The challenge for the top table

My travels are giving me a privileged, ringside seat as the challenges and opportunities of globalisation take on a very human face.

Let me share three experiences with you.

Firstly, I found myself in the back of a limousine in Bahrain a few weeks ago being driven between appointments. My driver was Indian. I asked him where he was from. “Chennai” came the answer. I told him I knew his home city and asked how often he got back there. “I work here for two years and then, if it all works out, I can send for my wife and family” he told me. In the meantime, he sent the money home every month. “What is the extra money being used for?” I enquired. “I’m educating my son” he said. “What will your son do?” I asked. My driver looked in his rear-view mirror directly at me in the back seat of his limousine and said “he will be sitting where you are, not where I am!”

Secondly, I was fortunate enough to be the Guest Lecturer at the University of Malaya (this is no ignorant colonial misprint; the best and oldest University in Malaysia never changed its name after independence.) in Kuala Lumpur just a couple of weeks ago. The audience was made up of students from all three years and what an enthusiastic and informed bunch they truly were! They cheered their Vice-Chancellor when he announced some recent examination successes and were (possibly mistakenly, but I’m not complaining!) attentive during my lecture and asked some excellent questions afterwards in marvellous English. At the subsequent lunch, I was placed next to one of their star under-graduates. She was Malay-Chinese and nineteen years old, studying economics and politics. I remarked on the very impressive experience in the lecture theatre. She said: “Education up to the age of 18 is completely free in Malaysia. The effect of this over a generation is so beneficial for our country. But Higher Education is not free and my parents are not from a rich background. They are making so many sacrifices and doing everything they can to get me through my degree course. The least I can do in return is work hard and get the most out of my studies so I am a credit to my family and make the most of the opportunity I have been given.”

Lastly, I fly on Monday (with a rose in my button-hole in due recognition of old Valentine whose day it will be!) to spend a few days in Miami and New York delivering a couple of speeches and doing some work for Triumph Motorcycles as their Chairman.  I remember my Bahrain and Kuala Lumpur experiences; I recall the student riots in London before Christmas when certain young people showed an acute ignorance of the fact that Higher Education is not free, it is a question of who pays and they believe that taxpayers who have never, and will never, benefit from the “leg-up” that a University education gives them should pay for them to go through three years at a pace and with a casual disregard that would amaze our friend in KL and bring tears to the eyes of my Bahrain driver; I am staggered at the complacency being shown in my country about the challenge being thrown down by Asia to the strata of our Society that dwells in the value-added, innovative world that feels it is immune from the “Chinese threat” to commodity manufacturing.

And the UK, at least, is the most open and globally-aspected of the developed economies. What will I find in the land of Uncle Sam? Despite what they think of themselves, America is not a free-trade Society; it does protectionism with the best of ’em; it really does not face up to Asia’s century in a way which will deliver an employment and business environment for a ten year-old in North Carolina that will create sustainable work and produce tax-generating profits for that kid’s adult years. My questions will be searching; I will utilise my lucky position to find out just where the American economy is in a globalised context…and I will see if they “get it”, if they value where their country has reached and if they are prepared for a totally different challenge as Asia joins their nation at the top table.

My new friends in Bahrain and Kuala Lumpur are clearly up for it all… is the USA? Are we?