When he was a child, Dino Patti Djalal remembers a painting his uncle kept of a white man shining the shoes of an Indonesian – a stubborn protest against the legacy of Western colonization.
Fast forward a few decades and Djalal, now Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States, hears his country’s young tycoons brazenly talking about buying American corporate giants Disney and Universal. For Djalal, that stark contrast illustrates the social and psychological transformation sweeping the world of emerging economies.
“The emerging economies are moving from an inferiority complex to increasing confidence,” Djalal recently told students and faculty at The Fletcher School during a talk sponsored by the ASEAN Society as part of the Charles Francis Adams lecture series.
Unlike previous generations saddled with a “siege mentality,” Djalal said, citizens in the emerging world today are optimistic and not afraid to seize opportunities and take risks.
“Now we are not burdened by historical baggage,” he said. “We believe that if you have the skills, then you have the opportunity to succeed.”
Djalal, who has an impressive list of achievements as an academic, youth activist, best-selling author and former presidential speechwriter, said that polls find an overwhelming majority of people in top emerging economies – from China to India to Indonesia – are embracing globalization as an engine of opportunity. This is very different than the fear and uncertainty now gripping parts of Europe and the United States, he said.
The shift is a reflection of rising peace and prosperity in the emerging world, Djalal said, with Indonesia’s own transformation being a case in point. Just 15 years ago, the country was mired in ethnic riots, economic turmoil and political instability following the Asian financial crisis. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, a poster child for the coexistence of Islam and democracy and a critical voice on regional and global issues.
“Before, we were a nation of losers. Now we are a nation of winners,” Djalal remembers a politician telling him recently.
There is no shortage of such “anomalies of success” in the emerging world, be it Vietnam, India or Singapore, he said. The countries will undoubtedly want to surpass the United States while preserving their own identities as they climb the economic ladder.
China doesn’t want to become the United States, Djalal said, quoting legendary Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew: “China wants to be China.”
Djalal also warned this newfound confidence runs the risk of turning into ultranationalism or “payback” time against former colonizers.
As for the United States, Djalal said the key will be accepting the rise of other economic rivals like China, while also adapting so it can continue to attract the world’s best talent.
“America must continue to be the land of freedom and opportunity. America shouldn’t just be the land of freedom while China becomes the land of opportunity,” Djalal said.
The number of Indonesian college students studying in the United States annually has declined from a high of about 15,000 in 1997 to 7,000 today, he said. Visa restrictions and educational opportunities in other countries have contributed to that decline.
But the United States’ greatest challenge will be to develop a coordinated policy for the emerging world as a whole rather than for just specific countries, he said.
“When you ask what America’s policy toward the emerging world is, it is difficult to get an answer,” he said.
Djalal advises Washington should stick to its traditional strengths, like military power, but also engage more creatively in fields where the competition is growing tougher, like economics.
Turning to a lighter sports analogy to illustrate his point, he noted that while America may be a world leader in American football, the rest of the world plays soccer.
“If you Americans want to be successful, you need to learn to play soccer, not football,” he said. “In order to seize opportunities in this more even playing field, you need to compete in areas not just where you are traditionally strong, but also where others are equally talented.”
-- Prashanth Parameswaran, PhD Candidate