The Democracy Debate: Analysing the 'Asian' Challenge

Tay Cheng Cheng

Chapter Two: An(Other) Interpretation Of Democracy

Having argued in the previous chapter that democracy is not fixed but always engaged in a discursive process of definition and redefinition, I will now seek to analyse in this chapter how democracy has been accorded an(other) interpretation through the discourse of Asian democracy. I will begin by generally describing how an 'Asian' version of democracy has recently been articulated by the leaders of Asia, particularly the Singaporean and Malaysian political elites. In this discussion, I will show how the meaning of democracy has undergone yet another major reconstruction through a reinterpretation of those values and concepts already linked to the idea of democracy and through an addition of new terms and conditions to it.

In the second section of this chapter, I will attempt to show how, in seeking to counter the dominant discourse of liberal democracy, the discourse of Asian democracy implicates a postcolonial counter-hegemonic discourse and entails a critique of 'Western Orientalism'. I will argue that 'Asian democracy' is advocated by the Asian leaders on the pretext that 'Asia' deserves the right to 'self-assertion' and 'self-determination' after having been 'silenced' and 'orientalised' as a result of 'Western' colonialism. In problematising the discourse of Asian democracy in the third section of this chapter and indicating how terms like 'Asia' and 'Asian values' are not homogeneous, I hope to lay the groundwork for my argument in chapter three that the discourse of Asian democracy also serves the 'national' interests of the Asian leaders concerned.

The Discourse of Asian Democracy

In last few years, the political leaders of several Asian countries, particularly those from Malaysia and Singapore, have sought to redefine and reinterpret the political concept of democracy and present their countries' political systems as 'Asian style democracies' or 'Asian democracies'. These democratic systems have been classified by many political analysts as a type of political organisation that stresses common good rather than individual rights, a single dominant party and centralised bureaucracy (see Chan, 1993; George, 1993; Mortimer, 1994; The Straits Times 9 October, 1993).

According to some of these Asian political leaders, Asian democracy is a version of democracy that integrates 'Western style democracy'1 with the indigenous cultures, traditions and histories of Asia. To cite Singapore's Minister of Information and the Arts and Health, Brigadier General (BG) George Yeo, "Asian forms of democracy are...evolving in ways more suited to our histories and cultures, and may meet our specific needs better" (quoted in The Straits Times, 17 June, 1994).2 In view of this, Asian democracy is therefore seen by them to provide a more pragmatic interpretation of democracy because "it takes into account the limitations social realities pose to the immediate fulfilment of democratic ideals [as abstract values]" (Devan & Heng, 1994: 23; Lee, 1992: 38). It is also said to "offer a better framework" for Asia's political and economic development than 'Western-style democracy' (Roy, 1994: 233).

The discourse of Asian democracy thus does not attempt to reject the political concept of democracy per se but to provide a "re-reading" of it (see Devan & Heng, 1994: 23). This is done by partially delinking 'democracy' from its 'Western' liberal values and attaching it to 'Asia's' own culturally specific values - 'Asian values'. Such values, including allegedly cultural traits such as "industriousness, filial piety, and chastity" (Roy, 1994: 232), are said to uphold the communitarian idea, emphasise the priority of common good over individual human rights, stress respect for authority and emphasise social order (see George, 1993). At the same time, the fashioning of Asian democracy is based also on the rationale that Western liberal democracy is peculiar to 'Western' societies and not suitable for 'Asian' countries. It is expounded by these Asian leaders that 'liberal democracy' - grounded in a 'Western' culture that emphasises the universality of human nature and individualistic identity - is relevant only to the 'Western' societies.3 As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Senior Minister and former Prime Minister, argues: "rugged individualism just doesn't fit in Asia's complex tapestry of cultural bonds" (quoted in The Star, 4 July, 1992). On a similar note, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has also commented that "we cannot have the same set of rules as being practised by the West". He adds that "the West should understand that the notion of freedom in Asia was different from the one practised by them" (quoted in The Star 6 April, 1994).

