For the frequent traveler, there is a stark dichotomy across the world. Almost
without exception, traveling with an Asian carrier to any Asian airport is a
pleasure. In contrast, using any airline domiciled in Europe or North America
with passage through airports in that part of the world is stunningly
Your plane for one - the Asian carriers' jet, like its European counterpart,
was assembled either in Seattle or in Toulouse, France, but it is a million
miles away from the aircraft you are used to flying within Europe or North
America. Plonk yourself down on a suspiciously comfortable seat and there is
the large television panel with an array of entertainment. Great food,
courteous service. And then you remember, this is the "economy" class, which
beats the "business" class on any European or
Deplane and walk past the immigration without much fuss; as you reach the
baggage belts you are shocked to find your checked-in baggage already there.
Then you look up and see rows of baggage belts in either direction, all quietly
whirring away and depositing their contents with an almost sinister efficiency.
Recovering from the shock, you recall the last time you traveled through an
airport in Europe or North America: how long it took to go past the immigration
counter; baggage that turned up an hour after you arrived at the belt, if it
did at all; and the airlines that almost inevitably go on strike at the most
When you leave the airport in Shanghai and can get to the main city 30
kilometers away within eight minutes on the superfast magnetic levitation
train, you cannot help but notice that the actual technology for this wonder
comes from Germany. Yet, there are no such trains in operation anywhere in
Europe, let alone Germany.
Surely this is because, here in Asia, we are in the biggest cities you say.
Then you go and land at one of the smaller airports - say Guangzhou, just north
of Hong Kong. At a cinch, it is double the size of Munich's airport, and when
you get out to the city it is not very different in the quality of
infrastructure compared to Shanghai. What about the rural areas? Well, drive
from Shanghai in virtually any direction and the first time you see roads that
are any worse than those around the city you are a good 200 kilometers away.
And even there, the roads are better than many American motorways.
Yeah alright, so the Chinese truck driver barreling towards you looks like he
hasn't slept in three days (very likely), and there is the occasional car
wrapped into the milestone on the side of the road; but none of that detracts
from the sheer robustness of the infrastructure.
It isn't just the airports and highways. Walk into a hotel in any Asian city
and you are likely to be greeted by a bewildering array of the latest
electronic gadgets and equipment all seamlessly integrated into the controls
next to your bedside. Check into a hotel in New York or Paris (and much worse,
London), and for the privilege of paying 200% more than your Asian room rate
you will likely be greeted by an old hotel room housing a cathode-ray
television and archaic room controls.
Wait a minute, you say, cathode-ray TV? When is the last time you have even
seen one of those anywhere in Asia - be it the local coffee shop or your
Step out from your hotel and your cab or the local underground will be no less
impressive in terms of either newness or the scale of technology. A friend told
me recently that after 10 years of living in Hong Kong he remembers the local
subway (underground/tube or whatever else you want to call it) network (in this
case the MTR) being delayed only once; in his native London, he said, he'd be
lucky not to have a delay at least three times every week. So the Asians have
mastered the ability to combine reliability and low prices with good
performance. Ouch, that sure hurts your ego.
In an Asian city, if your cab driver doesn't speak a word of English there is
no reason to panic - whether in Seoul or in Hong Kong, all you need to do is to
press a button and presto there is a chap on the wireless doing all your
translations for you to the driver. Free, of course.
"Translations", you say. That would be a nice feature to have when you want to
speak in English in New York, for example.
Then you duck into a tailor's shop to see whether a new suit can be made. Sure,
says the shopkeeper, a mere US$200 and two days for a bespoke suit; against
$500 and more for an off-the-peg European brand that uses lower-quality
material. Walk into any shop across Asia and two things immediately hit you
square in the eyes - the quality of service and the sheer promptness with which
you get everything.
Two days for a suit? You could be waiting longer for your creme brule in a
Paris cafe, and then end up paying $30 for the privilege.
As you walk around what looks like a social housing project in Bangkok, Seoul,
Singapore or Hong Kong you glimpse a few food stalls. "Surely these must be
dangerous," you say, until you spot the queue of customers patiently waiting
for their turn. What is more, the queue has more than a few "expats" who
couldn't live without their daily visit to these stalls selling succulent local
And then the last observation sinks in. Every single Asian city is heaving at
the edges, with millions of people. Yet, crime rates are negligible and social
tensions appear well under control. A far cry from the banlieu of Paris or the
Turkish quarter of Berlin, for example, not to mention the public housing
nightmares of Chicago or Detroit.
By the time you have done a tour across the Pacific Rim, a manner of
despondency sets in. How on earth are these countries still considered
"developing" when their standards of living and technology are barely available
in the Western world?
That's when you remember India. "Ah!," you say, believing that here is a
country that will perpetually disappoint on its infrastructure. Abysmal roads,
gridlocked traffic, poor sanitation and those positively lethal curries.
Really? As you approach the airport at Mumbai and if you somehow tear your eyes
away from the slums that seem to have crept straight onto the runway, the first
thing you notice is the mass of flyovers that appear, quite literally, to have
cropped out of the blue. Your journey to downtown in an air-conditioned cab
takes an hour, not the three hours it used in a rickety old Fiat cab on the
"Surely Mumbai must be the exception," you say. "Other Indian cities will be
worse." Well, no luck on that account. Whether it is the national capital Delhi
or the southern city of Chennai, the improvements over the past 10 years are
significant, and almost to a fault, efficient.
Even the famously lackadaisical government appears to be in a tearing hurry.
From a target of 4km of new roads every day barely three years ago the target
was reset at 20km per day in the middle of last year. According to independent
reports, the actual progress is over 30km per day. Okay, it's a big country,
but it looks to be getting an awful lot faster to go from one end to another.
Sanitation seems like a worry until your roadside food vendor proffers a bottle
of mineral water with the just-cooked delicacy. The food waste behind the stall
seems to disappear quietly and efficiently into a new drainage system.
As for those lethal curries, forget it. Indians still eat the most inhumanly
spicy food on earth (IMHO), but the inevitable trips to the bathroom and/or the
doctor for your episode of Delhi-belly appear to have been banished almost
magically. The cuisine map is now richer and food quality has improved
It is not the gargantuan dams of China or the super-efficient underground in
Singapore that impresses you, but rather the fact that even the most
economically backward parts of Asia have taken growth to be their mantra.
What's more, they have the financial muscle to push it through.
With that, your despondency turns to depression. How, you ask, can the
"developed" world ever regain its luster?
For a start, all American and European cities will have to reinvest hundreds of
billions into their cities to rejuvenate the existing infrastructure. Then the
states/smaller countries will have to connect the cities to the rest of the
region, install new technology infrastructure, focus on customer service and
improve productivity to new heights to compete with the Asians.
Ah, but a minor detail intervenes. Who has got the money to do all that? Well,
let us raise taxes you say. Problem is, no one in your country is making much
money in the first place so raising taxes will simply drive consumption down
and drive the deficit wider. Well, let us borrow the lot you say. Trouble is,
no one has the money to lend to you at your abysmally low rates. Except the
Asians - who you then recall can play tough once in a while.
And that's about when you reconcile to the inevitable future - Asia with its
apparently permanent advantage on infrastructure and operating efficiency
leaving Europe and North America ever further behind. Nothing appears to have
the ability to reverse this trend.