The death last week of Singapore’s much acclaimed statesman Lee Kuan Yew has spotlighted world attention on tiny Singapore’s transformation from a tropical backwater to an affluent global city in just one generation. Certainly, Singapore stands tall in Asia as a formidable city state which proves that sometimes in geopolitics size does not matter.
But in South-East Asia, it’s not just Singapore that impresses.
Travelling in Vietnam this week, it’s striking just how quickly this once war-devastated country has dusted off a bloody past, in favour of a new life and persona as one of this region’s most exciting economies.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, buzzes with excitement as cars, motorcycles, buses weave their noisy way around surprisingly green urban centres — and some very narrow streets. Cafes, restaurants and bars are heaving with people. New businesses keep popping up, old ones are still thriving.
A Belgian-Vietnamese friend tells me the country’s growing middle class has an appetite for foreign goods, the more luxurious, the better. Certainly, more and more European and Japanese cars on the roads are big and shiny, competing for space — and winning — against the ubiquitous scooters and motorbikes. Everyone has his/her palm pressed firmly on the car horn.
This is China as it was twenty years ago, friends tell me. Noisy, crowded, the old and ramshackle giving way to the new and glittering. The skyscrapers going up, the five-star hotels, the glamorous department stores boasting French luxury brands are a foretaste of the big metropolis, a mini Shanghai, that Ho Chi Minh City is poised to become. For the moment, it is still possible to find serene hideaways where time appears to have stood still. But not for long.
And certainly not at the university I visit on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City where students rush from class to class, stopping occasionally to sit down and play the pianos which are strewn around the campus.
At the lecture I give on Europe, Asia and Vietnam, the students are serious and attentive — but impassive. I wonder in despair if I am getting through. But then the questions come fast and furious. I am grilled mercilessly on the impact of globalisation, my view of Vietnam, why Vietnam and the EU are signing a free trade agreement, how do you distinguish between good and bad journalists — and so on.
Globalisation means losing our identity, they tell me, oblivious to the fact that in their skinny jeans and sneakers, carrying backpacks and peering into their smartphones, they have bought into globalisation with a vengeance. I point it out, they stare at me incredulously. This is not globalisation, this is life, they argue back. Exactly.
Later as we take pictures and exchange addresses, I tell them they are lucky to be living in rising Asia, with jobs, hope — and pollution, one says interrupting me. Yes, pollution, urbanisation and overcrowding. But also jobs and growth — the two things we need in Europe. Puzzlement shows in their eyes.
Their self-confidence is justified. Perched along one of the world’s most crucial shipping routes, and with a young and growing population, Vietnam is — once again — being tipped for economic lift-off, after years of disappointment.
The news reports I read underline that money pouring into the South-East Asian economy from the likes of manufacturers Samsung Electronics Company and Intel Corporation is giving Vietnam a second run at becoming Asia’s next tiger economy.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the country has the potential to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies over the period to 2050. Not only is the South-East Asian nation gaining ground as a cheaper manufacturing alternative to neighbouring China, Vietnam is also a politically palatable destination for Japanese firms boosting investment in the region amid recurring Sino-Japan spats.
“Vietnam is really the big winner from China losing its competitiveness because of rising wages” and a strong currency, say specialists. As labour costs rise in China, foreign investors are knocking on Vietnam’s doors.
The list of those wishing to cash in is long, led by China and Japan but also including Singapore, Taiwan, the United States and the European Union.
Vietnam and the US are working hard to strengthen ties, including in the security and defence sector, with Hanoi now demanding the full lifting of the arms embargo that was eased last year. Vietnam will be taking part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, led by the US.
Relations with Beijing are fraught over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea although tensions have eased in recent months and the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties retain close ties.
The EU, meanwhile is hoping to clinch negotiations on a bilateral, free trade agreement with Vietnam before too long.
European diplomats tell me the country is an exciting destination for European exporters and investors.
At more meetings — this time in Hanoi — the discussion turns to journalism, open societies and freedom of expression. Vietnam’s Communist Party keeps a tight lid on the media, including bloggers. The EU and the US are pressing for change and have an ongoing human rights dialogue with Hanoi. But it’s a question of one step forward, two steps back.
As in China, the government appears to have struck a defining big bargain with its citizens: we’ll provide growth and progress in exchange for your loyalty. The trade-off appears to be working. So far.
I see the bright lights, the fancy restaurants and the big cars. There is also still poverty and underdevelopment. I am enchanted by the friendliness of the people, young and old. Traditional and modern mix easily in the streets. There is no doubt: Vietnam is on the move. And it’s going to keep going up