How to get filthy rich in Asia

Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, written as a self-help guide for Asians who want to make a killing in their new economies, casts light on the social impact of Asia’s breakneck growth.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is probably unique as a literary novel written in the form of a self-help book. It has several other unusual features. The main protagonist is referred to only as ‘you’ while the other lead character is simply ‘the pretty girl’.

Mohsin Hamid’s novel also all takes place more-or-less in our present. Its characters age from childhood to old age but the story all takes place in the early twenty-first century. This device allows Hamid to provide a demographic snapshot of an Asian society being thoroughly transformed by rapid economic growth. He portrays what is happening at a given time to people at different stages of their lives.

Nor is it clear whether the Asian city where most of the action takes place is Hamid’s native Pakistan. It could be any urban expanse in emerging Asia or indeed many other parts of the developing world.

This practical guide should help you to appreciate Hamid’s novel more fully.

1) As a self-help manual

Hamid has described in interviews how he started using the self-help form as a joke. But as time went on, he became more serious about it.

His novel could certainly serve as a practical guide if you are a budding entrepreneur in Asia. Some of the advice – such as leave the countryside for the city or get an education – is standard fare. It is a route taken by many millions across Asia and beyond.

But as a novel it can be more honest than conventional guides. One chapter describes how you must be prepared to use violence if you are to become not just plain wealthy but filthy rich. Another emphasises how you need to befriend bureaucrats to ensure the authorities are amenable to your needs.

Less expected is the advice to avoid both falling in love and idealists. Both are distractions from your pursuit of the serious business of becoming filthy rich.

In the novel, the protagonist’s main business is bottling water taken, at least initially, from the public water system. The pretty girl has intermittent encounters with the central character throughout her life. She is also an entrepreneur, although her break comes in the fashion business.

2) As a story of growth

If you live outside rising Asia the novel paints a far more vivid picture of life in rapidly developing countries than economic texts. This goal is achieved in clear English reminiscent of the writing of George Orwell. No need for the ugly jargon of social science.

Hamid sketches a society that is being overhauled by breakneck growth. The country is becoming more urbanized, as migrants stream from the countryside into the cities. Overall living standards are rising for the bulk of the population. People are becoming more educated. At the same time, the gulf between the rich and the rest of the population is widening considerably.

As a native of Lahore, Pakistan’s second city, Hamid has observed these developments more closely than any outsider could realistically hope to achieve. Yet many years of living in America and Britain put him in a good position to outline these trends to you as a Western reader.

3) As a counter-story of loss

Hamid is anxious that you understand that this process of rapid change brings with it severe problems. He believes that the market economy has a strong narrative of growth but no narrative of loss.

Market economics cannot help make sense of key stages of your life, such as the emergence of ill health, the death of loved ones and eventually your own demise. In traditional societies you could generally understand these stages in the life cycle in religious terms. Yet the transformation of Asian societies has also undermined traditional religion.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is as much an exploration of this loss as it is a study of how you can become seriously wealthy. Although the protagonist becomes rich in the course of the novel, his ties with his family, and with society more generally, become looser. He has few people he can rely on to help him navigate life’s milestones.

In broader terms, the theme is the lack of a framework of meaning in contemporary societies. This dilemma is posed most sharply in rapidly developing economies, but it also applies in the West. Although the world has generally become much wealthier than it was in the past, it has also become harder for us to situate our lives in a broader context.

4) As a growth-sceptic text

Hamid is too good a novelist to write a crudely didactic text. He describes life as he sees it in a rapidly changing Asian city rather than prescribing how it should be.

However, it is easy to see why Western liberals, with their profound scepticism about economic growth, like it so much. For them it is easy to draw a direct connection between greater prosperity and the broader problems afflicting Asian societies. They simply blame economic growth for all the other difficulties – not only widening inequality but also falling social solidarity, increased isolation and the decline of what Hamid refers to as a narrative of loss.

For such growth sceptics, it is easy to draw the conclusion that growth should be downplayed if not stopped all together. Often they end up romanticising poverty as a result. They forget the enormous benefits of growth and simply focus on the problems afflicting Asian societies.

You should not fall into this trap. There is still enormous potential for growth to benefit the populations of developing countries. In Hamid’s native Pakistan, for instance, the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.25 a day) fell from 66 per cent in 1987 to 21 per cent in 2008. Poverty in Pakistan has become less prevalent during the period of rapid economic growth, though Pakistan is still far from a universally prosperous country.

Prosperity should not be counterposed to the problems that afflict developing societies. The challenge is to generate rapid growth while dealing with the other difficulties – for example, achieving prosperity while developing a framework of meaning to understand contemporary life. These two goals do not necessarily conflict. Indeed, richer societies should have more time and resources to tackle other problems.

You should not be bashful if your desire is to become filthy rich. But there are also other challenges that we should tackle along the way.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. An expanded version of latest book, Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, is published by Policy Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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