AT a dinner party for a visiting European delegation last week, the table talk focused on a fascinating topic that became heated and prolonged.
It related to perceptions about the region and how they can become so firmly rooted that they are almost impossible to change.
For instance, the visitors all said they believed Singapore to be ultra-efficient, squeaky clean and corruption-free.
In contrast, they viewed Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and even Thailand as beset by bureaucratic ineptitude, bribery, social unrest, and in the case of Indonesia, Islamic terrorism.
They professed little knowledge of Brunei, Laos and Vietnam, but said they believed Vietnam was booming.
As for Myanmar, they all considered it a tragic place ruled by military thugs whose henchmen followed visitors everywhere and who had imprisoned the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
When these perceptions were probed more deeply, their response was invariably: Well, that’s what everyone says, that’s what you hear and read in the media.
And that’s true. Those are the decades-old stereotypical perceptions still purveyed and reinforced by today’s journalists and analysts who rarely step back and assess how valid they remain.
Many, in fact, are hopelessly invalid – just like those misperceptions that were parroted until recently that giants like Citibank, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Oz Minerals, Enron and Texaco were immutable and could never fail.
People are comfortable with accepted positions. They grow up on them and live with them for years. Naturally, they do not like them to be challenged.
So when the Europeans were told that Singapore is not really so efficient, that Indonesia’s economy is doing better than Vietnam’s, that Yangon is safer than most Western cities, and that things work as well in Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines as they do elsewhere in Asia, they looked stunned.
But consider first impressions. The modern airports at Manila, Cebu, Makassar and Phnom Penh may be relatively small, but they are efficient, clean and as easy to use as their supposedly sophisticated counterparts in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Visas on arrival are issued quickly and smoothly. Taxis are cheap and plentiful – unlike in smug Singapore where they are outrageously expensive and often unavailable.
Perhaps you think such matters are small beans and that we should consider the big picture.
Well then, let’s take the political system. In Indonesia and the Philippines it is far ahead of Singapore and Vietnam, not to mention China, which will all eventually have to permit more democracy – and let’s see what happens then.
Indeed, the biggest misperceptions relate to the region’s freewheeling multiparty democracies like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
There is a daft notion that free and open debate, which can become wild and wacky, but which is an integral part of any functioning democracy, is somehow antithetical to bureaucratic efficiency and economic management.
In truth, the region’s free societies are doing just fine. The Philippines has registered 45 consecutive quarters of growth, the peso is rock solid, and its stock market has just closed at record highs.
The same goes for those perceived “unsettled” nations, Indonesia and Thailand.
Makers of shoes and clothing, in their endless pursuit of reducing costs, are not moving to Vietnam or China, but to Indonesia, where they find a large labour pool, stable lower wages, fewer regulations, and bureaucrats who are nicer to deal with.
In contrast, dictatorial Vietnam and Myanmar are in diabolical shape. The Hanoi communists have the world’s worst-performing stock market, a massive trade deficit, chronic power outtages and have just devalued the dong for the third time in under a year.
Even Malaysia and Singapore are less rosy than is generally perceived.
Foreign direct investment in Malaysia, for instance, fell 81 percent last year to US$1.4 billion as it lost out to rivals Indonesia and Thailand.
So let’s hear it for clumsy democracy over disciplined dictatorships and dump those silly misperceptions whose sell-by date expired years ago.