Nobel laureate warns against Asian attempts to 'ape the US lifestyle'

The Nation - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

For Asian countries, including Thailand, there is no future in aping the American lifestyle, as high-tech regional economic competition will trap some nations in a cycle of poverty and misery, Taiwanese Nobel laureate Yuan Tseh Lee said yesterday.

“When it comes to competition, there are both winners and losers. And the countries that lag behind in the race have to live in poverty,” said the 1986 winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry in an interview with The Nation.

“Some people benefit from economic globalisation, and some people don’t. This is the dilemma of globalisation. Economists don’t talk about it. Their mind is set on trade and a market-driven economy,” Lee said.

He is in Bangkok to speak tomorrow at Mahidol University on “Science, Technology and Peace on Earth”, part of the International Peace Foundation series, “Bridges –Dialogues towards a Culture of Peace”.

Born in 1936 in Taiwan – a poor, backward part of China at the time – Lee was shocked to see people at the Berkeley campus of the University of California using paper towels to dry their hands after washing, then throwing the towels away. He called this a small example of the wasteful lifestyle that “so-called civilised countries” in Southeast Asia have picked up from the United States.

It is interesting to note that hundreds of tourists from around the world come to Thailand to see its rich traditional culture, but the country itself is losing its traditions to the tourism “bandwagon”, as local people mimic the American lifestyle, Lee said.

On a serious note, he said each country tends towards blindly following the development paradigm laid out by the “so-called developed countries”, in a mad rush to spike per capita income.

“When we glorify the tremendous impact of the industrial revolution that started more than 200 years ago, we must not forget that those countries that failed to catch the wave became colonies of Western powers,” Lee writes in a presentation paper.

Lee described the gap between supply and demand of petroleum as a formidable challenge for mankind and pointed to some experts’ estimates that crude oil will be depleted in 40-60 years and natural gas in 80-100 years.

Arun Devnath