How Asia Works: Joe Studwell 2013

How Asia Works

I found Joe Studwell’s 2007 book “Asian Godfathers” to be so interesting and valuable, that I decided to also read Studwell’s 2013 book “How Asia Works.”

During the second half of the 20th century, Asia witnessed rapid economic transformation. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China have “produced the quickest progressions from poverty to wealth that the world has seen.”

Nearly all Asian states have achieved rapid economic growth and transformation. However, each state has pursued unique policies, and each has achieved a different level of transformation and success. Studwell diligently and patiently explores the different policies of various Asian states to determine which policies have been successful, and which have proven to be less successful or impediments to progress.

Studwell observes that there are three fundamental policies which have driven the successful transformation of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. He also carefully observes how Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand were less successful in recognizing and implementing these three fundamental policies. Though these SE Asian countries did achieve significant levels of transformation and economic success, they failed to realize their full potential as compared with the East Asian states.

Studwell’s first fundamental policy is to transform farming into “large-scale gardening supported by agricultural extension services.” At first this seems counter-intuitive, as large scale industrial farming would seem to deliver the best opportunity to maximize yields and minimize costs. However, Studwell carefully demonstrates that the Philippines, where agricultural land ownership was not reformed, and large agricultural landowners control and manage farms on an industrial scale, fail to achieve the yield and efficiency of East Asian counterparts Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Agricultural success is vital to ensure adequate resources for the state, and also high efficiency to enable agricultural labor resources to be diverted from agriculture to industrial output.

The second fundamental policy is the “state direction of entrepreneurs towards state-defined industrialization objectives” to achieve “technological upgrading of manufacturing (as) the natural vehicle for swift economic transformation.” Studwell observes that “in south-east Asian nations, leading entrepreneurs were no less capable than those in other countries, but governments failed to constrain them to manufacture and did not subject them to export discipline.” SE Asian countries “fail(ed) to generate indigenous manufacturing and technological capacity” and instead relied upon high levels of foreign direct investment. Today Studwell observes that there are many globally recognized Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese manufacturing brands, but in SE Asia our only recognizable brands are Singapore’s Tiger Beer and Thailand’s Singha and Chang Beer, which scarcely qualify as manufacturers.

The third fundamental policy is “interventions in the financial sector to focus capital on intensive, small-scale agriculture and on manufacturing development”, to “keep money targeted at a development strategy that produces the fastest possible technological learning, and hence the promise of high future profits, rather than on short-term returns and individual consumption.” Studwell explains that this policy is contrary to the short term interests of businessmen and consumers, who have shorter strategic horizons and interests.

Studwell organized “How Asia Works” as a series of “journeys” through Asia, exploring historical and first-hand observations of each country’s strategic policy framework, the success of implementation, and the results both internally and as compared to peer Asian states. The book is very enjoyable to read, quite informative, and certainly thought provoking.

Thailand can still take advantage of Studwell’s recommendations, especially with respect to agricultural reform. Thailand desperately needs effective agricultural extension services to support the technological transformation of Thailand’s farming practices.

I also hope the leaders in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia carefully read and consider Studwell’s observations and recommendations as they plot the course of their development journey.

Frank T.

Asian Godfathers: Joe Studwell 2007

Asian Godfathers

Regardless whether you were born and raised in SE Asia, are an expat in an SE Asian country, or are an immigrant to SE Asia, if you seek a better understanding of SE Asian politics, business, and history, you need to read Joe Studwell’s landmark book “Asian Godfathers”.

I personally consider “Asian Godfathers” to be more than just an interesting historical study on the rise of the region’s leading tycoons. This book serves as an important reference document to understand the power, influence, goals, and in some cases “dark secrets” of the most influential people in SE Asia.

Studwell does a very good job of introducing the concept of the Godfather, the historical context which gave rise to influential persons and families, and a summary of how to establish oneself as a Godfather. Joe brings context to the Asian Godfather by discussing the rise and fall of American Godfathers; most of whom were substantially curtailed and controlled by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bureau of Corporations” Federal Reserve Act, along with the Glass-Steagall Bill (which was effectively repealed in 1999 by President Clinton).

Though SE Asian governments continue to evolve in both form and governance, and many have taken steps in recent years to minimize the influence of non-democratic powerful influences, Godfathers and their influential families continue to wield significant power in their domestic political and economic systems.

The final section of the book “Cast of Characters” contains a brief summary of each of the Asian Godfathers and/or the influential families which derive their power and influence today from an influential Godfather ancestor.

“Asian Godfathers” is a fascinating book, enjoyable to read, and very informative and enlightening. Though it was published in 2007, it remains very relevant today, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand SE Asian power and politics.

Frank T.