The Democracy Debate: Analysing the 'Asian' Challenge

Tay Cheng Cheng


When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, it was vigorously asserted by many who supported the 'Western' camp during the years of ideological confrontation with the communist 'Eastern' bloc that liberal democracy is universally valid and ultimately the most viable form of political organisation. Accompanying this belief was also a widespread perception that 'the days of ideology' had ended or that the world had now entered an 'era of ideological uniformity'. 1 According to Francis Fukuyama, a RAND Corporation consultant and former US State Department analyst who is renowned for spearheading the 'Western triumphalist' view, the end of the Cold War had brought about "the end of history" (Fukuyama, 1989). In saying this, Fukuyama envisaged that the post-Cold War period marked the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of 'Western liberal democracy' as the final form of human government" (Fukuyama, 1989: 4). 2 Fukuyama believed that liberal democracy was spreading beyond the boundaries of North America and Western Europe and penetrating the social and cultural domains of 'non-Western' societies. He also postulated that no plausible contenders would be found to challenge the hegemony of liberal democracy in the post-Cold War era.

With regards to Asia, Fukuyama specifically argued that the countries in the region were experiencing economic and political liberalisation. In Japan, for instance, "the essential elements of economic and political liberalism" were said by him to have been "so successfully grafted onto uniquely Japanese traditions and institutions" that they would be "guarantee[d] long term survival". As for "the other newly industrialised countries (NICs) in Asia", Fukuyama pointed out that "political liberalism has been following economic liberalism...with seeming inevitability" even though this may be happening slowly (ibid: 10). In particular, he argues that "South Korea had developed into a modern, urbanised society with an increasingly large and well-educated middle class that could not possibly be isolated from the larger democratic trends around them" (ibid: 11); (see also Berger, 1995).

The optimism expressed by Fukuyama concerning the future prospects of liberal democracy is by no means exceptional. The demise of Communism had also led many 'liberal advocates' to believe that all post autocratic and 'non-Western' countries would in a matter of time adopt democracy as their form of political organisation, democratise and eventually modernise (or develop). 3 For example, in Exporting Democracy, Joshua Muravchik argued that the collapse of democracy's ideological rival (Communism) allowed democracy to gain "new normative force in the global Zeitgeist" (Muravchik, 1991: 10). He further argued that because democracy had proven itself to be the best form of political system, "rulers and subjects alike will find it harder to escape the idea that democratic behaviour is right behaviour" (Muravchik, 1991: 10). 4 Similarly, Marc F. Plattner has argued that the world is entering a sustained period of peaceful democratic hegemony or what he calls a kind of "Pax Democratica". Although Plattner chooses to remain skeptical about what he labels as the "metaphysical trappings" and "sweeping conclusions" of Fukuyama's thesis on 'the end of history', he nevertheless comments on the difficulty in "discern[ing] any powerful new nondemocratic ideological, economic or military challenges on the horizon". In his opinion, democracy "enjoy[s] superiority not merely in popular legitimacy and ideological appeal, but also in economic and military strength" (Plattner, 1993: 32). 5

The Triumph of Liberal Democracy ?

While the apparent victory of 'Western liberal-democracy' continues to be celebrated by some, many doubts have lately been cast on the belief that liberal democracy truly reigns as an hegemonic ideology. The view that the world has reached the 'end point of history' and 'the end of ideology' is also considered "naive" and "simplistic" (Pan, 1989: xx). Many of these doubts and scepticism are driven by an ever increasing fear that a rising 'Asian' power has assumed the position of a potential threat to the hegemonic 'West' left by the demise of the communist bloc. 6 Such a fear is compounded by a growing awareness that many countries in the Asian region are not conforming to the dominant liberal democratic systems of North-America or Western Europe. It is also generated by a realisation that many Asian political leaders have been trying hard to offer an alternative to liberal democracy (see Chandra, 1992: 15; Jacques, 1995; Li, 1992; Mortimer, 1994; Roy, 1994; Villacorta, 1994). 7 The perceived threat of an 'Asian' alternative has indeed been pervasive. Even Fukuyama has shifted slightly from his earlier argument in ' The End of History' (1989) and come to acknowledge that Asia's combination of "liberal economies with a kind of paternalistic authoritarianism" might significantly challenge "liberal universalism" (1992a: 235-244). His argument is developed in a follow-up article 'Asia's Soft-Authoritarian Alternative' where he commented that:

