The silent revolution in my backyard

Dear Mr Ho Kwong Ping,

I refer to your 19 Jan 2011 Straits Times column.

You said the pragmatic genius of Singapore’s political pioneers was to broaden the middle class massively and to co-opt the working class into adopting middle class lifestyles and mentalities. This you say is the socio-economic revolution you have searched for but failed to find in South America.

If you cast your net wider, you will find three other similar revolutions in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Together with Singapore, these are the four East Asian Dragon economies. Of the hundred over developing economies sprouting from the ashes of World War II, only these four experienced such revolutions. Why these four economies? Why are they all clustered in East Asia when the world is so big? If each of the hundred over developing economies had an equal chance of experiencing that revolution, the probability that any would eventually do so would be less than 0.01. The probability of having all four economic revolutions in East Asia is even more remote and near impossible. Yet it happened. Why?

The fact that all four revolutions came from East Asia suggests that there is something special about East Asia. Could it be due to the pragmatic geniuses of the respective East Asian economies’ political pioneers? Again if we assume that the hundred over developing economies had an equal chance of receiving pragmatic geniuses as their political pioneers, that probability would again be less than 0.01. The probability that all four East Asian economies would receive those prized geniuses would again be too far remote for us to believe that East Asian prosperity is the result of the chance receiving of pragmatic geniuses. The underlying reason for East Asian prosperity must be something more fundamental, something tangible which you can readily identify and distinguish from the rest of the developing world.

That common denominator for East Asian success is more likely than not socio-cultural in nature. East Asians are known to be hard working, frugal, competitive and place great emphasis on education. These are the characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of the developing world. In all likelihood, it is these socio-cultural characteristics that have rapidly propelled us further than other developing economies.

Your search for a Che Guevara inspired style of economic revolution bore no fruit because, the economy cannot be willed to succeed by one man or one committee as the failure of the communist attempt at economic revolution has shown. Our silent revolution is much less the work of any one pragmatic genius but the collective achievements of many individual pragmatists.

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