In the discourse of Asian democracy, the vague and generalised terminologies found within the dominant discourse of liberal-democracy (for example, 'rights' and 'freedom') are also interpreted in such a way that other ideas like a strong interventionist state, which in principle contradicts these vaunted liberal values, are legitimised and justified (see The Straits Times, 11 June, 1994). In advocating the notion of Asian democracy, the Asian leaders argue that apart from political rights, human rights is as much about economic, social and cultural rights. It is their contention that although political and civil rights may be considered the basic rights to survival in North America and Western Europe, this perception does not accord with Asia's historical experience (Kausikan, 1994: 49; see also Tay, 1994). On the contrary, it has been argued that from the 'Asian experience', fundamental freedom consists of "the freedom from hunger, freedom from fear and insecurity, freedom from economic exploitation, freedom from coercion, and freedom to practise peacefully one's religious beliefs". It is these freedoms, Anwar Ibrahim argues, that form the "basic for the growth of a truly human society" (quoted in Far Eastern Economic Review 2 June, 1994: 20).

Based on such an understanding of 'human rights', a strong and effective state, which is deemed by these leaders to promote economic development, order and stability, is legitimised (see Lee, 1992).4 In support of this point, Malaysia's Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad argues that the mixture of democratic rights with that of a "strong stable government" in Asian democracy had allowed for the East Asian countries to develop and become economically competitive. In a speech he delivered at the 1994 China Summit Meeting in Beijing, he said:

I believe that whilst my country's success could not have been achieved without a democratic system of government, it would not have been possible without our particular form of democracy...In East Asia we believe in democracy and we are anxious to practise it. But we also believe in strong stable governments...the successful economies of East Asia have somehow managed to give the people democratic rights without undermining the effectiveness of governments.

(see New Straits Times 12 May 1994: 14-15)5

The views expressed by Dr Mahathir are also shared by Lee Kuan Yew who argues that democracy and human rights are worthwhile ideas but should not be obtained at the expense of "good government".6 In Lee's opinion, democratic forms in 'the West' do not ensure a stable democratic system with the capacity to govern effectively or deliver a strong government necessary for development, but 'Asia's' practice of 'good government' does (Lee, 1992). Ironically, Lee's idea of 'good government', deemed by him to be rooted in 'Asian' tradition, bears a great resemblance to the ideas of John Stuart Mill, a British elite. This include his belief that 'good government' "can best be obtained [by] people possessing educational qualifications and property" as well as the belief that 'good government' acts as "trustees for the people" (Lee, 1992: 36) and provide what 'people' cannot provide for themselves .7

A Postcolonial Critique of Orientalism

It has been argued that the need to ascertain a knowledge of one's self or identity always has to be "gratified by an act of differentiation" (Zhang, 1989: 113) from an Other. In post-colonial discourse, the 'West' is frequently said to construct its Other as the 'East' or the "Orient" which is culturally different and inferior from the 'West'.8 From such a perspective, ideas about the 'Orient' since the colonial ages are said to have been shaped by a hegemonic 'West' which is positioned 'all knowing' and superior. Representations of the 'Orient' are also perceived to have almost always been produced by the 'West'. Consequently, the 'Orient' or 'East' is seen to acquire the position of a 'silenced subject' possessing no freedom of thought or action and deemed to be incapable of governing itself.

In Edward Said's recent book Culture and Imperialism (1993), he argued that even in the post-colonial era, 'Western imperialism' continues to "linger...where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in political, ideological, economic and social practices" (1993: 9). Thus, while direct colonization has largely ended, it is his opinion that Western orientalist attitudes pertaining to the 'Eastern' Other still remains. While Orientalism may no longer revolve around the idea that the 'East' as Other is incapable of governing itself and therefore needs to be ruled, I would argue that it is now a common belief that the current predominant 'Western' orientalist view rests on a perception that the 'Eastern' Other is capable of governing itself, but it must practise the liberal democratic way of the 'West'. This belief in a re-shaped 'Western' orientalist view is enhanced in the post-Cold War era where the apparent victory of liberal democracy is said to have enabled the 'West' to use it "as an international merit test" (Chan, 1993: 2).

On occasions when the 'East' has apparently developed and modernised economically without adopting liberal democracy (a good example being the countries in East-Asia), their continued success has sometimes been deemed unlikely unless they politically liberalise. Moreover, where these countries are perceived as competent, they tend to be considered more despotic and are therefore still judged as morally inferior to the 'West'. This perception is reinforced as many European countries and most notably the United States seek to prioritise democracy and human rights in their foreign policy after the end of the Cold War.9 A strong case of this would be President Bill Clinton's declaration of his intention to press for human rights in China in return for continuing to grant China the Most-Favoured-Nation (MFN) status (see Awanohara, 1993). 10

At this point, I would like to argue that it is against the perceived Western Orientalist attitudes I have described above that the discourse of Asian democracy is articulated. In the discussion that follows, we will see that the articulation of Asian democracy stems from a critique of Western Orientalism and is frequently grounded in the argument that the 'West's domination over 'Asia' has left the region "without the language for self-assertion" or the means of expressing "a distinctive regional perspective" (Roy, 1994: 231). It also reflects a frustration of the Asian political leaders with Europe and the United States for wielding hegemony and domination over the meaning and interpretation of the concept of democracy and human rights and for continually subjugating 'Asia' to the rules for international behaviour set by them. (See Fallows, 1994: 34)

As Dr Mahathir has argued : "We do not want to be dictated as to how we interpret various values in this country, including of course, human rights and democracy" (Mahathir, 1994b: 21). His views are echoed by Anwar Ibrahim who also argues that: "The West must learn to accept that the Asians are not their ex-colonial slaves" (quoted in The Star, 21 May, 1994: 2). Anwar Ibrahim argues that in allowing themselves to be "lectured and hectored on freedom and human rights after 100 years of struggle to regain our liberty and dignity, by those who participated or benefited from our subjugation", the East Asians are letting themselves "willingly suffer impudence" (quoted in The Star, 20 May, 1995: 2).

In expressing their dissatisfaction with the 'West' for its domination, those Asian leaders in favour of asserting 'Asia's' right to define its own version of democracy have, in addition, instigated a belief that the motive behind the 'West's' effort to prescribe to 'non-Western' countries 'liberal democracy' is a 'hypocritical one' (see The Straits Times 2 November, 1992: 1). It has been argued by the Asian leaders that 'Western' promotion of democracy and human rights are deployed as an ideological instrument by the 'West' to maintain its political and economic global hegemony. Lee Kuan Yew has argued that the Asian countries are being "arm-twisted" by the United States on the human rights issue because they enjoy a trade surplus with America (The Straits Times 29 November, 1993: 2). In his opinion,

The Americans are not allowing Asians to enjoy a trade surplus. All of us are enjoying surpluses with America. This means there will always be pressure from American human rights groups, a little bit of one-upmanship - 'we are a superior civilisation, come up to our standards'.


Both Lee and Mahathir have also argued that the 'West' has been "discriminatory" to those non-favoured nations and is "inconsistent" when pushing for democracy and human rights (see The Straits Times 29 November, 1993: 2).

It can be seen from the preceding discussion that the discourse of Asian democracy is not just a counter-discourse produced to subvert the dominant 'Western' discourse of liberal democracy as the 'official knowledge'11 of democracy. It is also a counter-hegemonic discourse that seeks to resists 'Western' domination. But like most counter-discourses, I want to argue here the counter-discourse of Asian democracy nevertheless operates within the dominant structures of power. As Terdiman has argued, "counter-discourses are always interlocked with the domination they contest (1985: 16).12 The counter-discourse of Asian democracy takes the form of what Rai (1994) terms as "inverted Orientalism". In other words, it invocates the dichotomous discourse of Orientalism in reverse by basing its argument on the premise that 'Asia' and the 'West' are fundamentally different (see Roy, 1994: 232). This is done by turning the tables over and associating the characteristics or values of the 'West' with negative connotations while at the same time valorising 'Asia's' collectivist values as positive. For example, the leaders of Singapore have argued that the 'West's emphasis on individualism only results in self-indulgence (see Yeo, 1991: 80; Cao, 1988: 20; Rodan, 1992: 10) - a behaviour of self-destruction "evidenced by the political inertia, hedonism, excessive ligitation and crime that is said to pervade in many of the Western societies" (Walsh, 1993). These are contrasted with those alleged positive cultural traits of 'Asian values' which I have mentioned earlier.