As we survey the world's ideological horizon after the collapse of is clear that there is one potential competitor to Western liberal democracy whose strength is growing daily. This alternative is not fundamentalist Islam, but rather the soft-authoritarianism said to exist in Japan, Singapore and others of the region's economically vibrant states (1992b: 60). 8

The general observation that the Asian countries are developing political systems distinct from 'Western liberal democracies' has prompted many political analysts to ask the following questions: i)is liberal democracy really the best form of political system?; ii)will the expected trend towards democratisation lead to similar end products (ie. liberal democracies) or will it result in the evolution of "variants in democratic models" (Chan, 1993: ix); iii)and if indeed "variants" do appear, to what extent can they be different before they are not considered 'democratic'? In other words, what is the "threshold to democracy" (Schmitter, 1994)? In trying to grapple with questions such as these, many political analysts and political leaders have ended up debating intensely what democracy should mean or can mean. According to some political writers like Samuel Huntington, democracy is not only "a means of constituting authority" but it is also about a means of "limiting authority". In his opinion, a 'complete' democracy is one which has experienced turnovers in governmental power. Based on this rigid understanding of democracy, he holds the opinion that the Asian countries (or East Asian countries to be more precise) are not democratic because most of them have yet to witness an alternation in political power (1993a; 1993b). On the other hand, others like Chan Heng Chee argue that the minimum requirement of democracy is "the holding of periodic select political leaders" and "having a parliament" (1992; 1993). Unlike Huntington, she further argues that democratic systems can vary relative to the cultural, historical and contextual conditions in which they emerge. Based on this understanding of democracy, the Asian countries in her opinion are therefore democratic. Chan's argument is closely in line with the views presented by several Asian political leaders - particularly those from Singapore and Malaysia - with regards to how democracy should be defined. As the arguments posed by these Asian leaders will be analysed in later chapters of this thesis, they will not be elaborated at this point. The on-going debate over democracy in the post-Cold War era has to a large extent focussed on the democratic conditions and prospects for democratisation in the Asian countries. Asia proves to be an interesting site for analysis because of the rising prominence and economic influence of the East Asian countries in the international arena. The active propagation of an 'Asian' version of democracy by several Asian leaders has also generated a renewed interest among many political observers over the meaning of democracy. The main aim of this thesis is to analyse the implications and significance of the formulation of an Asian version of democracy as it is articulated by the leaders of the Asian countries - particular those from Singapore and Malaysia. However, unlike most other work which has been done on this area, I will not begin my discussion of Asian democracy by attempting to define democracy. 9 It is my contention that disagreements over the meaning of democracy exist because these arguments surrounding democracy often rest on fixed notions of what democracy is or should mean. These fixed notions of democracy, more often than not, also fall back onto the dominant Angle-American definition of democracy which sees its minimal meaning as a political process involving the holding of elections, the right to vote and political participation. 10

My analysis of 'Asian democracy' is grounded in the argument that democracy is not a fixed concept but one which is fluid and always subjected to different interpretations. The meaning of democracy is also always changing and does not remain static. In view of the complexity of democracy as a concept, I want to suggest that we understand democracy in relation to the notion of discourse. It is useful to understand democracy as a discourse because doing so will allow us to analyse how democracy acquires its different meanings and interpretations in specific social, historical, institutional and political (discursive) contexts. Such an understanding releases us from a parochial perspective on democracy and enables us to view the current 'East-West' debate on democracy without becoming directly entangled in the debate.

