The unseen dilemmas of the sudden rise of Asia from a Southeast Asian perspective

Bridget Jeanne shares her experience growing up in Singapore, and discusses the costs and the dilemmas her Asian neighbours and herself fight to establish themselves in the world.

I grew up in Singapore (a small Southeast Asian country situated between Malaysia and Indonesia) and saw the country change profoundly from the days of my childhood to the industrialised city today. Despite its young age and small land mass, Singapore saw itself grow rapidly and with its fellow Asian neighbours even more so in the recent decades. From the 1990s, countries in the Asia Pacific saw their living standards improve multi-fold and raised many out of extreme poverty. In 2013, China and Japan were home to the world’s second and third largest consumer markets respectively with at least 13 other Asian countries following not too far behind in the highest hundred. As consumer markets patterns shift from Europe to Asia, the western superpowers are critically re-assessing their foreign policies and trade agreements so as to grow alongside their Asian counterparts. But as western leaders and policy makers work with Asia, they neglect the unseen dilemmas that came about Asia’s rapid rise – for example, the impending loss of language and the racial hierarchy in the commodification of Asian culture.


For youth in Asia, the influx of western products and culture have quickly become part and parcel of daily life. In Singapore, English was made the language of instruction to cut across language barriers and encourage racial cohesion. Not necessarily a bad thing but alongside public policies to aid the rapid economic growth, we saw British and American television shows dominating our screens and the common use of speaking only English even at home, leading to an erosion of local programmes and the younger generation not being able to speak ethnic languages. While Japan and South Korea retain a stronghold in local programming, the loss is apparent for smaller countries which struggle to find a balance between using English and local creoles. The number of young people in Singapore who are able to speak their native language and/or local creoles are dwindling (with my own ethnic language almost gone) – it may be interesting to note however an increase in interest in learning Asian languages as opposed to Western languages among my peers. To prepare for 2008 Beijing Olympics, China went on a massive campaign to learn English. Here we see the largest Asian country preparing themselves to bridge the language gap with foreigners, a sentiment our western counterparts rarely express. Growing up my parents encouraged me to learn Chinese because it would afford me greater opportunities but ironically English has afforded me to go further. Language is a vehicle for cultural growth and because its capacity for growth is not seen equivalent to the languages of our western counterparts, it may lead to the erosion of less prominent Asian languages.2014-09-24-15-29-24

As Asian youths become progressively accustomed to western culture (including the use of English) they are also simultaneously becoming more aware of how western culture engages with Asian culture and the racial hierarchy. We noticed the lack of critical coverage on the Chinese policeman shooting the young African boy in the U.S. as we got bombarded with the black-and-white fight. The West also has a history of commodifying Asian culture and traditions – demonstrated by the series of food and cultural videos home to BuzzFeed’s YouTube channel. Sometimes in those videos, they aren’t accustomed to the different food and culture and though it may simply be a difference in taste buds, it can come across and often does as ignorance. The West glorifies Korean beauty but looks down at the consumption of bugs in Asian demonstrating a selective commodification without a critical lens – encouraging the racial hierarchy that already exists in Asia. It’s admittedly difficult to breakdown and even then with no complete certainty of how the West’s portrayal of Asia has impacted the diverse Asian population, but from my observance it has definitely created a dilemma for people in Asia – of who we are and where we stand in the world.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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