The Case of the Old Lady
The old lady walks in with the evening crowd, clutching an old bag that she sets down in the middle of the square. Surrounded by fancy windows promoting sparkling jewelry and diamond brocaded watches, and restaurants that charge more per meal than she spends on her food in a week, she unties her sac of wares and lays them out. Five minutes later, she is sitting on her foldable chair with her arms stretched out in front of her, with two packets of paper tissues at the end of each, quietly beckoning the flowing multitude around her to equip themselves for an unexpected case of a sweaty brow or a running nose.
It is Friday evening in Orchard, Singapore's premier shopping district, and the setting sun is making way for the revelry of yet another weekend. The old lady is beginning her lonely struggle to earn what she will need to feed herself tomorrow. She does not have a pension fund, social security, unemployment insurance or old-age benefits. Fluctuations in her daily earnings matter more to her than the ups and downs of the stock market, and she is probably as disconnected a participant as one can be in the economic juggernaut that Singapore is often spoken of as.
Yet if you could zoom out of this tiny island to gaze across the entire expanse of Asia, you will see that she is not alone. From homeless have-nots huddled together in the cold subways of Seoul, watching the smartly dressed haves hustle from swanky offices to heated homes, to a family of six sheltered in their one room wooden shack, listening to the thundering roar of airplanes landing on the strip beside the world's largest slum in Mumbai jarring illustrations of social and economic inequality abound across this continent.
In the aftermath of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, pundits in the hallowed financial centers of London and New York speak of Asia as the next success story. "Asian countries have been leading a recovery in the world economy," claims an IMF report. (1) Separately, Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, has remarked that "rapid economic growth has turned the region into a global economic powerhouse ... Asia's economic weight is on track to grow even larger." (2)
That most emerging economies from the Middle East to the Far East will continue to develop in the coming decades seems to be an inescapable conclusion. What is not guaranteed however is whether the fruits of this almost incontrovertible development will be available to all who dwell in these countries. As Asia has grown, so has an underbelly of penniless paupers. The bulk of Asian countries face a growing impoverished population that does not have any stake in the spoils being flaunted by their rich.