The Democracy Debate: Analysing the 'Asian' Challenge

Tay Cheng Cheng


The growing awareness that many countries in Asia are not conforming to liberal democratic systems has raised much scepticism about post-Cold War liberal triumphalist assertions that liberal democracy is incontrovertible and most likely to be adopted by the 'non-Western' countries. This scepticism has been reinforced by the realisation that instead of trying to become liberal democracies, many Asian leaders are attempting to formulate their own version of democracy - that is, Asian democracy. As I have discussed, Asian democracy is mainly defined in relation to the concept of 'Asian values' and has been justified by the Asian political leaders to be culturally more appropriate for 'Asia' than liberal democracy.

The vigorous propagation of 'Asian democracy' by the Asian leaders has generated an intense debate between political observers and political writers over what it means to be democratic and whether the so-called 'Asian democracies' can be considered as 'legitimate' democracies. In the midst of these debates, I have contended that democracy is a very problematic concept and cannot be reduced to a single as well as fixed meaning. This is because the term democracy has undergone a continuous process of construction and reconstruction, definition and redefinition, interpretation and reinterpretation. In other words, the meaning of democracy has never permanently been fixed.

As we saw in Chapter One of this thesis, democracy was not always a dominant idea and only gradually became a hegemonic concept and prominent political idea in Western Europe between the late eighteenth and twentieth century. We also saw how during this time, the predominant meaning of democracy had shifted away from that of 'direct rule by the masses' to 'representative rule'. The complexity of the democracy as a concept also results from its constant attachment and re-attachment to slippery ideas and values which can never escape the possibility of multiple interpretations. For example, 'rule by the masses' could mean rule by 'the ignorant' and the 'poor', 'representative rule' could mean the representation of only those who were 'white', 'male' and 'propertied'. Democracy defined in terms of 'rights', could mean 'political and civil rights' or it could also include 'economic rights'. What constitutes these specific rights are also highly ambiguous and always open to contesting interpretations.

Given the complexity of the term democracy, I have consciously shifted away from making simplistic and ahistorical assumptions about democracy. Rather than perpetuate, what I would consider, an almost futile and never ending debate over the meaning and definition of democracy, my principle concern in this thesis was not to find the meaning of democracy, but to examine instead how and why democracy comes to mean what it does, through the use of discourse as an analytical tool. The use of discourse is useful for understanding how and why democracy gets attached to its specific meanings and interpretations because it enables us to analyse the discursive conditions which shape it articulation, the position from which it is articulated and to whom it is addressed. Understanding democracy in relation to discourse also enables us to know that what is said about democracy and its meaning can never be neutral.

Consequently, in focussing for the most part on an analysis of the discourse of Asian democracy, I showed how the idea of 'Asian values', 'good government' and the condition of historical and cultural specificities are being attached to democracy. I also discussed how values such as 'rights' and 'freedom' have been reinterpreted and appropriated with alternative meanings in the Asian democratic discourse. This attempt to redefine the meaning of democracy as I have argued is implicated in a larger postcolonial counter discourse that reflects a desire of the Asian leaders to counter the dominant discourse of liberal democracy as well as to subvert the hegemonic power Western countries such as the United States wield. My analysis has also shown how the discourse of Asian democracy is a political strategy that serves the political interest and purposes of specific Asian leaders. In the case of Singapore, the conflation of 'Asian values' and 'good government' with the concept of democracy and the occidentalist construction of the 'West' in the discourse of Asian democracy, have served to legitimse the political dominance of the PAP in the face increased pressures - both internal and external - for greater political liberalisation.

In view of the argument I have presented in this thesis, I would like as a point of conclusion to express the opinion that democracy will continue to be debated and new or perhaps renewed definitions will continue to flow out of the negotiations over what it should mean or cannot mean. As such, any critical analysis of democracy should eschew generalisations and fixed assumptions and recognise that as a concept, democracy never remains static and fixed, but it will always be shaped and re-shaped according to the discursive formations in which it is enmeshed.

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