I was re-reading diaries I wrote when I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s recently. My job took me around the region – what comes across frequently is a mention of ambition and a “Can Do” mindset. It had more to do with culture than government system. Hong Kong was a colony and undemocratic. But the government had the good sense to encourage freedom of enterprise and to provide infrastructure and public services which it did well. That was the model across the region. Prime Minister Lee’s regime in Singapore was hardly liberal but he shrewdly invested in what the tiny island needed to work and grow, including public services.
The mixed economies across the Far East worked. The governments did what they had to do and left it to free enterprise to do the rest. There was no ideology involved, just common sense. I visited Thailand recently for the first time for a while. Bangkok traffic used to be chaotic but now it is much less so thanks in to a new and expanding light rail system. Thailand has pretty unpleasant politics but its leaders have the “Can Do” mindset. It works.
All societies are stratified but nowhere in the Far East region is class and power as engrained as it is in Britain and America. One reason is education. Public education in Kong Hong or Singapore is not just free but consistently good. Equality of opportunity is not an ideological goal – it’s a practical reality.
In Britain we debate and dither. Our infrastructure is not fit for purpose, our education mindset elitist and we are culpably complacent about all this. If many of our ex colonies in Asia lived in the past as we do they’d be stuck in a rut bemoaning the evils of colonialism. Countries like India, Malaysia, Singapore don’t do that. That there were once mad dogs and Englishmen in charge doesn’t bother them today.
Across Europe there is inconsistency. Some countries are more vulnerable than others to the “threat” from the East. But nobody is as vulnerable as Little England or Trump’s America. Even China is not as nationalistic and introspective as we Anglo-Saxons and their natural pragmatism will probably prevail. Watch Hong Kong closely. If it stops being in the international news you will know that Beijing, having made its point, has decided to let its little jewel alone for a while. Don’t bet against it.
Old, fat, complacent and wallowing in nostalgia are not characteristics that encourage change and progress. There are always a hundred reasons not to do something. The young and ambitious nations of Asia don’t spend their days re-running newsreels of eighty year old military triumphs and singing patriotic songs. They look forward not backwards. Which means they will win.