Most developing countries exhibit precious little "fiscal power," or capacity to impose significant direct taxation on socioeconomic elites. Yet in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Singapore largely escaped this syndrome by the mid-1970s, while Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Vietnam resembled the modal post-colonial pattern of fiscal powerlessness. This variation can best be explained by differences in the intensity of social conflict that accompanied early state formation. Highly intense social conflict provided structural opportunities for states in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Vietnam to demand mere tax compliance from elites, while more muted social conflict in Thailand and the Philippines foreclosed such opportunities. Whether these opportunities were ultimately seized depended on identity politics, resource endowments, asset mobility, foreign alliances, and pre-existing institutions.