As 1995 turned into 1996, political debate in the United Kingdom was suddenly dominated by discussion of the welfare state in East Asia. Tony Blair, leader of the Labour opposition, made a major speech in Singapore extolling the virtues of its system of private compulsory saving for old age, a system that helped to keep public taxation rates low. The right-wing chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, David Howell, commented on the absence in East Asian societies of anything resembling a welfare state - an absence that, he suggested, explained their economic prosperity. Chris Patten, then the governor of Hong Kong, announced that, on returning Hong Kong to China, he intended to write a book on how the British economy would benefit from an Asian-style minimal welfare state. Two other senior Conservatives, John Redwood and David Willetts, saw Britain as the "Hong Kong of Europe," whereas a Blair aide, Geoff Mulgan, went so far as to suggest that "even Thailand will have overtaken the United Kingdom" by the end of the century. 2
In all these comments, East Asian welfare regimes were perceived to share a number of common elements: comparatively low public spending on the "welfare state"; a system in which extended families and local communities took on much of the burden of welfare that was carried by the state in the United Kingdom and companies retained workers who were not necessarily profitable; a historical emphasis on providing welfare for those who could increase national wealth, i.e. spending on education and public health, rather than those who could not contribute, i.e. spending on those who were socially and physically handicapped; 3 and a system in which welfare spending, as a gift of the state, was used to maintain social cohesion rather than representing the "rights" of certain interest groups. Although Japan was sometimes not mentioned in these debates at all, it was clear that, as the most advanced of the East Asian economies, its welfare state was widely perceived to be the prime example of a system that the politicians and commentators felt the United Kingdom should examine and possibly emulate and that was sometimes called the "East Asian welfare model."
In these debates, politicians and commentators naturally tended to focus on those elements of this perceived East Asian welfare model that fitted