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The article examines aspects of government policy in different parts of colonial south-east Asia, and in nominally independent Siam (Thailand) in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The emphasis is on taxation and expenditure policies, and their implications for the development of infrastructure and also for the welfare of indigenous populations. Attention is also given to the impact of government regulation of both factor and product markets. On the basis of the empirical evidence, the article argues that the traditional view of the colonial state as a ‘night watchman’ was not applicable to most parts of south-east Asia after 1900. Governments were increasingly involved in implementing policies that today would be considered developmental, including building infrastructure and improving access to secular education and modern health care for the indigenous populations. But given the resources that they had, or had the potential to mobilize, more could have been achieved.