Asia’s New Elite

by Shaun Tan

Note: The following was written as the final paper for a class at Yale.

“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two; one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.” – Plato, The Republic

It can be said that the walls around gated communities mark the borders of a foreign country. Of course, not all exclusive neighborhoods are surrounded by walls – many are not – but the effect is largely the same. Within these neighborhoods live many of the countries’ elite, ensconced within their own bubbles with their own sets of rules.

This contrast is all the more apparent with the rise of Asia, and the emergence (especially in China and India) of the nouveau riche. This has produced vast disparities in wealth and power, with a new elite reaping great rewards amidst vast swathes of people still struggling to eke out a living. This prosperity, and the uneasiness that comes with it, leads to the seclusion of these elites. “The rich in these cities seek to gate as much of their lives as possible,”[1] wrote Arjun Appadurai, “travelling from guarded homes to darkened cars to air-conditioned offices, moving always in an envelope of privilege through the heat of public poverty.”[2]

Indeed, these exclusive neighborhoods often encourage a siege-mentality; its residents build heavy gates and commission neighborhood police to keep out “unwanted elements”. They hire security guards and install intercom systems as intermediaries to the outside world. I once tried Trick or Treating in my neighborhood of Kenny Hills in Kuala Lumpur during Halloween. It was not a fruitful experience. Out of the 20 or so houses my friends and I visited, we only got candy from one. We were dismissed from the rest of them by security guards or by the residents via intercom at the gates.

When lower classes come into these neighborhoods, it is usually as guards or domestic servants. They are paid for their “indispensability and invisibility.”[3] Often, they live in their own rooms in the houses and apartments of the elite, but are not treated as members of the family. “One wants the poor near at hand as servants” it seems, “but far away as humans.”[4]

 

As Thom Kerstiens observes, the elite[5] class “is looked up to and imitated, because it is credited with important gifts and desirable attributes.”[6] But often the aloofness of the elites also earns them great envy and resentment. And it is upon their offspring that a lot of this animosity settles – the spoilt brats who never earned any of their wealth, but who wear their privilege with the hauteur of those born to it. These are the princelings one sees chauffeured to and from their private schools, and who spend their leisure time in malls or shopping districts and at parties at hotels or nightclubs. These are the Asian aristocrats of the 21st century; kids who, because the sun has shone on them all their life, have come to believe it’s put there for that sole purpose. In this article I will tell you about these brats and the world they’re making. I can tell you, because I’m one of them.

***

The Private School

The first port of call for these brats is the private school. Because of the perceived low standard of education in public schools, many parents who can afford it send their kids to a private school. This is especially true in Malaysia.

I went to a private school in Kuala Lumpur called Garden International School (GIS). It’s located in the neighborhood of Sri Hartamas, which is near my house. It’s an “international” school, but only a minority of the students there are foreign (in my year it was about 10%), the rest are the children of upper and upper-middle class Malaysians, mostly from the Chinese ethnic group – Malaysia’s market-dominant minority.

Its students and former students include the children of Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary (the head of one of Malaysia’s biggest conglomerates), the children of Dato’ Ruby Khong (a prominent socialite and philanthropist), the children of Francis Yeoh (managing director of YTL Corporation and one of the richest men in Southeast Asia), and the grandchildren of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The children of Malaysia’s Home Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, and its current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, are also former students. The fact that both these politicians used to hold the post of Education Minister but still sent their kids to private schools caused a considerable amount of cynicism.

GIS is an environment rather different from Malaysia’s government schools. It follows the British education system, and during high school we studied for the O-level exams, rather than the local SPM exams. All its classes (except obviously language classes) are taught in English, and the standard of its Malay (the national language) is abysmal. I received an “A” grade for my O-level Malay exam (assessed by the Cambridge board in England), and the standard of my Malay at the time was probably equivalent to that of an 8-year-old child in a government school.

The rest of its curriculum is also different. Probably one of the best things about going to an international school was that I was spared having to study for the Pendidikan Moral (Moral Studies) exam, which is basically a mixture of cheesy boy-scout scenarios and government propaganda on loyalty to the government and its policies. I was also spared the local history syllabus with its myopic focus on Islam and Malaysia to the exclusion of everything else, and its emphasis on the rote-memorization of facts and key words. Instead, I studied Tudor Britain and ancient Rome, The New Deal, Appeasement, the Cold War, and the history and myths of ancient Greece. The regrettable trade-off, though, was that I know little about the history of my own country, since we only learned a bit of it in primary school.

Another big difference is in the use of punishment. I was aghast at stories of how my peers in government schools (or Chinese vernacular schools) were made to stand on their chairs for a whole lesson for forgetting their homework.[7] I was shocked to hear how those students could be caned by their teachers, or in more serious cases, caned by the Headmaster in front of the rest of the school during assemblies. I was even more shocked to hear how some of them seemed grateful for such punishment after, saying stuff like “the shame taught me an important lesson” or that “it helped to build my character.”

In an international school, no teacher is allowed to hit a student for any reason, and if it ever happened the teacher could be fired. The only punishments, in increasing order of severity, are detention during lunch break, detention after school, contacting your parents, suspension, and expulsion. As a result, international school kids have a reputation for being undisciplined, insolent, and wild. They are also viewed as spoilt and pampered, as more interested in partying than studying, and yet entitled to bright futures because of their privilege. “Oh, you go to an international school,” one of my cousins (who went to a government school) used to say rather sourly whenever we were compared. The implication was that we had everything handed to us.

International school students are also sometimes a rather cliquey bunch. When they hang out with kids from other schools, it’s almost always with those from other international schools, in our case it was with students from Mont Kiara International School, ELC International School, International School Kuala Lumpur, and Alice Smith School. Consequently, many international school students are viewed as aloof and out of touch with the rest of their countrymen. This doesn’t only happen in Malaysia. When, on a visit to Hong Kong, my Chinese friends (who attended Island School and Hong Kong International School) and I got funny looks whilst speaking English in an elevator. My friends later commented that the other people in the elevator “probably thought we were spoilt international school students who can’t speak Cantonese.”

 Private schools are also a craze amongst China’s nouveau riche, with Dulwich College, a London boarding school opening campuses in Beijing,[8] Shanghai,[9] and Suzhou.[10] The websites, featuring prominent photos of Caucasian students playing rugby or lounging about in English private school uniforms, market the foreign and the alien as a badge of prestige.

For some elite Chinese parents however, a private school in China is not enough. “Today, the new status symbol is an American high-school diploma”[11] reads an article in Red Luxury, a Chinese website dedicated to trends and luxury brands. Rich Chinese parents are willing to pay as much as $200,000 for four years at a private American high school,[12] and the number of those parents willing to do so is increasing rapidly. During the 2010-11 academic year there were 6,725 Chinese students in American private high schools, up from only 65 in the year 2005-6.[13]

East Coast schools, like Deerfield Academy, Hotchkiss School, and Wyoming Seminary Upper School, are especially popular, because they are viewed as launch pads to the Ivy League.[14] Besides the prestige, American private schools also attract those dissatisfied with the education in China. Zhao Weibo (a 16-year old Chinese student touring American private schools) and his father say they are fed up with the rigidity and rote-memorization of Chinese schools, as well as their myopic perspective of talent. In America, they hope to find a curriculum Zhao can engage with.[15]

America isn’t the only destination for these Chinese students. “Now, families of China’s leaders send their offspring overseas ever younger, often to top private schools in the US, Britain and Switzerland,”[16] wrote Jeremy Page in The Wall Street Journal, “to make sure they can later enter the best Western universities.”[17]

The demand for places at Western private schools is increasing in Asia. Even Kim Jong Il, the great enemy of Western capitalism, couldn’t resist secretly sending his son, Kim Jong-un (now the Supreme Leader of North Korea), to the International School of Berne, a Swiss boarding school.[18]

The Western University

Because the standard of universities in most Asian countries has not reached that of universities in the West, the next status symbol, and one of considerably more importance than the private school, is the Western university degree. Where these students go varies with their inclinations and the different traditions and curriculums of their schools. For example, GIS follows the British education system, and thus the majority of my cohorts went to the UK (mostly London) or Australia (mostly Melbourne).

This trend is apparent throughout Asia, with the exception of Japan, which has local universities of equal prestige to those in the West in the eyes of its citizens. This sentiment is especially powerful in Singapore, where kiasuness (exaggerated competitiveness) dominates. “There is probably no other place in the world,”[19] wrote Garry Rodan, Senior Research Fellow of Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre, “where formal qualifications represent as much economic or social capital.”[20] Although Singapore’s universities are pretty good (NUS being the most prominent), they still don’t compare to the top universities in the US and the UK.

Cambridge University has a particular allure – Singapore’s founding father and first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who casts a very long shadow,[21] spent some of his formative years at Cambridge, and most Singaporean schools today still follow the Cambridge Examination Board exclusively. For a Singaporean, therefore, going to Cambridge is more than just another achievement; it’s an intellectual pilgrimage – back to the place it all began. Indeed, the members of the “Lee Dynasty,” who stand as the first citizens of Singapore’s elite, count Oxford,[22] Cambridge, Harvard,[23] Stanford,[24] and MIT[25] among their alma maters. In 1987 there were over 9,000 Singaporeans studying overseas.[26] By 1990 there were nearly 15,300 of them, of which 11,520 were university students.[27]

China too has experienced a huge surge in demand for Western university degrees. There is a celebrity-like culture surrounding students and graduates of elite universities, and Chinese Yalies report how banquets were thrown in their honor and they were featured in the local news when they received their acceptance letters. Chinese students make up the largest contingent of international students at Yale from any one country.[28] Almost every week hordes of Chinese tourists descend onto Yale’s campus with their offspring in tow to tour the university and snap photos.

In The People’s Republic of Desire, Annie Wang wrote about how the biggest brand name in China is now Harvard.[29] In 2000 the book Harvard Girl, penned by the parents of Liu Yiting (a Harvard student) as a manual for how to get your kid into Harvard, sold more than 2 million copies[30] and spawned a host of other titles like Cornell Girl and Our Dumb Little Boy Goes To Cambridge.[31] Such is the magic of its name that even bookstores, English workshops, and travel agencies in China are named after Harvard.[32]

Western universities are very popular amongst China’s elite. Xi Mingze, daughter of Xi Jinping, who is expected to be the next President of China, goes to Harvard, and Bo Guagua, son of Bo Xilai, went to both Oxford and Harvard.[33] The grandchildren of CCP leaders Zhao Ziyang and Jiang Zemin also went to Harvard.[34] The granddaughter of Jia Qinglin, one of China’s most senior officials, is currently at Stanford.[35] In Asia, most people who can afford it send their children to the West to study. Western schools are premier destinations for these brats, and many schools have come to increasingly depend on their money.

What happens to these Asian brats when they arrive at these schools? In his article, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, relates “the heartwarming spectacle of white businesspeople and professionals [on elite campuses] studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businessmen and professionals.”[36] These brats, Deresiewicz writes, feel right at home surrounded by (mostly) other brats of the same social class. These experiences accentuate their sense of elitism, further distancing them from the lower classes. Deresiewicz calls this phenomenon “Ivy retardation,”[37] recounting his inability to make conversation with an American plumber who came to fix his pipes. “I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages,”[38] he wrote, “but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.”[39]

An elite from one Asian country can therefore come to have more in common with an elite from another Asian country than with someone from a lower class in his own country.

When I was an undergraduate at King’s College London, I attended a party organized by Oxford Malaysian students at an upscale nightclub in London. When I was in London I always preferred going to events organized by Asian groups because they’re held in nice places and people actually dress up. This event was no exception. The theme was a decadent masquerade ball and the drinks and the entry fee cost well above what a typical British student would be willing to pay.

The event was well attended; not just by Malaysian students, but also by a large number of students from Singapore and Hong Kong, and we all got along exceptionally well. My attention was diverted by other things that night, but I heard that one of the things that happened was a competition between a “Malaysian table” and a “Hong Kong table” over who could spend the most. Apparently the winners’ tab came up to $4,500.[40]

Green is Envy

This March, the fall of Bo Xilai, Committee Secretary of Chongqing, swept through international media. With it came a renewal of interest in his son, Bo Guagua, a Chinese princeling whose lifestyle – and the response of Chinese netizens to it – vividly illustrates the growing gap between Asia’s new elite and the majority of the population.

Bo Guagua is the archetypal elite brat. At age 12 he was sent to Papplewick School in England, and then (with help from family friend Neil Heywood) to Harrow, where fees are $50,200 annually.[41] He then read Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford, before studying for a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.[42]

 What incensed Chinese netizens the most though, was his alleged lavish party-boy lifestyle. Photos circulated online of him at parties at nightclubs with bottles of alcohol and foreign girls. At Oxford and Harvard, he lived off-campus in expensive apartments. When he toured Tibet with his date Chen Xiaodan, daughter of the head of the China Development Bank, they were accompanied by a police escort.[43] Whilst Bo Xilai was famous for promoting a revival of “red culture,” extolling Maoist slogans, and ordering students and officials “to work stints on farms to reconnect with the countryside,”[44] his son seemed to be rolling in decadence, and the only thing vaguely Communist about Bo Guagua was the color of his red Ferrari.[45]

The fact that the costs of such a lifestyle far exceeded Bo Xilai’s modest salary of approximately $22,000 a year[46] and the expected revenue from his wife’s law firm, didn’t help matters. Jiang Weiping, an investigative journalist from Dalian, where Bo Xilai was mayor in the 90s, estimated that the Bos were getting about $12 million a year by abusing their power, and an investigation by Bloomberg implicated Bo’s close relatives in a shady web of international business activities worth at least $136 million.[47] When Bo Xilai fell out of favor amongst the upper echelons of power in China, corruption charges were brought against him. CCP leaders cited his son’s profligate lifestyle as one of the official reasons for his fall.[48]

However, whilst Bo Xilai’s fall from grace elicited sympathy from certain quarters, there was little sympathy for his son because of the animosity against the “typically spoilt offspring of the Communist Party elite.”[49] “Many Chinese admire and support Bo Xilai,” said a Bo family associate, “but few like Bo Guagua.”[50]

This ire against Bo Guagua reflects China’s growing inequality. Many of Bo Guagua’s most vociferous critics are the diao si (children of lowly people), who are increasingly resentful of the privileged guan er dai (children of officials) and fu er dai (children of businesspeople). When in 2011, a 20-year-old girl calling herself Guo Meimei posted up pictures of herself on the microblog Weibo horseback riding, sitting in business class on an airplane, and posing with her Lamborghini and her Maserati, whilst claiming to be a manager for the Red Cross, it was these netizens who mercilessly scoured the web for information on her and who triggered an investigation that revealed her to be the mistress of a China Red Cross official.[51]

 China is a country of both stupefying wealth and crippling poverty. Its rise has brought some of its citizens unprecedented prosperity. Luxury brands like Cartier, Dunhill, and Gucci have opened up numerous stores in China to meet increasing demand.[52] European salespeople flock to sell Chinese tycoons Caribbean islands and Manhattan penthouse suites.[53] Recently, Chinese mogul Jin Shan Zhang bought Chateau De Grand Moueys, a Bordeaux estate replete with a mansion and a vineyard. Zhang plans to convert the mansion into a luxury resort for China’s new elite and to export the wine back to China – now the world’s biggest importer of Bordeaux wines.[54]

Polo clubs have sprouted in Beijing’s outskirts, and Chinese princelings are often seen smoking cigars and drinking vintage liquor in nightclubs near the Forbidden City.[55] In a country where males outnumber females by 32 million due to the One-Child Policy,[56] many rich Chinese men have multiple mistresses whilst many of their fellows can’t find a single bride – in 2007 China’s top prosecutors office said that 90% of the country’s most senior officials recently involved in corruption scandals kept mistresses.[57] Membership in the elect also comes with a special health plan: high-ranking members of the CCP have access to organic produce grown on special farms, as well as the 301 Military Hospital, Beijing’s premier medical facility.[58] According to a 2006 study, 1% of Chinese households own more than 60% of the wealth (a disparity 5 times more stark than in the US).[59]

To make matters worse, social mobility in China is extremely low. The importance of guanxi (personal connections) keeps key positions within elite networks of family and friends. “Government is so pervasive in China’s economy” said Patrick Chovanec, associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, “so who you are and who you know does more than anything to determine success.”[60] Access to opportunity is therefore limited to the privileged. “In the last 10 years the overall power of the princelings has solidified” said Hu Xindou, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, “and it looks likely to grow stronger in the future.”[61] China’s rich are becoming a dynasty.

The frustration born of this disparity prompts many of the poor in China to view the rich with great animosity. Furthermore, many of them also think that the wealth of the elite is undeserved, because it was obtained solely through corruption or other unscrupulous methods, or because the rich inherited their wealth or opportunities. As one struggling Chinese reporter observed, “People no longer believe you can win by working hard and honestly in China.”[62]

The conduct of some of these Chinese brats does little to improve their image. Rich Chinese boys in Nanjing are known to hold car drag races at night, much to the annoyance of local residents.[63] In 2011, a princeling beat a cleaner to death over where he could park his Audi in a parking lot.[64] When another car blocked the path of his BMW, Li Tianyi, the son of a high-ranking army official, reportedly got out of his car and assaulted the other driver. “Who will dare call the police?” he shouted.[65]

Fearing social upheaval or another redistribution because of this “hatred against the rich,”[66] many of China’s elite have hedged their bets by buying property oversees and getting foreign passports or permanent residency permits in Western countries.[67] These investments serve as “back doors,” a way out if trouble ever arises.

Though not as extreme, many other Asian countries suffer from similar wealth disparities. Rich Asians from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong accounted for more than 50% of new homes acquired in the affluent parts of central London, according to a report from Jones Lang LaSalle.[68] “Asia’s rapid growth is leaving millions behind,” said a 2012 report from the Asian Development Bank, “causing a widening gap between rich and poor.”[69] Sensing this, many of these rich Asians have also secured “back doors” in Western countries.

This tension between the rich and the poor is even more serious in Asian countries where market-dominant minorities make up much of the elite. In the Philippines, for example, the ethnic Chinese make up 2% of the population, but all of the top billionaires,[70] controlling “all of the largest and most lucrative department store chains, major supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants.”[71] Before the Indonesian racial riots in 1998, the Chinese in Indonesia made up 3% of the population, but controlled 70% of the private economy.[72] In Malaysia too, the Chinese minority control a disproportionately large share of the wealth, despite making up only 25% of the population.[73]

This racial dimension exacerbates the class divide. The cliquey and aloof nature of many of these elites further adds to it. As a Chinese-Indonesian economist presciently worried in 1997:

“I see the shopping malls, the posh restaurants, the hotels and lavish weddings, full of young Chinese who don’t seem to have any interest in national problems. These people don’t know they’re living on a time bomb. They don’t mix with native Indonesians, so they don’t know how much they’re envied and resented.”[74]

The lifestyle and trappings of Asia’s new elite seem to increase their disconnect from the rest of their countrymen. It’s therefore no surprise that they are often viewed by the latter as decadent and hedonistic.

***

The Prodigal Son

But what happens to these profligate brats, so out of touch with their own people, when they return? In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington gives a historical example. He tells the tale of Mohammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and Harry Lee of Singapore. Both these men were “thoroughly Westernized members of the elites of their societies”,[75] the former was “a committed secularist,”[76] the latter was “the best bloody Englishman east of Suez,”[77] in the words of a British cabinet minister.

However, upon returning to their home countries and becoming politicians, both of them felt compelled to adapt themselves to local conditions. Like chameleons, they shed their cosmopolitan skins and blended in with the locals, changing their names, their identities, and their ideals in the process.

The secularist M. A. Jinnah became Pakistan’s Quaid i-Azam – a “fervent apostle of Islam.”[78] Harry Lee forced himself to learn Mandarin and became the foremost proponent of “Asian values,” as well as one of the most zealous advocates of Asian authoritarianism. He traded his English name for his neglected Chinese name. He became Lee Kuan Yew, the domineering Asian supremacist.

While Asian elites initially often have very different lifestyles and values from their countrymen, expediency later compels many of them to create more local identities.

Culture is Stronger

We see this phenomenon with successive generations of Asian elites. We see that culture ends up being stronger than class and education. When they return, many of these elites revert to local values. Whilst this is sometimes a good thing, in numerous other instances its effects are disheartening.

The reversion of elites to positive aspects of Asian culture, like the importance of families and filial piety, is laudable. However many elites also revert to negative aspects of Asian culture. In East Asia, for example, this includes racism, excessive deference to authority, risk-aversion, political apathy, and a myopic focus on making money. As a result, East Asian countries tend to have low levels of creativity and innovation because their elites are risk-averse and prefer to pursue “safe careers,” viewing their education as just a means to getting a secure job.

Singapore represents the prime example of this. Despite being a highly developed and affluent country and home to many graduates of prestigious Western universities, Singapore has yet to produce any thinker or innovator of distinction. Most of its elites eschew risk for the familiar and the secure – the corporate path, the civil service career – tried and tested routes that lead inexorably to the “Five C’s of Singapore” (Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium, Country club). They delegate their critical faculties to higher authorities, calling this “practicality” and “pragmatism.” Commenting on the divergent levels of innovation in Israel and Singapore, Guy Kawasaki, a top Apple executive, opined that it was because “Israel has five million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions.”[79] By contrast, “Singapore has five million people, six entrepreneurs, and one opinion.”[80]

Many Asian countries are also corrupt and authoritarian because most of their elites are risk-averse and politically apathetic, making them reluctant to challenge authority. This allows their governments to (sometimes literally) get away with murder.[81] Rebellion and dissent may be cool when they’re young, but as they start to think about their futures too many of these elites end up taking the path of least resistance and habituating themselves to inequitable status quos. For all their education and urbaneness, culture wins out, and they end up deferring to their elders who tell them not to rock the boat. Their elders are only too happy to have the younger generation follow in their footsteps.

Man of the People

Once there was a boy named Khairy Jamaluddin. He was born in Kuwait in 1976, the son of a prominent diplomat who later became the Malaysian Commissioner to the United Kingdom, one of the ethnic Malay elite. Khairy (or KJ as he is often called) spent much of his childhood in Malaysia. According to insiders, even at a young age he expressed ambitions of becoming Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The boy grew. He discovered a talent for speaking. When he came of age he went to the United World College in Singapore for high school. From there he gained a place at Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Whilst he was at Oxford, so the story goes, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, gave a speech during a visit to the UK.

Mahathir had been warned about KJ, who apparently then had quite a reputation as a young liberal firebrand. Sure enough, at the talk KJ peppered Mahathir with annoying questions about democracy and human rights in Malaysia, and generally made himself a nuisance to the old despot.

After university however, KJ returned to Malaysia and stepped up his efforts to become Prime Minister. He began to advocate the special privileges of the Malays at the expense of other ethnic groups. He became an apologist for the corruption and abuses of the authoritarian ruling party. He became a prominent politician and the chairman of the ruling party’s youth wing. When Western leaders criticized repression in Malaysia, he led angry demonstrators to their embassies and told them to “mind their own business.”[82] Instead of bringing positive change, he hitched himself to the lowest common denominators of racism and brutality to garner support. Eventually however, he lost an internal power struggle and was relegated to the political wilderness, where he remains to this day.

While KJ’s story illustrates the cultural problems regarding ethnic Malay elites, the ethnic Chinese elites in Asia do little better. There’s a Chinese saying that “nothing is a problem if money can solve it.”[83] Unfortunately, many Chinese elites take this to an extreme. Their first instinct when faced with a problem is to throw money at it until it goes away. Some Chinese elites have very cozy relationships with corrupt local officials, and even those without close ties are usually not above the occasional bribe to ease things along.

In World On Fire, Amy Chua wrote about how Chinese tycoons like Bob Hasan and Liem Sioe Liong helped finance the despotic Suharto regime in Indonesia in exchange for special favors and government contracts.[84] The kleptocratic Marcos regime in the Philippines was also propped up by Chinese elites.[85] In some cases, these symbiotic relationships extend to direct complicity in repression. For example, The Sun, one of Malaysia’s largest newspapers, was once relatively vocal and objective compared to other Malaysian papers. However, when it was bought over by Berjaya (a corporation owned by Chinese tycoon Vincent Tan), The Sun became much more subdued and biased towards the ruling party – a party that, incidentally, persecutes Malaysia’s Chinese ethnic minority. Many of these Asian tycoons finance their repressive regimes believing that those local strongmen will keep them secure. In 1998, the Chinese Indonesians found out just how mistaken this belief was.

As Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman observe, “The new rich in Asia appear just as likely to embrace authoritarian rule, xenophobic nationalism, [and] religious fundamentalism…as to support democracy, internationalism, secularism and free markets.”[86] Evidently despite their special upbringing, most of Asia’s elite end up reverting to bad local habits, and making the same mistakes their elders did. Ultimately, they seem little better than the petty officials they suck up to, or the ignorant mobs whose favor they court. Indeed, if an uneducated and bigoted local ignoramus was transposed into some of their positions, is it a stretch to imagine that he would behave in the exact same way?

The Peasant Writ Large

“It seems only two types of people exist [in China]: those who admire power and wealth, and those who are being admired for their power and wealth.” – Annie Wang, The People’s Republic of Desire

Writing for the BBC, Rebecca Marston tells a funny story about a gathering of businessmen in China: “A group of Chinese businessmen arranged to meet up one evening for a drink. They were asked to bring their best bottle of wine.

Here was a selection of some of the best-known fine wines in the world. Chateau Lafite 1962, Chateau Latour 1970 – bottles that cost in the region of $1,600 each.

On arrival, the host said: “Gentlemen, show your wines,” and the guests presented their bottles for each other’s approval.

The host then called: “Gentlemen, uncork your bottle,” which they did.

He then indicated a vast silver punchbowl and ordered: “Gentlemen, pour your wine,” which they did – into the punchbowl.

The mingled contents of some of the most distinctive clarets in the world were then ladled out between them.”[87]

Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman touched on a similar vein in The New Rich in Asia. “One impact of the rise of the new rich in China, Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia has been the rapid increase in the demand for such products as tiger penis and rhinoceros horn,”[88] they wrote. “Wealth, in these instances, has simply enabled peasant dreams to be fulfilled and brought the endangered species of the world closer to extinction.”[89]

This article has talked a lot about the resentment of Asia’s poor towards their elites. But what if that resentment is not because the elite are so different from their poor counterparts, but because they’re so similar? What if it’s because, for all the great opportunities given to them, all their cosmopolitanism, all their expensive suits, all their fancy degrees and fancy teachers in their fancy schools, Asia’s elite remain so incredibly, so exasperatingly, similar? Beneath the sheen of privilege, many of them are just peasants writ large. Ultimately, the elite and the lowly, the rich and the poor, are all slaves to their culture, bound to repeat the mistakes of their elders until the cycle is broken.

Until it is, though, these peasants writ large interested only in the path of least resistance, these uninspired social chameleons utterly lacking in noblesse oblige, will continue to make up the bulk of Asia’s elite.

Perhaps Asia’s new generations will learn to challenge their culture, to mould it, redefine it, make it their own. Perhaps they’ll learn to incorporate the good aspects of the cultures they encounter, and to jettison the bad, to overcome local prejudices instead of pandering to them. Maybe some will be arrogant enough to bend the world around them, instead of bending themselves to it. Maybe some will be bold enough to step out of their elders’ shadows, to slay overbearing authority, to throw caution to the winds and laugh as it blows past. Perhaps then Asia will finally get the elite it needs, and the elite it deserves.

Shaun Tan is a Malaysian student. Contact him at shaunzhiming.tan@yale.edu

 

Bibliography

 

“American High School Diplomas the New Status Symbol in China,” Red Luxury, 4th April 2012 – http://red-luxury.com/2012/04/04/american-high-school-diplomas-the-new-status-symbol-in-china/

 

“Asia’s Increasing Rich-Poor Divide Undermining Growth, Stability,” Asian Development Bank, 11th April 2012 – http://www.adb.org/news/asias-increasing-rich-poor-divide-undermining-growth-stability-adb-report

 

“Asia’s new rich opt for home-buying spree in UK, Spain,” Global Property Guide, 20th April 2012 – http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/news-Asias-new-rich-opt-for-home-buying-spree-in-UK,-Spain-1227

 

“China Luxury Market 2010: The Omnipresence of Global Brands,” Red Luxury, 30th Dec 2010 – http://red-luxury.com/2010/12/30/china-luxury-market-2010-the-omnipresence-of-global-brands/

 

“Excerpts from an interview with Lee Kuan Yew,” The New York Times, 29th Aug 2007 – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/29/world/asia/29iht-lee-excerpts.html?pagewanted=all

 

“Guy Kawasaki, on entrepreneurship in Singapore,” Visakan Veerasamy, 17th April 2011 – http://www.visakanv.com/blog/2011/04/guy-kawasaki-on-entrepreneurship-in-singapore/

 

“Khairy leads Umno Youth in protest against Australia,” Malaysiakini, 17th Feb 2010 – http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/124507

 

“LKY grandson among three Singaporean top Oxford scholars,” The Malaysian Insiderhttp://www.themalaysianinsider.com/mobile/world/article/LKY-grandson-among-three-Singaporean-top-Oxford-scholars/

 

“Teoh Beng Hock’s brother files appeal over open verdict,” The Star, 10th Feb 2012 – http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/2/10/nation/20120210193142&sec=nation

 

“Wine and Chinese Luxury Tourism Drive Chinese Demand for Bordeaux Estates,” Red Luxury, 19th March 2012 – http://red-luxury.com/2012/03/19/wine-and-chinese-luxury-tourism-drive-chinese-demand-for-bordeaux-estates/

 

Amy Chua, World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Anchor Books, 2004

 

Andrew Giambrone, “Yale admission intensifies in China,” The Yale Daily News, 10th Nov 2011 – http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/nov/10/yale-admission-intensifies-in-china/

 

Andrew Jacobs and Dan Levin, “Son’s Parties and Privilege Aggravate Fall of Elite Chinese Family,” The New York Times, 16th April 2012 – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/world/asia/bo-guaguas-parties-and-privilege-aggravate-elite-chinese-familys-fall.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

 

Andrew Jacobs, “The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air,” The New York Times, 4th Nov 2011 – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/05/world/asia/the-privileges-of-chinas-elite-include-purified-air.html

 

Annie Wang, The People’s Republic of Desire, HarperCollins, 2006

 

Arjun Appadurai, “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai,” in Public Culture, 2000

 

Blaine Harden, “Son Named Heir to North Korea’s Kim Studied in Switzerland, Reportedly Loves NBA,” The Washington Post, 3rd June 2009 – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/01/AR2009060103750.html

 

Bridget Welsh, “Najib’s disappointing start,” The Guardian, 14th April 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/14/malaysia

 

Christina Larson, “The End of the Chinese Dream,” Foreign Policy, 21st Dec 2011 – http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/21/end_of_the_chinese_dream

 

Dan Levin, “China’s New Wealth Spurs a Market for Mistresses,” The New York Times, 9th Aug 2011 – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/world/asia/10mistress.html?_r=2

 

Dexter Roberts and Jasmine Zhao, “China’s Super-Rich Buy a Better Life Abroad,” Businessweek, 22nd Nov 2011 – http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/chinas-superrich-buy-a-better-life-abroad-11222011.html

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ho_Ching

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Hsien_Loong

 

http://www.dulwich-beijing.cn/

 

http://www.dulwich-shanghai.cn/

 

http://www.dulwich-suzhou.cn/

 

Jamil Anderlini and Patti Waldmeir, “China’s elite have new international outlook,” Financial Times, 4th Nov 2011 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7fcc4bfc-06d2-11e1-b9cc-00144feabdc0.html

 

Jeremy Page, “Children of the Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 26th Nov 2011 – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904491704576572552793150470.html

 

Jonathan Watts and Tania Branigan, “Neil Heywood case sheds light on privileged lifestyles of China’s elite,” The Guardian, 26th April 2012 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/26/neil-heywood-privileged-china-elite

 

Mahlan Meyer, “Crimson China: Why the People’s Republic is Mad for Harvard,” The Boston Globe, 29th Dec 2002

 

Monica Tan, “The 20-Year-Old Rich Girl Who Enraged Chinese Netizens,” Persephone Magazine, 11th Aug 2011 – http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/08/the-20-year-old-rich-girl-who-enraged-chinese-netizens/

 

Peter Shadbolt, Jaime FlorCruz, and Jason Kessler, “Bo Xilai’s “party-boy” son under scrutiny,” CNN, 24th April 2012 – http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/23/world/asia/china-boguagua/index.html

 

Rebecca Marston, “No rules for the rich: How China spends its new wealth,” BBC, 11th May 2011 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13284481

 

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, The Free Press, 2002

 

Sharon LaFraniere, “Chinese Bias for Baby Boys Creates a Gap of 32 Million,” The New York Times, 10th April 2009 – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/11/world/asia/11china.html

 

The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and middle-class revolution, ed Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 1996

 

The New Rich in China: Future rulers, present lives, ed David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 2008

 

Thom Kerstiens, The New Elite in Asia and Africa: A Comparative Study of Indonesia and Ghana, Frederick A. Praeger, 1966

 

Tracy Jan, “Chinese aim for the Ivy League,” The New York Times, 1st April 2009 – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/world/asia/04iht-ivy.1.19063547.html?pagewanted=all

 

US Department of State, Background Note: Malaysia – http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2777.htm

 

William Daniel Garst, “Why the noveau riche in China stink,” China Daily, 30th April 2010 – http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2010-04/30/content_9795347.htm

 

William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” The American Scholar, Summer 2008 – http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/

 

William J. Dobson, “The East is Crimson,” Slate, 23rd May 2012 – http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2012/05/harvard_and_the_chinese_communist_party_top_chinese_officials_are_studying_at_elite_u_s_universities_in_large_numbers_.html

 

Xin Haiguang, “China’s “Wealth Drain”: New Signs That Rich Chinese Are Set On Emigrating,” Time, 11th June 2011 – http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077139,00.html


[1] Arjun Appadurai, “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai,” in Public Culture, 2000, p 628.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David S. G. Goodman and Xiaowei Zang, “The new rich in China: the dimensions of social change,” in The New Rich in China: Future rulers, present lives, ed David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 2008, p 19.

[4] Arjun Appadurai, “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai,” in Public Culture, 2000, p 637.

[5] In this article, I use the term “elite” to denote those with a significant amount of power. This power (in a Foucauldian sense) can take myriad forms, but most of it is usually in the form of money.

[6] Thom Kerstiens, The New Elite in Asia and Africa: A Comparative Study of Indonesia and Ghana, Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, p 7.

[7] That is so undignified.

[11] “American High School Diplomas the New Status Symbol in China,” Red Luxury, 4th April 2012 – http://red-luxury.com/2012/04/04/american-high-school-diplomas-the-new-status-symbol-in-china/

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Jeremy Page, “Children of the Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 26th Nov 2011 – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904491704576572552793150470.html

[17] Ibid.

[18] Blaine Harden, “Son Named Heir to North Korea’s Kim Studied in Switzerland, Reportedly Loves NBA,” The Washington Post, 3rd June 2009 – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/01/AR2009060103750.html

[19] Garry Rodan, “Class transformations and political tensions in Singapore’s development,” The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and middle-class revolution, ed Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 1996, p 24.

[20] Ibid.

[21] It’s sometimes said that all of Western philosophy are footnotes to Plato. This is an exaggeration. It can however be said with considerable justice that all of Singaporean political thought are footnotes to Lee Kuan Yew.

[22] “LKY grandson among three Singaporean top Oxford scholars,” The Malaysian Insiderhttp://www.themalaysianinsider.com/mobile/world/article/LKY-grandson-among-three-Singaporean-top-Oxford-scholars/

[25] “Excerpts from an interview with Lee Kuan Yew,” The New York Times, 29th Aug 2007 – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/29/world/asia/29iht-lee-excerpts.html?pagewanted=all

[26] Garry Rodan, “Class transformations and political tensions in Singapore’s development,” The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and middle-class revolution, ed Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 1996, p 24.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Andrew Giambrone, “Yale admission intensifies in China,” The Yale Daily News, 10th Nov 2011 – http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/nov/10/yale-admission-intensifies-in-china/

[29] Annie Wang, The People’s Republic of Desire, HarperCollins, 2006, p 42.

[30] Tracy Jan, “Chinese aim for the Ivy League,” The New York Times, 1st April 2009 – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/world/asia/04iht-ivy.1.19063547.html?pagewanted=all

[31] Mahlan Meyer, “Crimson China: Why the People’s Republic is Mad for Harvard,” The Boston Globe, 29th Dec 2002.

[32] Annie Wang, The People’s Republic of Desire, HarperCollins, 2006, p 43.

[33] Jeremy Page, “Children of the Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 26th Nov 2011 – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904491704576572552793150470.html

[35] Ibid.

[36] William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” The American Scholar, Summer 2008 – http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] This figure might have been a little exaggerated, but you get the picture.

[41] Jeremy Page, “Children of the Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 26th Nov 2011 – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904491704576572552793150470.html

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Jonathan Watts and Tania Branigan, “Neil Heywood case sheds light on privileged lifestyles of China’s elite,” The Guardian, 26th April 2012 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/26/neil-heywood-privileged-china-elite

[48] Andrew Jacobs and Dan Levin, “Son’s Parties and Privilege Aggravate Fall of Elite Chinese Family,” The New York Times, 16th April 2012 – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/world/asia/bo-guaguas-parties-and-privilege-aggravate-elite-chinese-familys-fall.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

[49] Peter Shadbolt, Jaime FlorCruz, and Jason Kessler, “Bo Xilai’s ‘party-boy’ son under scrutiny,” CNN, 24th April 2012 – http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/23/world/asia/china-boguagua/index.html

[50] Ibid.

[51] Monica Tan, “The 20-Year-Old Rich Girl Who Enraged Chinese Netizens,” Persephone Magazine, 11th Aug 2011 – http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/08/the-20-year-old-rich-girl-who-enraged-chinese-netizens/

[52] “China Luxury Market 2010: The Omnipresence of Global Brands,” Red Luxury, 30th Dec 2010 – http://red-luxury.com/2010/12/30/china-luxury-market-2010-the-omnipresence-of-global-brands/

[53] Jamil Anderlini and Patti Waldmeir, “China’s elite have new international outlook,” Financial Times, 4th Nov 2011 – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7fcc4bfc-06d2-11e1-b9cc-00144feabdc0.html

[54] “Wine and Chinese Luxury Tourism Drive Chinese Demand for Bordeaux Estates,” Red Luxury, 19th March 2012 – http://red-luxury.com/2012/03/19/wine-and-chinese-luxury-tourism-drive-chinese-demand-for-bordeaux-estates/

[55] Jeremy Page, “Children of the Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, 26th Nov 2011 – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904491704576572552793150470.html

[56] Sharon LaFraniere, “Chinese Bias for Baby Boys Creates a Gap of 32 Million,” The New York Times, 10th April 2009 – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/11/world/asia/11china.html

[57] Dan Levin, “China’s New Wealth Spurs a Market for Mistresses,” The New York Times, 9th Aug 2011 – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/world/asia/10mistress.html?_r=2

[58] Andrew Jacobs, “The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air,” The New York Times, 4th Nov 2011 – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/05/world/asia/the-privileges-of-chinas-elite-include-purified-air.html

[59] Xiaowei Zang, “Market transition, wealth, and status claims,” in The New Rich in China: Future rulers, present lives, ed David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 2008, p 59.

[60] Quoted in Christina Larson, “The End of the Chinese Dream,” Foreign Policy, 21st Dec 2011 – http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/21/end_of_the_chinese_dream

[61] Quoted in Jonathan Watts and Tania Branigan, “Neil Heywood case sheds light on privileged lifestyles of China’s elite,” The Guardian, 26th April 2012 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/apr/26/neil-heywood-privileged-china-elite

[62] Christina Larson, “The End of the Chinese Dream,” Foreign Policy, 21st Dec 2011 – http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/21/end_of_the_chinese_dream

[63] William Daniel Garst, “Why the noveau riche in China stink,” China Daily, 30th April 2010 – http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2010-04/30/content_9795347.htm

[64] Christina Larson, “The End of the Chinese Dream,” Foreign Policy, 21st Dec 2011 – http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/21/end_of_the_chinese_dream

[65] Ibid.

[66] Xin Haiguang, “China’s “Wealth Drain”: New Signs That Rich Chinese Are Set On Emigrating,” Time, 11th June 2011 – http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077139,00.html

[67] Dexter Roberts and Jasmine Zhao, “China’s Super-Rich Buy a Better Life Abroad,” Businessweek, 22nd Nov 2011 – http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/chinas-superrich-buy-a-better-life-abroad-11222011.html

[68] “Asia’s new rich opt for home-buying spree in UK, Spain,” Global Property Guide, 20th April 2012 – http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/news-Asias-new-rich-opt-for-home-buying-spree-in-UK,-Spain-1227

[69] “Asia’s Increasing Rich-Poor Divide Undermining Growth, Stability,” Asian Development Bank, 11th April 2012 – http://www.adb.org/news/asias-increasing-rich-poor-divide-undermining-growth-stability-adb-report

[70] Amy Chua, World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Anchor Books, 2004, p 37.

[71] Ibid, p 36.

[72] Ibid, p 43.

[73] US Department of State, Background Note: Malaysia – http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2777.htm

[74] Quoted in Amy Chua, World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Anchor Books, 2004, p 282.

[75] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, The Free Press, 2002, p 93.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid, p 94.

[79] “Guy Kawasaki, on entrepreneurship in Singapore,” Visakan Veerasamy, 17th April 2011 – http://www.visakanv.com/blog/2011/04/guy-kawasaki-on-entrepreneurship-in-singapore/

[80] Ibid.

[81] Bridget Welsh, “Najib’s disappointing start,” The Guardian, 14th April 2009 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/14/malaysia

“Teoh Beng Hock’s brother files appeal over open verdict,” The Star, 10th Feb 2012 – http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/2/10/nation/20120210193142&sec=nation

[82] “Khairy leads Umno Youth in protest against Australia,” Malaysiakini, 17th Feb 2010 – http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/124507

[83] Xin Haiguang, “China’s “Wealth Drain”: New Signs That Rich Chinese Are Set On Emigrating,” Time, 11th June 2011 – http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077139,00.html

[84] Amy Chua, World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Anchor Books, 2004, p 44.

[85] Ibid, p 156.

[86] Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, “The new rich in Asia: Economic development, social status and political consciousness,” in The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and middle-class revolution, ed Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 1996, p 3.

[87] Rebecca Marston, “No rules for the rich: How China spends its new wealth,” BBC, 11th May 2011 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13284481

[88] Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, “The new rich in Asia: Economic development, social status and political consciousness,” in The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and middle-class revolution, ed Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, Routledge, 1996, p 3.

[89] Ibid.

The photographs for this article are sourced from Shaun Tan, Wikipedia, Michael McDonoughCanWeBowlPleaseIsaacMao and cornishdave.

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