Elites behaving badly and other theories: why only some Asian states are ‘Tigers’
A new book offers some plausible explanations on the patchy rate of economic success across Asia
“The main thing that prevents you from seeing that clearly in east Asia is the racial overlay. The rubbish you hear – largely generated by indigenous people in the region – about Chinese culture or Japanese culture, or Korean hard work versus . . . [people] down near the equator. It’s all just rubbish but it’s amazing how many people believe that stuff,” says Studwell.
“It’s been my observation at an entrepreneurial level as well. I’d never rate entrepreneurs that I met in China over the years higher than, say, entrepreneurs in places like Malaysia. They are not producing better businessmen,” he says.
Chinese business communities thrive in many areas of Southeast Asia, but this is down to political structures in the region.
“You find societies that settled into a feudal equilibrium. If you command political power, you command all power, and you can allow other people to come in and play the economic role. This is no different to the way feudal monarchs in western Europe in the medieval and early modern period made use of Jewish financiers and it’s no different to the way Southeast Asian rulers made use of Persian and Arab traders before the Chinese were there,” he said.
He does not see much chance that the situation in Southeast Asia will change anytime soon.
“They found their equilibrium and it was one where the elites live pretty well. There just isn’t the political leadership. I don’t see a single politician down there who is going to change the trajectory of the region. Southeast Asia is the Latin America of east Asia, basically, and that is their political choice . . . they are relative economic failures though they have made significant economic advances since the end of the colonial period.”
Many of the Southeast Asian economies are former British colonies and Studwell talks of how the British empire was successful at marshalling structures in the region, and the long-term impact has been disastrous on many countries.
“The British empire in particular because it was so efficiently and subtly run, working with small numbers of people and working through local elites, it was extremely good at reinforcing and shoring up these kind of economic operating systems. This is why the colonial influence was so utterly perfidious.
“The British don’t come in and put a knife in your back, they finish you off with a warm embrace. They were fantastic at running systems on that basis which in developmental terms have proven to be enormously damaging.
“Malaysia doesn’t get independence until 1957 when the Cambridge University-educated leader of the country agrees to allow the British plantation and mining interests to remain in place and it was only the race riots in the 1960s which changed that,” he says.