The Making of the Global: The Case of Asian Values Debate (2)

The Victory of Liberal Democracy: The End of History? The long post war rivalry between the American-led Capitalist West and the Soviet-led Communist East, or the Cold War, surprisingly ended in the dusk of 1980s. The giant empire of Soviet Union dissolved in a matter of months. The Berlin Wall, serving 28 years demarcating the two Western competing ideologies of post war, was soon destroyed and the two Germany reunited. In the summer of 1989, amid this ongoing collapse of Communism in the East Europe, Francis Fukuyama wrote the most discussed article “the End of History”. He argued that liberal democracy had conquered rival ideologies like hereditary, monarchy, fascism and communism. Accordingly, liberal democracy will constitute “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and it therefore marked “the end of history”.[9]

In Fukuyama’s thesis, there are no boundaries between the West and the East because liberal democracy will eventually be the only ideology prevails. Liberal democracy is the form of government, Fukuyama insists, humanity has been longing for. Liberal democracy is a form of polity where liberal values, liberty and equality, were preserved along with the all citizens’ right to share political power trough democratic mechanism. More specifically, Fukuyama refers to Lord Bryce’ definition of liberal rights that include: civil right, “the exemption from control of the citizen in respect of his person and property”; religious rights, “exemption from control in the expression of religious opinions and the practice of worship”; and political rights, “exemption from control in matters which do not so plainly affect the welfare of the whole community as to render control necessary”.[10] As his thesis argues that liberal democracy will be the final form of polity, it is these values that will dominate all over the world, either West or East. Fukuyama has many reasons to argue for his thesis. First, there are now more democracies than in any time in the history. The percentage of democracies to its rivalry systems, according to Freedom House, increased over time: 0% in 1900, 14.3% in 1950, and 62.5% in 2000.[11] Second, related to the first one, democracy works in any place in the world. Representations of democratic states vary from the South Africa to Middle Eastern Turkey or “Chinese” Taiwan. Based on the map of world freedom, there is no reason to be pessimistic about spreading democracy all over the world.[12] And third, there is no seemingly significant competing ideology now, after the collapse of communism, and in the near future. In his account on Islam, a religion whose ideology often poses a political threat in the Western mind, Fukuyama believes that its “cultural conquest” is over. Islam might win back “the lapsed adherents but has no resonance for the young people in Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow” In fact, Islamic countries are vulnerable of being liberalized and democratized.[13] Fukuyama’s thesis was controversial and many have criticized his points.

The most important one is Samuel Huntington. In his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” published one year later after Fukuyama’s, Huntington dismissed thesis based on ideological and economic factors as failing to catch the most crucial aspect of post Cold Ward global politics. Instead of expecting another episode of ideological and/or economic conflicts, he argues, the next conflict is cultural one. “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”[14] Huntington suggests five reasons to argue for his thesis. First, differences among civilization over the course of history has created the most enduring and violent conflicts. Second, the world is more connected through communication and migration. It increases the interactions among civilization and intensifies the consciousness of one’s own civilization. Third, on the one hand the globalization erodes long-standing local identities that are then replaced by larger identity, most importantly religious identities. Fourth, the Western domination triggered the increasingly cultural-consciousness civilizations to challenge the Western domination. And the last one is that cultural characteristics are less mutable. Ideological difference is simply a preference that one could easily move from one to another choice. By contrast, culture is identity and it is not acquainted by choice, but rather given.

Those two contrasting thesis represented enough the broader discourse of 1990s when the Asian values debate reached its international attention. Huntington’s thesis is based on the idea that culture matters and in this way the international system is staged in cultural units. The cultural divide determines the international relation after the end of the clash of ideologies and replaces it. On the other hand, Fukuyama does not buy cultural arguments. According to him, “the problem with this kind of cultural argument is that developed cultural systems like Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism are highly complex.”[15] Fukuyama puts forward a strong example of the implicit debate between the two Lees, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan. Lee Kuan Yew has attracted considerable attention by arguing that Confucianism supports a certain kind of political authoritarianism; while Lee Teng-hui calls on his Confucian scholars to provide an evident that indeed there is a democratic precedence in Confucianism.

Bearing in mind these two main theoretical approaches, cultural and ideological approaches, in the next section we will deal with the arguments of the proponents and opponents of the Asian values. Our focus is to see how this debate is part of a larger process of making the global trough “transculturation” where the “subjected” locals determine how far they absorb and also influence the “dominant” local. The different status between the “subjected” and the “dominant” is mainly a result of economic and political gaps. In making the global, however, the two contribute their respective share through transculturation. The Asian Values Debate: Ambiguity and Defend The ideologically borderless world system in 1990s after the collapse of communism opened a question about the future of the world system. Fukuyama and Huntington propose different thesis, one ideological (the victory of liberal democracy) and the other cultural. In either way the West and its liberal democracy pose a challenge to the rest, either as a future single ideology or a cultural hegemon.

