Jack Ma was 35 years old when he founded the Chinese technology company Alibaba. Gojek’s co-founder Nadiem Makarim was only 26 when he launched the Indonesian mobility start-up, and Binny Bansal was 25 when he launched the Flipkart e-commerce site in India. The youthful vigor and drive of three of Asia’s new business leaders is in stark contrast with the region’s aging political leadership. The sad reality in Asia today is that you can be 20 and launch a unicorn, but you would probably have to wait until you are 60 to rise in politics. This yawning gap between rulers and the ruled raises the risk that younger generations, particularly in youth-rich countries in South and Southeast Asia, will feel that their voices are not being heard. The continuing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests are a powerful sign of what can happen next.
Many of Asia’s current crop of leaders were born in the radio and telegraph era of the 1940s and 1950s, with a few exceptions such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, born during the Orwellian year of 1984, and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, born in 1961. The generation gap did not matter much when Asia was doing well, with high rates of economic growth translating into tangible gains and mobility for successive generations.
Asia is entering a more uncertain phase with slowing globalization, a Cold War-like escalation in tensions between America and China, and a clear sense among young people that their prospects for upward mobility are likely to be more limited compared with their parents.
What is magnifying the risks is the pandemic, which has caused significant damage by the closure of schools and colleges across Asia and a narrowing in job prospects for the generation entering the workplace. For the hundreds of thousands of Asian students studying in America and Europe, there appears to be no immediate possibility of in-school training for the foreseeable future. The lockdown can feed their anger and frustration in unpredictable ways.
Asian leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping (born 1953), Narendra Modi (1950) of India, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (1945) may be very proficient in their use of social media but they do not speak the same “language” of the younger generation in their countries. Their background, rhetoric, culture, and upbringing are from a bygone generation that has all but vanished in Asia. These leaders have also done a terrible job in grooming and projecting younger talent who could reach out to youth and speak about their anxieties and aspirations. Simply demanding that young people stay committed and work hard, which is the usual rhetoric of the political class, does not resonate with the younger generation at a time when the pandemic has become a defining moment in their lives and artificial intelligence and robotics are reshaping the future of work.
It is obvious that Asia should be doing a better job in grooming a new cohort of leaders in politics, male and female. Singapore certainly stands out with the ruling People’s Action Party articulating its “4G” political leadership process a few years ago. Eventually the party named Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is 59, as successor to Lee Hsien Loong when he steps down sometime during his new term, as he has indicated.
The fact that even Singapore has struggled to groom a younger generation of political leaders does not bode well for the rest of Asia. Neighboring Malaysia went in a different direction in 2018 by selecting the 93-year old Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister for a while – he first assumed that office back in 1981 – and his successor Muhyiddin Yassin is no spring chicken himself at 73 years old and was treated for pancreatic cancer in 2018.
Thailand performed better in the past with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was 50 years old when he took office in 1999) and his political rival Abhisit Vejjajiva was only 44 when he served a brief tenure as prime minister. By contrast, Thailand’s generals who currently rule the country via a nominal election-only democracy are in their 60s.
Over in Japan, new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, at 71, is six years older than his predecessor Abe Shinzo, restoring the influence of the over-70s clan in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has long dominated politics. (The US, of course, has its own aging leader issue. In November, Americans are choosing between incumbent Donald Trump, 74, and challenger Joe Biden, 78 that same month, to be their next president.)