Magazine article The Spectator

There's a Smile on the Face of the Tigers

Magazine article The Spectator

There's a Smile on the Face of the Tigers

Article excerpt

A FEW months before the last general election I dined with John Eatwell (then Neil Kinnock's economic adviser), and asked him why Asian economies grew so much faster than the British economy. Our engaging economist, quite confident at the time that he would soon be at the helm of British economic policy, answered that he didn't know because he had never looked at an Asian economy. Labour lost the election, John Eatwell was promoted to the House of Lords and the Asian economies continued to grow at some three to four times the rate of Europe. Our ennobled economist is not untypical of Europe's lack of interest in Asia. Looking at the European press in recent years, it has become clear that the obsession with 'Europe' has made us inward-looking and 'small'-thinking. This is a perverse trend in a world liberated from command economy dogma, where a combination of economic globalisation and technological advances in communications has transformed the ability of peoples to know each other. There are plenty of people to get to know. If we look at the stark numbers, Europe's population of 350 million people is dwarfed by that of Asia's three billion. India alone produces an additional population the size of France every four years. And still we blunder on in virtual ignorance of this transcending global phenomenon. Yet in spite of Europe's ever-diminishing relevance, it may be of interest to note that some Asians do spare a thought for us.

The historical reasons for this are evident. All Asian countries, bar Japan and Thailand, 'enjoyed' some measure of colonial rule; cultural legacies abound, of which language is the most notable. English is the common currency of communication in a Chinese world which has four major and incompatible tongues. In India the role of English is even more pronounced: in a country with 22 official languages English is the lowest common denominator of communication, making India that rare example of a country united by a foreign language. Surprisingly there is little resentment in Asia at the colonial past. Even in India the Swadeshi (economic nationalism) movement is now treated largely with contempt by industrialists and unconcern by the general public and politicians. Of the Asian leaders only the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir sounds occasionally rancorous about the colonial past and, given the somewhat patronising behaviour of British ministers towards Malaysia, who can blame him? In Indonesia, where Dutch colonial rule was purportedly particularly harsh, little resentment remains. I had a haircut once in an insalubrious suburb of Jakarta and in an affectation of sophistication the salon manager proudly offered me a batch of Dutch fashion magazines to while away the proceedings. Going Dutch is still smart.

For Asians, Europe also remains a choice place for a holiday. Asians like to shop they love European brands such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Armani and the rest. The Asian desire for these brands may appear indiscriminate and somewhat crass, but this is not surprising in relatively newly industrialised countries where the consumer is at the `gold taps' stage of economic prosperity. More sophisticated appreciation of what Europe has to offer remains limited to bicultural rarities like David Tang.

The preference for flashy brands goes beyond shop products. Gleaming new office towers are preferred to older buildings. A friend told me of a Chinese colleague who was doubled up with laughter on learning that the English government would not allow old buildings to be pulled down. In a similar vein, when I once employed a Japanese girl in London she complained after several months that all the old buildings made her very depressed. And why, she asked, do English people prefer draughty old houses, moth-eaten rugs, battered suitcases, and `worn-out green coat covered in wax'? All very confusing for a young Oriental. Indeed, one sometimes feels that for Asians Europe is a fantasy world of how people used to live - a living, breathing Disneyland. …

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