The Islands of Back-to-front Economics
by Jeremy Lee
The recent ASEAN Conference in Jakarta was notable for three things: firstly,
the swan-song of the controversial Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir
Muhamed; secondly, for the absence of Australia, whose credentials as
an Asian nation are not universally recognized; and thirdly, for the polite
rejection of an invitation to attend by the mid-Pacific Repletion Islands
The first two received a welter of publicity. The last, which mystified
and confused those attending, gained little publicity in the world's media.
The Repletion Islands lie slightly south of the Equator, and are among
the lesser-known parts of the world. They consist of the two adjacent
islands of Bliss and Felicity, with a few nearby coral atolls and reefs.
Some of the early Pacific explorers evidently called in, and were entranced
by the atmosphere. Somerset Maugham, apparently, set one of his novels
in the Repletion Islands, but it was never published.
Fearing that Repletion might be languishing in a state of Third World
poverty, ASEAN leaders resolved to send a prominent official of the
Asian Development Bank, Dr Lok Detin, to assess the situation in Repletion,
and offer financial assistance in bringing the Islands into the 21st
There being neither a regular shipping route, nor aircraft landing strip,
Dr Lok traveled in an elderly Catalina sea-plane belonging to Garuda.
He was met by a smart-looking launch, and escorted to a comfortable
bungalow at the end of a long jetty, which he was told was the residence
of the Governing Chief.
It was a picturesque place, he had to admit. Colourful houses dotted
the foreshore, and climbed the slopes surrounding the bay. He saw hills
rising in rolling downs towards a range of high mountains some 30 miles
away. He could hear singing from a number of directions, and considerable
numbers of men, women and children thronged the beaches and paddled
in canoes along the shore. Graceful boats with triangular sails were
obviously fishing a little further out.
Down to business
Dr Lok Detin wasted no time and immediately got down to business. His
first shrewd appraisal revealed enormous potential for "aid-and-development".
Where were the Hiltons and Hyatts entertaining tourists from overseas?
And the wharves and cranes heralding a bustling export-and-import industry?
Where was the smoke from power-houses and factories providing employment
to the men and women enjoying the mid-day sunshine on the beach? Why
weren't the children in school or child-minding centers? Where was the
avenue of signs and advertisements - Coca-Cola, Friendly Insurance,
Even Friendlier Banks, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, Cars and Gasoline Companies?
Dr Lok could see desolation written on the face of the Repletion Islands.
The never-ending vista of trees and flowers, and the general air of
indolence made him uncomfortable. But it also renewed his conviction
that he could do immense good to the Islanders, and that his mission
could not help but succeed.
Dr Lok was transported in a gaily coloured rickshaw, pulled by a bustling
donkey. He was graciously welcomed by a tall, elderly man with a fine,
distinguished face and white hair. Dr Lok congratulated him on the obvious
beauty of the island, and then commiserated with him on the lack of
Astonished, the Chief asked how things could be made better?
"Production, growth and exports!" said Dr Lok. "And I've
come to offer you the necessary development loans to achieve such progress.
The key to your future is GDP....
"We do have exports," the Chief replied, "But on the
whole they're discouraged. In fact, we have an annual meeting of the
people to discuss how much of our wealth we wish to send away, and what
we need in return. But before any exports, we make sure that everyone
on the Islands has enough. We gained a wise saying from a visitor some
hundred years ago - 'Charity starts at home'. We have never heard of
GDP, but we have a stock measurement that we all understand, GH, or
Buying and Selling
Dr Lok looked stunned. "What are your chief exports?" he asked
"In fact, we have only two," answered the Chief. "The
first is a peculiarly-flavoured honey, possible by a mountain flower
which grows nowhere else in the world; and the second is a cheese, in
which the honey is infused with the milk in a secret formula we have
used for hundreds of years. These two products we have sold overseas
in strictly-rationed amounts, and they are highly prized by gourmets
in China and Japan."
"We have had many overtures from different markets for these products,"
he continued. "But we have always marketed them exclusively through
a prominent Chinese family, who in turn have carefully sought out the
small number of imports we want in return. This has worked well for
200 years, and we trust each other."
"What do you do with the money you receive for these products?"
asked Dr Lok
"Oh, we don't ask for money," smiled the Chief. "We send
a list of the goods we require to our Chinese agent, and ask how much
honey and cheese he will require in payment. All the islanders then
meet to discuss what and how much we need. On the whole, our requirements
are simple, for these islands are rich in natural resources. We never
import anything we can make ourselves."
Dr Lok had never heard anything so scandalous in his life! He paused,
and then asked cautiously, "Well, what do you import?"
