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A natural harmony?: government, business and British interests in Southeast Asia, 1945-1951

By Young-joo Jung


This thesis seeks to illuminate the nature of the British national interest in Southeast Asia (SEA), as defined and pursued by the Attlee government, 1945-1951. The analysis is undertaken by examining the relationship between government and business in the region, identifying areas of consensus and conflict. It is established that the British government intended to do its utmost to aid British firms in SEA to re-establish their businesses after the disruption to production and trade caused by the war, as a means of protecting its own subjects and assets, and also of furthering British political and commercial interests in the region. However, this was at a time when the need to divert resources to reconstruct and support the domestic British economy made the task of assisting business overseas problematic, to the extent that government's ability to provide material support was limited. Whilst such logistical difficulties were real, it can also be said that differences over the level of assistance to business were heightened by ideological division between businessmen, on the one hand, and government officials, on the other.\ud These themes are explored through an analysis of the interactions of British enterprises which had business interests in Siam (Thailand), Indonesia and Malaya, with the British government and the local British authorities in these countries. This examination takes place against the background of a readjustment in Britain's relations with these countries in the aftermath of the war. Given the urgency of reconstruction at home, the Attlee government was lessening Britain's overseas commitments. In SEA the British government firmly believed economic and social betterment to be pivotal to the task of quickly establishing stability and also, later on, in protecting the region from Communist expansionism. Therefore US cooperation was sought as a source of necessary resources, but at the same time the British were bound to protect British based business interests against US competition, not least because of their valuable impact on the value of Sterling. The Attlee administrations' endeavour to obtain US cooperation however often proved to be ineffective because of the US government's reluctance to be involved in this particular part of Asia.\ud In practice, government assistance to and protection of business were not always possible in the aftermath of the war and firms needed to transform themselves to adapt to new times. Despite this, the two worked closely together and the British government often showed a great willingness to provide moral and practical support for British enterprises. In retrospect, this cooperation only worked where the demands of business did not conflict with the interests and policy of government, and under such circumstances, business was seldom satisfied. Those firms that did survive achieved this primarily by implementing their own strategies and some accomplished a great deal throughout the 1950s and beyond

Topics: DS, HD
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