Inside Cover : 10 May 2010

Inside Cover : 10 May 2010

BANGKOK – Last Thursday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that his nation must hit 7 percent economic growth in the second half of this year to meet its full-year target of 6.5 percent.

His remark reminded me of two things. One was an article just days earlier in The New York Times about false claims and shameless boosterism.

The article noted among other things that the Haggar clothing company claimed it invented the term “slacks” in the 1940s for its casual trousers, which were to be worn during “slack time”.

Yet a simple dictionary check showed that the term slacks had been used in that context almost a century earlier.

Of course, it is not only unscrupulous companies seeking to embellish the pedigree of their products that engage in such shenanigans. Many governments do the same.

Which brings me to the second thing Dung’s comment reminded me about. It was a claim, fed to me in 2006, that Vietnam was the new Asian Tiger – so much so that it had “the second-fastest-growing economy in Asia after China”.

It was so universally accepted that I took it to be true. Then one day, an article in the business section of The Straits Times revealed that Singapore’s GDP growth for 2006 was 8.4 percent.

I was stunned. Vietnam’s growth rate at that time was 8.2 percent. So how could it be the second-fastest in Asia after China, if even highly developed Singapore had a faster rate?

A check of World Bank and IMF figures soon revealed that Vietnam’s growth rate was below that of China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos and India.

Yet the Haggar-like canard continued to be repeated, as it is to this day.

But then, like other regional governments, Singapore itself, despite a somewhat exaggerated reputation for rectitude, is not averse to making similar false claims.

Consider the notion, oft-repeated especially at election time, that in its British colonial days, Singapore was a backward settlement of shacks in a mosquito-ridden swamp with no natural resources.

Then, hey presto, Lee Kuan Yew led his People’s Action Party to power in 1959 and transformed the place into the gleaming, ultra-efficient metropolis it is today.

Actually, Singapore was highly developed long before Lee and the PAP took over.

Winston Churchill himself wrote that during the Second World War, “the worst disaster” of all was not Dunkirk or Dieppe or the blitz of London; it was the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Of course, this latter-day PAP reconfirms that when we are fed official guff, as we were last Friday when it was announced that despite economic downturns due to the global financial crisis, trade between Cambodia and Vietnam rose 30 percent last year and is up 127 percent this year, we must treat it with caution.

Indeed, whenever leading politicians make similar highfalutin claims, it pays to check them out, for it’s a good bet that they are speaking through the backside of their slacks.
----------------------------------------------------------------------
Roger Mitton is a former senior
correspondent for Asiaweek and
former bureau chief in Washington
and Hanoi for The Straits Times.
He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.

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