Liberal Democracy in Asia: A Good Idea?

There has been much academic-talk on whether Asian political culture makes liberal democracy unsuitable for Asian countries or not. It is possible to put forward a resounding case arguing that Asian political culture makes liberal democracy unsuitable for Asian countries. However, it is entirely possible to do the same otherwise as well. There are two convincing cases and either one can be argued as right or wrong. But does it really matter whether the Asian political culture is suitable for liberal democracy or not? Why should Asian countries subscribe to liberal democracy when ‘liberal democracy’ itself does not have a uniform standard in which it is practiced and it comes with its own weaknesses just as similar to other man-made political ideologies?

This article will first put forward a case that the Asian political culture makes liberal democracy unsuitable for Asian countries. Secondly it will argue for the case that ‘it is not a bad thing’. To achieve this, the flaws of liberal democracy itself and its disability of it to be universal will be discussed to highlight that it is not a perfect model that deserves universal attention. Finally, the importance of adhering to a lowest common denominator based on common principles and values such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) regardless of which political ideology is adopted will be proposed as a solution to ideological battles that occur at present in subtle, but deep terms.

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was iconic yet devastating moment in modern Chinese history, when "leaders of the Chinese Communist Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on thousands of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to stamp out a pro-democracy protest." (Source: The Daily Signal)

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 was an iconic yet devastating moment in modern Chinese history, when “leaders of the Chinese Communist Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on thousands of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to stamp out a pro-democracy protest.” (Source: Edgar Bauer/Newscom)

One of the key arguments that proponents of liberal democracy bring out to justify that liberal democracy is the way forward for Asian countries is pointing at the growing number of ‘pro-democracy protests’ in Asian countries that have non-‘liberal democratic’ outlooks. They might suggest this highlight that the political culture itself is suitable (or changing). But are these protests really a call for ‘democracy’ per se? Or is it a call due to the anger of corruption, lack of law and order, concerns of low quality of life, public services, socio-economic inequality et cetera? Why didn’t Hong Kongers ask for democracy throughout the British colonial rule but suddenly protested for democracy today under Communist China’s rule? Is it due to popular culture where the media promotes Western liberal democracy as the only standard? Academics engage in not-so-important questions such as “Is Asia ready for liberal democracy?” It doesn’t matter whether it’s ready or not, as long as respect and dignity for humans and nature are preserved in any ideology. It doesn’t have to be liberal democracy for the fundamentals of human governance to be practiced.

An anti-protester (L) shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on October 3, 2014. Pro-democracy protesters clashed with opposition groups in two of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts on October 3, with police stepping in to try to calm the chaos. AFP PHOTO / Philippe LopezPHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

An anti-protester (L) shouts at pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on October 3, 2014. Pro-democracy protesters clashed with opposition groups in two of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts on October 3, with police stepping in to try to calm the chaos. (Source: Philippe Lopez, AFP/Getty Images)

Liberal democracy does not come in a one-size-fits-all model. There is no single conception of it. The United States and Sweden, which are considered to be liberal democratic countries do have certain striking differences in governance. Sweden is considered to follow the economic and social policies common to the Nordic Model. It can be referred to as a social democracy, where culture and historically strong social norms have proved the success of their welfare state policies. The United States, on the other hand, is largely based on strong liberal policies centred on the individual. Hence the question “Is the Asian political culture suitable for liberal democracy?” itself can be flawed. Which standard are we referring to? Is there even a standard which determines ‘this is how liberal democracy ought to be practiced’? in which case if it has, we can at least analyse whether the Asian political culture suits it.

None of the western countries which are now considered as sound liberal democratic countries were a democracy when they started off the journey towards being a first world country. This compliments the argument that democracy is not suitable for countries which are either under developed or developing; in which case the vast majority of Asian countries are. These countries usually need wide structural and socio-economic reforms to achieve a level of high development. It is unlikely that vital reforms and strong actions in economic and social sectors will take place unless a majority and stable government is in place, as governments usually stick to populist strategies aiming to win the upcoming elections. For example, in Sri Lanka, continuous governments that have come to power have persisted on populist agendas even after having a golden opportunity to start afresh after the conclusion of the three-decade long war, merely to get the better of the opposing political party.

Sri Lankan politics, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, faces a challenge to unite a nation that remains divided after a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009. (Source: BBC)

Sri Lankan politics, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, faces a challenge to unite a nation that remains divided after a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009. (Source: BBC)

Majority view and liberal democracy stand hand-in-hand. However, the majority’s view is not always the correct thing. It may be the case where a simple majority of Americans vote for Donald Trump and we all know what that leads to: minorities being oppressed and more. It can be argued that the damage has already been done (even before him taking oath) by the racist and violence-promoting speeches that has been allowed under the ‘virtue’ of free speech (At least the Americans can be proud that they will have a ‘Great Wall’ of their own; built along the US-Mexico border). At the end of the day it is liberal democracy that produced Adolf Hitler. Thus, the next nightmare we surely do not want to see is that one billion plus Chinese electing a hard-core far right nationalist like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Nikolaos Michaloliakos which might result ‘Communist’ China becoming ‘Fascist’ China. Although we all ought to pray that the former will prevail in the least rather than the latter.

Donald Trump officially becomes the President of the United States of America on the 20th of January, 2017, amidst growing fears amongst the global population as waves of right-wing sentiments have threatened to sweep over western politics. (Source: ABC News)

Donald Trump officially becomes the President of the United States of America on the 20th of January, 2017, amidst growing fears amongst the global population as waves of right-wing sentiments have threatened to sweep over western politics. (Source: ABC News)

Furthermore, if the purpose of the argument ‘is Asia ready for liberal democracy’ is based on reasons such as lifting up the standards of living and ensuring a better quality of life where people who follow ‘liberal democracy’ can live respectfully and happily, then there is a point in discussing it. However, one could argue what goodness exist when liberal democratic countries itself experience vast moral decline and social collapse. For example, minorities in Singapore do not have to wage campaigns such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and teenagers growing up in the streets of the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland) with social democracies have a far less serious problem with illicit drugs compared to the highly liberal United States.

Thus, when one refers to a ‘political culture’ and identifies it with a country or a region, it might usually refer to what is inherent in these societies and hence how they perceive politics to be best and ideal in their respective context. Thus if the Chinese or any other Asian country wants to govern their countries in their own way of governance, it should absolutely be granted the freedom to do so without trying to promote and impose forms of governance on these societies. However, to ensure that basic principles, values and rights which are universal are respected and not violated, there should be a lowest common denominator based on for example on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which every form of governance and country should adhere to. In this way we can appreciate unique and different forms of governance and share the positives within each and thrive as a civilized human society. After all, some of the greatest disasters to occur to mankind were due to ideological battles and the need for vain supremacy.

 

 

By Insaf Bakeer Markar

Feature image obtained from The Star.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of UNMC Ignite.

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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