Asian Godfathers

Asian Godfathers

The underpinnings of Southeast Asia’s various economies—and by extension, societies—are superbly explained by Joe Studwell in this comprehensive look at the tycoon families of Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

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Though this book was published 10 years ago to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, its historical slant remains completely relevant to today’s Southeast Asia—it seems that still very little has changed over the past 20 years.

In 2007, some 13 of the 50 richest families in the world were in this region of the world; not only is this obviously a disproportionate number based on population, but it’s surprising just how little is known about these families and how few of the names are known very well outside (or sometimes even in) their countries of residence. Some of the bigger names you may have heard of include Hong Kong property magnate Li Ka-shing and Malaysian hotels and plantations boss Robert Kuok.

Studwell explores how these families slid quietly into their positions of economic power, largely thanks to the colonial and then post-colonial politics of the region. It’s a system that rewarded companies that rented labour to global businesses under cosy monopoly schemes rather than developed their own globally competitive businesses, to the detriment of these economies today. We couldn't help thinking of the fictionalised account of some of these families in Crazy Rich Asians; we strongly suggest reading them in conjunction with each other.

If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable witnessing the stark divide between the haves and the have-nots in Southeast Asia—seeing the homeless struggling on alleys, say, abutting glitzy malls hawking Louis Vuitton in Bangkok—then you’ll come away from reading this book both understanding a bit better why this inequality exists, and probably more angry about it, too.

Against an illuminating historical backdrop, Studwell explodes various myths surrounding the rise of the often silent and reclusive tycoons. Take for instance the commonly spouted argument that ethnic Chinese are supposedly “natural” entrepreneurs and merchants; in fact, trade was often the only industry Chinese immigrants to the region back in the 19th and early 20th century could legally work in, plus plenty of hardworking Chinese immigrants did not rise to great economic heights. More was at play here, including a system that favoured political strongmen working in cahoots with a few trusted businessmen; one maintained power, the other made money.

Asian Godfathers is perhaps unnecessarily a little heavy-going and pseudo-academic rather than smoothly narrated in parts, but the wealth of detail and the synthesis of information collected via extensive interviews with many of the tycoons is impressive enough to keep one turning the pages as one thirsts for more snippets of the dirty tricks and anecdotes about the entrenched system of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scrath-yours.

Readers will find out why, for instance, supermarkets couldn’t break the Hong Kong supermarket cartel of Watson’s and Mannings: the incumbents own extensive property and retailing sites “and make clear to suppliers that their business will be cut if they work with new competitors… [Admart’s] trucks were not allowed into residential and office buildings controlled by K.S.Li.” It’s consistently sneaky stuff with the end result being a transfer of wealth from the average consumer to these already enormously wealthy families. And readers will learn how tycoons have manipulated their images by creating rags-to-riches stories that are simply untrue, but help keep them cosseted in their bubbles of wealth.

Plenty has happened since 2007, and yet very little has changed when it comes to breaking up the conglomerates that wield so much economic power in Southeast Asia. Read this book if you’ve ever wondered about inequality in the region; it’s simply fascinating and demolishes a lot of the myths you’ll hear—and see repeated unquestioningly in museums—as you travel the region. We've seen this book described as "the best business book about Southeast Asia ever written", and although we don't as a rule delve into business books (this is more historical political economy) we reckon this is probably a pretty spot-on description. Asian Godfathers is a fine book to deepen, or kick-off, your understanding of Southeast Asia's political economy.

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108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

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By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
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Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

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General