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Asian Technological Innovation--Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia

There Will Soon be 600 Million People Here in an Economy Bigger than France

As we all know, there are five countries that stand above the rest in Asia: China, India, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

China and India are the twin colossi of growth right now.

Japan and Korea are the finished products, having produced their own economic miracles (Japan after WWII until the 70s and Korea from the 70s until today. Korea's Incheon Bridge, pictured immediately below, is but one little example).

Taiwan has quietly produced its own miracle in the past 30 years, accomplishing a look-and-feel that is starting to approach that of Japan and Korea. It's amazing subway system, pictured below the bridge, is but one little example.

Each of these five countries deserves to have many more books written about them. Each has a complex of issues and more than enough angst to go around. More later.

But I want to focus on Southeast Asia, which forms the second Asian economic echelon and is an incredibly vibrant region of the globe.

If you're selling IT, you probably want to be there. The governments there all make noise about improving the lot of their people through IT innovation. Open-source is a hot topic, of course. But so are netbooks, and the increasing array of handheld devices.

And if you're looking for innovation, you might want to do some pioneer work there, particularly in social networking and social media, as this is a very community-based part of the world. The cultures there are born to do social networking!

Five Southeast Asian countries--Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia--have a combined population of about 560 million and a combined GDP in PPP terms of around $2.5 billion.

The region's population will soon exceed 600 million and be more than twice that of the US by 2013. Its GDP is greater than that of France or the UK now. Unless you're selling snow shovels or 3XL t-shirts, this region is somewhere your business probably wants to be.

One report I read ranked IT use and innovation in SE Asia in the order I mentioned above: Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia.

(I'm leaving the city-state of Singapore out of the discussion. And Cambodia, Laos, and the former Burma remain mired to a large degree; the first two never having recovered from celebrity-seeking war criminal Henry Kissinger's ideas about war, and the latter in the grip of an infamous totalitarian regime.)

Indonesia (its capital Jakarta, is pictured left) has the largest GDP in the region--a function of its immense population of 240 million people--and has now achieved G20 status.

Many westerners are unaware of how stable it has become since the bad old days of Sukarno and Suharto--The Year of Living Dangerously remains a great movie, but it does not describe the country today.

Yet the other four countries seem more heavily bent on improving their use of IT (or ICT as it's called in some places) and developing reputations for innovation.

Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) is a prime example. I've been chasing someone from there for a long time now, and will nail them down for an interview some day, I'm sure.

The Philippines is building a very-high-speed IT corridor of its own, running down the spine of this complex archipelago. I interviewed government ICT head Ray Roxas-Chua a year ago about some of the government's activity.

Thailand has seen a couple of solid decades of growth. The kingdom sees itself as better in some respects to all of its neighbors, as it's never been conquered by a foreign power. It has been successful in promoting its second city, Chiang Mai, located in its slightly more pleasant northern climes.

Vietnam, while still run by a Communist government, is following a version of China's economic liberalization policies to great effect. Its entrepreneurial hordes (pictured left) have upgraded their bikes and slow down for no one.

Ironically, bloggers there have been arrested recently for criticizing China, a country that has often tried to dominate the Viets over the millenia and which started a nasty little border war in 1979.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, to be sure. Business makes one indifferent as to who or what's in the bed.

I don't want to be in total cheerleader mode about this region. It's hot and steamy, there's a wide variety of governmental types and religious beliefs.

Vietnam has Buddhists and Catholics, as well as a syncretic local faith so precisely described by Graham Greene in his 1950s novel, The Quiet American.

Indonesians and Malaysians are primarily Sunni muslims, except for the Christians in the former breakaway province of East Timor that is now the country of Timor-Leste.

Thais are mostly Theravada Buddhists (with Muslims in the south). I am sure there is more complexity here than I currently know.

Meanwhile, above you can see pix I took of the Quiapo Catholic church in Manila, and of a mosque that is just a 10-minute walk from the church.

The Philippines also has its own homegrown, tagalog-speaking "Church of Christ," founded by a nationalist leader almost a century ago. The recent death of his son, who assumed leadership 50 years ago, was a traumatic event, not least of all to the politicians who curry favor with an 8-million-strong membership that is very strongly encouraged to vote as a single bloc.

And on it goes.

Charges of corruption also resound throughout the region. In this area, I don't want to sound cavalier...but hey, I grew up in Illinois, one of the most corrupt places on earth, and the lifestyle there has always been at least the equal of the supposedly cleaner states that surround it! (I provide a picture, left, of Richard J. and Richard M. Daley circa 1968 for your amusement.)

What strikes one in visiting Southeast Asia is how all politics is local all over the world. In the Philippines, for example, when local presidential candidates are not accusing each other of murder, they're obsessing about the economic challenge that Vietnam presents.

Vietnam, for its part, keeps thrumming along blithely, hoping to sell more and more to China as Western markets remain weak.

Indonesia distrusts Malaysia, its closest neighbor, and Manila wonders if Malaysia can be neutral in talks with Muslim groups in the southern reaches of the Philippines.

Thailand sometimes seems at the brink of civil war, and wearing the wrong color on the streets of Bangkok might be as dangerous as doing so in south LA.

You probably can ignore Southeast Asia without peril. But I choose not to. The future of our world lies here, I believe, and someday I'll get around to that book that explains why.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to report on the region, with looks at some of the companies, initiatitves, and people who are making things happen.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.