SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan called on Liberals and Democrats in Asia and Europe to focus on the well-being of the people instead of power and greed. He was speaking at the 6th ALDE-CALD Meeting recently held in Manila. The event also marked the 20th anniversary of CALD.
Sir Graham Watson, Leader of the Alliance for Liberal Democrats in Europe (ALDE),
The Hon Sam Rainsy, Chairman, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD),
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It is with much interest that I followed today's proceedings which discussed the present and future relations between Asia and Europe. And as with many of you, I would like to credit the speakers for their keen insight on the subject.
I would like to zero in, however, on one of the themes of today's programme which is the anticipated shift of power to Asia as many countries in this region rise to become powerful global players.
Expectedly, much of the discussion centred on economic power. This is understandable because it is the increase of economic power that will determine the country's political and military might, and ultimately provide the power holders global hegemony.
Focus on need not greed
But here is where we need to pause. In our rush to become economic powerhouses, we, inadvertently or otherwise, fuel humankind's fatal weakness – greed.
What we often fail to realise is that the GDP, often used as a measure of economic growth, is not a good indicator of a nation's well-being. It is merely an aggregate of the amount of goods we produce and services we render. The more of these goods and services we offer, the greater the GDP.
This indicator does not, however, tell us anything about the well-being of the people working to produce that GDP growth. The person who formulated the GDP, Simon Kuznets, had specifically warned against using the index as an indicator of an economy's health.
In fact, there is an argument to be made that beyond a certain point, GDP expansion results in the impoverishment of the people and our quality of life.
Think about it. A company that pays handsome bonuses to its directors and another that doles out painful retrenchment benefits to its workers both do their part in boosting the GDP. But while one group gets increasingly richer, the other is out of a job.
When a father stays home to be with his son or takes him out to the park, it does not contribute to GDP growth. But when he stays out late and drinks with his beer buddies, he helps too increase the GDP.
When trees stay rooted and produce oxygen and reduces carbon dioxide, no GDP growth takes place. But when they are cut down to make paper and furniture, the GDP is bumped up.
It is important that we make this important note that GDP growth does not equal a better quality of life. We must not lead our peoples into this false notion that achieving GDP growth makes us all wealthier, healthier and happier.
Think about China. Even though the economy has been growing at breakneck pace, the environmental degradation has resulted in the "cancer villages” sprouting up all over the country – villages where incidents of cancer and cancer-related illnesses have increased dramatically due to the pollution of the air and waterways.
Then there is Singapore whose economic growth is the stuff of legends. At $65,000 our GDP per capita is one of the highest in the world. And yet, Singaporeans have seen their real wages decline over the years even as the GDP hit record highs.
The focus on creating ever higher GDP growth rates have also resulted in the generation of greater poverty. Sir Graham Watson this morning lamented about the dire situation Europe finds itself. Not long ago the US found itself in an even more apocalyptical situation during the financial meltdown. China's economic growth masks a dangerous bubble that when burst will wreak economic and financial havoc throughout the world.
Such monumental disasters can be distilled into one word – greed. While the world's richest 1 percent own nearly half of the planet's wealth, hundreds of millions are mired in hunger and poverty. Such an arrangement is unsustainable and is the single biggest threat to modern life as we know it.
And it is the obsession with the GDP that has driven economies to absurd contradictions. Take again, Singapore. As quickly as our GDP has risen, we have a Gini coefficient – a measure of income inequality – that is the biggest among advanced economies.
What about happiness? While Singapore boasts of the highest number of millionaires per capita globally, a Gallup poll recently surveyed peoples in 148 countries and found that Singaporeans ranked as the unhappiest people in the world.
A fool's errand
If all we do is talk about whether Europe or Asia is richer and hence more powerful, and focus on the mindless pursuit of GDP growth without regard as to how that growth is generated and how it affects our well-being, can we say, hand on heart, that we are leading our peoples in the right direction? Or are we ultimately running a fool's errand?
No, there must be something else other that GDP growth that will ultimately bring contentment to the people.
How much more can we mine, how much deeper can we drill and how many more trees can we log before we irrevocably denude our earth of the very resources that sustain life itself?
But there is no decree from on high that we have to pursue GDP growth at all cost. There are alternatives. In its place, why don't we compare happiness? There are alternative indices such as the Genuine Progress Index that allows us to assess the level of production of goods and services while taking into account the social, political and environmental costs that go into generating the GDP.
Such a measure actively takes into consideration the happiness and quality of life – which is not the same thing as standard of living – of the people. Why don't we evaluate the competence and relevance of governments through such indices?
In addition, research has shown that genuine participatory democracy allows people to achieve greater satisfaction and well-being. Should we not focus on competing with each other on who can be more democratic even as we rank ourselves on the size of our GDPs?
Perhaps ALDE and CALD could promote the practice of comparing how responsive political leaders are to the real needs of our peoples instead of continuing the exclusive focus of chasing GDP growth?
There is no more receptive audience than a roomful of progressive minds, such as the ones presently assembled, to discuss tackling the ultimately futile effort of outdoing each other in power and greed, and to think of a more enlightened approach towards achieving progress – real progress – for humankind.