Asia's post-crisis recovery has ended with a thump. As dot-com euphoria fades into memory and as the U.S. economy takes a breather, growth is plummeting. Last year the region snapped back from its deepest recession in more than half a century. This year, though, pessimism is back, full strength. Executives and officials around the region are asking what it will take to reignite Asia's high-growth fires. Some are wondering if the Golden Age is gone for good.
Yet when it came time to choose this year's list of Asia Stars, BusinessWeek reporters and editors had to sort through a longer list of potential candidates than ever before. What's behind the apparent paradox of a slumping Asia that nevertheless produces an overflow of outstanding entrepreneurs, innovators, financiers, and reformers? It's the simple fact that Asia is changing for the better. Improvements at the national level and in many big companies are achingly slow, and the bad old ways still have a strong hold on too many businesses and governments. But at ground level, the green shoots of change are forcing themselves through an increasingly fertile soil.
Entrepreneurs who would have been laughed out of their bankers' offices not long ago are finding backing for innovative ideas that are shaking the old order to the core. Look at Tadashi Yanai of Japan's Fast Retailing Co. Rival merchants detest his price-slashing, but consumers are voting with their wallets, snapping up clothing at bargain-basement prices. Kim Taek Jin, president of South Korea's NCsoft Corp., has shown with his popular Lineage online game that Internet users will pay for quality content--and he's got profit margins to prove it. Kim's success also gives the lie to the myth that Asians are good at hardware but don't have the creative flair to produce content.
MUCKRAKING. Our stars are shattering lots of other myths, too. Thailand's top investigative journalist, Prasong Lertratanawisute, has homed in on the country's notoriously corrupt political system. He first caused the downfall of former Deputy Prime Minister Sanan Kachornprasart and later sparked a judicial inquiry into current Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Beijing's Hu Shuli and her team at business magazine Caijing can count themselves among a growing band of courageous journalists in the region who are disproving the notion that the Asian press is too cowed, corrupt, or inept to challenge governments or to expose wrongdoing.
Five years ago, Park Jin Won, an independent director at Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., would have been swatted away as nothing but a gadfly. But he's shaking up one of the world's biggest business groups and proving that it is possible to impose good corporate governance on Korea's once-mighty chaebol. In the process, Park has helped sever the cross-shareholdings that have hurt investors. Asian values, such as a quiet deference to authority and an avoidance of public conflict, will never be the same.
Asian reformers have embraced technology to accelerate political change. Such journalists as India's Tarun J. Tejpal and Malaysia's Steve Gan are using the Internet to push aside the heavy veils of secrecy and deception in which their governments cloak themselves. Filipinos used text messaging to help bring down disgraced President Joseph Estrada in January, the first time a wireless network has contributed to the ouster of a political leader. But an old-fashioned virtue, the courage to stand up and speak truth to power, counted just as much as the latest whiz-bang technology. Philippine banker Clarissa Ocampo proved that when she testified about ex-President Estrada's secret bank accounts.
Some governments, meanwhile, are using the Internet to sweep away the webs of corruption that grow in dark and hidden corners. Seoul Mayor Goh Kun stands at the forefront, with his innovative use of the Internet to open up everything from government bidding to housing permits, slashing corruption in a country where it has long been regarded as endemic.
Although it doesn't spark the outrage that corruption does, an opaque financial system can be every bit as damaging to development. An open, transparent structure will lead inevitably to smarter investment decisions, higher growth, and more-developed societies. Increasing numbers of financiers throughout Asia understand this simple truth. That's why Wilfred Y. Horie, a Japanese-American who runs Korea First Bank, was allowed to come in and buck every banking tradition. He even had the courage to say no to the government when officials leaned on him to keep lending money to a risky company.
KNOWHOW. Horie's refusal may mark the moment when market forces proved more powerful than the state. The Bank of China's Liu Mingkang, who battled the government to go public with the first credible bad-debt numbers to come out of a major Chinese bank, is another paragon of fiscal probity and transparency. Once reform has taken hold, there is money to be made. Daishin Securities Co.'s Moon Hong Jib has proved as much with his pioneering development of online brokerage operations in South Korea.
Sometimes it's easy to forget just how much Asia has changed in the past five years. It used to be that having good connections to a lending officer or government official mattered more than a plausible business plan. There are still plenty of business people today who think that who you know matters more than what you know. But the Stars of Asia blaze a different trail. Despite all the foot-dragging, all the companies that are still in a state of denial, and all the political and social reform that hasn't happened, the 50 men and women in the pages that follow are beacons for a brighter tomorrow.
The following correspondents contributed to this report: Frederik Balfour, Ken Belson, Brian Bremner, Chester Dawson, Bruce Einhorn, Manjeet Kripalani, Irene M. Kunii, Moon Ihlwan, Dexter Roberts, and Michael Shari.
Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong supervised the project. Rose Brady and Michael S. Serrill edited the package in New York.
Corrections and Clarifications
The opening table of "The Stars of Asia" (Cover Story, Asian Edition, July 2) misspelled the name of the managing director and chief executive of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The correct spelling of his name is Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
By Mark L. Clifford, with bureau reports