstrating what can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. Of course, this is possible only under capable leadership, which Singapore has luckily enjoyed since independence.
All that has been developed over the years is well preserved and maintained, and there is little doubt that being a Singaporean citizen has become a privilege.
Japan, the third-biggest economy in the world by GDP, is again a country important globally and regionally, having achieved the status of a global power based primarily on a very strong and competitive economy. After being severely damaged during WWII, it made a remarkable comeback within 10–15 years and became an important competitor in world markets. Japan enjoyed accelerated growth till the early 1990s, but was hit strongly during the global crisis of 2007–2008. It has then joined the growing economies, though at more modest growth rates, between 2% and 3.5%.
Much more than in other advanced countries, in Japan the role of the government has traditionally been very important, through constant consultations with corporate groupings (the keiretsu system) and deep direct involvement in banking. Perhaps the most important role of the government in following the adopted development strategy is through the Economic Planning Agency, operating within the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.
The strength of the Japanese economy lies in its highly competitive manufacturing products, with particular emphasis on hi-tech products (mostly ICT items and appliances). Japan has traditionally been the world's principal shipbuilder and automaker and an important producer of steel, rubber, aluminium, cement, paper, petrochemicals, and textiles.
The Japanese government has always been fully aware that its economy's competitiveness depends primarily on knowledge-based efficiency and has paid particular attention to strengthening its knowledge economy, lately also emphasizing the importance of the sustainability of products and services offered at home and on international markets.
Malaysia, Indonesia, and other ASEAN countries share several concerns and characteristics of development policies with an emphasis on knowledge, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
To some extent motivated by the successful Singaporean experience, these countries have all declared their priority to build knowledge-based economies and support innovation to increase their international competitiveness.
Malaysia established the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation already back in 2004 and formulated three priorities for their National Innovation Strategy (enabling environment, priority sectors, and support for innovation champions).
They also cleverly formulated five principles of sustainable innovation:
- Innovation starts when people convert problems into ideas.
- Innovation needs a support system.
- Passion is the fuel, and pain is the hidden ingredient.
- Co-locating drives more effective exchange.
- Differences should be leveraged.
Indonesia, also inspired by the success of Singapore, has adopted a strategy called "Advance Indonesia 2045" and created four government agencies to encourage and support innovation. The country has made consistent progress in terms of innovation performance (advancing 12 positions in the Global Innovation Index and being in the first third of countries ranked by competitiveness). On the other hand, the country is experiencing too little strategic thinking, insufficient coordination, and consequently modest efficiency, accompanied by corruption.
Other ASEAN countries also adopt the orientation toward innovation-based competitiveness, and their governments are making efforts to organize themselves to be able to influence the process adequately. The success achieved in that depends on the country, and within each country, the efficiency of implementing these policies also depends on each individual government and their continuity and determination to bring about the changes being declared urgent.
How successful have the selected 18 Asian countries been so far in advancing their innovation performance? This is presented in their ranking of 132 countries presented in their WIPO's Global Innovation Index 2023: