Letter From Asia
from Glyn Walters
Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pg. 37.
Here in the land of the rice paddy, the rainforest and Buddhism, housing is a much more down to earth issue than the political football it is in Britain and Europe. People who have little money, land or contacts simply build their homes wherever they can. It could be in the forest, next to the luxury hotel or even in the cemetery. Whatever the situation, if a family can make ends meet in a location that doesn’t bother anyone else, they do it.
In Bangkok, Thailand, people build wood and corrugated iron shacks along the edges of the city’s numerous canals. They ignore the stench of the semi-raw sewage from the water underneath and children even catch dead fish from the surface, presumably to eat.
These days, big developers are infilling many of the canals in the centre of the city, because of their high real estate value. The result: yet more condominiums for the rich and more flooding and water-bourne disease for the poor in the low-lying areas of town.
Indeed, the gulf between rich and poor in Thailand’s cities is now reaching obscene proportions. Everywhere these days, one sees luxury cars, mansions and condos, while on every street corner people scrape a living together selling anything they can. However, unlike ’90s Britain, there is no begging and no social security system. Of course, the greatest advantage of being well-off in the tropics is that you can shield yourself from the heat, humidity, dust and poverty by retreating to the cool cocoon of air conditioning.
Air conditioning is the great saviour of the new urban middle classes throughout hot and sweaty SE Asia. Cars, homes, offices, shops, shopping malls - all are protected from the poor, nasty polluted world outside. Why, you can even wear a suit and tie to the office just like in the West!
Those SQUALL readers concerned about the impacts of new development on the British countryside should consider the struggling environmental movement here in SE Asia. Here schemes are huge, “democracy” is in its infancy, the ecology is very fragile and economic growth is hurtling along at eight to 15% every year! China is currently experiencing the biggest and longest period of growth ever seen, anywhere! The temptation to jump on the bandwagon to a nirvana of dark-windscreened, air- conditioned Toyota 4-wheel drive to the golf-course which used to be rainforest heaven, is unbearable. Do you want to see the nearest thing in the world to Orwell’s 1984? Go to Singapore.
However, there are many, many good aspects of life in this part of the world. The fruits of the land are abundant and cheap; you can knock together a really decent bamboo and palm house for next to nothing. Social problems are on a far lower scale than in Britain, and people seem genuinely happier with their lives, whatever their situation. In Malaysia, for example, squatters are either encouraged to apply for low-cost state housing in other areas of their town, or if large numbers want to stay where they are, the government will consider building new houses, flats, or longhouses in their area. Malaysia has “Squatter Affairs” ministers, who, through federal and national governments, try and sort out squatter problems in consultation with them and other locals.
This enlightened Malaysian approach is even extended to foreign squatters! In Malaysia a lot of foreign workers are brought in to work the plantations and other big industries, but find themselves unable to afford local rents. People band together and build their own communities using local materials resulting in large squatter settlements. Hence headlines like “Low-cost housing schemes for squatters” and even “Committee to draft guidelines on Foreign Squatters” are not unusual. Oh, to see such things in the Daily Mail!
Meanwhile, in Thailand, a row over land reform has almost brought the government down. The Land Reform Minister was found to have given land to some well-off friends and relatives of his, when the Land Reform Law entitled only the poor and needy such claims. Not only this, but it happened on the island of Phuket, one of the richest pieces of real estate in the whole of Asia because of its huge tourism earnings.
The British equivalent of this would be the Agriculture Minister giving his or her cronies in the transport industry common land to build roads on or mine gravel on. Now that of course never happens! If it did, surely there would be an outcry that would shake the Government to its very foundations, like here in Thailand - Wouldn’t there?