Monday, January 09, 2006

*Fun with Public Law readings a.k.a how much difference a decade can make*

I became politically aware, if not politically active around the time the generation long economic boom in Asia/ASEAN coupled 'Asian Values' and 'Asian Democracy' were riding the crest of its ascendency and offering what to many was a better alternative to the 'West', which was viewed as decadent, crime-ridden, immoral and about to be elipsed economically by Asia.

This sense of triumphanism was palpable and not exclusive to Asia but also the internal critics of the 'West'. Locally, we saw the crowing when we exceeded the GDP of our former colonial masters. We started showing a form of assertiveness that bordered on the beligerent. It was predicted that this century would be Asia's. It was a small step from "The Japan that can say No" to "The Asia that can say No".

As a result, there was the Catherine Lim incident, there was the self-orientalisation i.e. Us (Asia) v Them (the West), there was the 'debate' about Liberal Democracy, where the dialogue was exclusively drawn in opposition to Asian Democracy i.e. what was good about Asian Democracy was exclusive to it and 'by definition' the West did not have. Similarly, what was 'bad' about Liberal Democracy was exclusive to the West and was not found in Asian Democracy.

Framed in this light, it might (and probably does) explain a lot of the strawman arguments and misconception that Singaporean writers to the ST have about what Liberalism, Democracy, Constitutionalism, Rights and Institutional Checks and Balances mean. Which is why, you tend to hear the old canard about how 'individualism' (which is equated with selfishness) is bad. Or how, liberalising the media would lead to sensationalisation. Or allowing protests or freedom of expression would lead to the degeneration of social stability. Or equally, how Liberal Democracies were less 'efficient' than Asian Democracies as if efficiency were a good in and of itself. Although, the last bit can probably be attributed to efficiency as good in economic terms (which it is).

So anyway, amongst the distributed materials in our first seminar's readings is something by James Walsh, "Asia's Different Drum," Time 14 June 1993 16-19. This, I submit, should be read as a historical document in that it frames the sentiments and the debate as it was. But what I would like to draw to your attention is the second part of the article which enunciates some rather precient things.

1. Even at that time, certain Asian nations had made the move to democracy and the resulting political and literal freedom stood in stark contrast to the then highly repressive China. Now, there's Taiwan, the march for Democracy in Hong Kong. And MALAYSIA is the most agitated about the lack of democratic reform in Myanmar.

But on the flip side, Thailand seems to have backslided quite a bit (especially in the aftermath of the Asian Economic Crisis with the turn towards Taksin), with Cambodia being the worst possibly, particular if Hun Sen manages to consolidate his power. However, the fact that Thailand hasn't managed to silence all dissent in official voices, it marks a promising continuation of their liberal democracy.

2. Where the legitimacy of the regime is premised upon success, what happens when the success comes to an end? How will the regime survive a changeover when none has been experience peacefully before?

A few scant years later there was the Asian Economic Crisis and we know what happened in ASEAN. There was a peaceful democratic change in Thailand and Philippines, a revolution in Indonesia deposing Suharto and arguably the beginning of democratic reform in Malaysia.

Singapore poses an odd case in that the PAP's credentials emerged stronger because of their successful navigation of the crisis. And while giving kudos where kudos ought to be granted, the reasons that were enunciated as the reason why we managed to weather the storm do not seem exclusive to Asian Values or Asian Democracy one would argue. According to (then) SM Lee, the reason why both HK and SG survived the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis better than most was because "both Confucianianist societies...had British systems of law, business methods that were transparent, accounting practices of international standard, open tenders and binding contracts, negotiated on level playing fields and bank loans made at arms length" i.e. because of the Rule of Law. If so, then the question really ought to have been, what system of government is more likely to generate the sort of institutional checks and balances and civil society that would allow for the rule of law?

3. Do Asians put pragmatism before principles? Well by definition they might be mutually exclusive, but that is arguably a mistake in the manner in which this debate is framed. Unless one believes that rights and liberalism is the antithesis of economic growth and social stability, there really is not dicotomy between that and liberal democracy.

Or maybe perhaps people had enough of autocratism and have come to the realisation that their leaders may not know what's best for them or have the capability to implement that.

In conclusion, the triumphantism of Asian Democracy and Asian Values were contingent on the good times rolling and a perception of the West in decline. The rejuvination of the West, the relative decline of the East, the failure of Asian Democracy to weather the storm has led to what we have today, the beginnings of real debate.



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