"Once a year we send two or three of our elders to various countries
to assess the goods that would benefit our island without the risk of
harm," said the Chief. "Nails, bolts and screws, hammers and
saws, hoes and shovels, broadcloth for our sarongs and garments, paper
and writing materials - and books. Our people are great readers".
Just then there was the unmistakable sound of a train whistle and, looking
outside, Dr Lok saw a jolly little engine pulling ten carriages along
a line which appeared to follow a level gradient round the island. It
was very quiet, and produced neither steam nor smoke. The first five
carried dozens of what looked like gas-cylinders. The rest were filled
with singing and laughing Islanders, four-gallon drums of honey and
cases of heavy waxed cheeses.
"So you HAVE started to industrialise!" said Dr Lok almost
"Oh, we're all in favour of innovation," said the Chief, "So
long as it is universally wanted, is clean and non-polluting, and reduces
"Reduces employment?" gasped Dr Lok in absolute horror. "Don't
you know that the aim of every enlightened economy in the world is to
provide full employment to its people? No wonder your country hasn't
The Chief raised his eyebrows. "Forty years ago we bought two sugar
trains, and enough rails to lay a line round the island. We had heard
that a compressed-air engine had been developed in France, and we were
able to import 20 of them. It cost almost five year's honey supply and
most of our cheeses," he added ruefully. "We were able to
buy a giant turbine air compressor, which we installed under one of
the big waterfalls on our island. It provides all the compressed air
we need to drive the train and deliver cylinders to dozens of communities
round the island. With small-scale alternators we have heat and light
for our people. The train goes round the island every day, delivering
cylinders and people where they want to go."
"We were fully employed for the five years it took us to build
our railway. But we had a vision of what we wanted. Everybody joined
in. We promised ourselves we'd have five years unemployment when we'd
finished the job."
At a loss
Dr Lok didn't know what to say. Finally he asked, "What do your
people do all day? If they were required to labour five days a week
as they did on your railway, just think of what they could have! Television,
microwaves, court-houses, gaols, sports stadiums, tourist resorts, hospitals,
supermarkets and much more. By introducing money, all those employed
could save for their old age."
"And then what would they do?" asked the Chief dubiously.
"They could then do what they wanted," enthused Dr Lok. "They
could sun-bake on the beach, garden, go sailing and generally enjoy
themselves," he added.
"But they're doing that now!" protested the Chief. "Contrary
to your society, we are continually trying to reduce the amount of repetitious
drudgery, and replace it with self-chosen activities. We have hardly
any crime, no juvenile delinquency beyond the usual high-spirits of
youth. We have so little disease that we don't need hospitals. Every
Islander builds his own home, so long as he replants the trees used.
We don't call it a 'building industry'. Home-building is a luxury of
leisure, and a home-builder often has to deter those who want to join
"We have to produce our food. But this is such a rich and abundant
Island that, once we have built our forest-gardens, the food almost
falls into our hands. We reverence the soil and the forests, the rivers
and our shores. We never cut down a tree without replanting two more.
The things that have to be done - maintenance of our trains for example
- are carried out by families with special talents passed from father
to son. They are esteemed in the community, and never lack for honey
and cheese - and a beautiful mead we brew. We never export that! Our
own people come first. Likewise, our beekeepers have done so for so
long that they are almost able to communicate with the bees under their
charge. They wouldn't give up their occupation for the world. It is
not their job - it's their life."
Dr Lok Detin decided to have one last attempt at reason. "Look,
Chief, your Islands are so isolated you have no idea how far the rest
of the world is ahead. I have access to funds that would transform your
Islands. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund can provide
loan funds that would enable you to double, or even quadruple your production
and therefore your exports. In turn, you could be living in a palace
instead of a bungalow - nice though it is," he said hastily.
"We have always been emphatic that we would never allow our Islands
to become indebted to others," said the Chief. "We could have
more material goods by borrowing, but we'd lose our sovereignty. The
Islanders would never agree."
Don't ask them!" said Dr Lok excitedly. "Some decisions must
be made by leaders alone."
"Even if it means selling the future of the Islands?" asked
the Chief quietly
"Don't look at it that way," said Dr Lok. "We're all
brothers and sisters in the same world. Sovereignty is a thing of the
past! The 'guided democracy of the future will know no borders".
That night the Islanders had a huge party in the square before the Chief's
house. There was theatre, dancing, music and sporting competitions.
Dr Lok was surprised how happy the people seemed to be. They dined on
roast pig, fish, chickens, vegetables and fruit of all description.
They plied Dr Lok with their Island mead, brewed from their special
honey. It had an unusual effect on him. He felt more relaxed and comfortable
than ever before in his life - until they beseeched him to contribute
a song, a poem or a bit of drama. He was embarrassed to find he had
no store to draw on. "No poems or songs?" they asked in bewilderment.