Rethinking Democracy As Discourse

What is discourse? According to Michel Foucault, discourses are 'bodies of knowledge' and knowledge, is "a matter of the social, historical and political conditions under which for example, statements count as true or false" (McHoul & Grace, 1993: 26). When defined in this sense, discourse can be understood as a product of social, historical and institutional formations. These sets of conditions which both enable and constrain discourse can be referred to as the discursive forces that shape what is being articulated. Thus, as O'Sullivan & Hartley et al argue, discourse is not only the "end result of thought and communication", it is also "an interactive social process of making and reproducing senses or meaning" (1983: 73). Such a process necessarily involves power and power relations and this means that discourses are never neutral or objective but always politically active in specific social conditions (Fiske, 1993: 15). In other words, a discourse is a site of struggle and always a matter of contestation. Additionally, it is also about "strategies of power" and "resistances" (Kritzman, 1988: 106) that seek to produce and normalise specific knowledges.

Given the above general explanation of discourse, how can we proceed to understand democracy in relation to it? Democracy, I will illustrate in this thesis, is a discursive product whose meaning is derived from its attachment to other vague and loose concepts or values which are constantly and continually being (re)interpreted in multiple ways. As we will see in Chapter One, attempts to 'freeze' the meaning of democracy by attaching it to specific ideas and disparate values have occured discontinuously 11 throughout the course of history and may be traced as far back as classical Greece where the term democracy is frequently said to have first evolved. We will also see in the first chapter that attempts to fix the meaning of democracy from this time to the period of Western modernity 12 reflect a constant struggle and contestation between different social forces to produce a normative (dominant) understanding or 'official knowledge' of democracy.

Having laid down a firm conceptual understanding of democracy as discourse and having shown how democracy has gained its various dominant meanings and interpretations under specific discursive conditions over the years, I will seek in Chapter Two to analyse current attempts by Asian political leaders to formulate an 'Asian' version of democracy. My analysis in this chapter will examine the general positions from which the Asian political elites speak and to whom they address their discourse. From the discussion, it will become clear that the articulation of 'Asian democracy' is yet another discursive instance in which the meaning of democracy gets fixed and is given a particular (re)interpretation or meaning. In other words, it represents a discursive site in which a 'knowledge' of democracy is produced and legitimised. But as with all other discourses, the discourse of Asian democracy also involves power relations. It is a negotiating procedure that strives to counter or subvert the dominant discourse of 'Western liberal democracy'. As we will see in the course of our analysis, the discourse of Asian democracy is implicated in a larger postcolonial counter-discourse. It also, just as surely, entails a politics of identity and cultural difference around the discourse of nation building.

The articulation of Asian democracy is more often than not generalised to represent the 'voice' of a unified 'Asia'. Within the discourse, 'Asia', and 'Asian values' are also frequently taken for granted as homogeneous terms. At the close of Chapter Two, I will argue that the discourse of Asian democracy is 'heteroglossic' a la Bakhtin and constitutes a constellation of voices. 13 As Dianne Macdonell has commented ,"[t]he field of discourse is not homogeneous" (1986: 1). The terms 'Asia' and 'Asian values' I will argue are also potentially polysemic and problematic. But if the discourse of Asian democracy is indeed heterogeneous and the idea of 'Asia' and 'Asian values' are problematic, what explains their perpetual generalisation and homogenisation?

In Chapter Three, I will argue that as much as the notion of 'Asian democracy' was constructed to serve apparently the general purpose of 'Asian' self-interest vis-a-vis 'Western' universalist assumptions of liberal democracy, it is more a political strategy that serves the particular political interests of the Asian political leaders involved. I will substantiate this argument by looking specifically at the involvement of the Singapore government in the articulation of Asian democracy and analyse the domestic implications of their discourse. In this chapter, we will see how occidentalist constructions of 'the West' within the discourse of Asian democracy endorses the government's effort to create a national ideology of 'shared values' as a strategy of legitimising the country's dominant party political system. More generally, the discourse of Asian democracy also serves as a 'rhetorical tool' to counter criticisms made against the Singapore government.


1. The end of the Cold War also boosted an existing expectation that the world was experiencing a global resurgence of democracy. The sense of global resurgence preceded 1989 and has been traced back to April 1974 when the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in Portugal was said to have marked the beginning of a 'third democratic wave' (see Huntington, 1991).

