East Asian Welfare Systems:

A Comparative Study

A Summary of Main Research Findings

Gordon White--Institute of Development Studies

Roger Goodman--Institute of Japanese Studies Oxford University

Huck-Ju Kwon--Institute of Development Studies


Based on a comparative study of five systems - Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore - we conclude that there are enough elements common to most of the countries investigated to merit the assertion that there is in fact an "East Asian welfare model".

Its main common elements are as follows:


These welfare systems are, one element of the broader East Asian model of the developmental, state in which welfare policy and institutions have been shaped to fit the overriding priority of rapid industrialisation. These are "developmental welfare systems".

The particular character of this welfare model reflects a particular pattern of political forces and institutions in which conservative developmental elites have been dominant and authoritarian political regimes have been the norm until recently (even including Japan which had a one-part dominant system of democracy until the early 1990's).

"Cultural explanations" in terms of Confucianism and the like are to a considerable extent ideological discourses which reflect and rationalise the above economic and political forces. When measured against basic political, economic and demographic factors, "culture" is a residual explanatory factor. Moreover, one should be cautious about over-emphasising the distinctive "Asian-ness" of these systems since they reflect considerable lean3ing from the West (e.g. Japan's history of drawing on Western welfare experience; the fact that Singapore's Central Provident Fund was initiated by the British colonial government).


Although there are basic similarities, each country has had its own distinctive trajectory in constructing a welfare system and each system differs currently in consequence.

In broad terms, the systemic similarities between Japan, Korea and Taiwan are more pronounced, partly reflecting the fact that the latter two countries have consciously emulated Japan in constructing their welfare systems, Hong Kong is a clear out-rider because its welfare system has a different structure from the rest and the government plays a more direct financing role in it. Singapore is also distinctive through its adoption of the Central Provident Fund.


Good points:

This model is appropriate to the needs of societies seeking rapid development from low socio-economic base for various reasons:

It also discourages dependency and makes full use of available social resources, including community, firm, group and family.


The heavy reliance on the welfare role of the family needs to be evaluated in terms of its implications for gender relations and the position of women. The model rests implicitly on a situation in which women are the main carers within the family and, partly in consequence, are not able to enjoy the benefits of what social insurance systems do exist on a parity with men (through their enforced withdrawal from the formal labour force), The model both reflects and reinforces a pattern of male dominance and female dependency.

To the extent that these welfare systems are re-distributive regressively, they reinforce socio-economic inequalities. If you are weak, vulnerable or poor, you are not only in trouble but even stigmatised for being so.

The lack of institutional integration in these fragmented welfare systems (with the exception of Singapore) poses high efficiency costs in terms of management and co-ordination.

The system has reflected the political logic of conservative dominance and/or authoritarianism and has been established and maintained on this basis. What public welfare programme have been established have been largely unaccountable in consequence.

Most fundamentally, one must situate any comparative evaluation in the context of the exact meaning of welfare. e.g. the options available to a disabled person in Britain, e.g. a widespread network of state support exists, may be far greater than in a family based welfare system in which the only or main provider is the family. In other words, the basic question is: these welfare systems may be cheaper, but are they producing less "welfare"?


There are serious questions about the, current and future sustainability of these models in the light of several fundamental trends:


If we are interested in the relevance of this model elsewhere, it has greater significance for other societies in the early stages of economic development as a recipe for 'developmental welfare'. But there are serious issues of transferability /feasibility even in these cases.

If we are interested in its relevance to the West in general or to Britain in particular, we are comparing chalk and cheese. The East Asian welfare model has only been viable because:

The model is currently under threat from democratic political pressures which helped to create many Western welfare states in the first place and from economic pressures which are threatening all welfare systems, not just the Western ones. In short, while East Asian welfare experience is interesting in and of itself, it is of very limited substantive relevance to the West, despite its superficial attractiveness.