KR and I just spent 14 days in Malaysia, Singapore and India as I tried to add to the Network for Global Innovation membership roster. Singapore is one of the more go-go places we’ve been to, very similar to Hong Kong and Seoul in feel. Kuala Lumpur is a Muslim-run country stuck halfway between modernity and the way it use to be. And India, well India is a whole different bag with huge swaths of the very poor surrounding pockets of extreme wealth (the richest man in India has built himself a real skyscraper as a home in downtown Mumbai).
We’ve now been to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, and Mumbai in the past year, which is a pretty good sprinkling of Asia. One can’t help but notice that air pollution is a pan-Asian problem as each of these places wears a gray blanket of smog that literally blocks the sun most of the time. Gray is the new black in Asia. Asia is creating pollution on a scale that’s hard to imagine. (BTW, many Asians think its “their turn” to industrialize in order to catch up with the West. They argue we polluted big time during our industrial revolution and now we’re crying foul when we started the problem. There’s some merit to this argument).
Most of these places are huge. Delhi is the second most populated city in the world with Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo all having way more than 20 million people each. China has 1.3 billion people and India has 1.2 billion. Their 2.5 BILLION+ people are burning fuel as fast as they can find it to build their middle classes. This fuel is mostly coal; incredibly cheap and incredibly dirty. To get a sense of the scale we’re talking about, take a look at this chart.
Looking at how China and India are handling this problem is reflective of their systems of government. China’s central government is making sweeping changes, calling for things like the shuttering of Beijing’s last coal plant in 2016. India can make no similar move as India has a strong local democracy in which 29 states determine energy policy to a large extent. The Prime Minister can set the vision, but Modi can’t decree it like the Chinese Commi’s. Authoritarian governments can make things happen… or else:)
Singapore is an interesting case in point on how “control” can deliver good things. While Singapore has a form of democracy, its a society that’s notoriously rule-oriented. For instance, Singapore doesn’t have a traffic problem because it costs $150K just to get a permit to own a car. You want a taxi? You can stand out in the street until hell freezes over watching empty cab by empty cab drive by. Walk to a taxi stand and presto a cab appears immediately:) Everyone jokes that its illegal to chew gum in Singapore because the residue might end up on the street, but it is illegal! But the streets are damn clean. And Singaporeans actually drive in the lanes that are painted on the street unlike Malaysia and India in which lane markers are totally ignored. Singapore is working pretty well for Singaporeans as one out of six families in Singapore have a net worth of at least one million dollars. We’ve never found more knowledgeable and happy cab drivers than in Singapore either. I received our best economic lesson from one happy cabbie as he explained the difference between Singapore and Malaysia (Singaporeans care about one thing in government: will the policy work? Malaysia cares whether it corresponds with the Muslim faith… whether it works or not is at least second in priority.
We spent the most time in India – about a week first in Delhi (the government capital) and then Mumbai (the financial center) and Ahmadabad (university town). I’m still conflicted about India and frankly don’t know what to make of it. On the one hand there are so many poor people everywhere that we were a constant target of the street hustle. It’s part of the way of life; if you don’t ask for it, push it, seize it or drive through it, someone else will:) Yet, we were taken care of really well by Indian citizens that we met and the entire staffs of every hotel we stayed in.
I could never figure out if there was a middle class in India. There was a ton of squalor on the side of almost every road and street. There were dilapidated apartment buildings on crowded, narrow streets that we American’s would consider part of a ghetto. One out of a 1000 buildings had paint on it, fresh or not. But, maybe this is their middle class, much like grading on the curve. Is it fair to compare the US’s idea of Middle Class with Indians? I doubt it.
More than anything, India strikes me as a place in which infrastructure of any kind — roads, electricity, waste, water, buildings — was hopelessly overrun long ago and it will never catch up. 60% of the liquid human waste in Mumbai is dumped directly into the sea. Every building of any size has its own generator and even these aren’t enough to deliver electricity all the time. Most places have regular 2-4 hour periods of no electricity. In India, 350 million people — the size of the US’ total population — will never experience electricity in their life times. In a world like this, what do you do? Fend for yourself.
Perhaps because of this striking contrast, the rich live very well. The hotels we stayed in were world class — the Taj Mahal Palace (Mubai), the ITC Maurya (Delhi) and the Majestic (KL). BTW, we could never have afforded these hotels except that the dollar is ridiculously strong against almost any currency in the world — go travel now while its cheap(er)! We were treated to a new level of service that frankly we’ve never experienced anywhere in the world. Service happily provided with genuine warmth and thoughtfulness. I admit it was nice to come back from a day of meetings/traffic to the cocoon of the Taj or ITC. One could get use to this:)
Here’s what the trip looked like in pictures…