Knowledge and the tigers

THE ASIAN Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) have become role models for developing Asia. These countries have prospered because they chose to build their economies on knowledge creation and its innovative application to science-and-technology-based entrepreneurship, services and manufacturing, which led to an average growth rate of seven percent for 40 years. What do we in Pakistan need to do to become a tiger, or even a cub like Malaysia and Turkey? The answer is very clear: education!

Three of the four key pillars of a knowledge economy are education and skilled force, information and communication technologies, and innovation. Likewise, the World Economic Forum Global Competiveness Report sees higher education and training, technology readiness and innovation as three of the twelve pillars that lead to the creation of a knowledge economy. This is hardly rocket science.

The Asian Tigers invested heavily in education and research. They had the political will to support education, and the governments provided adequate resources as a percentage of GDP to be spent on education: South Korea (5.1 percent), Taiwan (5.6 percent), Hong Kong (4.5 percent), and Singapore (3.3 per cent).

On the other hand, Pakistan spends less than two percent on education, has a 58 percent literacy rate, and over 25 million children out of school, the second highest in the world. Today, 1 in 10 children out of school in the world is a Pakistani. The literacy rates of the Asian Tigers are phenomenal. Moreover, in Pakistan literacy gets worse at the top. Pakistans accessibility to higher education in the age group of 17-23 years is only eight percent – compared to South Korea (98 per cent), Taiwan (84 percent), Singapore (72 percent) and Hong Kong (60 per cent). Even the emerging economies are doing better: Turkey (38 per cent) and Malaysia (36 per cent).

It is a well-known fact that there is linear relevancy between GDP per capita and accessibility to higher education. That is why even cubs Turkey and Malaysia have GDPs per capita five times that of Pakistan. South Korea has one university for every 142,000 of its population, Taiwan 207,000, Singapore 252,000 and Hong Kong 887,000. Pakistan has one public university for every 2.1 million of its population, which becomes even worse in rural and underdeveloped areas.

The Asian Tigers have invested heavily in research. While South Korea last year published 60,846 papers, Taiwan 40,234, Singapore 14,511 and Hong Kong 12,870. Pakistan published 8294 papers. This has been the only silver lining for us where, due to the strategic focus of the HEC, the number of research publications coming out of Pakistan has increased by over 50 percent in the last two years – the second highest increase worldwide.

According to Scimago, the worlds leading research database, if this trend continues, then by 2018, Pakistan will cross Hong Kong and Singapore in the number of research publications! This is one parameter we are proud of, where we could take the lead over the Asian Tigers if there is continuity in HEC policies.

Focusing on higher education and research has led the Tigers have some of the top ranked universities in the world. According to QS World University Ranking 2013, tiny Hong Kong has four universities in the top 100 of the world, South Korea three, Singapore two and Taiwan one.

Due to HEC reforms – for the first time – seven Pakistan universities made it to the top 250 universities of Asia. We are optimistic that by next year, at least 10 universities from Pakistan will be placed among the top universities.

A focus on education and research through value addition to their products and services has led to the creation of a knowledge economy in the Asian tigers. When South Korea had only five percent accessibility to higher education in 1960, its exports were only $32 million. As its higher education accessibility increased, so did its value-added exports, from $660m (nine percent accessibility) in 1970, to $17bn (16 percent accessibility) in 1980, to $63bn (38 percent accessibility) in 1990, to $150bn (68 percent accessibility) in 2000, to $466bn (98 percent accessibility) in 2010.

Compare todays Pakistan with $24 b in exports and eight percent accessibility, equivalent to South Korea in 1970! We are running 40 years behind by not investing in education to develop a knowledge economy.

Today, as a result of their knowledge economies, the value-added exports of the Asian tigers are: South Korea ($552bn), Hong Kong ($464bn), Singapore ($435bn), and Taiwan ($300bn), while Pakistans exports are a meagre $24bn only. Even cub Malaysia has $231bn ($8250 per capita) and Turkey $155bn ($2150 per capita) of value-added exports.

Pakistan stands at a pathetic $138 per capita of exports. However, there is potential to increase value-added exports to over $100bn if the right investment in innovation, research and manufacturing is made by focusing on the development of human capital. The proposed Vision 2025 of the present government is addressing these issues.

We know the road to a prosperous knowledge economy is through education. However, we have ignored it for the last 66 years. Now we are at a crossroads again: we can take the path to prosperity by investing in education, or take the road to poverty and darkness.

The writer is the Chairperson of HEC. He can be reached at

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