The Asian Voice

Asian Tigers, then and now: Sin Chew Daily columnist

The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The international community labelled Malaysia one of Asia's Four Tigers, with Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia making up the remaining three.
The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The international community labelled Malaysia one of Asia's Four Tigers, with Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia making up the remaining three.PHOTO: REUTERS

In his article, the writer laments the fall of the Asian Tigers and Malaysia's lack of success in becoming one.

KUALA LUMPUR (SIN CHEW DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The recent "Rise of the Asian Tiger Convention" put under one roof many heavyweight politico-economic leaders, including Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who addressed the participants.

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

I have no way to tell if 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.

At that time, it was not an overstatement to describe our country.

Starting from 1988, Malaysia's economy had been growing at more than 9 per cent annually for nine straight years, breaching the 10 per cent 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 S$1 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 the next day.

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 the highest level of development, beating the other three in terms of infrastructure, education as well as living standards.

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 hardliner approach by the government to suppress dissidents sparked democracy awareness. 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 returned 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 chains, 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 agonising 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.

The writer is a columnist for Sin Chew Daily. Sin Chew Daily is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.