Leading Article: Why fear the tigers?

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IN SUMMER, our politicians depart to Tuscany or the Dordogne, where they are harmlessly occupied soaking up sun or grazing in local restaurants. In the bleak European midwinter, they range more widely, notably to Asia, whence they return to announce: "We've seen the future and ... gosh!" Tory ministers who would never "take lessons" from their fellow Europeans have no difficulty whatever in learning all manner of things from the East. These Asians care for frail grandparents and do not get divorced; their children sit in enormous classes and make very little noise; they work extremely long hours and never go on strike; they pay low taxes but prudently put plenty of money by for rainy days; they eat up their greens and rarely fall ill; they do not drop litter in the streets and they smack anybody who thinks of it; above all, they do not expect much from governments but are grateful for what little they get. The Tories are perfectly clear that what Britain needs is not a change of government but a change of population. Tony Blair, in Singapore this weekend, will no doubt draw different lessons but he, too, seems dazzled by what this paper's political editor recently christened Tigerism.

Politicians love bogey men: red menaces, yellow perils, Asian tigers. The tigers will creep up in the night and gobble our jobs and video recorders unless we are good children. Figures of Asian annual growth strike terror into our hearts: 8.8 per cent in Singapore, 9.3 per cent in Malaysia, 11.8 per cent in Thailand. These are impressive indeed but what are they supposed to mean? Newly industrialised countries, like new companies, grow fast. On current trends, we are warned, just about the whole of South-east Asia will have higher living standards than Britain early next century. But extrapolating from current trends can take you almost anywhere: if demand for olive oil continues to rise at its present rate (see page 5) Spain, Italy and Greece will soon be as rich as the Opec countries.

Some economists doubt that the tigers exist at all - or, if they do, they are of the sabre-toothed variety, which was soon extinct. Much Asian growth, according to this argument, is based simply on piling more things in: more capital, more education, more cheap labour. The tigers are not becoming more efficient - technologically, they still lag behind the West - and so will eventually rot away as the Soviet Union did after its triumphs in the 1950s. We do not need to accept this argument to see that Asia is unlikely to continue on its present path indefinitely. For example, in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea, the divorce rate is already soaring. Will family-based welfare survive marital breakdown? Asian countries have benefited from exceptionally young populations over the past few decades; they will face an ageing crisis, far more serious than any in the West, within 30 years. Will their low-tax regimes survive the demands for health care and pensions? Will thrift and wage restraint survive the spread of consumer values through satellite television? Britain, we are told, cannot be insulated from the rigours of the global market. So why should Asian societies remain immune to the global culture?

Even if we accept the need to imitate the Asian economies, it is far from clear exactly what we should imitate. These countries are more diverse, racially, politically and culturally, than Western Europe. Almost any ideologue can pick out something to suit his or her arguments. In schools, the right sees old-fashioned rote learning while the left sees mixed-ability classes. In industry, the right sees the benefits of low taxation while the left sees state direction of investment. In home affairs, the right sees prisons and canes while the left sees high immigration. What nobody sees is endemic corruption or cramped living conditions or workers burning to death in factories or department stores collapsing on their customers. Nor does anybody pay much attention to the one thing that just about all the tigers have in common - a poor record for democracy and human rights.

Britain, too, was once a tiger economy. It made the great leap to industrialisation in the late 18th century. By the middle of the 19th, people were already fretting about economic decline. Just as South-east Asian economies grew faster than any in history, so they may run into trouble faster. Our politicians should keep calm and stop lecturing us.