ASEAN’s non-viable economies

Most of the world’s poor live in about 140 so-called “developing” countries.  So insignificant is the development actually taking place in these societies that Peruvian economist Oswaldo de Rivero calls them “non-viable national economies” (NNEs) — dysfunctional “quasination states” unable to participate in any meaningful sense in the modern global economy.

In the last 40 years, only four (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan) have managed to get out of this club of the persistently poor.  These four countries, de Rivero says, “are the only cases in which, despite the financial crisis of 1997, it is possible to verify a significant technological modernization of production and of exports, a continuous process of income redistribution, and a significant shift of population from the poor to the middle class, nearly comparable to what happened in the US and in Europe, and later in Japan.”

The rest threaten to collapse beneath the weight of poverty, growing populations, and social conflict.  Most of the NNEs became fullfledged nations only at the end of World War II.  Their leaders spoke expectantly of modernization, a word that conjured images of industrialization, a vibrant middle class, an effective bureaucracy, and a scientific culture.

But modernization is a game they could not win, because for every step forward they took, the more mature economies were taking a hundred. The new economic order assigned them roles that were subordinate to those of the advanced economies.  The image of a better way of life promoted by Western consumerism only heightened their frustration. Some of this frustration has now ripened into a volatile resentfulness that expresses itself as an anti-modern backlash.

Along with the fundamental inequalities of the global economic order, it is the failure to form new social institutions that has hampered the progress of these nations.  Two institutions are crucial to the project of “late development”: government and education.

So long as the new nations are trapped in traditional patronage politics, the modern state could not be born. The political forms outlined by their constitutions are modern, but the substance of their national life is unchanged. Though they can now elect their leaders, the masses remain mere shadows in a fictional polity.

The public school system has been the most promising ingredient in the transformation of these societies. Countries like the Philippines quickly embraced the rational ethos of the modern school and enjoyed a head start in the race to development.  The use of English as the principal medium of instruction gave Filipinos an early lead. But the dominance of English reinforced divisions and impeded the formation of a national consciousness, a key element in the march to nationhood.

The subsequent neglect of public education in the national priorities eroded this early advantage.  Today, despite the constitutional priority given to education, the Philippines spends the least on public education in proportion to the national budget.  There are less public school teachers per unit of population in the Philippines than anywhere else in ASEAN.  We shifted to the private sector a large measure of the responsibility for education at all levels, whereas everywhere else in the region, basic education remains a primary duty of the state.

If a modern system of governance and a progressive secular public school system are measures of national viability in the world today, we know which countries in ASEAN will survive in the next ten years. Singapore is way ahead. Malaysia and Thailand will join the league of tiger economies unless internal political problems divert their focus. The Philippines and Vietnam are next in line, with the latter enjoying a slight edge because of its newfound economic dynamism and attention to education.  Both are however weighed down by official corruption, and, in the case of the Philippines, also by political exhaustion and demoralization.

Brunei, because of its oil and small population, will remain a marginal player because of its archaic social structures.  The largest of them all, Indonesia, is on the brink of social implosion, its attempts at social reorganization canceled at every turn by political instability and religious fanaticism.  Cambodia, Laos, and Burma want desperately to join the modern world after years of war and isolation, but they have no middle class to lead the way.

On a visit to Cambodia recently, I sensed a cautious optimism in the streets of this unfortunate country of killing fields and unexploded land mines. Much of it is driven by images of tourist arrivals in Siem Reap, the site of the world-famous Angkor ruins.  These are the most stunning remains of an ancient Asian civilization outside of India and China. The ruins of Angkor have only been recently opened to tourists.  To view them is to begin to understand the culture of war, exploitation, and opulence that has marked the saga of the Khmer people since the 10th century.  Many hotels are being built, but the people remain poor and without hope.  Tourism will change their lives, but it is doubtful that it will improve them.

Development remains elusive in most of ASEAN.  Ravaged by economic crises and political conflicts arising from historic fault lines, its countries can become viable societies only in a time of peace. The last thing they need today is to be enmeshed in another global war instigated by rich nations.


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