Not so long ago, the words “Made in Taiwan” were almost synonymous with “cheap, inferior, and bound to break” but not any more. These three words illustrate the economic and social miracle that has transformed what the Taiwanese modestly call “this small island” into an Asian powerhouse. Even Hollywood, or perhaps it is more accurate to say the Film Industry, has recognized Taiwan’s role in global manufacturing; in the first ‘Toy Story’ movie, Buzz Lightyear sees the words “Made in Taiwan” stamped on his wristband and realizes that he is nothing more than a toy, but at least a toy produced by one of the world’s leading manufacturers of quality goods.
It can be argued credibly that the rise of “Made in Taiwan” started in the 1960s when The Four Asian Tigers: Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong emerged to become the first so-called ‘undeveloped’ countries to forge their own path to prosperity. Taiwan’s growth and success are inextricably tied to the phrase “Made in Taiwan” despite its less than promising beginnings because, truth be told, it was exports that initially fuelled and still do fuel Taiwan’s and South Korea’s economic growth.
Singapore and Hong Kong meanwhile, tiny islands much smaller than Taiwan and the Korean Peninsular, discovered their keys to success in offering affordably priced port facilities and vibrant financial centres, something that Saint Lucia might consider.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Taiwan’s initial development in the 1960s was not dissimilar to what has happened recently in Mainland China, albeit on a much smaller scale. Where Taiwan succeeded, however, China might fail due, quite simply, to the latter’s unfathomable size. The success of Mainland China is tarnished by the damaging inequality it creates between its regions; the 21st century thrives along the coastal areas while the interior struggles on in a world that disappeared centuries ago.
Before today’s massive growth and success, Taiwan followed a policy of import substitution, a policy whereby a country tries to develop locally the products that it imports in order to save cash on purchases from abroad. This idea of import substitution is no stranger to many Saint Lucians. How often have we heard cries and complaints about expensive imports of fruit and vegetables? Who in his right mind would prefer beautiful but tasteless imported tomatoes over their small, sweet, delicious, maybe not so pretty, locally grown homegrown cousins? Oranges from Florida, pineapples from California, even mangoes, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers from LKW (Lord Knows Where); I ask you: What is the world coming to when this Lucian Garden of Eden abounding with every fruit and temptation under the sun cannot provide its people with succulent, nourishing fruits and vegetables from its own farms?
However, while import substitution is an excellent means of limiting expenses, it does not create wealth from foreign sales. Somewhere along the way, Taiwan decided to shift her economy from import substitution to an all-out export-driven frenzy. The problem was, as they soon discovered, they had no products that would attract the world’s attention. So what did they do? They scoured global markets and found ways to create things that westerners wanted, but on the cheap, such as textiles, clothing, knick-knacks and novelties, goods that Taiwan more or less already had the capacity to make, that required minimal investment. Quite rapidly, Taiwan purposefully built up her domestic infrastructure to create easy access to international markets, invested in the necessary capital and started branding with “Made in Taiwan” all kinds of products that would eventually end up in the hands of western consumers.
As the economy grew, the population became more educated; specialized technology became the dominant export, and Taiwanese products spread throughout the world. Thanks to Taiwan’s wealth of previously inefficiently used labour, the island was able to produce the same products that western countries produced and desired, but far more cheaply. But again, as with China today, the fear was that Taiwan would undercut millions of Western jobs because investors were ditching their homeland for countries with cheap labour. In fact, these fears were unfounded and today “Made in Taiwan” has become a watchword, a symbol for cutting edge, innovative, quality electronic goods and telecommunication tools. Yet despite all this success, any Saint Lucian visiting the country cannot fail to be impressed by how cheap and affordable everything is compared to the cost of living in Saint Lucia.
Tiny Taiwan did not allow itself to be overawed by is gigantic mainland neighbour. She used her own innate strengths and resources. Saint Lucia, too, is tiny but she too has her own unique strengths and qualities; she just has to prove to the world that she is “Simply the Best, Better than all the Rest”.