He didn't know what to say. He half-thought of telling them about 'democracy'
- but was not sure they would understand.
Dr Lok Detin flew home in his Catalina the next morning. He was met
by a limousine and his secretary at the Asian Development Bank.
"What loans did you sign up?" asked the board members when
he entered the conference room.
"They didn't seem to be interested," Dr Lok said. There was
an appalled silence. "But we've already put an investment package
out to tender," someone said. "There's enormous interest from
some of the big players. Chevron wants to do an immediate geophysical
survey to assess oil deposits round the Islands. General Motors already
has plans for a car assembly plant. UNICEF and the World Health Organisation
have big plans for health and child welfare. We aim to vaccinate everyone
on the Islands for the ten major world diseases. We have designed the
notes and coins the Islands will use in the future. The IMF is working
hard on a model economy based on world's best practice. As the Islanders
realize how deprived they have been over the years, and how they have
lagged behind the rest of the world, we plan to fly in large numbers
of trauma and grief counselors to deal with inevitable breakdowns.
We'll help get rid of their air-driven railway, and replace it with
the latest diesel. So much faster and more efficient. They'll have to
import oil from APEC, of course, and will need more than honey and cheese
to pay the bill. They may have their first current account deficit,
but a bank consortium is ready to step in with the necessary loans.
We have already canvassed a number of multinationals to install industries
and franchises, so that the Islanders can thankfully abandon their sun-bathing
and get useful, constructive jobs. We have a fully-developed plan for
Islander-Home-Mortgage Equity. Every Islander will be able to use a
home mortgage to buy a host of things they are deprived of at the moment.
- TVs and computers, canned food, take-aways, identity cards, public
liability insurance - all the trappings of a joyful industrial society!
And you tell us they're not interested?"
Officials of the Asian Development Bank were in turmoil and confusion.
They looked accusingly at Dr Lok Detin as though it was all his fault.
"This is not just a local problem," they chorused. "It
could threaten the whole world economy! How do we know they are not
harbouring terrorist training camps? They must, at the very least, be
included in a regional security programme. You could very well have
been looking at Al Quaeda terrorists on that air-driven train you saw.
And what about discrimination? We understand that Islander women stay
at home with their children. We've been fighting for years to wipe out
that sort of bias. The children should be raised and educated by the
Island Government. A whole series of new institutions are needed, from
kindergartens to child-minding centers. This would free women to take
their place alongside men in the new factories and offices which will
dot the Islands.
We could put Repletion on the major air-routes of the world. It might
mean leveling some of their mountains for an airport that could take
the biggest air-liners. But think of the tourist infrastructure that
"In short," the meeting concluded, "We cannot abandon
our duty to save the Islanders from themselves! They must be dragged,
despite their protestations, into the vanguard of the New World Order!
Dr Lok, we're disappointed in you! You have obviously failed to convince
the people of the Repletion Islands of the immense benefits we have
to offer. The picture you have given leads us, reluctantly, to wonder
whether a military rescue mission under the command of the US President
and Donald Rumsvelt might not be necessary, to liberate the Islanders
from an obviously dictatorial Chief. Reluctantly, we must ask for your
Back to front
Dr Lok Detin looked reflectively at his accusers. "I had anticipated
something like this," he said quietly. He pulled a letter of resignation
from his pocket and placed it carefully on the table. "I am, of
course, entitled to a couple of million in superannuation".
"Oh, we don't want to lose you altogether," replied the Board.
"You obviously need some stress leave. But we have a host of alternatives
available after that. We have urgently-needed missions in Zimbabwe,
Afghanistan or Iraq, where the civilization programme is making splendid
progress. Any one of them would fit you down to the ground."
'No, I think I've had enough", said Dr Lok on reflection. "I
want to do some fishing. I'd like to learn some poems and songs. And
I have developed a recent partiality to really good mead".
"What you obviously need is psychiatric assessment and help,"
Dr Lok cashed in his superannuation. It was enough to buy a small, ocean-going
boat. He found a compressed air engine and had it fitted with half a
dozen cylinders, he thought would get him to his destination. He bought
some casual and colourful clothes and some fishing tackle. He added
enough nails, screws, saws and planes to build himself a bungalow.
As a last resort he bought a quantity of books - Shakespeare, Banjo
Paterson, Kipling and other poetical authors. He bought some presents
for those he had met at Repletion - a cuckoo clock and a charming musical
box for the Chief, some footballs for the young men, some ear-rings
for the women and some old-fashioned sugar candy for the children. He
named his boat, simply, "Mead".
As the sun dipped towards the west, he slipped out of the harbour, and
set his course for the East and the Repletion Islands.