From Mahathir to Lee Kuan Yew, late scholar Ezra Vogel's work on Japan and China inspired a continentDec 23, 2020 | 🚀 Fathership
As tributes across Asia continue to pour in for renowned East Asia expert and Harvard emeritus professor Ezra Vogel, observers have highlighted the impact of his research on Japan’s success, which leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad not only learned from but adapted to form their own policies.
Vogel’s book Japan as Number One, published in 1979, detailed the path to Japan’s growth and was written mainly as a guide for the United States. But his observations were also keenly noted in Southeast Asia.
In October 1994, Singapore’s then prime minister Lee cited Vogel’s book during a speech in parliament arguing for competitive salaries for ministers and senior public officers.
Ezra Vogel, China expert lauded for urging Sino-US understanding, dies aged 90
Lee said even though civil service jobs were viewed as prestigious in Japan, with graduates from top universities competing for places, senior bureaucrats earned less than their counterparts in the private sector.
While the city state’s government could learn from Japan’s emphasis on recruiting the best candidates and the grooming of promising officers for senior positions, Lee said, its model was not entirely applicable for Singapore, being a small and young nation.
“[Singapore] cannot rely on the prestige of public service to make up for lower pay,” the late prime minister said then. “Singapore is a young society, not an established Japan with set traditions.
Singaporeans, especially the young, talented and ambitious, gauge their status by material success and visible rewards. Our system must recognise this reality.”
A MODEL TO EMULATE
Leng Leng Thang, associate professor and head of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said Vogel’s book was novel in proposing Japan as a model for world economies to emulate.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan made rapid strides in industrialisation by boosting its transport and communication networks and revolutionising its light industry. Its devastated economy also rose quickly from the ashes of World War II followed by an era of rapid growth.
By the 1970s, Japan had taken the world by storm with its 9.7 per cent annual growth, while other countries were growing at 2 to 5 per cent.
“What made the world turn their attention towards Japan’s miracle growth was Vogel’s book on Japan as Number One … which became a bestseller,” Thang said.
Vogel also thought Japan’s efforts in twice modernising its institutions – in the late 19th century and after World War II – could “help the US in rethinking its own societal difficulties”, Thang said.
In Malaysia, the book prompted then-prime minister Mahathir in 1981 to launch the Look East Policy, which sought to have Malaysians emulate Japanese work ethics and business management techniques, and to acquire Japanese expertise and capital, through aid, investment and trade cooperation.
In Singapore, the government invited Vogel to visit the island state on various occasions, where he not only met Lee Kuan Yew, but also spoke on television about productivity “which Singapore was highly concerned with” during its economic restructuring in the 1970s and 1980s, Thang said.
Vogel later also wrote The Four Little Dragons, in which he argued that the then newly industrialised economies of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore had achieved stellar growth in just a few decades by following Japan’s export-led growth model.
Singapore saw the need to learn from Japan because by the late 1970s, it realised it could not compete with China and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries in supplying cheap labour, Thang said.
Realising the necessity of economic restructuring that would lead to higher value-added, skills-intensive and hi-tech industries, Thang said Singapore identified new sectors in automotive parts, machines tools, medical instruments, computers, software, optics, and chemicals, all of which “Japan is good at”.
The city state also faced rising wage pressures then, with salaries growing at about 20 per cent every year, and workers and businesses were urged to invest in better skills, capital equipment and technology, leading to unhappiness.
“To try to reduce discontent, the [Singapore] government felt that Japanese labour model could be useful to push economic restructuring efforts, such as by encouraging better attitudes, higher productivity, and teamwork,” Thang said.
A CONFIDENCE BOOSTER
Japan as Number One had a huge impact on people in the East Asian nation, with many realising the country had come into its own, said Mike Mochizuki, an international affairs professor at George Washington University and expert on Japan-US relations.
“Japanese had been obsessed about catching up with the West and were feeling especially vulnerable because of the Nixon and oil shocks of the early 1970s,” Mochizuki said.
The “Nixon Shock” refers to policy changes announced in the summer by former US president Richard Nixon in 1971 without prior notification to the Japanese government. The first “shock” occurred in July when Nixon announced his plan to visit China.
The second came a month later when Nixon announced his New Economic Program, which included the abandonment of the gold standard, resulting in a major increase in the international value of the Japanese currency.
The oil shocks refers to the oil crisis in 1973 when Opec members proclaimed an oil embargo, affecting countries such as Japan due to their heavy dependence on imported oil.
Vogel’s book not only gave Japanese a sense of confidence but also motivated them to think about how Japan could contribute more internationally, recalled Mochizuki, who added that Vogel introduced him to the world of East Asian studies and encouraged him to study international security policy.
“In 1991, Ezra took me on my first trip to China and connected me to the community of Japan scholars in China,” Mochizuki said.
“Since then, I began to focus on Japan-China relations and efforts to promote reconciliation between these two countries.” Joshua W. Walker, president and CEO of the Japan Society, a non-profit committed to deepening mutual understanding between the US and Japan, said Vogel’s work was without parallel.
“As an author, mentor, policymaker, and scholar he was unmatched and will be deeply missed by all who knew him from the US, Japan, China, and around the world,” Walker said.
Although most people would remember Vogel for Japan as Number One, former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani highlighted two other books which again set Vogel apart as an eminent scholar on East Asia.
“Firstly, he had the courage to write a fair and objective biography of Deng Xiaoping,” said Mahbubani, currently a distinguished fellow with the Asia Research Institute at NUS.
Vogel in 2011 published Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, a landmark biography of the Chinese leader who introduced long-needed market reforms in the 1980s. However, many people also held Deng responsible for declaring martial law and sending troops to deal with the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
“In the West, it was politically incorrect to praise Deng because he was responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Ezra had the courage to praise Deng nonetheless,” Mahbubani said.
“Secondly, he had the courage to write a balanced book on China-Japan relations,” said Mahbubani, referring to China and Japan: Facing History, a book published last year which reviewed the history of political and cultural ties between the two nations over 1,500 years.
Given the neighbours’ highly fraught relationship, Mahbubani said it was brave of Vogel to point out that for most of their history,
Japan and China had lived in peace with each other.
Mochizuki, the George Washington University professor, said China and Japan: Facing History was an inspiring work about the long history of the countries’ interactions. “During these troubling times, I cannot think of a more important message for Chinese and Japanese alike,” he said.
Bilahari Kausikan, who retired as permanent secretary of the Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry in 2013, said Vogel’s “political biography of Deng Xiaoping is perhaps the best to date”.
Kausikan said Ezra last visited Singapore at his invitation in January this year to attend the Middle East Institute’s annual conference, and spoke on what the Middle East could learn from the East Asian model.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosted Vogel for dinner, and he also met emeritus senior minister Goh Chok Tong and deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat in separate meetings.
“Ezra was not just a great scholar but also a wonderful human being,” Kausikan said.
Vogel died on Sunday at the age of 90 due to complications from surgery, according to his family.
He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1950, and studied sociology in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, before receiving his doctorate of philosophy in 1958. He spent two years in Japan studying the language and conducting research, and became a Harvard professor in 1967.
Vogel served as director of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center from 1972 to 1977 and director of the programme on US-Japan relations at the Center for International Affairs between 1980 and 1987.
In 1998, Vogel received the Japan Society Award for his outstanding contribution to better US-Japan understanding. He retired from teaching in 2000