CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The most popular “buzzwords” in this time of change must surely be “globalization” and “restructuring.” Allow me to indulge in one more reference to the latter with some remarks that may be quickly criticized as an example of “old-school, bureaucratic” thinking.
In all sincerity, however, I offer them from a “Third Way” perspective, echoing, especially in the government sector, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s philosophy on reform in general.
Restructuring in the corporate world is following new and irreversible dynamics, which are dictated by the new deity, international competition. Prominent foreign economists and businesspeople dispute the Japanese prime minister’s search for a middle ground, which, according to a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review, offers scant hope “for a speedy turnaround in the fortunes of the world’s second-largest economy.”
In Japan and throughout Asia, there are two trends: On the one hand, there is conservative resistance to reform, bureaucratic concern for preservation of privilege and the status quo and corporate disapproval of extreme Western ways of slashing jobs; on the other, there is an urge for self-reliance, creativity, open-mindedness, greater emphasis on meritocracy, economics and job cuts.
Objectively speaking, the new era does not leave much room for the first trend. The ongoing and future changes are cataclysmic, and adaptation and adjustment have become synonymous with survival.
On the other hand, the very term “adjustment” means just that: not total surrender to what the well-known Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa calls the “monoculture of consumerism.” “Changing your ways to survive globally is unavoidable, but cultures and politics won’t abdicate the foreign influences,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Tom Plate. Therefore, there is the need for a “middle way,” subconsciously originating perhaps in the very center of Buddhist philosophy, that still permeates many Asian societies.
Having clarified Obuchi’s position regarding the ultraconservative preference for “immobility” and having stressed his preference for a “Third way,” I’d like to briefly question some of the extreme propositions of the all-reform school, even though I sympathize with some of its moderate ones.
First comes to mind the allergy to the seniority principle. Although the criteria for evaluation must be improved, radical transplantation of a monolithic merit-based system would add problems instead of solving them. For example, meritocracy applied by whom? Politicians? Authoritative bodies? If it is to be the latter, then we are back at square one: improving the existing seniority system. Like individuals, administrations mature with time and the accumulation of experience. The less efficient could be assigned to less-sensitive areas rather than humiliated, surpassed and marginalized. No bureaucracy has the luxury of drawing exclusively on emerging talent and ambition, although all can benefit from its recognition in a harmonious blend of cooperation and respect for hierarchy, which is the only guarantee of satisfactory performance.
It pained me to read the declaration of a European politician that because of the new conditions, “ambassadors have been abolished.” Their role now is unquestionably different. But if they have become useless, why are they so indispensable to politicians and conspicuous throughout the world?
Another similarly extreme “restructuring” principle — given prominence recently in a Thai newspaper — is that embassies should commit all of their resources to one major objective: trade. Naturally, this has to be given a much larger role than in the past, but it would be naive to think that these one-purpose offices could function in a complete vacuum, ignoring all other traditionally imperative tasks that will be facilitated — but not substituted for — by information technology.
Shinji Fukukawa, a noted and respected Japanese commentator, has said that a new Japan needs new values: more openness to foreign cultures, reform in schools and universities, emphasis on English language, computer literacy, a meritocracy and so forth. He clearly supports the “second trend,” which I have some — but not complete — empathy. I agree with him that business and administration experts should interact in the university network, but disagree on other points, and especially in his call for abolishing the seniority system.
Regarding his other points, I already see change taking place, and disagreements now focus on the degree and speed of change.
I support change, but in a spirit of moderation, taking account of deeply entrenched cultural and social values, especially in Asia, where assimilation, acceptance and tolerance have generally been a long-established tradition. We should be alert to new opportunities and challenges, prepared to draw on new technologies for the benefit of growing humanity.
In other words, we definitely need restructuring, but with one important footnote: Add the human element. In this sense, I must confess my happy surprise upon reading in a Thai newspaper the remarks of two international experts on corporate management: “. . . Nobody should be surprised if boards and shareholders will begin to demand the same accountability for human-resources allocation as they do now for capital allocation.”
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