Car crashes don’t usually spark political firestorms – unless they involve Ferraris in Asia.
A series of accidents involving premier driving machines in Singapore, China and Thailand has unleashed a wave of clashes that highlight the growing divide between the well-protected super-rich and masses of the poor.
The latest crash is in Thailand. According to the Bangkok Post, a grandson of Chaleo Yoovidhya, the billionaire founder of the Red Bull energy drink, was driving his black Ferrari in Bangkok at 5 a.m. Monday when he hit a policeman on a motorcycle.
After hitting the officer, the Ferrari dragged his body for 200 yards. The officer died of a broken neck and multiple broken bones.
The grandson, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, fled the scene and police later followed the trail of oil from the car to his family home. Yet a police inspector allegedly helped make Vorayuth’s family driver a scapegoat in the crash. After the cover-up was discovered, the inspector was “transferred to an inactive post” and the police are now promising an impartial investigation.
Amid a public uproar, the deputy police chief is vowing not to give “leniency simply because it involves a wealthy family.” Voyaruth was released on $16,000 bail. (Read more: The World's Most Expensive Car Crash)
Another Ferrari crash, this one in China, has also touched off controversy. The South China Morning Post reports that on March 18, a speeding black Ferrari crashed in Beijing. The driver, who was half-naked at the time, was killed. His two women passengers, also reportedly naked or half-naked, were seriously injured.
The details of the crash were kept under wraps for months. According to the Post, the name that appeared on the death certificate of the driver (“Jia”) was fake. But the Post says the real driver was Ling Gu, son of Ling Jihua, a top deputy to President Hu Jintao.
The story of potential sex games in a speeding Ferrari – owned by the son of an official who made a modest official salary – only added to growing criticism in China over the reckless new class of political rich.
As the facts came to light, Ling was given a new post in the government that the Post said was “largely symbolic.”
Both crashes come on the heels of an equally symbolic crash in Singapore. As Youtube viewers know, a wealthy Chinese investor named Ma Chi raced through a red light in Singapore at 4 a.m. and struck a taxi, which then hit a motorcycle. Ma Chi, the taxi driver, and the motorcycle rider all died.
The crash set off a fierce debate over all the wealthy foreign residents (especially Chinese) who are descending on the island. Amid widespread criticism of the “locusts” invading Singapore, a Singaporean government official attended the wake of the taxi driver.
Why are Ferrari crashes inspiring so much debate in Asia?
Cars have become a prominent status symbol among the new rich in Asia, rolling symbols of the vast wealth that's been created (at least for some) during the past decade. While the self-made rich are often respected in Asia, wealth that comes from political connections or inheritance is coming under increasing attack.
Reports of rich silver-spoons crashing around in Ferraris only leads to the perception of a new class of reckless but well-protected princelings. (Read more: Rich Kids of Instagram)
Yang Dali, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, told me that politicians in China and Asia are especially anxious about the Ferrari crashes, since they can foment populist anger.
"These Ferrari crashes, the cover-ups, show the abuse of some of the rich," he said. "The politicians do not want this kind of thing public."
-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter: @robtfrank