Books: Babylonian orgiastic uproar meets poverty

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The Trouble With Tigers: The Rise and Fall of South East Asia

by Victor Mallet HarperCollins pounds 19.99

Nothing sells like uncertainty, especially when well-marketed. South-East Asia - long on headlines, long on jargon, long on apparently gold-paved success, short on information - has long fitted the bill. We know that Western leaders including Tony Blair have admired Tiger standards: among the artistic flotsam invading Downing Street in his opening weeks there appeared also the menacing presence of Lee Kuan Yew, authoritarian master of Singapore. So, what are these Tigers all about? Should we know more? Victor Mallet proceeds to cure our ignorance.

The attempt falls short. One reason for the failure is straightforward: the project - spanning 10 countries, over 500 million people - is too ambitious, and moreover Mallet is too unsympathetic to the societies under fire. While scarcely a kind word alights on anything Asian, Western values are stoutly unquestioned.

The argument, briefly summarised, is that since the 1960s the Tigers - Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines - have achieved the fastest industrialisation ever known. But success has been discoloured first by authoritarian governments, and second because the "Asian Values" (the derisory quote marks are retained throughout) advanced by the potentates are forgeries legitimising their power. Now modernity has turned Tiger societies upside down: the shockwaves besetting eco- systems, lifestyles and hierarchies will soon force democracy on paternalist rulers. With economies recovering, the Tigers will adopt more normal - presumably Western-style - practices. Well, yes.

There are highlights: the Brunei section adds sparkle (the Sultan's playground is, sadly, elsewhere almost entirely undiscussed). But there is little hard information, and virtually no pre-1960 history. The tone sometimes lapses alarmingly into what seem like well-worn ideological preconceptions. Mallet dances a little too eagerly on the misfortunes of Communist-ruled Vietnam. Elsewhere he ponders with studied melancholy "the dead hand of government interference".

Sometimes the text is difficult to follow. The continual leaps from nouveau sex-and- shopping excess to poverty-stricken Third World dictatorship are disorientating. A common thread exists - the horror of breakneck economic growth - but the stages of development for each country are so outlandishly different that the generalisation is unsustainable. It is impossible to include Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (annual income per head $400, $300 and $290) in a tale of Babylon-style orgiastic uproar. It is hard to see why Brunei, where monarchy and populace appear to gorge fabulous oil windfalls fairly harmoniously, should be included in a theory of social upheaval and approaching political reckoning.

The philosophical assault is equally unconvincing. Asian Values may seem shallow in politicians' hands (a failing not unknown elsewhere) but such trumperies are fashioned worldwide to camouflage base motives: try American 1920s capitalism, Soviet 1930s planning, even Nigel Lawson's economics just a decade ago. Such antics, do not, however, render the more deep- rooted cultures valueless. There have been ground-breaking Tiger successes: Singapore's feat in defusing urban mayhem is stunning. But with economic advance richly garlanded with the tackiest of Western consumerist blight (traffic gridlock and ever-burgeoning burger palaces the most obvious), First World supremacy is never challenged. You can almost hear Jim Morrison singing "The West is the Best" as you turn certain pages.

The mountain of questionable logic swells further. The laboured implication is that particularly Asian inadequacies have caused disaster. One guru flays Asian firms that "don't have strategies, they do deals". Unlike their Western equivalents, presumably. Other nightmares include deforestation (we would do that, but our forests have already perished); prostitution (soaring in Central Europe) and tycoons who "knock down city landscapes, leaving ... architectural wastelands". Every boom in human history has brought forth such creatures.

Most critically, so many of the Tigers' headaches are, in fact, our doing. Given Western investment managers' determination to bet the house on the region, it is unreasonable to moan of under- regulation, or bribery: every spiv in town knew the cash was on its way. Post-crash, stupefyingly double-handed rules apply. Tiger banks even hinting of difficulty are closed with breathtaking speed. Shaky, but sheltered, Western equivalents are well- protected. In troubled Tiger economies the IMF forces interest rates ever higher, guaranteeing yet more tribulations. In developed nations recessionary fears bring rates not up, but down.

This kind of inconsistency is enough to make any Asian - or Latin American, or Russian - reach not just for a gun, but for nuclear installations. It is time to face reality. We are not, after all, about to shoehorn the entire world into our version of events. It is time to stop trying.

Instead we should confess, at least to ourselves, that our own record is far from perfect. We should also start being very helpful, very quickly, to the South-East Asians, before any backlash becomes too savage. Otherwise fear not Trouble with Tigers, but Tigers meaning Trouble - for us. They will develop more weapons. They will hoist trade barriers. They will create as much hassle as possible, for the rest of our lives. Whoever governs the Tigers in the future, the opportunities to retain their goodwill are fast expiring.