By P.N. Balji
Title: Asia Reborn
Author: Prasenjit K. Basu
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Asia reborn… but what next?
He is a keen watcher of Asia, having spent the last 25 years putting the economies of this wonder continent under his microscope. Economist Prasenjit K Basu is eminently qualified to write this weighty tome, which runs into 680 pages. His research is painstakingly done with the notes and references alone going into 41 pages.
At first flush, Asia Reborn is intimidating. The title doesn’t seem to tell anything new and the voluminous nature of the book might put off many potential readers who want information on the go. Still, those interested in a deeper perspective of Asia and why some countries succeeded and others failed will find it worthwhile to plumb through its pages.
The author’s style is engaging; he makes sure that his research findings don’t interfere with his prose. He adds spice to his narrative with anecdotes that will keep the subject matter alive. For example, he brings to life one about Lee Kuan Yew. The former PM was among other students at Raffles College when they heard an explosion at the Causeway. The Allied forces had blown a hole in the Causeway to stop the Japanese army from moving into Singapore during the Second World War in 1942. The principal asked the students what the explosion was about. LKY’s reply: ‘That is the end of the British Empire.’
The author makes two main points: All those colonized by the British in the first half of the 20th century failed to do well. On the other hand, those who came under the sway of Japan (countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Manchuria) became economic powerhouses. He compares Britain’s ‘destructive divisiveness’ to the catalytic role Japan played as leader of Asia’s rebirth with great conviction and astute use of historical, economic and social data. Singapore is one exception he mentions often; with LKY at the helm, the country ‘adopted a slight variation of the Japan developmental model, giving the lead role to MNCs and GLCs rather than national private sector champions.’ It is clear he is a fan of LKY, even adding the Singapore leader’s name to the list of people to whom he dedicates the book. It is just not all praise. ‘There was little doubt that Singapore achieved its spectacular economic success in a political system that was not inclusive,’ he says. To give a sense of balance to the Singapore story, he is quick to add that the country’s income distribution stayed extremely skewed.
Basu lays the cards on the table in the very first line in his very first chapter. ‘This book is an Asian telling an Asian’s story in the 20th Century.’ He defends his decision to tell an old story about Asia, a continent that has seen a renaissance, in simple words: ‘One would expect this to be a well-chronicled tale, but it is a story that has hardly ever been told collectively.’ That is the value of this book. Nearly every corner of Asia is explored with even the Arabian nations’ complex politics of oil not spared.
That was all in the century gone by. We are now into a new century with China displaying its muscle power, America descending into a dark political hole and Japan trying to reassert its economic, political and military authority. What will this world look like? I kept thinking of this as I put the book down to give my eyes some rest. This is a book that makes you think, ponder, even fear. For me, that is a good book.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist, columnist and commentator and was the founder-editor of two English newspapers in Singapore.