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Commentary » International

Asian democracy: fact or figment of the imagination?

A debate between two Asian leaders is still unresolved

Asian democracy: fact or figment of the imagination?

Kim Dae-jung (left) and Lee Kuan Yew (file pictures: Wikimedia Commons)

Cristian Martini Grimaldi, Seoul International

June 25, 2014

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In political terms, Asia has it all: the world’s largest functioning democracy (India), the world’s most ruthless totalitarian state (North Korea) and everything in between, from centrally controlled authoritarian fortresses (China, Laos, Vietnam) to wannabe democracies (Indonesia) to amorphous muddles where vote buying and corruption are rife, and a political appointment is seen as nothing more or less than a ticket for the gravy train (Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines).

Which of these systems -- or non-systems -- is most likely to prevail across the continent?

This age-old question gave rise to a memorable dispute 20 years ago, between the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, and Kim Dae-jung, who later became president of South Korea.

In a 1994 interview, Lee Kuan Yew said he believed that Western democracy could simply never adapt to the Asian cultural context.

The Berlin Wall had fallen five years earlier, giving rise to a feeling in some quarters that the Cold War was over and Marxism was a busted flush. It was almost taken for granted that Western liberal democracy was set to take its rightful place as the global norm of government.

Lee Kuan Yew doubted this. He contended that the mentality of people in Asia and their cultures simply do not fit that model of governance. According to Lee, Asian countries have a predisposition toward a political system that is headed by a single party rather than a pluralist system.

Moreover, he contended, Asians value social harmony and consensus over the debate and dissent that typifies democracies. Perhaps above all, they are more concerned with socio-economic welfare than civil liberties and human rights.

He truly believed that people in Asia have a natural compatibility with authoritarian governments. Of course, as the autocratic ruler of Singapore for three decades without ever having to deal with real opposition, this was hardly surprising.

Kim Dae-jung countered with quite the opposite view: that Asia enjoys a rich heritage of traditions and philosophies that could easily underpin democratic government. Kim claimed that nearly two millennia before the English philosopher, John Locke, argued that sovereignty resides in the people rather than the monarch, the Chinese philosopher Mencius (389BC – 289 BC) had preached very similar ideas.

Mencius asserted that people had the right to rise up and overthrow their government if it did not respect their rights. He even went so far as to justify regicide.

It is difficult to say, 20 years later, who was the winner of this debate, if indeed there was one.

If anything, the emergence of China only adds to the confusion, with its relatively free market on the one hand and a socialist one-party government on the other. The experience in China to date actually contradicts Kim Dae-jung’s predictions; he saw democracy and respect for civil rights as natural outcomes of the free market and global trade.

But if he was not completely right, Lee Kuan Yew did not run away with the prize either. His homespun belief in the ability of the Asian family unit to solve all its problems, without intervention from governments or any other agency, has now been shown to be simplistic.

The cult of the individual – the ‘Me Generation’ as the American writer Tom Wolfe called it – was born and nurtured in the US and Europe but has now spread virally worldwide. In Asia we can see clearly how prosperity and consumerism are rapidly replacing those ancient family values.

Birth rates in many East Asian nations are falling below population replacement levels. Coming generations will have an enormous burden of care for their parents. The tax base to support health, education and social services is in decline. Blended and stepfamilies are growing. All these elements have an extremely erosive effect on the Asian social fabric that, according to Lee, provided a “womb to tomb” caring system.

So there are no winners in this debate, because it’s by no means over. However, we do know that for most people in Asia, balancing economic improvement with forms of social and political life that respect human dignity and their rights is still a long way off.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi is a freelance journalist based in South Korea

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