The rise of liberal democracy as a “winning” ideology in the West of 1990s posed both a threat and a promise to the Rest, depending on who was seeing it. For the illiberal regimes of Asia, the rise of liberal democracy was a threat to their establishment. For the liberal element in Asian society, however, the rise of liberal democracy was a promise. The democratization movement in Indonesia, for example, welcomes the change in Europe and this change energized their struggle against the authoritarian regime. And the debate of Asian values was certainly part of their reactive or supportive responds to the challenge posed by the liberal democracy as the “winning element” in the West. My conception of “winning element” is important because it maintains the fact that the West has never been a single ideological unit. There were and are ideological elements competing in the geographically western part of the world. In 1990s it was the liberal democratic element that won the competition. This winning element then represents the West when it is conceived in an oppositional binary of East-West. There were and are likewise competing elements within the geographically eastern part of the world. And in early 1990s, the conservative illiberal element won the competition in the most part of Asia. This was then who represent the East in that long discursive confrontation of the East-West. The Asian values debate at all was part of this competing ideological configuration. Looking to the papers, articles, book written on the Asian values in 1990s, one would easily find that within Asia itself there were those who promote Asian values and those who criticize the argument.

In responding the rise of the winning liberal democracy in the West, the Asians values debate provides three different answers. First group are those who reject both democracy and liberalism. Second group accepts democracy, but not liberalism. And the third accepts both liberalism and democracy. Lee Kuan Yew is one of those in the first group. Democracy, according to him, is not an appropriate form of government for Asia. He argues, “what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. Democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions.”[16] Liberalism, emphasizing on individual over the community, is also not fit into “communitarian” Asian. “The Confucianist view of order between subject and ruler helps in the rapid transformation of society… in other words, you fit yourself into society – the exact opposite of the Americans rights of the individual.”[17] The second group accepts democracy, but not liberalism. Mahathir Mohamad is one of them. In his short book, the Asian Values Debate, he believes that part of Malaysian success is because of its democracy. But, he quickly added, that not all democracy is good. “There is good and productive democracy as well as bed and destructive democracy.”[18] What he conceived as a bad democracy he rejects is the one that cannot solve “social problem”,[19] implying democracy with excessive individualism. Another politician in this camp, the Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, promotes what he called “pragmatic democracy”, a sort of democracy where the government acts as a trustee, “it exercises independent judgment on what is in long-term economic interest of the people and acts on that basis. Government policy is not dictated by opinion poll or referenda.”[20] The third group, consisting mainly of human right and democracy activist, welcome the liberal democracy as a universal value.[21]

Whether it originates from the West or has indigenous root in Asia, Asia needs [liberal] democracy because this is the only regime that upholds the autonomy of the individual and the individual’s right to participate in government. The concern of this group is that non-liberal democracy oftentimes abuses human rights in the name of societal order, appropriating what to be claimed as a community at the expense of individual. Even though these three groups pose a different level of encountering liberal democracy, it is the worth noting that none does completely reject the West as a whole. Lee Kuan Yew once stated, “As an East Asian looking at America, I find attractive and unattractive features. I like, for example, the free, easy and open relations between people regardless of social status, ethnicity and religion… I find parts of it totally unacceptable… The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society.”[22] Mahathir, on similar fashion, is also conscience of the fact that not all Asian values are good. Next to his fierce criticism to what he sees as the cultural threat of the West, he also criticizes some Asian values. This part is interesting because what he finds bad in Asian values are those the liberal democracy criticizes: authoritarianism, repression of women, inequality, and some issues that concern individuals like inferiority and lack of self confidence.[23] The acceptance and, at the same time, rejection is also evident in the language of the Bangkok Declaration[24]. This is the declaration on which Asian countries were united to voice a challenge against “the human rights crusade” of the West and later triggered the Asian values debate.

The document indeed does not question the declaration of human rights, promotion of human rights, or ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It instead supports human rights both as a value or a legal right of every human being. It simply does not like that “the other” intervenes their countries or that the human rights are used as a political means. In addition to that “ambiguity” (acceptance and rejection) the Asian values debate was articulated in a defensive way. Asian leaders do not reject the presumably Western values itself, but rather “unfortunate” excessive Western discursive presence during 1990s.

The discourse of human rights and democracy itself was an excess of euphoria after its victory over communism at a time when Asian countries in its hot economic growth that gave them confidence to walk on their own way. Mahathir’s statement in defending Asian values was very deep, “Why then must we change ourselves to suit the West and their values. Why are so many in the West insisting that we become just like them. This the strong among us will not do. The weak unfortunately have little choice.”[25] Similarly, Singaporean Goh Chok Tong once said, “We find it necessary, from time to time, like a good father would, to help members of the family to progress. The West say, ‘Why are you interfering?’ but we have a different problem and we have to solve it our way.”[26] It is in these ambiguity and defensive arguments that the negotiation in the ideologically borderless world of 1990s occurred.

Politically and economically weaker before the stronger West, Asia might be subjugated. But Asia was not that weak — at least that was what Mahathir believes. If we look at these three arguments, it seems that the discourse of liberal democracy was absorbed in Asia in three different levels, from totally rejection to totally absorption, depending on whom and in what position he/she is. The liberal democracy, happening to represent the West, and its “Asian values” counterpart, happening to represent the ruling elites in Asia, interact in a way that would define the global map as a whole. The Asian values debate was the process of negotiating political, economic, and cultural power in the making of the world today, the world that is not fully democratic neither liberal.

Continued to part 3

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