Dean Forbes

SOUTHEAST ASIAN DEVELOPMENT. By Andrew McGregor. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. xvi, 251 pp. (Maps, b&w photographs, figures, tables.) US$33.95. paper. ISBN 978-0-415-38152-9.

Draft book review for Pacific Affairs

The twin themes of Andrew McGregor’s book paint Southeast Asia as a region that has experienced much positive change, but remains challenged to achieve a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.  Considering the great diversity of the region, it is hard to argue with this broad perspective.  By comparison with other postcolonial world regions, Southeast Asia is doing well.

Southeast Asian Development’s content covers most of the basics.  It opens with an introductory history of the region, followed by chapters on economic, political and social development.  Then the focus shifts to urban, rural and natural spaces, followed by a short concluding chapter on achieving equitable development. 

The author has a well-balanced viewpoint, and a compassion for those not greatly benefiting from the economic successes of the region.  It has many strengths, such as the attention he gives to alternative theories of development, civil society, NGOs, gender matters, unions and class issues in development. None are presented dogmatically, but explored to bring out the perspectives and understanding of the marginal and the disenfranchised in both rural and urban areas.

A strong concern in the book is the impact of development on the environment, such as through the ruthless destruction of forests.  The chapter is titled “Transforming natural spaces” (other chapters are about “urban spaces” and “rural spaces”), and focuses on “forested spaces”, “aquatic spaces” and “subsurface spaces”. I am not convinced the term “spaces”, used throughout the book, adds much to the argument, but I am probably in an old-fashioned space.  

It is difficult to achieve breadth and depth simultaneously in a book covering nine very diverse nations.  In describing the post-crisis economies of the region there could have been more exploration of the significant drivers of change.  The role of Singapore both as a world financial centre and as a key hub of transport and trade is not sufficiently explored.  The brief account of Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor, and the growth of Kuala Lumpur, does not convey sufficiently the significance of Malaysia’s thrust into knowledge-intensive industries. 

Similarly, there is little anywhere in the book on the development of human resources through the expansion of educational opportunities within countries, and the significant number of students studying in universities outside Southeast Asia.  In a region of 600 or so million people, with a preponderance of the young in most countries, the enhancement of the education and capacities of youth will play a critical role in the future development of Southeast Asian nations. 

Public interest in Southeast Asia comes and goes.  More students in the West need to appreciate the significance of the region, and not be distracted by the high profile progress of China and India. Southeast Asian Development is pitched at undergraduates in universities. It will be adopted in university courses if it connects with the pedagogical needs of teachers and undergraduates.  But are textbooks the best way of introducing Southeast Asia to tertiary students?  Can they provide the textual anchor for an introductory course?  In some countries, and in some fields, textbooks are mandatory. But there are many sources of information and interpretation of a sprawling and a dynamic region such as Southeast Asia with which books have to compete. 

Gen Y, progeny of the digital age, and those who teach them, might have expected the book to provide more connections to the diverse set of reliable electronic resources that would flesh out their understanding of Southeast Asia. For example, radio, television and newspapers, the cinema, and the web that provides access to all four. There are relatively few websites listed.  Students use search engines to find sources on everything, but they need a better interface between texts and the credible but fluid sources on the web. 

Using the format of the Routledge series, the book is clearly written and logically structured.  Chapters are broken up with boxed inserts, some written by others, some the author’s precise of the published literature.  They add specific information on case studies, and additional texture. Maps and black and white photographs provide visual reference points.  Each chapter ends with a dot point summary of the contents, discussion questions, further reading, and a few useful websites. It is a concise, sweeping introduction, with a development studies orientation overlapping with Asian studies.  It will provide students with a sound introduction to Southeast Asia, and is good enough to attract them to explore further.

Flinders University, Australia                      DEAN FORBES