In the 1960s, modernization theory was very popular. Essentially what modernization theory argued is that all societies go through similar processes in becoming “modern,” and that it is therefore possible to identify what is not modern in certain countries and to “straighten out” those non-modern aspects.

I say “straighten out” because the idea behind modernization theory is that modern societies are rational and orderly, and that societies that have yet to fully modernize are not. The task for any government or agency that wanted to help a country modernize in the 1960s was therefore to help that country rationalize itself or to “get things straight.”


One country that tried to help do this in the 1960s was Australia under the auspices of the Colombo Plan. I recently came across some booklets of photographs from the 1960s in the Australian National Archives that were meant to highlight the success of Australia’s efforts to help Southeast Asian nations modernize (these booklets can be found by searching for “Contact print album for VIP visits” at the above site).

What struck me in looking at these pictures was the degree to which they showed straight lines, which seems to me to be a good illustration of what people thought they were doing – “straightening out” societies. So, for instance, there were pictures like the following:

Burma machine

Working in lines at a machine shop in a technical high school in Rangoon, Burma.

Burma cars

Fixing cars parked in a line in Rangoon.


Studying in lines in Mandalay.

Thailand rice

Growing rice in lines in Chainat, Thailand.

Thailand road

Driving down a strait road in Khon Kaen

Thailand TV

Standing up straight on TV in Khon Kaen.


Learning Languages in straight lines in Laos.


Sitting in lines typing straight lines of text in Cambodia.


Testing the quality of lines of eggs in South Vietnam.


Plowing in straight lines in the Philippines.


Constructing buildings in lines in Singapore.

Sarawak study

Teaching children in lines in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Sarawak bridge

Building straight-lined bridges in Sarawak.


Setting up straight communication lines in Denpasar, Indonesia.


And. . . Oh no! A curved-lined rice field on Java!!

That needs to be straightened out.