Yawning Bread. March 2007

Compensating for a frustrating neighbourhood




Lately, Singapore has been trying to get its neighbours to institutionalise some changes to Asean -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The hope is to make it a "rules-based" organisation in which there are procedures for dispute resolution and for holding countries to account for promises unkept.

Up till now, Asean has been little more than a talking shop for leaders of the 10 states in the region. Their summits usually yield platitudes, which may not even be lived up to.

40 years after Asean's founding, there are still tariff and non-tariff trade barriers between its member states. The dream of a common market, 500-million strong, is still just that -- a dream. But why would a common market be important? Singapore and other supporters of the idea have pointed out that with the opening of China and India, each with over a billion people, the small national markets of Asean won't be attractive to investors. Investors would prefer to base their operations in either or both of the big markets, serving the fragmented Southeast Asian markets from there. In time, this region will become a backwater.

But this perception may not be shared by our neighbours. Indonesia and Thailand are currently in their highly nationalistic phases. Malaysia has just come out of its own. The Philippines is still looking for domestic political stability 20 years after deposing dictator Ferdinand Marcos and hasn't time for the long view. Vietnam considers itself so far behind its neighbours economically that opening up its economy to a common market may be seen as disadvantageous to itself.

Meanwhile military-ruled Burma is like an albatross around Asean's neck, damaging the entire group's credibility on the world stage.

It would be nice to be located in a peaceful, liberal and prosperous neighbourhood. Besides the question of attracting investors, buoyant demand within a seamless, integrated Southeast Asian market would be good for Southeast Asian producers themselves. But as things stand, there isn't enough political will or vision in our neighbours to move forward.

For the foreseeable future, Singapore will need to continue striking out on its own, forging economic links with major economies around the world. Thus we see intensive efforts at signing free trade agreements with other countries and mission after trade mission to places like India and the Middle East.

If we succeed in staying economically vibrant -- and of course, I hope we do -- this will in turn perpetuate our present problems with our neighbours. As Kishore Mahbubani [1] noted recently, Singapore is seen by our neighbours as a parasite feeding on their resources to enrich ourselves. The politics of envy won't go away easily.

Pre-colonial Hausa city-states

Speaking of unpromising neighbourhoods, I am currently reading a book on African history. There are few more unpromising neighbourhoods than the Bilad as-Sudan in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Bilad as-Sudan (the country of the blacks) is the Arabic name for the climatic region comprising subtropical light woodlands and grasslands (the Savanna) between 10 to 15 degrees of latitude in central and Western Africa. Today we think of this region as one of backwardness and famine, but in those centuries, it was the centre of West African civilisation.

West Africa roughly between 1600 - 1800 CE


Anyway, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the part around the upper Niger River was politically unsettled. The Songhay empire – the biggest empire that subsaharan Africa had ever produced -- had recently collapsed, and its successor states, mostly peopled by the Mandé, were weak and shifting.

However, further east, the Hausa people had a number of relatively prosperous city-states, in the area that is the northern half of today's Nigeria. But, as I said, it's not a part of the world that is well situated for prosperity. They were sandwiched between the vast Sahara desert to their north and the nearly impenetrable rainforest of what is now southern Nigeria. Beyond the jungle zone was the Atlantic coast -- the edge of the known world. West Africans did not have sailing skills, and anyway, there was nothing "out there" to venture to. [2]

They were far away from other major civilisations and markets -- in fact, the only one they could reach, and with immense difficulty, was the Islamic World, which in this period was dominated by Ottoman Turkey. Only the most indirect connections (via Tuareg, Berber and Arab middlemen) led to the Turkish provinces of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and thence to Turkey and Europe. Few Hausa leaders would have had any more than the vaguest idea of European civilisation. Forget about India or China.

Islam was the ascendant religion. It represented knowledge, literacy, jurisprudence and civilising ways. However, new converts tended to scorn the animism-adulterated practices of the localised forms of Islam. Every now and then, the purists waged armed jihad, led by charismatic leaders, disrupting life and political stability. Does this sound familiar?

Yet on the whole, the Hausa were doing quite nicely, relative to time and place. They organised camel caravans crossing 1,500 km of the most forbidding desert in the world, in order to reach and trade with the only reachable civilisation way to the north.


However, you can only trade when others want what you have to offer, and in this respect, the Hausa did quite well too. They had their own industries, producing leather, cloth, bronze and iron wares. But even more important than what they could produce themselves were what they could obtain from their hinterland to the south. There was gold from the Ashanti kingdom (present-day central Ghana), and plenty of slaves to be got from the weaker states in the forested zone. Gold and slaves were in high demand in the Islamic world. The latter were often the result of military expeditions into the territories of the Yoruba, Ijaw and Igbo. Talk about being parasites unto your neighbours.

However, my point is that despite being virtually at the edge of the known world, separated from it by the Sahara, the Hausa managed to seize opportunities with organisation and enterprise. 

Southeast Asia a thousand years ago

By contrast, geography favoured Southeast Asia immensely. This map will immediately give you an idea of the trade and external relations stretching from China to the Baghdad caliphate. In this period, China was reaching new heights of civilisation and economic power during the Tang and Song dynasties. At the same time, the Islamic world was at its peak.