Therein lies the paradox of Asian democratic discourse. In positioning 'Asia' as a victim of the 'West's' othering, the Asian political leaders assume the same rhetoric of othering in reverse-counter discourse or of Occidentalism for want of a better word; albeit as knee jerk response. Because such a counter discourse operates within the same representational structure as well as within the binary structures established by the 'West', it falls within the type of "oppositional model" which, according to postcolonial writers such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, only serves to reproduce colonial structures of thought and implicitly imply an acceptance as well as internalisation of the conditions of marginality (Conner, 1989: 233-234). Based on this understanding, 'Asia's' act of 'nativism' so to speak, is seen to inhabit and perpetuate the repressive 'Western' structures of thought.13

In any case, the discourse of Asian democracy as I have clearly shown throughout this discussion clearly picks up the 'East-West' binary and fashions it as a counter-hegemonic discourse. Through the discourse of Asian democracy, the Asian leaders are able to delineate a cultural and political boundary that separates 'Asia' from the 'West'. This separation of the 'West' as a "distinct community" permits the Asian leaders to establish a "sense of shared [Asian] identity" or a sense of "Asian consciousness" (Singh, 1971: 1981). As Sarup has argued, identities are always limited by borders and boundaries (1994: 95) and it is only by defining these boundaries that one is able to draw the line and determine what or who one is and is not. Thus, through the reification of the difference between 'Asia' and the 'West', the Asian leaders are able to define for 'Asia' an identity in relation to what they think it should or should not be.

Problematising Asian Democratic Discourse

Our discussion so far has shown that the discourse of Asian democracy operates within the binary structures of the 'East' ('Asia') versus the 'West', 'Asian values' versus 'Western values' and 'Asian democracy' versus 'Western democracy'. The counter-hegemonic discourse of Asian democracy, articulated by the Asian political leaders, also tend to represent 'Asia' or 'Asians' as if they are unified and unproblematic. But as Stuart Hall has argued, "our ideas of 'East' and 'West' have never been free of myth and fantasy, even to do this day, they are not primarily ideas about place and geography" (Hall, 1992; 85). Moreover, as much as the discourse of Asian democracy attempts to treat 'Asia' and 'Asians' as a single entity, it is important to note as well that "far from being monolithic bloc", the historical, political and cultural differences of the Asian countries "overwhelm their similarities" (Emmerson, 1994: 3).14

In addition, what appears to be the unified 'voice' of Asia in the discourse of Asian democracy is also but a blinkered perception. Asian democracy is not homogeneous and does not flow from a single monolithic view and position of the Asian countries. On the contrary, it should be said that Asian democratic discourse constitutes a constellation of voices. These voices, as my discussion thus far has indicated, are predominantly those of the Singaporean and Malaysian political leaders Even then, the leaders of these two countries do not always agree.

The heterogeneity of the discourse of Asian democracy is reflected in a meeting, held in Bangkok and attended by representatives from various Asian countries, prior to a Human Rights conference organised by the United Nations in Vienna in 1993 (see Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 June, 1993: 5, 16-27). At the Bangkok meeting, many spokespersons from Asian nongovernmental groups spoke up against the proposal by several Asian political leaders to establish an alternative Asian version of democracy and understanding of fundamental human rights. It was the contention of these representatives that the 'Asian concept' of democracy was a "facade for the suppression of democratic aspirations" (Walsh, 1993: 34).

Another obvious manifestation of the polysemy of ideas existing between the Asian countries over the political concept of democracy is the different opinions of Lee Kuan Yew and the President of Philippines, Fidel Ramos. While Lee Kuan Yew, a prominent spokesperson for 'Asia', fervently advocates the idea of 'Asian democracy' and has indeed played a significant role in shaping its form, his views are not shared by Fidel Ramos, also a prominent Asian political figure. Ramos disagrees with Lee that democracy is not a necessary condition for development. According to Lee, democracy had in many cases not led to development in many developing countries because the democratic government established in these countries have not ensured stability and enforced "discipline" - a condition he deemed to be necessary for development. Based on this assumption, Lee privileges the importance of imposing strong state discipline on society over the implementation of democracy in the effort to promote economic development. Ramos on the other hand, disagrees with Lee on this matter. In Ramos' opinion, "democracy evokes from citizens a discipline of its own". He also commented that it was "the better for being voluntary and not imposed from above" (quoted in Far Eastern Economic Review, 10 December, 1992; see also The Straits Times, 17 November, 1992: 15, 21 November, 1992: 2, 3 December, 1992: 17).

