A new millennium?

My Dear Rotarians and friends, in particular my Action Presidents,

I will remind you upfront that my last letter in this series was written on New Year’s Eve, or eight weeks ago. I can also confirm that it is the longest break between letters, and I am glad I received occasional reminders in person and through e-mail that I have not written for a while. To all my friends and well-wishers, I thank you for remembering Rosita and I in your thoughts and prayers. We are both well, or as well as can be.

In these eight weeks, at least two countries have changed their presidents and others held elections while the rest of us celebrated the arrival of a New Year, or shall we say, a new millennium, the passage of the Year of the Dragon and the arrival of the Year of the Snake, St. Valentine’s Day, World Understanding and Peace Day, and some of you may not register, a Mongolian Lunar New Year which began yesterday.

I had it on good authority that the Mongolian New Year Day falls on 24 February this year. Mongolians call this period Tsagaan Sar, meaning White Month, which would be the equivalent of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Normally, the Mongolian Lunar New Year coincides with the Chinese New Year, but this year, it is one month behind.

Although I am one day late, I would like to extend on behalf of the Rotarians in the District our warmest thoughts and wishes to our friends in Mongolia in general and the Rotarians in Ulaanbaatar in particular. We wish all of you a happy and prosperous Year of the Snake and may your Club grow from strength to strength.

Ancient records from Scotland had it that people would observe with anxious attention the disposition of the atmosphere on the first night of New Year Day. They would observe whether the atmosphere was calm or boisterous, whether the wind blew from the south or the north, east or west and reached conclusions for the year. It was also believed that if the first of January fell on the moon’s day, i.e., Monday, there would be a severe and confused winter, a good spring, windy summer, and a rueful year in which there would be much sickness. 1 January 2001 is a Monday.

Hong Kong’s winter has always been mild, and last winter, what winter? Unfortunately, our friends in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia cannot be as cavalier about their winter. Things have been rather bad. Indeed the situation has gone from bad to worse. Last year’s zud was followed by a drought. This year’s winter has been very cold. Temperature has been as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius in western Mongolia, and night-time air is as low as minus 40 to minus 45 in many areas. The snowstorms gather devastating winds of up to 34 m per second or over 120 km per hour and people tending their animals had been killed in snowstorms. The situation in Inner Mongolia is even worse and officials forecast that it would take much longer and cost more to repair the losses.

Since mid-January, we have been appealing to clubs and members for donations towards disaster stricken areas, not just in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, but also in India and El Salvador. It seems that the new millennium has begun with disasters, one after another. I appeal to you all to do whatever you can. Every little help counts. The District has now set up a bank account to receive contributions for any one of these disasters. All you need to do is to make your donations payable to “Rotary International District 3450 – Disaster Relief” and specify where you want your donation to go. Send it to Past Governor Anthony Hung and we will do the rest.

Amidst various disasters, we observed World Understanding and Peace Day in our District last Friday, which is also the 96th anniversary of the first Rotary meeting ever and hence of Rotary. I had invited DGN Gloria to organize a joint meeting between some Friday clubs on this day to mark the occasion. DGN Gloria was enthusiastic. She immediately booked a venue and invited Professor Edward Chan to be the speaker for the evening. She has also persuaded nine clubs to host the Joint Meeting which turned out to be a great success.

As I thank DGN Gloria for her exemplary leadership and highly successful debut, I would also like to thank the nine Action Presidents who hosted the Meeting, the District Officials and all other Action Presidents who attended in person or who have asked their members to attend the Meeting. There must be some 200 people at the dinner, including over 60 members who are not members of the nine host clubs. The nine host club presidents are, not in any order, Bill Benter (Kowloon North), Kenny Shiu (Hong Kong Northeast), Vincent Chui (Admiralty), Thomas Wong (Hong Kong Island West), Alex Lau (Causeway Bay), K K Kwong (Channel Islands), Tony Wong (Happy Valley), Victoria Tang (Queensway) and Tom Hui (Kingspark). This is an excellent example of teamwork.

Professor Edward Chan is President and Chair Professor of Economics at Lingnan University. He is good value, as usual and he spoke on “Towards a harmonious international economy.” Professor began by assuring his audience that the international community is not at peace because every country tries to get a bigger slice of the cake. His presentation that followed was thought provoking, exciting, insightful, delightful, interesting and humorous. I am going to outline what the Professor had said, but must first preface with a caution that I did not take any notes during his speech, nor had I confirmed with him what I thought I heard he said.

The world powers had tried to create an orderly world economy after World War II through the Bretton Woods meetings between the Americans, British and Canadians who set up the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. However, by the early 1970s, things were not working out as countries abandoned the gold standard. The IMF was to provide a basis of monetary and currency stability for post-war prosperity in the form of growing world trade and expanding national economies. When things did not work out, it became everyone for oneself.

Globalization was to have brought some form of order to the world economy, but then countries and parties with vested interests or interests not met began to develop and promote theories that globalization would only enhance wealth for the wealthy and hence was bad and evil for smaller economies. The matter came to a head at the Seattle meeting in December 1999 when riots broke up these meetings. From then on, the world saw organized demonstrations every time world leaders gathered together for IMF, World Bank, WTO or WEF meetings, and Professor Chan predicted that the trend would go on for a while.

Technology and information technology had further polarized countries and the world community. Whereas in the past there was a middle class between the rich and the poor, the Internet and accompanying technology had evolved as the Digital Divide such that the world now comprises the haves and the have-nots. The middle class in between has gone. There were significant and worrying implications to various economies and the people whose livelihood depended on more conventional economic activities. Borderless transactions on the Internet meant that vast sums of money and national wealth could be and had been wiped away overnight in many Asian countries. This had bred mistrust between countries and further polarized the haves and the have-nots. It had made it more difficult to achieve world understanding and peace.

The world economy could have rested happily and in a stable equilibrium on a tripod, with each leg denoting one of the regional economies, namely, the Americans, the European Union and the rest of the world led by the economies in Asia. However, not only were the three legs different in strength and constitution, it was doubtful whether the third leg that was to be represented by the rest of the world had been developed if at all. The result was that the world economy was far from being balanced. More importantly, the world economy would continue to be dominated by the American economy.

Professor Chan suggested that differences in culture and values between the East and West could have been an obstacle towards globalization. As an illustration, he cited that the NAFTA agreement document was 6,000 pages because the Americans wanted everything to be in writing, but that the ASEAN agreement began as a 20-pages document which was finally whittled down to two pages primarily because Asians wanted to be as flexible as possible and were reluctant to bind themselves too firmly on anything.

To conclude, the international economy was still a long way to harmony and it was doubtful whether we could be there. Professor Chan said that it would be for Rotarians to bring the international community closer to understanding and peace through the Rotary ideals.

President Bill Benter gave a crisp and elegant vote of thanks afterwards. The following is an extract of what he said, “As business people and professionals, we are interested to learn about economic trends as they may impact our businesses, but more importantly, as Rotarians, we are interested in economic development for the positive impact that this will have on the quality of life of Asia’s vast populations.

Your remarks tonight touched on matters of the utmost importance for all of Asia’s newly industrialized economies, but had particular relevance to our own region. You have pointed out the great challenges facing the region’s economies, and you have made abundantly clear the pressing need for international cooperation if we are to meet these challenges.

Professor Chen, your career as a scholar, educator, corporate director, and distinguished public servant, make you uniquely knowledgeable on the subject of economic development, and we are grateful that you have taken the time to share your views with us.”

On this note, I will sign off and wish you all a good start to a new millennium. I would try to write sooner next time.

Talk to you soon.

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