MUKESH Ambani, Asia’s richest man with a net worth of $44.8 billion and rising, owns the tallest family house in the world, a 27-story monstrosity that is as tall as your regular office building with 60 floors. The Ambani family residence on Altamount Road, Cumbala Hill in Mumbai—many of our 5-6 Bumbays came from there—is valued at over $1 billion and is maintained by a staff of 600, from cooks to building maintenance to servants.
Not far from the Ambani family residence is what you would expect of an ancient city like Mumbai that despaired on the utter lack of urban planning: pockets of slum colonies that are more or less similar to the blight and the sorrow of our own slum colonies, save perhaps for one thing. Instead of the waft of rotting bagoong and spoiled sardines, the dominant smell of Mumbai’s slums is rotting curry.
It may be possible that some of Asia’s poorest can be found not too far from where the richest man in Asia, at least from the reckoning of Forbes, lives. India is not your liberal Nordic and Scandinavian country where rich people live—but not side by side with slum dwellers with no running water and electricity. In these countries, there are real pockets of wealth but almost zero hovels with no electricity, running water and toilets.
In these countries, the idea of a $44-billion dollar family living not very far from dirt-poor families is unthinkable and, for all intents and purposes, not an acceptable proposition. In the ideal world, it should not be like that in their societies. The Nordic and Scandinavian countries try to make life bearable for those who are poor.
But in much of Asia, that kind of arrangement—so much wealth amid so much grinding poverty—is a perfectly normal living arrangement.
One reason why the Asian Great Divide is almost a normal and perfectly acceptable thing, an arrangement that cannot take place in the Nordic or Scandinavian countries or much of Western Europe, is rooted in the fact that Asian societies, Asian leaders and Asian governments prefer to go the “Forbes magazine route,“ which is to conduct a regular scoring of the wealth of the super wealthy and ignore the data on those below.
On the superrich, the Asian societies list down the data to the smallest detail. How much they own, the conglomerates they run, the luxury jets they use for travel and what Ivy League schools or what London universities their children attend. What are their foibles and excesses? If Forbes magazine tracks down the wealth of the superrich up to the last share price hike, the glossy magazines take care of reporting their gilded lifestyles.
The success of Kevin Kwan, the author of a trilogy on super-rich families of Chinese descent, is owed to the region’s fascination with the lives of the superrich. With some slight variations, Kwan could have been writing about the superrich of Malay descent and of the superrich of the Indochina region.
Asia is fixated with wealth and success; no region in the world takes the Forbes’ tracking of the global rich more seriously than Asia.
The Asian societies that are fixated on the rich are predisposed to do two things. One is to discuss poverty in broad and general terms. The second is the practice not to give poverty a human face in line with the agenda of presenting poverty cases in the more generalized context. A clinical, depersonalized discussion of poverty is favored by the superrich and governments alike, with a media averse to serious and urgent poverty-related issues as an abettor and enabler.
This is why no one tracks Asia’s poorest 50 families, which cannot be very far away from the Ambani towers. Or could not very far from the domiciles of the Sys and the Ayalas, the two Filipino families—one of Chinese and one of Basque origin—which are on the list of Asia’s 50 richest families.
China is the country that is right now the most prodigious in turning out dollar billionaires, outpacing the US and the Western European countries. But still, there are remote regions in China with cave-dwellers.
In a continent that overwhelmingly favors social darwinism over the pursuit of egalitarianism, is there any chance that an institution will soon track—and give a human face—to Asia’s 50 poorest families?
No. Not in the immediate future.
Governments will neither fund nor initiate such poverty-tracking institution. It will lay bare what is now very obvious – a near to 7 percent GDP growth year in and year out will have no impact on the poor. Trickle-down is bunk, as Pope Francis has said. Given the meager pre-distribution and redistribution programs from the state, the vacuuming up of the yearly income gains by the superrich is untamed.
No corporate giant, no member of the wealthy class will favor that initiative either. It will lay bare in very stark terms what we already know: income gains are sucked up by the rich and their workers get mere crumbs.