book-review-riggIn 1994 John Page of World Bank published a book chapter as a part of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s annual publication. In the chapter, Page explicates the lessons learned from the rapid economic growth that had materialized over the past two decades in the economies of East Asia. The chapter was titled “The East Asian Miracle: Four Lessons for Development Policy”. The adjective “miracle” is really interesting and points to the fact even though a financial crisis would interrupt the growth of the region toward the end of the millennium, still to this day the example of the East Asian economic growth is mentioned in public policy circles as one of the foremost examples of the benefits of economic liberalization.

Most of the economic growth and hence development literature has been concentrated in and about predominantly eight “high performing Asian Economies”. This includes Japan but more specifically points to the cases of Taiwan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The economic growth and development have by no means been a homogenous project within these countries and all countries have followed their own unique paths. From the “nearly complete laissez-faire” of Hong Kong to private and public interactions in countries like Taiwan, Korea and Singapore. (Page, Fischer & Rotemberg 1994). However, despite the given differences, there is a consensus within development circles that the basic fundamentals that underpin the growth of the aforementioned economies have a singular philosophy behind them. In here, the process of economic growth has been strongly linked to the process of economic liberalization, free-market and modernization.

The basic purpose of this article is to explore the contents of Johnathan Rigg’s book in which he discusses the case of one section of East Asia (particularly Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore) and tries to show how the economic growth in this part of the world can be taken as an example of the successful transformation that economic liberalization and modernization has brought to the area. The book is unique in that it explores the connection that modernization has had to the economic growth of the region, dwells into the human aspect of development in the region and locates the Southeast Asian experience within both positive & critical post-development circles and literature.

To start, Johnathan Rigg’s book whose full title reads “ Southeast Asia: The Human Landscape of Modernization and Development” is an enticing read for anyone who wants to explore more closely the modernization project in Southeast Asia in the latter half of the 20th century. From the starting point, it becomes clear that Rigg is a strong admirer of the modernization and development project within Southeast Asia. For instance, he cites The Economist magazine’s claim from 1993 that “It is now more likely than not that the most momentous public event in the lifetime of anybody reading this survey will turn out to be the modernization of Asia”. (Bowen 2000) Such an enthusiastic tone to start one’s book is ironic in retrospect, as the book was published right at the time when the Southeast Asian crisis was around the corner. In later revised versions, Rigg would make subtle changes to this book to account for the Southeast Asian financial crisis of the 90s. This original edition of this book still has a lot that is relevant to issues pertaining to modernization and development.

The book is divided into a total of four main sections. In the first section of the book, Rigg sets the background for his analysis and presents certain theoretical frameworks through which he looks at the modernization and development projects in Southeast Asia.

The second section of the book looks at effects that the modernization and development of the area have had on the groups that have been excluded or negatively affected by the process. Excluded groups include people from a wide array of professions and ethnicities: from the sex workers of Thailand’s sex industry to the ethnic Chinese who, even though are economically well-off, occupy a “socially precarious” position in the region. (Bowen 2000) Within this section, a statistical overview of the poverty in the region is presented alongside the description and analysis of what it means to be excluded from the development and modernization project in Southeast Asia.

The third section of this book highlights the changes that have come about in both rural and urban Southeast Asia with the development efforts in the area, the change in the dynamics of the labor force and the link between the rural setups and the industrialized factories at the forefront of production.

In the last section of the book, Rigg, using the example of South-east Asia, directly takes on the post-development narrative that tries to put down the development and modernization of the region as an unsuccessful project. His basic contention is that even though the development in the area has been uneven and has benefitted certain groups and individuals more than others, the net effect has been positive, in that millions of people have been actually taken out of poverty. (Bowen 2000)

The position taken by Rigg in his book has strong preconceived undertones attached to it. However, with his use of succinct and relevant information, his points start making sense in the context in which he articulates them. In the middle section of the book, he uses certain case studies that, at times, may seem a little outdated as they rely on data that was gathered several years before the publishing date of this book. This doesn’t lead to any general skewing of the arguments presented. What stands out the most is the fact that Rigg is quite weary of the “pessimism” that has been brought forth by the post-development theorists surrounding development projects that insist on modernization. (Bowen 2000)

In a nutshell, Rigg’s book is a nice read if one is to understand how Southeast Asia has grown both economically and from a human development perspective over the last half of a century. The book also enables the reader who might have strong reservations with regard to the income inequality and socio-economic exclusion in the area, to realize that the overall picture in the area isn’t that bleak. However, the book doesn’t speak much about how the Southeast Asian experience can serve as a blueprint for growth in other surrounding regions given their distinct cultural setting. But to be fair, that isn’t a subject area that Rigg promises to address in the first place.



Chapter in NBER book NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1994, Volume 9 (1994), Stanley Fischer and Julio J. Rotemberg, eds. (p. 219 – 282)

Rigg, J. (1995). Southeast Asia: The human landscape of modernisation and development (1st ed.). London: Routledge.

Bowen, J. (2000). Taylor & Francis, 90(3), 623–625.