Dictators, Democrats and Development in Southeast Asia: Implications for the Rest.

AuthorRock, Michael T.

Dictators, Democrats and Development in Southeast Asia: Implications for the Rest, by Michael T. Rock. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 368.

Michael Rock's latest book wrestles with a crucial question that baffles economists, historians, political scientists and social scientists alike: given that growth is often difficult and rare, what is the relationship between politics and economics that produces sustained economic growth over long periods of time?

Rock selects three Southeast Asian countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (or IMT for short) as cases of countries that have performed very well economically from the 1960s to 2010 to look into what their development journey can teach the rest of the developing world. (1) Much like many developing countries, IMT are resource rich, ethnically diverse, and have weak governments characterized by corruption and rent-seeking. Conventional wisdom states that these phenomena are bottlenecks to economic growth while democracies are best for economic development. Yet the cases of IMT belie these claims.

In the ten-chapter book, Rock presents a thorough, well-organized fact-base to offer a middle ground to the debate between neoliberals who argue for a minimalist state that adopts free trade policies and academics arguing for an interventionist developmental state. He makes a case for the need to "bring back into consideration the agency of political leaders" (p. 3) and "their pragmatic, experimental and muddling through development approach" (p. 18) that have produced sustained growth. His argument is simple but rooted in historical facts: dictators and democrats alike in IMT pursued pro-growth policies because they saw their own political survival as linked to national economic development. To achieve this, they built and sustained pro-growth coalitions that shared the same goal of developing their national economies. Rock argues that political elites of IMT were pragmatic rather than ideological in their pursuit of development goals, relying equally on state intervention or markets when necessary to achieve growth. When either failed to achieve desired results, they used other alternatives. The results included: economic growth; structural change from agriculture towards industrial development; and impressive reduction in poverty. Governments in IMT did not shy away from controlling, repressing, or appeasing social groups such as farmers or students, leveraging the powers of...

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