It may be the worst economic crisis in half a century. But even in the midst of turmoil, there are men and women stepping forward to help Asia reinvent itself. We call them Asia's stars. Some are making gutsy bets on expansion during the downturn. Others are pushing Asia toward greater accountability--to shareholders or to voters. They're streamlining their companies, modernizing financial systems, and rooting out government mismanagement. Managers and entrepreneurs are focusing on core businesses--slashing costs, improving productivity, and focusing on profits, not just growth. Some stars are fighting corruption and its corrosive influence on societies and economies. And there are critics, some of whom have waged long and lonely battles against everything from rampant development to protectionism and at last have been proved right.
Many of these stars have studied and worked overseas--and they have brought a broader vision back to their own countries. In Seoul, Dongwon Securities Co. President Kim Jung Tae protests that his break-the-mold management style is "not really new or innovative" by the standards of the U.S., where he spent many years. "It is common sense to maximize your return to shareholders." Unfortunately, most of Asia hasn't realized that yet.
Indeed, if there's a lesson to be learned from these 50 people, it's that the debate over Asian vs. Western values was off the mark. To be sure, hard work, close family ties, high savings rates, and the pursuit of education are important. But the idea that a small, secretive elite of businessmen, bankers, and government officials could guide the region's economies to developed-world status has been exploded by the unprecedented financial shock of the past year. The stars of Asia are out to break this pattern of elitism and secrecy that degenerated into corruption and spectacularly wasteful investment. Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at least speaks to these lessons. He warned in mid-June that his country must "make changes before it is too late" or risk an Indonesian-style upheaval.
While some in Asia took the initiative even before the economic crisis swept over them, others are now reacting to the crisis by taking their well-run businesses and making them better. Just look at Asustek Computer Inc. Chairman Jonney Shih. An intense, no-nonsense engineer, Shih carved out a hugely profitable niche in what has traditionally been a low-margin business. He did it with a relentless focus on a core product--the humble motherboard--and a fanatical attention to design and production. An admirer of Intel Corp.'s legendary Chairman Andrew S. Grove, Shih says that the only way to stay on top is to be "perfectionist and paranoid." Hong Kong's Marjorie Yang learned long before the crisis hit how to survive in the cutthroat apparel business: by making the best products with the best technology. Now, while others are hurting, she is well-positioned to remain profitable through the crisis.
Other stars are switched on to the New Economy. Among them are Trend Micro Inc.'s Steve Chang, who runs a company that battles software viruses, and Japanese video-game honcho Kenji Eno. Eno is smashing the old stereotype that Asia lacks creativity. He is a high-school dropout who found the Japanese educational system "all memorization and nothing useful or creative." Now, the entrepreneur has global giants such as Sony Corp. courting him.
REFORMERS. The crisis has also brought a new breed of political leader to the fore. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung survived assassination attempts and jailings by the military rulers of the past, so he's no fan of the cozy ties between government and big business that helped set the stage for Korea's current crisis. Kim also has shown he can adapt to changes: He's shedding his longtime populist tendencies and forcing workers and farmers to make sacrifices, too. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, a longtime Communist Party member, is now unleashing massive market-oriented reforms that promise to remake China.
Dysfunctional financial systems have also pushed Asia into crisis, as compliant bankers threw too much money at too many poorly conceived projects. But a handful of people are trying to clean up the mess. In Tokyo, Junichi Ujiie is cleaning up scandal-torn Nomura Securities Co., while Kohei Nakabo is trying to collect billions of dollars from gangsters who defaulted on the easy loans they took out in Japan's go-go bubble years.
Even critics are getting new respect. Jakarta's Mari Pangestu is a quiet revolutionary. Her years of writing in favor of trade liberalization and against the kleptocracy of the Suharto-connected elite are beginning to pay off. Her arguments are providing the intellectual foundation for the economic changes that Indonesia must put in place. And Meenakshi Raman's sustained opposition to such dubious Malaysian projects as the ill-fated Bakun Dam appears increasingly astute as the economic and environmental follies of the past decade are counted up.
Few of our 50 are saints. But all of them show, in one way or another, how Asia must move forward. In India, Dhirubhai H. Ambani's Reliance Industries Ltd. has burned fund managers with past financial maneuverings. But these days, Ambani seems to recognize the need to give shareholders a better deal. Elsewhere, critics wonder whether politicians such as Malaysia's Anwar, who has risen within a notoriously corrupt political system, can really clean house if he becomes Prime Minister. It's a fair question. But to his credit, Anwar is starting a dialogue about serious change in Malaysia.
NEW THINKING. Some of these stars may not succeed in their ambitions. But what is important is that they are changing the way Asians think about themselves, their problems, and the economies and societies in which they work and live. The old ways served well enough in the early stages of development. And doubtless there are members of the Establishment who figure that secretive, clannish practices will reassert themselves. BUSINESS WEEK's stars are hoping and working for something different.