You need to buy a new world map or you’ll miss the Silk Roads like me

An ernest audience

The shop was crammed full of Maoist memorabilia. I’m a big man so most shops in Asia are always tight for me but this was worse than an airplane aisle. I was in Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market, the main go-to place for tourists searching for souvenirs. I was staring at a map and the shopkeeper was looking in earnest hoping for a sale.

“Every map should have a home. It’s a bit old but most of the countries are there”, she told me. I saw the USSR proudly straddled Eurasia. Notwithstanding the Cold War vibe, I couldn’t stop staring — there was something else that looked “off”. This is what I saw:

How many of you seen a world map like this vs an Atlantic Ocean centric one?

Most of the maps I’ve seen back home had the Atlantic Ocean firmly in the middle. The message was not subtle: the world matter, just that the Atlantic part mattered more. Asia was literally on the edges, split in two.

I told the women why I was so interested in the map. She looked puzzle. “Why would you put the Atlantic ocean in the middle? Most of human history happened here — mattered more than the West. That’s pretty stupid.”

Yes, pretty stupid. In over a decade I’ve worked in over a dozen countries for some of the largest multinational organizations. And what happened in the Atlantic always weighed heavier with me. Asia’s rise and importance registered only at an intellectual level. I clearly had a bias, a debilitating one. I was becoming uncomfortable as a result — others back home needed to be uncomfortable too.

I was invited by the World Bank and the Central Bank of Malaysia to speak on the topic of “performance management systems for development financing institutions.” It meant simply: how should government agencies balance financial sustainability with reducing inequity? I had been working for the Business Development Bank of Canada for almost 3 years, an institution “that we consider best in class” I was told in an overly air-conditioned room by a Malay bank official. They were also interested in my work as a consultant and at the Gates Foundation because, “you worked a lot on development. So please tell us: how does it work in other countries?”

When I landed in Kuala Lumpur, I expected to see a swarm of tuk tuks outside. That’s what happened when I first arrived in Cambodia almost a decade ago for work. No such luck. It seems that Malaysia’s economic growth had far exceeded my own preconceptions. I could not help notice the new office towers hugging the downtown core while driving along smooth, modern highways — a juxtaposition from the decrepit Montreal roads that would make the ancient Romans embarrassed.

My agenda was packed: panel discussions in front of 500 government officials and investors; further workshops in small groups; and face-to-face meetings with individual financial institution. I’ve grown accustomed to this lifestyle: I’ve mastered the art of moving between punishing heat and zero-Kelvin conditioned rooms without breaking a sweat or disease.

In the first two days, I walked into the Central Bank’s new office building, the kind of structure that’s supposed to exist only in the future. Tall glass walls, a heavily air conditioned auditorium in light coloured wood paneling that walked out of the design studies of a Scandinavian architectural firm. I was jet lagged and, having sat through countless conferences, I was expecting a somewhat engaged audience. On the contrary, I found a captured audience who probed each one of us on our topics. It was clear the Malay government officials were keen to learn what other countries have done and put into practice ASAP. There was no time to wait.

“Malaysian’s are optimistic about the future”, a senior gov’t told me over a lunch of basmati rice, Penang beef, and spaghetti (this is a country that wasn’t afraid of carbs). “So many Malays are coming home because they see the opportunity. Everyone on my street went to McGill University.” He pointed out that nearly every good shipped in the world passed by Malaysia, allowing it to be a critical hub in the New Silk Road. Malays weren’t afraid of Chinese investments; they welcomed it though mindful of their country’s interest. “Of course Malaysia is part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative — what choice do we have? And why not, as long as we’re careful.”

What choice indeed. This optimism was consistent in each of the lunches, teas, and dinners I had across the city. The kind of questions they asked were clearly focused on growth, not so different from what I get back home:

- Should we start a venture capital fund to help bring innovation to the Malaysian agriculture industry? I said it depends — a equivocating answer that they somehow appreciated;

- Our companies are growing so fast and want to export ? I said we haven’t cracked the problem in Canada but shared what we learned;

- How best to orient our export’s strategy to our microfinancing clients? Very difficult, I said, so manage expectations.

I sense no defeatism compared to the other countries I’ve worked in. Despite the challenges, these civil servants carried a strong sense that growth and prosperity was theirs if they could only tailor their programs right.

The new Silk Road wasn’t theoretical — it was real, it was happening, and we were missing out completely. Though I was the one asked to come here and share my expertise, it was really they who should come back home with me and tell us how the world truly worked. What’s it really like doing business with China? What can we, in the World of the Atlantic, learn from the World of the Pacific? Has Western arrogance and ignorance sealed our fate?

After that first day, I went back to my hotel room to change into khakis and an untucked shirt- Asians don’t do business casual. I had just come back from Central Market and my suit was beyond humid with my sweat. I was both unnerved and frustrated. Unnerved because I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realized what was going on here; frustrated because there’s little effort to try to understand. The bullet train was leaving the station and we’re doing busy posting angry Facebook statuses. The world was changing and my own outlook had to — right now. I had a copy of Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads” with me and his concluding paragraph captured my feelings:

“While we [the West] ponder…how to build relations with peoples, cultures and regions about whom we have spent little or no time trying to understand, networks and connections are quietly being knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored.”

My view of the world had to shift; the centre of my understanding had to shift.

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