'Silent Revolution' Cuts Asian Poverty


Tokyo. -- When I came to Asia 25 years ago, other than the Vietnam War there was really only one story for a journalist to focus on -- poverty. Almost everywhere you traveled, people were poor, malnourished, sick, uneducated, hopeless.

Today, a new World Bank study reports, the numbers of those mired in poverty have dropped stunningly, from a third of the region's people in 1970 to a tenth today.

Compared to the world's other major developing regions -- the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Latin America -- it's an achievement of astonishing proportions. In just one generation, 220 million people were raised out of total impoverishment. This record is even more impressive when you consider that as it took place the population grew by 40 percent. The World Bank termed the quantum reduction in poverty a "silent revolution," meaning it's received little attention from the mass media, which have zeroed in on the more obvious face of the equation -- the emergence of vibrant market economies.

As striking as the figures are, you have to have been in the region then and now to really appreciate what the numbers mean, to feel the change.

In the late 1960s there was only one halfway decent hotel in Jakarta, the cavernous Hotel Indonesia, which later became the backdrop for the adventure film, "The Year of Living Dangerously." The standard form of public transportation in what was already a huge metropolis was the becak, a three-wheel cycle-rickshaw.

One of the very few modern buildings rising more than a few stories above the table-flat terrain was the headquarters of Pertamina, the state-owned oil company. Rather than symbolizing the promise of a new age, the glass-and-concrete structure seemed to mock the thousands living in the warrens of crude huts surrounding it.

There was no middle class buffering the horrifically poor and the unspeakably rich. So the office tower and the squalid shacks were divided not just by a stinking drainage canal but by a seemingly unbridgeable socioeconomic gap.

One day, with an Indonesian acquaintance, I walked along the muddy bank of the canal on the side opposite the Pertamina building. Everywhere was the nauseating stench of raw sewage. We stopped to talk with a few people who lived there and used the fetid water for cooking and bathing, for drinking, and as their toilet.

To say that these people had nothing would not be an exaggeration. Some, luckier than others, lived in concrete drain pipes. They had a waterproof surface over their heads. Others lived in boxes patched together from scrap plastic, tin cans, cardboard, whatever.

We were allowed into one of these boxes by a man who resided in it with his wife and their infant. We had to squat to enter; inside an adult could not stand erect. I remember seeing a blackened pot or two, a couple of plates, no other possessions.

The husband wore only a pair of underpants; the wife was wrapped in a sarong of cloth so old and fragile that it seemed it might turn to dust. Their baby was naked, lying in its father's arms, its eyes encrusted with mucus and speckled with flies. The child's fine hair was copper colored, a telltale sign of malnutrition.

The couple scavenged in the canal and at a nearby garbage dump for anything remotely salable -- plastic bags, scrap lumber, paper. When I asked them what hope they had for their future, for their child's, they stared at me, then at each other, uncomprehending. Then the husband slowly shook his head.

All over Jakarta, all over most of the cities of Southeast Asia, people lived like this. In the city-state of Singapore, more advanced than its neighbors even then, most of the majority Chinese community lived in crumbling, vermin-infested shop-houses. The Malay and Tamil minorities sheltered in rural kampongs, villages of bamboo and palm-frond huts.

In the heart of Saigon, just outside the building where American propagandists briefed journalists every day on how the war was being won, thousands slept every night on the bare pavement, while rats as large as cats passed unmolested among them.

It's hard to imagine any of this today. On a visit to Jakarta last year,I found a modern city, sprouting glittering office towers and apartments, hotels and shopping centers. The broad boulevards were jammed with late-model Japanese cars and air-conditioned taxis. Becaks have been banished to the suburbs. At the end of the work day, offices spilled thousands of neatly dressed people into orderly bus queues.

Throughout Southeast Asia, Jakarta, Singapore and most the major cities are modern look-alikes and beginning to undergo the problems of rapid development -- too many motor vehicles, polluted air, inadequate water supply, high prices. Even Saigon, though still held back by the recalcitrant Communist regime in Vietnam that renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, is fairly clean and beginning to give rise to its first few tall buildings.

Of course, the poor have not evaporated. Some are still separated from the gleaming new facades by other canals. Outside the big cities, life in the countryside, diet and sanitation are little better in China, Thailand or the Philippines than they were 20 years ago.

Still, no one who was there then would deny for a minute that the Asia of today is a miracle.

Lewis Simons is a foreign correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News, based in Tokyo.

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