Foreigners who have lived in South East Asia for any length of time have probably been drawn here by a combination of climate, business opportunity and/or resonance with the culture and aesthetic of the region. The mystery of the East or allure of the “land below the wind’ you could say. At the same time, few of us could fail to have become aware of the shadow behind the allure.
Whether by virtue of our status as guests in these countries or because it suits us to ignore the dark side, we tend to give an easy pass to our hosts in a way we almost certainly would not in our own countries. We see the astonishing progress and wealth creation that has taken place over the past decades, the glittering cities and the growth of consumerism and, while we may whinge among ourselves on the superficialities of our own lot, we tend to overlook such things as the exploitation of women, disparities of wealth, corruption in high and low degree, compromised judiciaries and free press, in systems maintained by entrenched elites to be found in varying degrees in various of the countries in this region.
If from time to time you wonder how it is that an area of the world so blessed by nature, populated by so many hard working and talented peoples; a trading bloc (ASEAN) that is the world’s fifth largest economy with a GDP of over US$2.55 trillion; that grew for decades at a rate of 7% p.a. and GDP per capita that has increased by 3,200%; but whose people have yet to enjoy the social and individual human rights you might reasonably expect to accompany such stellar development – then you would do well to read “Blood and Silk” the new book by Michael Vatikiotis, subtitled Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia published recently by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (available in Periplus).
Vatikiotis is an American, born in 1957 in the US Midwest, who studied Southeast Asian history at London University’s School of Asian Studies, obtaining his PhD at Oxford and a longstanding student of the region having first travelled here as a student in 1979, coverlng it journalistically since his posting as BBC correspondent in Jakarta in 1987 and then joining the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) in 1988 as bureau chief in Jakarta , Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok successively before becoming editor of the magazine itself in 2001.
As such Vatikiotis, who has also written two novels set in the region, is better qualified than most to provide an account explaining why the nations of post-war South East Asia, having recently won independence, whose founding fathers imbued with the principles of Fabian democracy, and whose countries would within a few short decades achieve dramatic economic growth, nonetheless become authoritarian demi-democracies, whose successor elites did not hesitate from repressing their people in defense of narrow self-interest.
I recall the sense of hope and promise that pervaded the region when I first came to the area in 1970, working with the FEER in Hong Kong through the mid-1970s. It was the era when the East Asian’s ” tiger economies”, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, took off so spectacularly and, in the case of the former two, going on to establish fully-fledged democracies. The Vietnam War was winding down and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had just been founded in 1967, primarily to support the security and economic development of the five non-Communist countries of the region comprising the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The area quickly became the darling of foreign investors, growth rates soared upwards of 7% annually and yet the warning signals were already there. By 1972 Marcos had imposed martial law; in 1975 in coup-ridden Thailand the army had turned its guns and goons onto its own student elite, driving a generation of them into the hills; successfully opening Indonesia up to overseas investment General Suharto maintained a heavy hand against any opposition, in Malaysia the old guard, in the person of Tunku Abdul Rahman and his aristocratic successors, gave way to strongman Mahathir Mohamad, ushering in demagoguery along with identity and money politics, while ignoring the democratic institutions entrusted to him. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was to browbeat his fellow citizens into total acquiescence thereby performing the miracle in creating a viable independent state that was in 50 years to have a GDP per capita of US$90,500, the third highest in the world.
By the time Vatikiotis had joined FEER as bureau chief in Jakarta in 1988 the Carrian debacle had already set the tone for business ethics in the region and thereafter money politics pretty much prevailed, except perhaps in Singapore, which was where the proceeds were banked. Following his stints in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok with colleague John Macbeth he covered the financial meltdown of 1998 in Jakarta and the anti-Chinese riots that ensued.
After the closure of FEER in 2004 Vatikiotis was offered the job of setting up the regional office in Singapore for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva – based organisation for the mediation of armed conflict. In the intervening years this has involved the mediations in Aceh, the Moslem seperatist movement in Southern Thailand, the Moro insurrection in Mindanao and various separatist movements in Myanmar’s border areas.
After his 40 years of close observation of the region Vatikiotis does not share what he describes as the Polyannish belief of most international investors, that the continued economic growth anticipated for the region will lead in time to anything but small incremental steps in the equitable sharing of wealth and a more fair society. The one constant he has observed, he says is “the perpetual selfishness of SoutheastAsian elites and their wilful subjugation of the rights of citizens to their own considerations of wealth and power”.
The increasing lack of tolerance and growing insistence on religious orthodoxy encourages extremists while moderates remain silent. This in turn exposes ASEAN countries with Moslem majorities to the risk of becoming battlegrounds for the international struggle between the Saudis and Iranians for leadership in the Islamic world, he says.
Meanwhile he writes that efforts by the US and other Western powers and their allies to moderate the ever-gowing Chinese influence in the region is generating geopolitical friction and will probably not do much to prevent Chinese economic predominace in the future.
Vatikiotis’ vision for South East Asia in 2050 coloured as it is by the three reasons above and the climatic dangers posed by rising sea levels to many of the major (and already sinking) coastal cities is not a rosy one.
It’s not all bad however. He sees the region returning to something more Asian, similar to the loose conglomeration of successful trading cities that existed long before the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century, and their playing off the competing external presences as best as circumstances allow.
Sounds a bit like the sea-based Athenian ascendancy of the 3rd century BCE, with the Chinese as the Persians, which can’t be all bad.
Whatever the case, this is the most informed book written on the region in a long time and well worth the read.
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