Democracy And Economics In East Asia

Every kind of dialogue is related to democracy, and democracy — at large — is linked to economic development. Indonesia’s growth over the last 10 years not only benefitted the country itself, but also gave a strong hand to advocates of democracy as a tool for progress, which is the is the point I will explore.
We all know about East Asia’s astonishing economic success, both past and present. It is a milestone event, which goes beyond purely statistical aspects. It is a phenomenon that can be analyzed by politicians, sociologists, and anthropologists, not only by scholars and economists. Hundreds of millions of people overcame underdevelopment, illiteracy, and poor living conditions. For the first time in modern history, a destiny of backwardness has finally been defeated. The process is not quite finished yet: the path will be still tortuous, but a more dignified existence is in sight.
Moreover, Far East Asia proved that its own process towards development was successful, and this is the main reason why the Western hemisphere is intrigued — maybe even puzzled — by these experimental methods and outcomes. In the past two centuries, Europe and North America’s extraordinary progress led us to conclude that there is only one successful model, adaptable to local differences only through minor tweaks here and there in order to be ultimately efficient. This belief was reinforced by both the fall of the Berlin Wall and by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some illustrious professors wrote about the “end of history;” others went as far as anticipating a “clash of civilizations.” The conviction of representing the best option to improve both moral and material life sometimes led to the hegemony of arrogance and unilateral decisions. We know about many cruel and useless wars that have been fought, and how the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ dominated the economic agenda for the third world countries — or even how the expression “West and the rest” was a shortcut to simplify otherwise very complicated relationships.
This flawless self-esteem, along with a monopoly of truth, were strongly questioned by the Asian success, and, in particular, by the region’s relationship with democracy. We were taught that democracy is concurrent with social progress; it is at the same time a precondition and a result, a springboard and a stage, a cause and an effect. But Asia proved this differently, and did it by adapting alternative measures.
At first, the Western World reacted by classifying these achievements as only a slight variation of its own principles, and then by analytically explaining them as the results of a “miracle.” In reality, there was no miracle in Asia; its economic success along with its material progress was due to something very secular: commitment, hard work, discipline, savings, and sacrifices. Nothing was given or conceded. Instead, resilience and determination, with far-sighted policies, were implemented. Behind the scenes, a millenarian culture was actually a solid backdrop for Asian societies.
Asia moved differently to achieve the same results by understanding that it was possible to diversify the dogmatic approach and still conquer important positions. Standards of living improved, as seen through health and labour conditions. Illiteracy is steadily decreasing, along with the number of people living below the poverty line. And overall, Asia now enjoys a significantly higher international recognition.
Do these results clash with the principle that democracy is necessary for success? Democracy — in a broader sense including dialogue, tolerance, respect, and non-discrimination – can be essential, conditional, occasional or even unnecessary; a hindrance, if you will. Asia answers in many different ways, and a couple of lessons can be learned. First, Asia is different. Not only from the West, but mainly within itself. Every country followed a very individual path, and very often with good results. The “Asian model” technically does not exist, it is a simplistic way to describe an alternative to the already-existing Western model. We cannot categorize a single continent just because it is different from another. Secondly, democracy is an option — or at least has been an option — not a postulate. So far, the analogy with a free-market economy in Asia has been erratic, fragmented, and contradictory.
The first example was set by Japan, and its result was praised as an Asian application of American values. After WWII, democracy was established in Tokyo, together with the restoration of parliamentarism and multipartism. Japan was quickly reconstructed, so as to set the standards for the other Asian countries seeking prosperity and development. Its model could be imitated to build a new society, both industrialized and civilized. But Japan, a point of pride in the friendship between the west and Asia, was for many years an isolated case. Other Asian nations followed different, more independent, routes. Still, they achieved great results as well, even if they witnessed a delay in democracy. In the case of the “Four Asian Tigers”, economic development came before a full-fledged democracy. South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore all received excellent economic feedback from every point of view. They are considered similar, even if their concept of personal liberty and dialogue in regards to political opposition has been molded to suit their specific needs.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit “Democracy Index 2011,” South Korea stands as a “full democracy,” Taiwan is listed under “flawed democracies,” while the 2 former tiny British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore are considered “hybrid regimes.” Differences aside, a common issue emerges from their paths: democracy was postponed in order to cater to the local population’s basic needs. This process was not a prerequisite, but a consequence, and it was enough to spread concern in the western world. Within these experiences, the theory of “Asian values” became even more worrisome to the West. According to this school of thought, growth is not due to pre-fabricated mechanisms leading to individualistic success. Rather, it is the result of specific, individual values praised in certain eastern cultures. They are the values of family, religious solidarity, moral commitment, respect for the elders and less fortunate, integrity, and discipline. If capitalism is founded on the individualistic values like entrepreneurship and risk, how is it possible that a capitalistic success can be achieved with different values?
From Asia we learned that a single person is submitted to a larger entity: be it society, the state, family, or religious congregation. Still, the results were nevertheless astonishing. While human rights were considered a luxury some developing countries could not afford, in the developed world they are considered non-negotiable standards. Some Asian values hold the ability to read and write more important than freedom of the press. To have access to basic sanitary conditions is considered a primary need, more than free political affiliation.
A further blow to the rigid coupling of democracy and growth came from China. There, democracy is continually postponed, as it is considered not suitable for the current society, at least in this moment in history. The one-party system is more valued than alternative parties. The only allowed organization, the CCP, is willing to include any opinion aimed to the development of the country. That was the “Three representatives theory”, where everybody is invited to join the leading party, provided he/she cares about the nation’s good (as understood by the State). This goes to show how unprecedented growth was reached with non-democratic methods, yet another example of detachment from dogmatism.
In this Asian resurrection, where does Indonesia stand? Since the turn of the last century, Indonesia experienced dual growth both in terms of civil society and in regards to the economy itself. In fact, one underpinned the other. Paradoxically, this Asian society proved sensitive to the western experience. The reforms Indonesia undertook were fruitful to free its energies. At the same time, the country’s individual opinions, personal beliefs, and productive forces all felt liberated and ready to cooperate for its achievement. As interested in globalization in Asia as I am, I witnessed some consistent, punctual, and strong reforms. I saw more participation in the fields of civil society, freedom of the press, predominance of negotiation over confrontation, respect for minorities, and peaceful international policy. Concomitantly, I studied Indonesian GDP’s growth, the rise of personal incomes, the alleviation of poverty, the improvement of the “standard of living index.” Indonesia is definitely familiar with the meaning of “crisis,” due to its past, and thus knows how to better avoid its effects today. The country was virtually untouched by the 2008 recession triggered by the collapse of Lehmann Brothers. Even more beneficial was its inclusion in the Group of 20, a prestigious, well-deserved award and a long overdue recognition.
In a continent where democracy is not necessarily always respected, or where it might be considered optional, Indonesia proved different: democracy is better, dialogue is instrumental, and partnership works better than animosity. Respect for diversity and confidence-building have economic repercussions, too. To quote the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, “democracy is a tool,” and Indonesia proved that if it is efficiently implemented, a country’s overall performance will greatly improve.
Romeo Orlandi
Jakarta, April 23, 2012

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