THE MYTH OF ASIAN DEMOCRACY

by Faizal Nor Izham

Although Asia as a whole will always be making great strides economically, much more remains to be seen in the way of democracy and human rights. There has always been the myth that Asian values and democracy are incompatible — a well-known fact in Asia, especially in the more developing countries — but in the Internet and social media age, there appears to be a renewed demand for freedom, especially when people’s livelihood and most basic rights are in jeopardy.

However, despite these assumptions, a more thorough analysis shows that Asian history is actually rich in philosophies and traditions that are well-steeped in democratic ideals.

While Western societies were still being ruled by successive feudal lords, China and Korea practiced the rule of law which ensured that everyone was treated fairly regardless of class.

In the West, it is widely accepted that it was English political philosopher John Locke who laid the foundation for modern democracy. According to him, sovereign rights reside with the people, based on a contract which gives leaders the mandate to govern. However, few are aware that almost two thousand years before, Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu, or Mencius, had already been preaching similar ideas.

According to his Politics of Royal Ways, the king is bestowed the mandate itself to provide good and righteous governance for the people. Mencius stated that if he did not do so, the people had the right to rise up and overthrow his government as the people came first, the country second and the king third. The ancient Chinese philosophy of Minben Zhengchi (‘people-based politics’) was originally advocated by Confucius, who was adamantly against corruption.

(© internationalbite)

While Western societies were still being ruled by successive feudal lords, China and Korea practiced the rule of law which ensured that everyone was treated fairly regardless of class. For nearly 1,000 years, even the sons of high-ranking officials were not appointed to important official positions unless they passed civil service examinations — thus guaranteeing democracy, equal opportunity, and social mobility. This practice contrasted sharply with their European counterparts of the time, in which pedigree more or less determined one’s official position.

However, although Asians were among the first to develop these ideas, it was the Europeans who first comprehensively formalised effective democratic practices, such as the electoral system. But the fact that this system was developed elsewhere does not mean that it will not work in Asia. Many Asian countries, including Singapore, became prosperous after adopting a Western-style free-market economy, which is an integral part of a democracy.

He has long maintained that cultural differences make the ‘Western concept’ of democracy and human rights inapplicable to East Asia.

In an interview with Foreign Affairs in 1994, Singapore’s former prime minister who passed away earlier this year, Lee Kuan Yew, highlighted cultural differences between Western and East Asian societies and the political implications of such differences — most notably that Western-style democracy is not applicable in East Asia. He has long maintained that cultural differences make the ‘Western concept’ of democracy and human rights inapplicable to East Asia.

(Lee Kuan Yew © straitstimes)

Lee asserted that, in the East, “the ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides.” He cited this self-reliant, family-oriented culture as the main factor behind East Asia’s economic prosperity and went on to ridicule Western governments for allegedly trying to solve all of society’s problems. Lee even stated his “worry” about the moral breakdown of Western societies due to too much democracy and too many individual rights.

the ancient Chinese practice of Minben Zhengchi is ignored in favour of ‘Asian values’, a repressive political ideology conjured more recently in the 1990s.

However, despite his allegations, it is Asian governments that are more prone to intervening in individual’s private matters. In Lee’s Singapore, the government stringently regulates individual’s actions in minute detail such as chewing bubble-gum, spitting, smoking, littering and so on — to an Orwellian extreme of social engineering. Here, the ancient Chinese practice of Minben Zhengchi is ignored in favour of ‘Asian values’, a repressive political ideology conjured more recently in the 1990s. Some argue this merely serves to enable corruption at the highest level and isn’t practiced in other Asian countries outside of the ASEAN region. Repressive anti-speech laws, such as the British colonial-era Sedition Act, are also maintained by Singapore well into the 21st century.

In Malaysia, satirical cartoonist Zunar faces up to 43 years in jail for a record nine sedition charges under a Sedition Act similar to Singapore’s. The 53-year-old has touched on sensitive subjects, including the trial of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the brutal murder of a Mongolian woman supposedly linked to the government and Najib’s controversial wife, Rosmah Mansor.

(Zunar © voiceproject.org/)

When he refused to stop drawing, officials threatened actions against the printer producing his works or bookstores carrying his books.

In January, authorities raided his office in Kuala Lumpur, seized his books and banned their publication. When he refused to stop drawing, officials threatened actions against the printer producing his works or bookstores carrying his books. Most of his 17 publications have been banned in Malaysia and he no longer lists the name of his printer — violating Malaysia’s strict publishing laws — to protect their identity. He has turned to the Internet to sell his books and continues to publish his cartoons through a news website.

Zunar has come to symbolise a crackdown on dissent in Malaysia that has intensified since the return to power of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s long-ruling National Front coalition in 2013 — which some claim was achieved illegitimately. Najib’s bruised government has responded by targeting more than 100 opposition politicians, activists, students, academics and journalists in 2015 alone.

(Najib Razak © kwiknews)

a move to neutralise the most serious threat to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for more than 60 years since independence

The use of the archaic Sedition Act was increased since the 2013 elections, despite Najib’s pledge to scrap the act in the run-up to the election. But after the poll, Najib not only promptly reinstated the law, but strengthened it with tougher penalties being introduced. Anwar Ibrahim — leader of an opposition alliance that made unprecedented gains in the 2013 election — was jailed for five years in February, in what was widely viewed as a move to neutralise the most serious threat to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for more than 60 years since independence.

The reality is that Malaysian cyberspace has enjoyed relative freedom due to a government pledge in the late 1990s not to censor the Internet in a bid to attract foreign investors. But that freedom has come under threat in recent years, with authorities using other laws to target those who speak out against the government online.

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