Authors: Robert Dayley and Clark D. Neher

Publisher:  Westview Press (A Member of the Perseus Book Group) – 330 pages

Book Review by:  Sonu Chandiram

Southeast Asia, a region with about 590 million people (2011 UN population estimate) is defined by the authors of this book as consisting of these eleven countries: Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. I asked myself why Hong Kong and Taiwan were not included in this group and I could not find the answer.

I have visited and lived in seven of these thirteen countries and one major characteristic is ironically predominant – their diversity. The authors make this point very clear at the outset of this book.

These nations of Southeast Asia are about as diverse as they can be in terms of arts, beliefs, customs, dress, economics, food, gross domestic product, human capital, income, languages, mores, natural resources, organized institutions, politics, religions, social behavior, traditions, and just about any other type of comparison.

The authors point out that these nations have different cultures, histories, political systems and resource bases, both human and natural.

Most people from the West however, are not able to discern these differences. (It’s funny that almost all Asians are termed “Orientals” in Western print news media. So, should all people from Europe and the Americas be termed “Occidentals”?)  That is understandable, just as visitors from Southeast Asia to the United States would likely not be able to distinguish for example, from accents, which American is from Tennessee and which one hails from Texas.

The main similarities, besides being in close geographic proximity and having similar tropical climate, are that most of them were once mainly agriculture-based economies but later added manufacturing and sales of services; were colonized by Western countries and struggled for their independence; were exposed to new political ideas from the West; were introduced to, and embraced different religions (e.g. Catholicism in the Philippines from Spain); and economic growth.

This is the fifth edition of a book that was published in September 2001 right after the World Trade Center attacks. In this current edition, Timor-Leste was added, as were the resource guides at the end of each country chapter. There are 12 sections in this book consisting of an Introduction and 11 chapters, one for each country. Each country chapter consists of these common elements: a map of the country, institutions and social groups, democratization, economic development, the state (the country’s politics), foreign policy, conclusion, notes and a resource guide.

One of the most glaring differences when comparing countries in Southeast Asia is in terms of their gross domestic product, especially their GDP per capita (2007 data were provided towards the end of this book, but we looked up the most recent figures on Wikipedia)

Indonesia, largest in population with about 238 million people, also has the largest total economic output. Its GDP was $707 billion in 2010, per World Bank data. But the average Indonesian makes only $2,946 a year in income.

On the other hand, Singapore, with a tiny population of just about 5.2 million people had a comparatively large GDP of about $210 billion, so the share of each resident’s annual income was a relatively large $41,122, about 14 times larger than the average Indonesian. The average Singaporean makes more in a month at $3,427 than what an Indonesia resident makes in a whole year. And, Singapore ranks among highest in the world in terms of per-capita economic output and income.

Second in annual GDP per capita is Brunei with $27,390 according to the World Bank, but International Monetary Fund (IMF) data show a much larger $36,521. One reason for this is its small population of just 422,700 people and its ample natural resources.

On the lowest end is Laos and Cambodia. The average Laotian makes only $1,177 a year but his neighboring Thai, living in the same Indo-China peninsula, makes almost four times as much, at $4,608 annually.

And Cambodians are even worse off than people in Laos, scraping by at just $795 a year.

(During and after the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot was characterized by economic devastation, genocide and mass famine. So, current widespread poverty is no surprise).

Rounding out the whole list of Southeast Asian countries, here are the 2010 World Bank GDP per capita figures for the other countries in this region (high to low): Hong Kong: $31,758; Taiwan: $21,592; Malaysia: $8,373;  Philippines: $2,140; Vietnam: $1,224;  Burma: $804; and Timor-Leste: $623.

The authors cite data based on the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) that has created four groups among Southeast Asian countries. The HDI is a measure of democratic, educational and health factors. Accordingly, these are the four groups:

High income – high HDI countries: Brunei and Singapore

Medium income – medium HDI countries: Malaysia and Thailand

Medium-low income – medium-low HDI countries: Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam

Low income – low HDI countries: Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Timor-Leste

The authors have written a highly informative book. It shows similarities among countries in Southeast Asia, but more importantly, the vast differences among them in terms of important factors and measures.

Robert Dayley is associate professor of international political economy and Asian studies at the University of Idaho. Clark D. Neher is Distinguished Teaching Professor of political science and former director of the Southeast Asian Studies at North Illinois University. He is the author of ten books on Southeast Asian politics and international relations.