2. Fukuyama's argument in 'The End of History'(1989), is expanded in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

3. It is assumed in 'liberal development theory' or 'modernisation theory' that capitalist (economic) development brings about political freedom and democratic participation. In this sense, democracy and capitalism are closely linked and frequently referred to as 'two sides of a coin'. For a comprehensive discussion of the relation between capitalism and democracy, see Rueschemeyer, D., Stephens, E. H. et al (1992) Capitalist Development and Democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4. Muvrachik (1991) attributes democracy's widespread success to the United States. The main concern of his book was therefore to encourage the promotion of democracy as the centrepiece of United States foreign policy in the post Cold War era.

5. According to Plattner, "the collapse of communism and manifest failure of various authoritarian brands of Third Worldism have resulted in the absence of a single nondemocratic regime in the world with wide appeal and also led to a drastic weakening of openly antidemocratic forces within democratic regimes" (Plattner, 1993: 31). He argues that "the discrediting of traditional socialist economics [also] contributed significantly to restoring the self-confidence of liberal democracy" (ibid: 30).

6. Some writers like Phillipe Schmitter have expressed the concern that "new strains are being generated within already established liberal democracies in the absence of a credible alternative political system" (Schmitter, 1994: 1). In his article 'Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy', Schmitter claimed that while forms of autocracy as "external models for comparison" had set liberal democracy in a favourable light - that is, as a more preferable form of political rule - and thus obscured the faults of liberal democracies", this was no longer the situation. What remained "are internal standards for evaluation enshrined in a vast body of normative democratic theory" (Schmitter, 1994: 57; see also Wokler, 1994; Sorensen, 1993). Given Lyotard's argument that "the need to identify an enemy makes itself felt at the very moment when there is no longer an enemy, in the absence of an alternative to the system" (Lyotard, 1988: 96), it is not difficult to understand how 'Asia' can now be constructed to replace Communist Eastern Europe as a potential threat to the 'West'.

7. I would like to note here that terms such as 'East', 'West', 'Asia' or 'Asian' are not homogeneous entities. Although these terms will be problematised in the later chapters of this thesis, it is important to keep in mind at the outset that they are not fixed categories. As it is, the terms 'Asia' and 'Asian countries' are frequently generalised and used in this context to mean the economically vibrant countries of 'East Asia' such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong. At other times, 'East Asia' also includes rising industrialised economies such as China and those in Southeast Asia, namely Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Having acknowledged the complexity of these terms at this point, I will not continue to place them in inverted comas unless the need to highlight their problematic character contributes directly to the advancement of my argument.

8. In his most recent book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995), Fukuyama nevertheless continues to hold on to a 'liberal triumphalist' view, albeit in a different fashion. In the book, Fukuyama argued that 'civil societies' in the 'Western' countries have higher social trust whereas societies (such as those in East Asia) which emphasise ' family values' have low social trust. In his opinion, societies that are high in social trust have a greater capacity to generate economic growth than those with low social trust (Fukuyama, 1995). For a review of Fukuyama's book, see Koh (1995).

9. Examples of such work include those by Chan (1993) and Huntington (1993b).

10. Even Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Senior Minister and a strong exponent of 'Asian democracy' regards the " ideal standard of democracy" to be that which "states that the will of the people is the best basis of authority of government and that will is expressed in periodic elections and genuine elections by universal and equal suffrage in secret vote" (Lee, 1992: 33). This definition is stipulated in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 20 Section.

11. My reference to history as 'discontinuous' is made in a Foucauldian sense - that history is not a unilinear progression of events that leads ultimately to a fixed and final end. For a discussion of Foucault's argument on discontinuity, see McHoul and Grace (1993: 4) .

12. My reference to 'Western modernity' indicates the period between the late eighteenth and twentieth century.

13. See Holquist, M. M. (1981) (ed) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, Emmerson, C. & Holquist, M. (Trans), Austin & London: University of Texas Press.

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