By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge, Kuala Lumpur, July 1, 2013
When flying from Singapore to Macau via Hong Kong International Airport, like I just did, one is treated to some of the best and most efficient that modern infrastructural technology and planning in Asia have to offer.
You board a comfortable plane at an airport named the best in the world in 2013 (up from 2nd in 2012) to fly about 4 hours to land at the world’s fourth best airport (down from 3rd in 2012) and then seamlessly, you enjoy a relaxing one-hour ferry ride across the mouth of the Pearl River without passing customs and without having to pick up your luggage, until you reach your destination.
One has to wonder about the powerful economic rationale that brought such smooth connectivity into being, and the administrative and political capacity required to plan it—and to maintain it.
What with the constraints that national borders pose and the natural hindrances that distance, geography and sea put in the way, not to mention the difficulty of managing the people involved; the challenges that have to be overcome if people are to be moved as effortlessly as possible—and economic activity facilitated as effectively as possible—are actually enormous.
I suppose two of the words that I have already let slip—seamlessly and connectivity—are key to discussing the infrastructural wonders that support the East Asian economic prowess of recent decades. And I am not even mentioning northeast Asia. (Incidentally, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is ranked 2nd in the world this year, Beijing is in 5th position and Tokyo is at 9th place).
One can easily see why all national and international projects for economic growth and economic integration put infrastructure building and financing right at the top of their priority list—of course just after all the soft and politically correct goals have been mentioned. “Connectivity” is ASEAN’s major concern, and the biggest hindrance to Indonesia’s continued growth at this time is not social or political; it is the sad state of its infrastructure.
Making connectivity as seamless as possible is the wisdom of the day—the Asian Century depends on it.
Infrastructure shrinks space, bridge distances and increase movement of people, skills, goods and capital. For better or worse, that is the basic fuel for what we lazily call economic development. What is the revolutionary thrush of the Internet if not in its ability to break down barriers to knowledge and information flows?
Through the ages, trade has been about connecting demand and supply, be this with regards to spices, silk, weapons, opium, slaves or mercenaries—and about the struggle to control that connection once it is achieved?
Whoever controlled the Silk Route in the old days controlled a considerable part of the economic activity between East and West. And think of the string of trading ports the British Empire found essential to control from Gibraltar to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
We are therefore always dealing with the need to connect on one hand, and the struggle to control that connection on the other. Trade wars—and open conflicts—threaten whenever an agreement cannot be reached that benefits all sides involved.
The colonialists built trade infrastructure that served them best. Their goals varied no doubt, from different national powers to different economic periods, but their political and military strategies all contributed towards a psychological and physical infrastructure spanning the globe that worked to their advantage.
And so, it was not strange that when independence came to Third World nations after the Second World War—and this was due to the fatal fight for control over global infrastructure among colonial powers—the new governments of these new countries were fixated with restructuring their infrastructure to favour a domestic economic and political power centre, often with the intention of breaking the colonial structure they had inherited.
A new national airport, a new capital, new highways linking the major cities, new ports to stimulate development of areas not drawn into the global economy during colonial times, and new trade deals with novel friends and necessary enemies.
Understandably, in the early stages of most nation building programmes, nationalistic concerns are prioritized. However, no economy or society today can ignore the regional and global context in which it must function, and the nationalistic project often succeeds only by limiting the country’s future prospects.
The ideal success is thus one that benefits the national by juxtaposing the national with the regional and the global in ways that keep conflicts minimal. An infrastructure that serves a country best must consider regional and global connectivity as well, and in that way turbocharge its development beyond national limitations, be these physical or psychological.
It is in this light that one should see East Asian or Southeast Asian integration today—the struggle for the national to connect regionally and globally without allowing external forces to override national interests. Being too cautious in making use of external forces can over time be just as bad as being too hasty.
But let me add a word of warning at the end. Since infrastructural development shrinks the planet and locks everything into a so-called global economy, we also see how flawed thinking about social and environmental goods will be disastrous for the planet and for humanity—not to mention the singular country.
The writer is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). His latest book is Done Making Do: 1Party Rule Ends in Malaysia (Genta Media & ISEAS, 2013).