Asia’s infinite game
For 12 years my Dutch colleague, Fons Trompenaars, and I have been looking at the business cultures of various nations. Over 30,000 managers in 53 countries have responded to a series of values’ dilemmas we put to them. We found that east Asian cultures were virtually looking-glass lands: particular where we were universal, communitarian where we were individualist, diffuse where we were specific, and so on. I therefore noted with some surprise your contention that Asian values were a “myth.”
One wonders how much better east Asian economies must perform before experts such as yourself discover a touch of humility. The five fastest growing nations in the world in 1996 were east Asian-Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Since 1990 China has grown 136 per cent, Indonesia 124 per cent, Singapore 99.8 per cent. Eight of the top ten nations in growth since 1990 are east Asian. The UK was 31st with 18.5 per cent growth.
But are these nations poor, with low wages attracting mostly western manufacturing? Singapore has moved from 18th to fourth in GDP per capita since 1990, overtaking Britain, its former colonial master, and the US. On its present trajectory it will overtake Switzerland and Japan around 2003 to become the world’s wealthiest nation.
Japan has slowed down, a fact you savoured in a recent article. Since 1990 it grew only 26.8 per cent, its worst period since the early 1950s, yet even so it outgrew Britain and the US. Have we nothing to learn?
Value differences are subtle. East Asian cultures tend to value listening more than talking, so they learn from us much faster than we learn from them, and they talk about what we have taught them, since this is new, whereas their own cultural programming is deep and largely tacit.
China may have taken off like a rocket since it allowed businesses to compete, but we fool ourselves if we imagine that they have abandoned 4,000 years of communitarian traditions. They have discovered that competing improves co-operating, as yin harmonises with yang. This helps to explain why east Asian economies are “third wave” developers. At first, they saw in the west only the antithesis of what they believed. Some of them flirted with communism, the ideological opposite of western beliefs. More recently, with comparative economic growth rates becoming the equivalent of war, they have come to…