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WATERSHED EVENTS have shaped three decades of Asia. The future promises to be even more astounding . . .

IN ASIA, immense change can occur in the blink of an eye, and it often does. Over three decades, we’ve recorded a host of watershed events wedded to constant change – and been daily reminded of that so-true adage beloved of old Asia hands: The more you know, the less you know.

A more contemporary adage suggests Asia is now so dynamic that detailed knowledge of a specific economy or society anywhere in the region has a useful lifespan of perhaps six months. From that point on, you’re out-of-date.
The concept for this special issue was put together by our Editor, Florence Chong, who assembled a panel of people we know and respect to offer their views on Future Asia. Her reports offer a fascinating kaleidoscope of a region (and a world) drawing its future from history – and, dare we say it, sci-fi comics from the 1920s and the Star Wars trilogy.
How little we really know.

Big Brother will certainly be there. Along with the clones of R2-D2. 
Robots will happily perform most of the future work in factories (we mere humans watching from the sidelines as carers). Robots will also move into services, guiding tourists and pointing air travellers to the toilet – or an elusive departure gate. They’ll help in the home and the office, and play a big role in tending to an ageing population. But their growing presence will actually create jobs.
Tomorrow’s robots will also give 3D a new meaning – doing all those jobs that are Dangerous, Dirty or Demanding. 
3D manufacturing is another future force of unimaginable impact. It will destroy jobs, and it will create new jobs and new global supply chains.  Your favourite 24-hour convenience store will manufacture in-house the products it expects to sell tomorrow. Chocolate manufactured from the 3D printer is not far away.

Food scientists are in the act, too, as they find new ways to avoid food wastage and to save water. Into the future, you will be eating steak and schnitzel manufactured from vegetable protein. Future Asia is all about future technology – and zero-sum games in the corporate world. In the Creative Economy, cyber espionage and patent wars are going to find a happy hunting ground.

Business in tomorrow’s world will also face more political risk. “Too much democracy” as many corporate leaders now view it, will see a plethora of weak governments pandering to the whims of their domestic constituents – at the expense of policy that could drive faster national economic growth and  greater multilateral co-operation.

FASCINATED with the future, we must also look back over three decades that have shaped today’s Asia. There have indeed been watershed events, not the least of which was the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, which forced Asian leaders to rethink their economic policies. 
Policies adopted then without question provided Asia with a shield from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis 10 years later. Corporates slashed balance sheet debt, governments reduced their reliance on overseas debt, and collectively the region went on a saving spree, putting US$5.7 trillion into foreign reserves. A safety net.
China’s entry to the WTO was a watershed event, unleashing dramatic growth not just in intra-Asia trade but in global trade. That built the basis for immense domestic consumption in Asia. 
But a plethora of bilateral trade agreements has created a spaghetti bowl of conflicting rules-of-origin to frustrate cross-border traders who would much prefer the stability of agreed WTO multilateral rules. 
Ministerial talks in Bali in December may at last find a way.
In trade, formation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) has also been a 
watershed. An ambitious ASEAN is now seeking to widen its FTA net, but the end goal may be a bridge too far.
We have put some focus in this issue on the Handover of Hong Kong to China – because of the implications for Taiwan, and, of course, Hong Kong itself and China. China is a recurring theme in our reports – if for no other reason than that its ongoing economic success is essential to the welfare of future Asia. Few would envy the task of China’s leadership.
Space does not allow a country-by-country analysis of where individual nations might be three decades hence. But we present two case studies – of Singapore and South Korea. No random choice. Rather, these two countries best symbolise in our mind the reality of future options that could determine national success, or failure.
In South Korea, we see a determined nation with many resources which has edged ahead of the middle-income trap ­— but battles to 
become a high income country, handicapped by its inability or unwillingness to reform its financial services sector.
Singapore is admired the world over for its incredible transformation to a per capita level higher even than that of the United States, but prosperity and urbanisation create their own political and social perils. 
How Singapore copes will offer lessons for other emerging Asian cities.

THIRTY years ago, Asia was a geographical grouping of vastly disparate nations, poorly served by transport, communications and 
other infrastructure.
China was a closed shop. Governments and Asian people generally had little interaction with each other, and were little understood by the West. Tourism was in its infancy, and foreign managers pioneering trade and investment ventures were pre-briefed on the oddities of ‘Asian’ culture without being made aware of the enormous differences in local ways they might encounter in Asia – from East to West, North to South – sometimes even within the same country.
There was no cable TV or Internet to carry live a new insight into the Asian enigma. Here at ATI, we depended on correspondents armed with manual typewriters, who mailed their reports and hoped the system worked.
In terms of future shock, media is trying to cope with its own form of industrial revolution as it embraces the digital age, seeking to 
negotiate a survival path between falling 
advertising revenue, the needs of traditional and future readers, and those elusive new 
income streams which so often have seemed just out of grasp.
We’re looking for new resources and skills to take our own business into that digital age – and beyond. Our archives, for example, would offer a rich resource if fully digitised for 
academic and business research. Our readers know us best, so we throw the offer open – to join us on our continuing journey through Asia in the years ahead (see page 23). 
These past three decades have indeed been fascinating. The future promises to be even more so.

* Barry Pearton is Publisher of ATI Magazine