Notwithstanding the generalisations that have been made, I will argue that the 'Asia' and 'West' discursive divide existing in the discourse of Asian democracy represent what Said (1993: 60) calls "contrapuntal ensembles" and partakes in a "rhetoric and politics of blame" (Said, 1993: 60, 19); (see also, Lam, 1993). As we will see in the following chapter, the process of counter-othering and the 'West' versus 'Asia' binary in the discourse of Asian democracy can be deployed by the respective Asian political elites to fit their own political agendas. That is to say, Asian democracy has not just been strategically deployed by the Asian political leaders to serve the Asian political leaders' apparent purpose of consolidating a regional or shared cultural identity for 'Asia', but it also serves the 'national' interests of these Asian political leaders. 15


1. In the discourse of Asian democracy, 'Western-style democracy' or 'Western democracy' is more often than not synonymous with 'Western liberal democracy'.

2. Quote taken from speech delivered by BG Yeo at the opening of the conference 'The Rise of Industrial Asia' on 16 June, 1994. For the full text of his speech, see Speeches, 18(3), 1994.

3. The term 'West' or 'Western' tends to be generalised in Asian democratic discourses as a unified and homogeneous entity. However, it has been argued that the term is a complex idea with no simple or single meaning (see Hall, 1992). I will argue later in this chapter that although the concepts 'West' (and 'East' or 'Asia') are not homogeneous, their fixation as binary oppositions are a necessary condition of the discourse.

4. See also The Straits Times, 21 November, 1992.

5. For the full text of Dr Mahathir's speech, see New Straits Times, 12 May, 1994: 14-15. See also International Herald Tribune, 17 May, 1994: 6.

6. As with most other terms and concepts associated with the idea of democracy, the term 'good government' is a problematic one and has been defined in ways which both complement and conflict democracy, depending on how democracy is chosen to be interpreted.

7. The argument posed by Indonesia's President Suharto falls along similar lines. As Sebastian argues, "For Mr suharto, one of the fundamental tenets of 'good government' is the need to provide individuals with what they cannot provide for themselves: a safe and stable society for a secure life" (1995: 44).

8. See Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). In this book, Said focuses his analysis of 'the Orient' on the Middle East. His concept of 'Orientalism' has however been appropriated and adopted by many to mean those Western discourses that seek to represent or speak for the 'Eastern' Other as opposite to the Occidental 'Self'.

9. For a discussion on the role the United States in "exporting democracy", see Muravchik, J. (1991) Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny, Washington, D.C., The AEI Press; Diamond, L. (1994) 'The Global Imperative: Building a Democratic World Order'. Current History, 93(579): 1-7.

10. It has been argued that 'Western governments' have intensified their push for human rights and democracy because they "are no longer constrained in their efforts to advance their fundamentals for fear of driving countries into Moscow's hands" (Kausikan, 1993: 45). Furthermore, 'Western' government's are also faced with increasing pressure from the Western public, human rights activists from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other interests groups and the news media to take an active approach.

11. 'Official knowledges', as McHoul and Grace explain, "work as instruments of 'normalisation'" that continually attempts to "manoeuvre populations into 'correct' and 'functional forms of thinking and acting" (McHoul & Grace, 1993: 17).

12. Similar critiques have been made concerning the complicity of East Asian counter-hegemonic discourses vis-ˆ-vis dominant Anglo-American narratives. See Berger (1995: 12-13); Dirlik (1994: 51-52).

13. Spivak and Bhabha argue for a form of analysis that "brings the margin into the centre" rather than "obediently adopting a marginal place in itself". They propose applying a "deconstructive critique to the dominant self-histories of the West" which aims to expose the "inner principles of weakness within Orientalism" (Conner, 1989: 233). Such a method focuses not on the "countervailing strength of a marginal position but on the internal contradictions within dominant Western forms of knowledge, though powerful, has been argued to "run the risk of discrediting the energies of self-affirmation that provide the impetus to revolt against exclusion and oppression" (Connor, 1989: 234).

14. For discussions on 'Asian values' and the 'Asian Way' see The Economist, 28 May, 1994; Datta-Ray (1994); Chan (1994).

15. On a slightly different tangent, Gary Rodan has argued that the proclaimed cultural dichotomy between 'East' and 'West' has obscured an "apparent convergence of political ideologies". He argues that "with nearly every attempt by self-proclaimed Asian leaders to specify a set of 'Asian' cultural values distinct from those of the West, it becomes clear that it is principally conservative political philosophy they are championing" (Rodan, 1995: 2).

New: 30 August, 1997 | Now: 28 April, 2015