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Category Archives: knowledge

Martial arts on the mean streets of East Asia

In his book Angry White Pyjamas Robert Twigger, the prize-winning poet and author, and martial artist, describes how in the 1930s Gozo Shioda would prowl the streets of Kabuki-cho Tokyo, looking to fight street gangs and test his martial arts skills.

Decades after, Gozo Shioda went on to establish the Yoshinkan style of aikido.  In the eyes of some, Shioda and his teacher Morihei Ueshiba were at one point Japan’s greatest martial artists.

Ueshiba used to tell his students “On no account go looking for fights.”  Shioda, like many other good martial arts students, completely ignored his teacher on this.  

Instead, out of the situations in which Shioda constantly found himself, he formulated his own rules, like “In a fight against many, always make the first blow count against the strongest man.”

Shioda felt that you only really understand what aikido is when you have to use it in life-or-death situations.  His own aikido-enlightenment moment came when, cornered by four gang members, he used aikido techniques to break the arm of one of his attackers and the leg of another, and incapacitated a third by a single punch to the solar plexus.  According to Shioda’s autobiography he appreciated only then how aikido wasn’t something you just practiced in a safe environment.

I have friends who train in aikido but I myself do taekwon-do, the birthplace of which is Korea.  So, that balmy July evening in Seoul when my taekwon-do training partner James and I came out of his dojang, we reminded one another of what Ueshiba and Shioda would have said, had they been walking Seoul’s crowded streets alongside us.  James, who has started training seriously in hapki-do as well, pointed out to me how in modern Korean language you say taekwon-do players but hapki-do fighters.

Every street corner in Seoul has over a dozen schools of taekwon-do and hapki-do.  Every shaded doorway has darkened stairwells leading up to a brightly-lit dojang.  Martial arts training is everywhere.

The other thing found everywhere in Seoul is free WiFi.  When you land in most airports in the world, service providers try to sell you a pay-as-you-go SIM card so you can use your cellphone without incurring high roaming charges.  At Incheon and Gimpo, they try to get you to rent a Skype handset instead.  Why call over cellular networks when you can just log in to the Internet on a cellphone handset, and transmit via VOIP for zero marginal cost?

I think that is truly cool.  It just makes so much sense.

South Korea’s 15-year-olds score highest in the world at problem-solving skills, way ahead of the US, the UK, France, or Germany, in the OECD’s 2006 Program for International Student Assessment Surveys.  Fifteen-year-olds in Hong Kong and Japan score well up there too, right alongside South Korea, and again far, far above the US, the UK, France, and Germany.  The same pattern emerges again for science skills and mathematics skills.

South Korea is a country brimming with clever people, knowledge, and technology, of the most exciting, intelligent, and useful kind.  The same holds for Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore.  [Singapore will only start to participate in PISA surveys from 2009, and so its formidable student strength in mathematics, science, and problem-solving—apparent to anyone who teaches undergraduate students at any good international university— will only appear in the next OECD round.]

When economists estimate TFP (total factor productivity) to be low for countries such as these, whatever it is that we’re measuring more and more accurately as TFP, it simply can’t be technology—at least, not the way technology is commonly understood.  So what is it that we have ended up estimating better and better?

Oh, back in Seoul, James and I felt that before anything else happened that hot July evening we needed sustenance.  So, taekwon-do player and hapki-do fighter together, we went and had really good Tak Galbi for dinner.  I described to James how in February 2005, after giving a talk on the global economy to Rusal executives in Moscow, I was jumped by 3 men while I was wandering about Red Square in the early evening.  I had then nowhere near Shioda’s presence of mind.  The month after that, I broke my nose fighting in a tournament. But I didn’t consider I had yet had a Shioda moment, and I was just as glad not.

So, after dinner, as all good martial arts students eventually must, I followed Gozo Shioda’s example and I broke the law.  I bought a Kung Fu Panda DVD off a street vendor.  All the while, however, I was thinking about the relative sizes of deadweight loss and ex ante incentives in this picture of monopoly pricing under intellectual property rights.

When I got to Kuala Lumpur in late July, I discovered that Sri Hartamas too has dozens of martial arts schools.  So, August there, I trained with several seriously dangerous-looking hapki-do practitioners at Grandmaster Lim’s dojang in Mt Kiara.  (Thanks to my taekwon-do teacher at LSE Kian-lun Wong for making introductions.  Kian-lun and our LSE taekwon-do club are affiliated with Grandmaster Lim’s Korean Martial Arts organization in Malaysia.)

In this same time I presented papers in Singapore and Seoul; made speeches to LSE alumni in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore; gave lectures at Bank Negara Malaysia and Khazanah Nasional in Kuala Lumpur; and discussed economics and government policy in Ministerial offices and with numerous panellists on radio and TV throughout Southeast Asia (including the first ever webcam telecast for RTM on 29 August 2008).  I am grateful to Governor Zeti at Bank Negara Malaysia, Chairman Zarinah at Securities Commission Malaysia, Minister Shahrir Samad, Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Singapore’s Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Takatoshi Ito, Bart Thia, Khuong-minh Vu, Dato’ Azman Yahya, Dato’ Dr R. Thillainathan, Carmen Chua, and many others who gave generously of their time to talk to me about the economics of the region wherever I went.

Papers I’ve written recently relevant to the preceding discussion include:

Post-1990s East Asian Economic Growth (October 2008)

Knowledge:  The driver of economic growth (June 2008)

while lectures and presentations include:

Khazanah Megatrends Forum (October 2008, KL: “Shifting sands:  The real side longer term“)

Bank Negara Malaysia lecture (August 2008, KL: “Global growth and inflation“)

LSE Tokyo alumni lecture (July 2008, Tokyo: “Post-1990s East Asian economic growth“) [Photos]

LSE Malaysian alumni lecture (May 2008, KL: “The rise and fall of subsidies“) [Ng Wei-Li’s photos]

LSE Asia Forum in Singapore (April 2008, Singapore: “Knowledge: The driver of economic growth”) [video]

[The aikido photograph is of my friend Attila Emam, who is third-dan blackbelt in aikido (and LSE-trained economist now at Securities Commission Malaysia), executing a throw.  The taekwon-do photograph, from September 2007, shows me sparring my instructor Mr Read, who is fifth-dan blackbelt in taekwon-do:  I am executing a jump spinning back kick while he is preparing to deliver a hook kick at my head.  The photograph is a still that I extracted from a video of us sparring.  The 2008 May photograph is of a meeting with Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop in his Putrajaya office.  The 2008 July photograph is from the LSE Tokyo alumni event at the Roppongi Hills Club.  The 2008 August photograph was taken after my lecture at Bank Negara Malaysia.  I obviously wear Vivienne Westwood way too often.]


“3 little syllables”: LSE graduation, July 2007

Given how knowledge is supposed to be just world knowledge—not Korean, Japanese, British, or American knowledge—it is impressive how much gets written comparing to those in the West the sheer numbers employed in Chinese science and technology, or the levels of expertise in Indian engineering. How long will it be, it is implied, before Chinese knowledge or Indian knowledge overtake Western knowledge?

Thomas Friedman describes in The World is Flat how Craig Barret — the current Chairman and former CEO of Intel Corporation — shocks Americans by admitting Intel could well thrive as a company even if it never hired another American, although this of course is neither Intel’s intent or desire. “We still do hire lots of Americans. But today we can hire the best talent around the world and be very successful,” casting his eye over how a lot of Intel investment now takes place in Russia, China, India, Malaysia, and Israel.

Why hold back? Why not hire only the best?

The other story making the rounds is how in many Western firms now, annual prize ceremonies for top performance come with cheat-sheets to help the CEO pronounce the names of 9 out of 10 of the firm’s most outstanding employees. Now and then, of course, “John Smith” from Peoria Illinois surprises.

So it was with some trepidation in early July that, as Head of the LSE Economics Department, I looked over the list of 300 or so graduating students whose names I would have to announce, before an audience of 1,000 in the Peacock Theatre at LSE’s graduation ceremony. As I had previously blogged last December and October, that audience would include friends and family who had travelled vast distances to attend.

LSE has long been and continues to be far more international than any other university I know. Of its student population of 8,000, half come from more than 120 countries outside the European Union. Last year, for the first time ever, China and Hong Kong fielded over 950, the highest number of foreign students at the LSE. Malaysia and Singapore, even when added together manage only a tiny population at home. Yet, somehow they routinely send the LSE almost as many students as does the Chinese mainland now, and one-third more students than does all of Germany.

At the ceremony, I got up to the podium and, following protocol, tipped my hat to Howard Davies, the Director of the LSE, standing across the stage. He nodded, and looked pointedly back at me, for my Department’s students were the bulk of those waiting to be called up on stage to shake his hand. I started down the list, and got smoothly around the first bend with “Igor Cesarec”, “Christina Yuen Kiu Chan”, “Wang Sheair Chua”, “Yahan Li”, “Sulwyn Lim”, “Saravanan Nagappan”, “Hieu Nguyen”, “Sunehra Rahman”, and “Muhammad Kashif Riaz”.

I figured I was doing well. I only had 240 names that morning; some graduates had decided to go home or had had to start work, and couldn’t attend.

I could see the finish line. I headed towards it with “Adrian Zhi Da Wong”, “Sukjai Wongwaisiriwat”, and “Zhi Jia Yap”. I was on the final straightaway now with “Jiaqian Chen”, “Ilja Boelaars”, “Kun Lung Wu”, “Vasileios Gkionakis”, and “Nuarpear Warn Lekfuangfu”.

Then I messed up.

“Linda Peng”. Three syllables. From Malaysia.

These people I have named and others in the Peacock Theatre that morning are friends of mine. Of those who graduated BSc from the Economics Department, three years back I had given them and their classmates, all 850 of them, the very first lecture they ever attended at the LSE. Not by coincidence, that had also occurred in the Peacock Theatre; it was the first lecture on Introductory Economics. These people are members of an amazing and accomplished class. I wasn’t pleased to see them leave that July morning. But I was proud I got to announce their names as they left.

World knowledge it is then.

Conan the Librarian

Last week Monday 16 October 2006 I got to give a keynote speech to Internet Librarian International. For those librarians who had just that weekend travelled east to get to London, 9am Monday morning must have been brutal. Still, 350 librarians did appear in that one conference room, all together.

Thanks to Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, I had already cottoned on to how librarians were no longer who I once thought they were. But I figured they still must have all heard every possible Conan the Librarian joke by now. So instead we talked economics, the demand and supply of knowledge, Open Access, and the Digital Divide. Or, put differently, intellectual property rights and global markets for information. Well, one global market anyway.

([2006.11.20 update] Richard Poynder has, since the ILI Conference, provided on his blog a thoughtful response to my talk, in yet another article of his, full of insights and ideas.)

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