Maritime Asia roughly between 800 - 1200 CE

We're talking about 1,200 years ago, but ocean-going ships were already plying the routes from Basra to the leading Chinese ports of Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Hangzhou. [3]


A world apart from maritime Southeast Asia

It's rather beside the point, but what truly fascinated me about pre-colonial West Africa was how the indigenous states were oriented towards the interior of the continent. They had no use for the sea; they turned their backs to it. Even the rainforest belt was considered relatively unsuitable for civilisation, with empires and successful states often coming out of the grasslands.

Here in Southeast Asia, our historical experience has been the complete opposite, as the next section shows. For some 1,400 years, we've seen the sea as the highway for commerce, the land and mountains as barriers to be avoided.

We've had no particular problem locating cities and states in the humid equatorial zone, clearing the jungle, terracing the hills (as in Java), if need be.


In the Asian Civilisations Museum are astounding treasures from a shipwreck found off the island of Belitung, a little to the east of Palembang. The ship was carrying tens of thousands of porcelain bowls and dishes from China to the Arab world (there were gold and other objects too). Archeologists have found that these were made in Changsha, an inland city about 600 km north of Guangzhou, but were clearly destined for the Middle East, the reason being that some of the bowls bore Arabic inscriptions. They had been customised by the kiln-works for the Arab market!

A pitcher in the Arabic style with Chinese glazing; a gold cup, also in Arabic style, probably as part of a consignment of gifts meant for Islamic rulers.


The ship itself was similar in construction to the Arab dhow. It wasn't a Chinese junk. Even more remarkable, the wood that made up the ship was of a species found in India. Talk about international collaboration.

From markings denoting the imperial reign, the porcelain has been dated to 826 CE. Carbon-dating the wreck has produced dates consistent with that. Think about it. That's very, very far back for ocean-going trade. [4]

Taking advantage of the trade routes, Southeast Asia saw the rise of two early states: Sri Vijaya, with its convenient ports of call along the Straits of Malacca, and Champa, with its safehavens along the Vietnamese coast. Each had its "difficult" neighbours who envied and resented their lucrative participation in the international trade. Champa had to fend off Angkor and Sri Vijaya had to check Mataram, in both cases, ultimately unsuccessfully.

But I'll just leave the story there, because I don't think we ought to draw too much by way of parallels with history, especially one that is so far back.

However, to add to the point I made about the Hausa -- how opportunities could be exploited through organisation and enterprise -- there are two additional points we can note from the early Southeast Asian experience.

The first is that the trading cities were remarkably cosmopolitan. There were thriving Muslim communities living in Guangzhou and Quanzhou, while in Quilon (near the southern tip of India), there was a Chinese community. Southeast Asian cities were even more mixed, with Arabs from the Middle East, Tamils from Chola and of course the Chinese.

The second is that technology played a big part in realising opportunities. Without mastery of the monsoons and the ability to build sturdy ships, the ocean trade would not have been possible.


Porcelain dish from the 
Tang wreck off Belitung
To the present time

That technology can overcome geography must surely be even more relevant today. That's why we need to invest so much in it to keep ourselves connected and useful to the rest of the world.

But let's come back to organisation. Here's where a cryptic remark by Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, comes in. In the 26 March 2007 edition of Time magazine (cover: A Vision for Hong Kong), there was a Q and A in which Tsang was asked,

Q: What city do you benchmark Hong Kong against?

A: As an international financial centre there are only two global benchmarks for Hong Kong: New York and London. Other places cannot compare with us. You look at the basic fundamentals to be an international financial centre. Dubai doesn't come close into the (picture) at all. Singapore doesn't come into it. It still hasn't got the freedoms we enjoy. Benchmarks must be above you, ahead of you.

What are those freedoms we don't enjoy? Are our "difficult" neighbours responsible for them, or are they self-inflicted? For a clue, see this YouTube video from CNN. Are we sending our ministers hither and thither trying to open trade relations without tidying up our own closet? 

© Yawning Bread 




Technology can also work against us. For a long time, Singapore benefited from being a transit stop on high-volume UK - Australia flights. However, with newer aircraft that can fly from the Persian Gulf to Australia without refuelling, airports in Bahrain and the UAE are now beginning to take that business away.



  1. Kishore Mahbubani is head of the Lee Kuan Yew school of Public Policy.
    Return to where you left off

  2. By around this period, Europeans were already nosing along the West African coast with trading forts established at a number of places. They were gun-runners and slave buyers, often fighting among themselves too. However, the Europeans hardly ever ventured inland. The tse-tse fly that spread sleeping sickness was a big inhibiting factor. The Europeans generally waited in their forts for the African traders to bring slaves to them. With their small numbers and staying put along the coast, the Europeans didn't figure much in the politics and economics of inland West Africa during the period in question.
    Return to where you left off

  3. For more information, read a lengthy paper by Geoff Wade from the Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore), at
    Return to where you left off

  4. See http://www.maritime-explorations.com/belitung.htm  
    Return to where you left off