And They Also Shone
By YASMIN GHAHREMANI
One of the most difficult categories was Art, Literature and Culture. With Asia's many disparate cultures, it is hard to name one person who had regional resonance. Consider for a moment Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Indian poet, author, songwriter, painter and educator. In 1913 Tagore became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He later founded an acclaimed school and university in rural Bengal that educated, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Likened to Mohandas Gandhi for his genius, Tagore made a deep and lasting mark on India.
Another popular candidate for this category was martial artist and actor Bruce Lee (1940-1973). Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong, wooed Asian and later Western audiences with his lightning-quick kung-fu performances in numerous films - the most famous of which is the 1973 hit Enter the Dragon. His death that same year at age 32 made him an instant cult figure. One Asiaweek staff member argued that Lee deserved to win our Arts and Culture distinction since "he made the most people happy." No doubt. And Lee is also a source of great pride as an international ambassador of Asian martial arts and as the region's first superstar. Most importantly, he single-handedly changed the Western film image of Chinese people from downtrodden coolies or servile laundry owners to butt-kicking heroes. That's certainly an improvement over the previous stereotypes, though it is still a stereotype. Hats off to this cultural icon, even though he is not quite Asia's artist of the century.
Science and Technology was also a difficult category. Asia has produced many eminent scientists including a healthy crop of Nobelists. But many of their achievements lack the "gee whiz" factor. That is, they occurred in difficult to understand fields like sub-atomic particles that the ordinary person might find hard to relate to. One exception is the birth-control pill, which was co-developed by Chinese-American medical researcher Chang Min Chueh (1919-1991) and Gregory Pincus in the United States. The pill, which was released commercially in 1960, helped liberate women, control population growth and - for better or worse - spark the sexual revolution. It is still by far the most reliable form of contraception, although economic and social barriers have kept it from catching on in Asia as it has in the West.
The winner in Business and Economics category was almost obvious, Morita Akio. But there are other notables in this category who deserve honorable mention. As symbols of the successful role governments have played in Asian economic development, we salute Singapore's Goh Keng Swee (1919- ) and Taiwan's Li Kuo-ting (1909- ). Goh, a former deputy prime minister, is the architect of Singapore's bustling economy. He launched the city-state's export-oriented industrialization, and promoted its currency board system - which encourages low inflation - and its mandatory savings fund. Li, a former minister of economics and finance, engineered Taiwan's technological and economic revolution through export processing zones, vocational education and the creation of the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park.
If we had a humanitarian business award it would go to Muhammad Yunus (1941- ) of Bangladesh. The "banker to the poor" is the father of micro-credit - tiny loans given to impoverished people to help fund cottage industries. Since it was founded in the 1970s, his Grameen Bank has loaned more than $2 billion to 2.5 million borrowers, mostly illiterate women. The micro-credit movement has spread across more than 50 countries, empowering the world's poorest women and forcing a rethink about how poverty can be effectively alleviated.
As with the Business and Economics category, the choice of Mohandas Gandhi for Asia's Moral and Spiritual leader of the century was clear. No one else matches his universal appeal. Still, no discussion of the topic would be complete without tributes to Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and the Dalai Lama (1935- ). Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners and living examples of compassion for all. Mother Teresa, popularly known as the Saint of the Gutters, became an Indian citizen after moving to Calcutta from her native Albania to serve the poorest of the poor. Her Missionaries of Charity expanded to help thousands of homeless, hungry and dying all over the world. Despite criticisms of Mother Teresa's staunch anti-abortion stance and her refusal to attack the root causes of poverty, she is still considered by many to be a saint and is probably the most admired woman of the century.
The fifth and final category is Politics and Government. Here the list of candidates was extra long. There were so many who fought almost impossible odds to bring his nation to proud independence - like Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) of Pakistan - or engineered huge economic advances - like Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad (1925- ). A small but vocal camp campaigned for Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the revolutionary leader of the People's Republic of China. He was the visionary who overthrew the rotten imperial legacy, dramatically reshaping the world's most populous country. But through his megalomania, he nearly destroyed what he created. He crushed all dissent, starving his people's bodies, minds and souls. It would be difficult to name such a man for an award recognizing "betterment."
At the other end of the spectrum was Corazon Aquino (1933- ). The former president of the Philippines led the peaceful "People Power" revolution against dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Moreover, Aquino successfully replanted democratic institutions in a society that had been tainted by dictatorship, but she was otherwise criticized as an indecisive president.
The name of Lee Kuan Yew (1923- ), the former prime minister of Singapore, would be on any short list of Asians of the Century. He not only built the rich and corruption-free Singapore of today but has become an articulate spokesman for the entire region. But the city-state, despite its influence, is a just tiny part of the whole of Asia.
All of these people collectively - along with many others we don't have room to name - made Asia what it is today: a strong and vibrant land of independent nations with enough to eat, growing economic power, patches of democracy, deep spiritual convictions and one heck of an on-screen kick. We can only hope that the next century's leaders will make even greater advances for the peace and prosperity of this region.
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