I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of abrdn Asia Focus plc (AAS) since 2020, and as Chair since the AGM last November. When I was asked to write this piece I considered how I might best draw together a number of thoughts, explaining my love for, and belief in Asia, and also the true value of diversity that comes from diverse backgrounds.

I was lucky enough to serve my country as a British diplomat for over a decade in the 1990s/2000s, and I witnessed the sacrifice of both our own troops and local populations in various conflicts across the world. Given my Tamil heritage, I’ve always been drawn back to Asia, our ties with it and its importance in both Britain’s historical narrative and its future one, something which I fear we may have forgotten. As a country, the Asian story is part of Britain; just look at the number of Asian-heritage staff in the NHS or our current Prime Minister as living examples.

So when I suffer racial abuse – as happened recently outside my home – my reaction is one of sadness rather than anger. I’m drawn back to memories of Singapore, to the Commonwealth War Graves at Kranji, a place I often wander around when I am in Singapore. Row upon row of gleaming white marble headstones set upon a green hillside, with a vista across the Johor Straits towards the tower blocks of Johor Bahru and the Malaysian hinterland, a constant reminder of the eternal bonds between Britain and Asia.

Brothers in arms

Of the c.24,000 casualties whose names are etched on the memorial that sits at the hillside’s highest point, there are over one hundred Singhs, a score of Krishnas and over a dozen Youngs. Of the c.4,000 that lie buried on that verdant hillside, there are over a dozen Lims, a score of Taylors, a dozen Muhammad Khans – brothers-in-arms defending this dynamic corner of Asia interred, to adapt Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, in a corner of their own “foreign field”.

Britain’s foremost military stronghold in Asia, it was entrusted to keep the sea lanes open, to allow trade to, from and within Asia to flourish. Then, as now, Asia mattered to Britain, Asian trade drove the British economy and British wealth. 8 February 1942 came as a massive shock – to Britain and to Asia. With the expectation of naval attack, the British defensive batteries were mostly pointing south.

The surprise main attack, however, fell to the less-fortified, north-west of the island, defended by 22nd and 27th Australian brigades. By the evening of 10 February, British and Commonwealth forces had fallen back south of Bukit Timah and to the edges of the city itself. A new defensive line of Commonwealth troops formed on the perimeter of the city: a heroic company of Malays from the 1st Malay brigade made a stand at Pasir Panjang and fought to the last man. But it was not enough. On 15 February 1942, Lieutenant- General Arthur Percival surrendered; Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

The importance of Singapore

An estimated 5,000 troops were killed and 85,000 captured in the defence of Singapore. The number of civilian casualties is unknown but, as ever, it was the local population who suffered the worst “horrors”, as former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew described it: “The dark ages had descended on us. It was brutal, cruel.” The importance of Singapore and South East Asia was known to the British authorities and its peoples then – not just as a military base but as a trading post and economic beacon. Its relevance to our collective futures is just as important today.

Just consider the numbers to begin with. Asia is home to around 60% of the world’s population. Asia’s share of global GDP is now 45% and rising; Europe’s and North America’s around 36% and falling. China, Japan, India and South Korea are all in the top 10 largest economies in the world. Look just beyond that though, and you find Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan, Philippines and Bangladesh all in the top 50, and all rising up the table fast. ASEAN’s share of global foreign direct investment is on the rise.

Committed to pan-Asia investing

abrdn Asia Focus remains committed to pan-Asia investing. AAS’s history has been remarkable: +2,122% growth since inception. Singapore might be abrdn’s headquarters in Asia, but it has a presence throughout the region, with c. 100 investment professionals based in Asia conducting more than 100 company meetings every year. Today, as at end February 2023, AAS has 39% invested in South East Asian companies. As with Britain’s story, AAS’s story is more than just about India and China.

South East Asia was an integral part of our history; it may well determine our future as well. And Britain and its peoples should embrace it not fear it.

Find out more at asia-focus.co.uk

abrdn Asia Focus plc discrete performance







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Total return; NAV to NAV, net income reinvested, GBP. Share price total return is on a mid-to-mid basis. NAV returns based on NAVs with debt valued at fair value. Source: abrdn Investments Limited and Morningstar. 

*Including current year revenue

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