Why Goa should look to Macao

Tags: Op-ed
Why Goa should look to Macao
FIXED FORMULA: One can be in two minds whether Goa should imitate the gambling world of Macao. While this is big business and provides a lot of jobs, the general impact on the social environment is certainly not very healthy
In the late 15th century, the Portuguese were the first European power to establish a presence in Asia. Once Vasco da Gama had traced the sealanes to India, the Portuguese seafarers quickly ventured even further east. After they had established Goa on the Indian west coast, they replaced the Arab traders in the settlement of Malacca. Later on, they established a rather precarious outpost in the delta of the south Chinese Pearl River. From Macao, they sailed on to Japan, where for a short while, they had a trading post in Nagasaki, from which they were expelled when the Japanese feudal lords deemed the spread of Christianity as a threat to social peace in their lands.

After the Portuguese and the Spaniards, the Dutch, and then the French and the British came to Asia. On Chinese soil, the British were latecomers. Already in 1557, the Ming court had given its consent to the formal establishment of a Portuguese settlement in Macao, while the British were to get their foothold in Hong Kong almost three centuries later, after the first opium war in 1842. Interestingly, when Beijing offered both Macao and Hong Kong a return to Chinese sovereignty under the formula of “one country, two systems”, the British pulled down the Union Jack in 1997, while the Portuguese remained for two more years in Macao. On December 20, 1999, the Chinese took full possession of the Portuguese colony.

Already during the Portuguese times, Macao gained the reputation of a gambling place. The Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho controlled the casino scene. For a long time, the main source of customers was neighbouring Hong Kong, where gambling was prohibited and from where you can reach Macao in a comfortable hydrofoil journey of around one hour. Once China began its economic modernisation and some people in the People’s Republic got very rich very fast, the Chinese clientele in the casinos grew substantially. After the return to China, Stanley Ho’s monopoly disappeared and major American casino companies opened shop in the former Portuguese colony. While the masses gamble for little money, the interesting clientele are those with deep pockets. Occasionally one reads that a mainland Chinese has lost several million dollars in one evening. Sometimes people gamble money that belonged to their company or to the local administration.

Of course, one can be in two minds whether Goa should imitate the gambling world of Macao. While this is big business and provides a lot of jobs, the general impact on the social environment is certainly not very healthy. When we suggest that Goa look to Macao, we are not aiming at the gambling scene, but at two major cultural achievements. Already during the Portuguese times, a cut on the gambling revenue was used to finance the reconstruction and renovation of historical buildings and to promote the use of the Portuguese language. Today, the ancient cityscape of Macao is a great tourist attraction. The old city has been spruced up and impeccably maintained private houses, public buildings and churches provide impressive insights into the long history of this Portuguese outpost in China.

More importantly, soon after the return of Macao under Chinese sovereignty, Beijing realised that the former Portuguese colony could serve as a useful bridge to the Iberian world, spanning Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the former Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Africa and Asia. This is a large, substantial and influential community amongst the nation states and many of the Lusophone countries from Brazil to Angola and Moçambique have huge stocks of valuable raw materials and energy sources. In addition, they have massive surpluses in basic food production.

There can be no doubt that China’s presence and powerful influence in the world economy is much more substantial than India’s. For too long, India has neglected important parts of the world, notably Latin America and Africa. Both these continents harbour not only substantial resources, but also large market potentials. Of course, to conquer markets and to get access to valuable resources, more is required than cultural affinities. Nevertheless, international relations can improve if there is the element of historic, linguistic and cultural affinity. India, without any doubt, is one of the three dominant powers in the English-speaking world and through this, has a special relation with many important nations around the globe.

Following this, our question is why can India not make more use of its tiny foothold of Portuguese culture in Goa in order to spread its influence and enhance its image in the Iberian world? As China has been eagerly promoting the Portuguese history of Macao, India could employ the distinct identity of Goa to its advantage. Of course, tourism is a primary target. But geopolitical and trade interests should not be underestimated. India gives far too much attention to a rapidly declining Great Britain. On the other hand, there are gigantic economies such as Brazil and wealthy countries like Mexico and Angola that will be of paramount future interest to India. Goa can make a useful contribution to enhance the ties with these countries.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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