ONE of the most stupid decisions I ever made also turned out to be one of the wisest decisions of my life. What was my most stupid decision? It was to give up studying a fully funded MBA in the US and start studying public policy in Singapore.
Friends and colleagues thought I was committing an act of total folly by giving up such a lucrative scholarship, and studying a less popular subject in Asia.
So why was it wise? Simple! We are moving into an era of great uncertainty. Frankly, no one has a clue about the nature of the new world order which is emerging. Experts are clueless. No one predicted the Lehman Brothers crisis of 2008. Many more such crises are forthcoming because we have never experienced the kinds of historical changes we are experiencing now.
And how does one prepare for uncertainty? The only way to do so is to take nothing for granted. We must learn to question every assumption in our minds. How does one acquire the facility to do this? The answer is in an Asian based public policy education.
As more and more countries, especially in Africa, realize once again the importance of good governance, it is inevitable that future leaders will be sent for training in public policy schools. One advantage that public policy schools have over law, business and other professional schools is that they provide a multi-disciplinary education resting on three key pillars: economics; politics; and leadership and management skills.
This is precisely the kind of broad-based education that future leaders will need in an increasingly integrated and complex globalizing world.
The declining performance of the public policy sector in America and Europe and the improving performance of the same sector in several Asian countries suggest that the time has come for a two-way street in public policy education.
The spectacular successes of some Asian economies, beginning with Japan and the four Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) and continuing with China and India, suggest that there are some powerful lessons in public policy to be absorbed from the Asian experience.
Take, for example, the enormous challenge that the whole world is facing with urbanization. In 2008, we crossed an important historical threshold: for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, two-third of humanity will live in cities. Most of this urbanization will take place in Asia. Hence, it will not be surprising if Asian cities come up with innovative public policy solutions.
One of the scarcest commodities in most cities is road space. Western economics teaches us that the pricing mechanism is the best way to allocate scarce resources.
This is why London came up with congestion pricing. Many in the world are aware that London implemented this in 2003. Amazingly, few in the world are aware that London was not the first to introduce road pricing. The first city to do so was an Asian city: Singapore. Singapore introduced congestion pricing in 1975 and electronic road pricing in 1998. In fact, London authorities sent many delegates to learn from Singapore’s experience before implementing similar policies at home. Many other Asian public policy lessons remain to be discovered by the world.
That is why Asian public policy education is destined to become a sunrise industry. The largest number of public policy challenges in the world will be faced by Asian societies. Even if they are only partly successful in meeting these challenges, Asia will naturally provide the largest laboratory for formulating, implementing and assessing public policy.
And the biggest achievement of Asia is captured in these few words by Larry Summers: “They called it the Industrial Revolution because there were noticeable changes in standards of living in a human life span – changes of perhaps 50%. At current rates of growth in Asia, standards of living may rise 100-fold, 10,000% within a human life span. The rise of Asia and all that follows it will be the dominant story in history books written 300 years from now, with the Cold War and the rise of Islam as secondary stories”.
As Asia continues to rise steadily with a careful balance between the invisible hand of the markets and the visible hand of good governance, the future looks immensely bright for public policy education in Asia.