This Is The Asian Century. Here's Why
A change is coming. From 2020, data suggests, Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the world combined for the first time since the 19th century. At the same time, the world is increasingly looking east. From K-pop to mindfulness, Asian culture and philosophies are growing in influence.
These economic and cultural developments didn’t happen overnight. For decades, political and economic analysts have been heralding the dawn of the Asian Century—when the world turns full circle and Asia once again becomes its centre.
Parag Khanna, global strategy advisor and international relations specialist, is one such analyst. His most recent book, The Future is Asian, sets out how the region is uniting and reshaping the planet. “The Asian Century is already upon us. That doesn’t mean that Asia is replacing the West. Asia is simply taking its rightful place alongside North America and Europe as the third major power centre of the world,” says Khanna.
While analysts tend to view the rise of Asia on a macro scale—its economic surges and population growth—the increasing power of the region is very much about key individuals. “It’s the story of leaders,” says Khanna. “It’s very much about individuals seizing upon urbanisation, digitisation and financialisation, really using the latest technology and embracing the future to be part of the story of their country’s modernisation and economic growth.”
He highlights Tony Fernandes of Air Asia as one of the region’s best ambassadors. “It’s people like that who have chipped away at the regulatory, protectionist barriers, and now people can travel more freely around Asia on low-cost airlines thanks to what he has done.”
[Asia’s rise] is the story of leaders... using the latest technology and embracing the future to be part of the story of their country’s modernisation and economic growth
— Parag Khanna, international relations specialist
He also highlights Garena, the payment, e-commerce and digital entertainment platform founded by Singaporean Forrest Li, which now goes by the name Sea Group. The Singaporean company, with Chinese investment and operations in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, was the first Southeast Asian tech company to list on the New York Stock Exchange. It is, he says, individuals like these, and a belief in the Asian story, that have brought about large-scale change in the region.
Tony Fernandes and Forrest Li are the predecessors of the individuals that the Gen.T List seeks to highlight—people who will be driving the continued rise of the region, shaping its future and creating connections with the rest of the world.
"I believe the Gen.T List is important in Asia as it is a strong signal to society that the young generation will be the primary driving force for the new economy,” says Enita Pu, partner at Sequoia Capital China and member of the Tatler Tribe, the panel of industry heavyweights Gen.T consults to find its honourees.
She highlights, in particular, Asia’s transformation into a centre of technological innovation, around which many of its most successful businesses are focused. “Technology is revamping our lifestyle, empowering people and disrupting entire industries,” says Pu. “With few incumbents in the market, there is a natural embrace of new technology that allows for easier penetration and quicker adoption rates compared to elsewhere.”
Take Airwallex, one of the most recent Asian companies to join the unicorn club by reaching a valuation of US$1 billion. The cross-border payment platform was founded in Melbourne before moving its head office to Hong Kong to focus on China and Southeast Asia. Further international expansion followed, and the company now has eight offices globally, allowing SMEs around the world to send, collect, convert and pay in more than 130 currencies on one platform.
"For a long time, Asia was perceived by many Western organisations as being too hard or too closed off, meaning many Asian markets have been left unserved or underserved,” says Lucy Liu, co-founder and president of Airwallex and a 2019 Gen.T honouree.
The Gen.T List is important as it is a strong signal to Asian society that the young generation will be the primary driving force for the new economy
— Enita Pu, partner at Sequola Capital China and Tatler Tribe Member
"Asian startups recognised these huge gaps and applied their deep understanding of local markets to successfully launch the products and services in high demand. Asian markets have seen an explosion of new and innovative providers, with competition further accelerating innovation. We’re now beginning to see many of these organisations expand out of Asia and compete on a global scale.
The focus for many Western organisations is moving from how to compete in Asia to how to compete with Asia.” As Airwallex and other unicorn startups are showing, success often comes from a local presence and a close familiarity with the markets. “Asia is important for Lalamove and many other companies because it’s the biggest market in the world, with 60 percent of the world’s total population,” says Gary Hui, co-founder and director of the Hong Kong-based on-demand logistics company and a 2019 Gen.T honouree.
"At Lalamove, when we make decisions, we always start with what impact we can have, and Asia gives companies like us an opportunity to make a big impact.”Lalamove already boasts operations in more than 100 Chinese cities as well as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Its latest round of funding propelled it to unicorn status and it has plans to expand further in Southeast Asia and enter the Indian market.
"Asia is driving growth in terms of tech innovation in the 21st century,” adds Jack Zhang, CEO and co-founder of Airwallex, who also features on this year’s Gen.T List. “It’s exciting to see the number of startups growing in key cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and government and regulatory bodies in Asia are also pushing forth great initiatives to help and encourage entrepreneurial endeavours.”
Encouragement from such bodies has been key to Asian growth, and is something that Khanna believes the rest of the world can learn from, particularly if it wants to remain competitive.
"The European century brought with it enlightenment, values, civil service institutions; the US era brought capitalism, democracy, freedom. The new Asian values are technocratic governance, which is wanting to have visionary leaders who have a real programme for modernisation; it’s mixed capitalism, where the state and the private sector collaborate more actively to promote innovation; and it’s social conservatism, which is being respectful of the diversity of societies and trying to make sure that you maintain social stability. Those are the things that I think Asia is doing to a large degree, and is potentially teaching the rest of the world.”
These values are benefiting Asia, driving the Asian Century and supporting its pioneering individuals to grow and shape tomorrow. As Pu puts it: “Invest in Asia. Invest in technology. And finally, invest in the driving force of the future—the younger generation.”