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Asian Tigers: then and now

  • The rise of China sucked away most of the international funds, throwing these Little Tigers far behind in many areas.

Sin Chew Daily

The recent "Rise of the Asian Tiger Convention" put under one roof many heavyweight politico-economic leaders, including Tun Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim who addressed the participants.

Organized by the government and several research institutions, the convention brought back a name that has slowly faded into oblivion.

I have no way to tell whether the initiative was meant to bring back the good old days or just to show that the government is forward-thinking.

Malaysians growing up in the 1980s and 90s should be familiar with the term "Asian Tigers" which to many of that era marked a golden age for this part of the world.

And it was not an overstatement to describe our country at that time.

Beginning 1988, Malaysia's economy had been growing at more than 9% annually for nine straight years, breaching the 10% mark in 1996.

Such a record is rarely seen elsewhere in the world, and equals even the meteoric rise of China in the 90s.

Not only was the national economy growing by leaps and bound, the ringgit exchange rates were also pretty impressive. RM1.60 to SGD1 and RM2.50 to the greenback.

Thanks to the high exchange rates, things were relatively affordable at that time.

Life was good. Everyone had a share of the expanding economic cake and many were actually quite happy with life.

As a result, racial and religious conflicts were rare. Our society was relatively stable, harmonious and united.

Mahathir's "Bangsa Malaysia" slogan was very well received during those years because people were flushing with confidence and believed life would only get better tomorrow.

The international community labelled Malaysia one of Asia's Four Tigers, with Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia making up the remaining three.

Among the Tigers, Malaysia had the smallest population but was at he highest level of development, beating the other three in terms of infrastructure, education as well as living standard.

Many economists predicted that Malaysia would soon join Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea as Asia's fifth Little Dragon.

This optimistic anticipation was nevertheless busted following the regional financial crisis in 1997, which saw the collapse of many Malaysian companies and banks, as well as mass retrenchments, plummeting ringgit and a free-falling national economy.

That was very soon followed by political confrontation that took the country to the pinnacle of confrontation. The hardline approach by the government to suppress dissidents sparked democracy awareness. And cronyism and corruption were born out of the country's capitalist policy.

Having been bruised by the setback, the Asian Tigers that once held a lot of promises were fumbling to stay afloat. While some progress was made, they were never back to their glorious past.

As if that was not enough, the external environment had experienced a dramatic change. The four Little Dragons had scaled new heights in technology and value chain, while the rise of China sucked away most of the international funds, throwing these Little Tigers far behind in many areas.

Even Vietnam, which did not even qualify as an Asian Tiger back then, is now thrusting forward in full force in an attempt to leapfrog the Tigers.

While the recent "Rise of the Asian Tiger Convention" may leave some with agonizing sighs, if our new government is willing to learn a lesson from its past mistakes and emulate the successful experiences of other nations, we may still see a chance of staging a strong comeback in future.


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