The story of Asia today remains very much one driven by its largest nations and economies. An increasingly assertive China, a slow-growing Japan, a rising India and a still emerging Indonesia dominate the headlines, along with mounting tensions from the Korean peninsula. Yet, all of “Asia rising” can take a lesson from some of the region’s smallest countries. That was one of the messages I took away from the recent Milken Institute Asia Summit here in Singapore, which focused on a look back 20 years to 1997 — but more importantly also ahead 20 more to 2037.

It was with that mindset – small nations can offer up big lessons to their much larger neighbours  – that I decided to include Bhutan among three countries I spotlighted in an opinion piece appearing across Asia.

From three small countries, I wrote, come three big lessons for a greener, more representative, and more transparent Asia. My hope for Asia 2037 is that these small nations – Bhutan, Timor Leste and Singapore – can inspire and show the way for an ever-changing Asia and Pacific region.

“Going Green” is a phrase that has been thrown around for many years by both countries and companies. But despite the rhetoric, Asia is increasingly polluted, with man-made forest fires and smog-enveloped cities an annual occurrence. However, at least one Asia-Pacific nation, I wrote, both “talks the talk” and “walks the walk”.

The Bhutanese people should be proud that their small Himalayan kingdom of 750,000 people offers an example that all of a rapidly developing Asia, including its much larger neighbours, China and India, can learn from.

Bhutan’s leaders have long put conservation at the heart of their environmental agenda, pledging to keep the country carbon neutral and writing into their constitution the requirement that 60% of the nation must remain forested. Other initiatives have included bans on plastic bags and a commitment to become the world’s first 100% organic-farming nation.

All this, of course, is in line with the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness” advocated by the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Known simply as GNH, this approach to development goes beyond traditional economic measures such as gross national product, which only captures the economic value of goods and services produced. In addition to environmental conservation, central GNH tenets advanced by a Gross National Happiness Commission include sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance.

Another of Asia’s smallest countries, Timor-Leste, with 1.2 million people and 14,875 square kilometers (5740 square miles), offers an example of how people can move forward post-conflict and take control of their own destinies, when given the chance.

I returned recently to this former Portuguese colony located on the eastern half of an island shared with Indonesia, just north of Australia. This trip was a part of an international election observation mission from the Washington-based International Republican Institute. The Timor-Leste government had invited observers to monitor the first parliamentary elections administered without U.N. oversight since the country regained independence in 2002 from Indonesia.

The results were a peaceful and powerful example to many nations, big and small, still struggling to put the power of the vote in the hands of their citizens.

While significant economic challenges continue, the people of this newest of Asian nations deserve significant praise as they progress from decades of conflict and centuries of colonialism. Timor-Leste was ranked 1st in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016 for Southeast Asia and 5th in Asia, behind the well-established democracies of Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan.

The densely-populated city-state of Singapore, 5.6 million people on an area of only 719 square kilometers (278 square miles), is perhaps the leading example in Asia of a small nation that thinks big – and succeeds big. With one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, Singapore showcases the economic benefits of transparency and the rule of law. Its neighbors would do well to adopt this nation’s embrace of free markets and free trade in their own search for drivers of growth and foreign direct investment.

Understandably, the push-back was significant when Kishore Mahububani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, recently argued, “Small states must always behave like small states,” in remarks perceived as a criticism of Singapore’s recent foreign policy.

Singapore did not succeed by thinking small, nor has it reached global prosperity by conforming to “small-country guidelines.” Having developed from fishing village to first world country in just a few generations, Singapore also has become the leading finance and trade hub in Southeast Asia and a role model for rule of law. This prosperous “Lion City” is now ranked the 2nd easiest place in the world to do business in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2017 report, behind New Zealand, and the 7th least corrupt economy in the world according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

Being ambitious is not a bad thing. Small in geography need not mean “small-country mentality and policies.”

Over the last 20 years, I have seen firsthand the accomplishments and continuing challenges of Bhutan, Singapore and Timor-Leste. Still, as small fish in the big pond that is Asia, these three nations have futures that are by no means certain. Each also has important domestic challenges. For example, Bhutan must do much more to foster an enabling environment for business and entrepreneurs if it is to create jobs and sustainable economic growth.

In the two decades ahead, Asia will continue to transform. According to United Nations estimates, India will have traded places with China six years before 2030 to become the world’s most populous nation, en route to 1.66 billion people by 2050. Wealth and inequality will likely grow, as will the risk of military conflict amidst competing demands for energy, water and other resources. Paradoxically, a more populous Asia dominated by large nations might also prove “smaller” as trade and technology further link the region.

All share a vision for an Asia-Pacific that is both prosperous and at peace in 2037. Much though will depend on the world’s biggest powers and the region’s largest nations.

Here’s a prediction. Large countries will seek in the years ahead to apply economic or military pressure to shape their smaller neighbors’ behaviors and policies – no different than today. Asia and the Pacific, however, will be better off if all nations adopt some modern-day, “small state ideas” offered up by Bhutan, Timor-Leste and Singapore – namely the embrace of a greener, more representative and more transparent future for all their citizens.


Contributed by 

Curtis S. Chin

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin. He is the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute.