• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 2:57pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 3:46am

Chandran Nair - a real thinker living in our midst

I am always the last to know. That may be why I only heard about Chandran Nair when I started reading his book, Consumptionomics, even though he has been a prominent consultant in Hong Kong for many years. A long lunch with him yesterday confirms my suspicion - that he may be one of the most important Asian thinkers writing about globalisation and the future of Asia today.

Here's a contradiction that Nair likes to point out. He reads in one page of the Financial Times that Asia, especially China, needs to rebalance from export-driven production and investment to consumer-driven growth. Then on another page, experts warn against an Asian population explosion and expanding middle class.

Just having half the 2.5 billion Indians and Chinese living like Americans would consume so much of our natural resources you would need another earth-like planet to satisfy them. But this is a contradiction only because the two opposing demands are part of a Western-centric narrative on Asia and China. He believes western liberal democracy creates the individualist sense of entitlement which morphs into the Western consumer culture of market economics. For example, 70 per cent of the American GDP is related to consumer-driven service industries.

If Asians are to adopt democracy and allow markets to help determine the efficient allocation of resources, it will have to be radically different from the Western models, or rather their practices. "Owning a car is not a right," he said. Having proper public roads and transport systems and clean air, however, qualify as genuine rights as they relate to basic needs. His solution is having a strong state that can impose public goods on its population. If I am not mistaken, he is somewhat impartial whether this would be democratic like India or authoritarian like China so long as it delivers the (public) goods.

A New York Times op-ed piece said: "History shows authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for development." Yes, that's true, but Western-style democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for development. What is important is that a strong state has the power to limit growth, resource exploitation and consumerism. Otherwise, Asia faces endless political conflicts, territorial disputes and ecological disasters.

An optimist, though, Nair thinks many Asian countries, given their history and culture, have a far better chance of achieving what he calls austerity - or disciplined living with prosperity - than most others.


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Could we please take the word "western" out of the phrase "western style democracy." Democracy is democracy; it knows no "east" or "west." Certainly the East never had any monopoly over dictatorship!
So Nair's revelation is that governments need to provide public goods and try not to trash the environment? Wow! What an original thinker!
….. For of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it's an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails, or someone tying a Bimini hitch that won't slip. I don't think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn't matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretensions, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. .........
I expect more from Alex.
The conflict between the earth's finite resources and a growing population was not Chandran Nair's idea. It was raised in "An Essay on the Principle of Population" by a chap named Thomas Malthus in ...... er...1798.
Again, how much did you have to drink over this long lunch?
Does anyone really believe that China will do everything to save the environment? The public good that China has been trying to deliver is to make most Chinese rich enough not to think about politics and continue to indulge in materialistic pleasures. I doubt if they truly believe in giving people clean air, clean water and safe food a top priority at any stage!
Mr. Lo, you say that "Western-style democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for development". Besides the point, already raised by another reader, that true democracy is neither Western nor Eastern, I must say that I really doubt whether you can have true development without the civil rights and freedoms that are the essence of democracy. You can certainly have economic growth with authoritarianism (e.g. China, Singapore...) but is it true development? Can we say that a society of rich slaves is a developed society? Or can it be the case that Asians are not eager for freedom?
‘I am always the last to know’ proclaim Alex. An exaggeration. May be not. Hong Kong citizens don’t know a lot as pointed out by Lau Nan-keung. But Chandran Nair can’t be a prominent consultant of his name or his work. I don’t know him and Hong Kong government had been in a mess even before the hangover. And, what do you consider as a long lunch? I doubt you even have time to savor a drink or two. Long lunch usually consists of three martinis until it became non-tax deductable in US.
In his book ‘Things I didn’t know’ Robert Hughes, a cultural critic who ran into law suit troubles with his work wrote:
Try telling this to the no compromise Scholars at Scholarism!
Indeed, what we have in Hong Kong today is neither Western style nor Eastern style democracy. What we have today is Ochlocracy.
Lunch power
A long one. So I anticipate more revelations to come.




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