Modern Asian Studies

Four Colonies and a Kingdom: A Comparison of Fiscal, Trade and Exchange Rate Policies in South East Asia in the 1930s 1

Anne Booth  a1
a1 School of Oriental and African Studies University of London


In the latter part of the 1990s, several of the major economies in South East Asia underwent one of the worst economic crises in living memory. It is thus not surprising that economic historians with an interest in the region are re-examining the experience of the 1930s. One crucial difference between the crisis of the late 1990s and that of the early 1930s is that the latter was preceded, and in large measure caused, by problems in the world economy. When the industrial world fell into a severe economic depression in the early 1930s, most parts of Asia were affected, mainly through falling export receipts which in turn affected colonial budgets. A second difference was that most parts of South East Asia in the 1930s were still under colonial rule, and had little autonomy in framing or implementing economic policy. Only Thailand remained nominally independent, but even there the influence of foreign, especially British, economic advisers was considerable. Given the very different economic interests which the colonial powers (Dutch, French, American and British) had in their South East Asian colonies, and given the widely differing nature of the economic links between colony and metropole, it was to be expected that the impact of the 1930s slump, and the policy responses which it provoked, would vary. This indeed turned out to be the case.


1 Versions of this paper have been presented at the International Association of Historians of Asia (IAHA) conference in Jakarta in 1998 and the European Association of South East Asian Studies (EUROSEAS) conference in London in 2001. I am grateful to conference participants, and also to Gregg Huff of the University of Glasgow, for helpful comments. In addition I am grateful to Jean-Pascal Bassino of Paul Valery University, Vauban, for making available to me his estimates of GDP in North and South Vietnam for the inter-war years.