Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia

Phar Kim Beng, PhD
3 min readAug 21, 2020


By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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There remains a persistent myth that Asians are becoming more affluent due to their impressive work ethics.

While Asians deserve all due accolades for pulling themselves from the boot-strap of poverty, the structural determinants of the wealth accumulation process are just as important. Without the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and subsequently, the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution, the US would not have become engaged in the region beyond the expiry date of a single event since the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

But the prior events kept drawing the US back into the Pacific. In turn, various families gained from such US largesses and accesses to its impressive market.

Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, for example, are home to 700 hundred million people. Yet their economies are dominated by only fifty families whose interests range from banking to real estate, shipping to sugar, gambling to lumber.

At their peak, eight of the world’s two dozen richest men were Southeast Asian, but their names would not be familiar to most regular readers of The Wall Street Journal, claimed Joe Studwell in the back cover of his impressive book.

Indeed, Joe Studwell, together with the likes of Professor Terence Gomez at the University of Malaya, has done an excellent job of uncovering the rentier practices of various families and political parties.

Often, these are individuals or companies with ties to the political parties, that would not have second thoughts, of draining the countries dry, in order to grease the palms of their nominees and cronies.

To be sure, complex mythology surrounds these billionaires, especially over they outlived the political patronage they had hitherto received.

But in Asian Godfathers, Joe Studwell avers that the facts are even more remarkable than the myths. Studwell has spent fifteen years as a reporter in the region, and he marshals his unprecedented sources to paint an intimate and deeply revealing portraits of the men who control Southeast Asia.

Studwell also provides us with a rich and succint understanding of the broader historic, economic, and political influences that have shaped Southeast Asia over the past 150 years.

Asian Godfathers is a riveting and illuminating book that lifts the curtain on a world of staggering secrecy and hypocrisy, and reveals — for the first time — who are the key leaders of one of the planet’s most important and tumultuous markets. Indeed, how, why, what did they separately do, to they got to the top, and how they keep themselves there; in spite of the ravages of the pandemic.



Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (