Southeast Asian development
Southeast Asian development
London: Routledge, 2008, pp. xvi, 251; ISBN 10: 0-415-38416-8, hb £70; 10:0-415-38152-5, pb £18.99; 10: 0-303-08600-7 (e-bk).
Reviewed by Victor King, Leeds University
Routledge appears to be cornering the market in books on Southeast Asian development, two in the same year with the same title (by Jonathan Rigg and Andrew McGregor). Interestingly, there is also an endorsement of McGregor’s book by Rigg: ‘With admirable clarity and directness, this introductory text uncovers and details the human and environmental underside of Southeast Asia’s rapid development, providing a valuable route map through the literature and the debates’.
The test of a good basic textbook is that it is easy to read, well structured, full of pertinent information balanced with interesting illustrative and case-material. More particularly it should endeavour to explain difficult concepts in a straightforward fashion. The development literature is large, cumbersome and user-unfriendly and there is a rapidly increasing, indeed burgeoning body of work on Southeast Asian development. It therefore requires some pretty ruthless surgery or at the very least some careful pruning to present it in a comprehensible way to a student and novice audience. The book meets these requirements on the whole. It is packed with diagrams, maps, photographs and tables, ‘boxed’ items where case-studies and further discussion provide valuable amplification of the main narrative; and well thought out bullet-point summaries, discussion questions and guides to reading and websites at the end of each chapter.
It is claimed, perhaps too boldly that the book adopts ‘a unique perspective based on equitable development principles’ (p. 16). I am not convinced that it is such a unique approach, but in concentrating on the themes of ‘equality and inequality, political freedom and opportunity, community participation and empowerment, and environmental sustainability’ (pp. 1-2) the author succeeds in arranging the material in an interestingly thematic way. Following an introduction to the diversity and unevenness of Southeast Asian development and a brief explanation of development theories and perspectives (or what in Riggian fashion we might refer to as the ‘topside’ or ‘upside’ of the development literature), there is a useful ‘setting the scene’ on pre-colonial and colonial Southeast Asia. There are then six substantive chapters; one each on the ‘economic’, ‘political’ and ‘social’ dimensions of development and on the transformation of ‘urban’, ‘rural’ and ‘natural spaces’. The concluding chapter picks up on the theme of equitable development in cautiously optimistic mode and suggests that ‘the growth in political freedoms and participatory opportunities, may well provide the basis of more culturally sensitive and appropriate forms of development that can assist in overcoming negative trends related to increasing economic inequality’ (p. 224). The book amply illustrates the ‘on-the-ground’ aspects and processes of development and some of the pressing issues occasioned by ‘development-from-below’.
However, it is always difficult to write a general book on a region. It is unlikely that one author will have sufficient first-hand knowledge of all the countries of a diverse region let alone a command of a range of disciplines or subject areas. In my own recent excursion into region-wide texts, I have already been gently reminded that I have got certain things wrong; and so has McGregor. I recognise that, however careful one is in editing and proof-reading, some errors may be the result of less than meticulous deskwork by the publishers and the desire to meet tight deadlines. Aside from several typographical errors, there are also errors of fact, a vagueness on some particulars, and, in my view, several problems of English expression.
Here are a few examples at random. First, there is a niggling discrepancy between demographic data in the narrative and in the table on pages 2 and 3 (Brunei has a population of 370,000 and, in Table 1.1, 0.38 million, Indonesia, 217 million and 222.73 million in the Table, though I acknowledge how difficult it is to get reliable and comparable statistics). There is also a need to specify on what basis Singapore and Brunei are among the world’s 20 richest countries (Table 1.1 refers only to GDP per capita in 2005, and the HDI world ranking for 2004 puts them at 25 and 34 respectively); the lack of precision is compounded when we are told that ‘citizens of five other [unspecified] countries average less than US$2 a day’ (p. 2).
The otherwise helpful list of abbreviations needs more care. In this list and in the text members of the United Malays National Organisation will be unhappy to see their long-established political party abbreviated consistently as UNMO (p. xvi, 119). Certain other abbreviations need at least a translation from English or an additional reference. To be exact PAS is Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (though of course in English the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), and the VOC is Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie and not simply the United East Indian Company. FRETLIN is referred to in the text but not in the list and should in any case be FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente). Perhaps ISI is best rendered as Import Substitution ‘Industrialisation’ rather than ‘industrialism’ and with reference to Myanmar, SLORC is a ‘Council’ rather than a ‘Committee’ and it then became the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) from 1997. EMR, though referred to as an ‘extended mega-urban region’, also appears in the literature as an ‘extended metropolitan region’.
For prominent leaders in the region we should render their names properly. The former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong appears at one point as ‘Goh Chok’ (p.64), and Lee Kuan Yew is affectionately referred to as ‘Yew’ rather than Lee (p. 97). President B.J. Habibie becomes Habibe (p. 120, 246), and the political economist Raúl Prebisch is rendered as Prebische, (p.9, 249).
The statement that Malaysia ‘declared itself an Islamic state in September 2001’ (p.119) probably needs a little more elaboration and qualification. Perhaps the imprecision of referring to the religions of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism as ‘the world’s biggest’ needs attention (p. 2), as well as the statement that they ‘dominate’ particular countries or sub-regions. The reference to ‘Confucian teachings and community-based animist belief systems not practised anywhere else in the world’ (p. 2) is puzzling, as is the assertion that religious institutions ‘have incredible networks that link remote rural communities with their urban counterparts’ (p.115).
References to the pursuit of ‘consumptive lifestyles’ (p. 14), ‘development-oriented NGOs [which] ferment…alternative imaginaries’ (p. 15), ‘civil libertarians’ who suggest that Asian values ‘are more a mythic invention of elites’ (p. 88), and Myanmar as ‘one of the most abusive authoritarian states in the world’ (p.100) seem odd. And I wonder if all countries in the region do ‘harbour’ a range of beliefs (p. 114), and are ‘often littered with museums, galleries and important monuments’ (p.130).
The sections on Southeast Asian history probably need a modest health warning when we learn that the Portuguese retained ‘Portuguese Timor’, (p. 26), the British came to power in ‘Malaysia’ (p. 27), and decided ‘to combine parts of northern Borneo with Malaya as the Federated Malay States’ (p. 28), and that Thailand accompanies Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia as one of ‘the new independent governments’ of the region (p. 48).
Am I being picky? There is much in the book that is useful. It’s on my student reading list because it does bring together a range of very helpful and interesting material in a convenient and student-friendly form. But for someone who knows the region reasonably well the book does require some careful navigation.