Asia's Fate: A Response to the Singapore School

Asia's Fate: A Response to the Singapore School

Mini Teaser: The economic success of East and Southeast Asia challenges the verities of Western historical uniqueness.

by Author(s): Eric Jones

The economic success of East and Southeast Asia challenges the verities of Western historical uniqueness. It shatters the ethnocentric notion, which even Asian writers accepted as late as the 1960s, that industrialization is a reward for Protestantism. The East Asian Miracle is taking place within quite another ethic, and some of the practices within the region would have made a Victorian mill-owner blush. The signal questions about the phenomenon are: will it go on; what type of polity and society will eventually settle down alongside the Western world; and what will be the implications for the Third World of this other ethnocentrism: growth-through-Confucianism.

The Singapore School

Some East and Southeast Asian officials are busily dismissing aspects of Western culture, notably democracy and human rights. A "Singapore School" is arguing vigorously in Western newspapers and journals against what it sees as human rights campaigns mounted by a West which it thinks is spiritually, and to all intents and purposes financially, bankrupt. The "School" includes Lee Kuan Yew, elder statesman of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan of the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat. Their arguments are meant to apply to the whole of "Confucian" Asia and probably beyond, not merely to the prodigiously successful city-state of Singapore. Their attitude must concern anyone raised in the Western tradition, whatever our own backslidings, for they are insistent that we keep our noses out of what they see as solely their affairs. They rely on persuading us that the greatest good of the greatest number in Asia absolutely requires the use of repressive political methods.

Lee Kuan Yew expresses these ideas trenchantly and with a greater sense of the historical processes than most other leaders show. His pragmatism is seductive. We have however to be careful: the power of the arguments and the learning behind them invites, and properly invites, a closer scrutiny than the pontifications of more ordinary politicians would deserve. In debating terms, Mr. Lee and the Singapore School are the ones with whom we have to contend, but other leading figures throughout the region are the ones likely to practice on the grand scale what the Singaporeans preach. Lee Kuan Yew may influence them and rationalize their actions, but he cannot control those who may take his arguments as an invitation to an open-ended license which a close reading shows he does not intend.

Mr. Lee has given his observations on how the world is unfolding, together with opinions on the desirability of different approaches to growth and development, to interviewers for several Western newspapers and magazines. His ideas are complex--the subject is complex--and not easily summarized, partly because the interviewing mode tends to mingle historical observations and value judgements. The core of the position seems to be that values are learned differently in West and East, with one's mother's milk; that Asian leaders are right to put the reduction of material suffering first, even if they have to be brutal in order to attain that goal; and that, although Asian societies as they develop will inevitably induce more participatory politics, this will be extremely slow and its hastening should not be encouraged by outsiders, for fear of blurring goals and creating disorder.

Mr. Lee comes out strongly against brutality for its own sake but displays special sympathy for Deng Xiao Ping, on the grounds of the Chinese leader's personal suffering and the enormous difficulty of managing a population as large as China's, especially when parts of the economy are growing fast. It is possible to conclude that, although both he and Kishore Mahbubani deprecate the extent of the force used at Tiananmen Square, Mr. Lee comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of current Chinese policing methods.

Interviewed by the New Political Quarterly (Winter 1992), Mr. Lee said that in China "there can't possibly be a policeman for every city block, so one must depend on the mass impact of [the televised executions of criminals] to bring about a semblance of order." But, on the contrary, the big population and low wages of China are precisely what might permit there to be a policeman on every block, if that is necessary. For all the genuine difficulties, it is not obvious that fear-inducing public demonstrations of ruthlessness are the only way such a country can or should be governed.

As to the West, Mr. Lee is well informed. After all, he knows English society from the inside. He is not sympathetic to Western governments who have failed to stem the worst social abuses and extreme indulgences. Why should he be? Nevertheless, the relevant issue is whether Western democracy is capable of a sufficient revulsion against its own excesses to expunge them. Mr. Lee seems to think this will happen, but only perforce. "I truly believe the process is Darwinian," he says. "If adopting Western values diminishes the prospects for the survival of a society, they will be rejected."

The suggestion that the indulgence of special interests will fatally weaken the whole of society is rarely entertained by the chattering classes in the West, but again the real issue is whether Western-style democracy or Asian-style authoritarianism is likely to prove the better antidote in the long term. As far as Asia goes, its problems and vulnerability on the road to riches mean, in Mr. Lee's view, that Western liberal ideas are inappropriate. Individual rights will simply get in the way of social progress. Do not indulge them.

While Lee Kuan Yew's opinions have the highest profile, all the Singaporean critics are tough and their views make uncomfortable reading for any Westerner. The most detailed version is to be found in Mahbubani's article, "The West and the Rest," in The National Interest (Summer 1992). Similar, though less subtle, assertions of East Asian exceptionalism can be found in the utterances of politicians throughout the Asian-Pacific region, from Malaysia and Indonesia to mainland China. We need to decide whether the claims that heavy-handed policies are indispensable in East Asia are Realpolitik or special pleading.

The authoritarianism of this region is not uniform, but then neither is Western democracy. Both philosophies may be seen as ideal types. The question is which of the two most often approaches its highest expression, the benign rule of a philosopher-king in one case, participatory democracy in the other. We may start with history, in which authoritarian regimes have repeatedly destroyed themselves, whereas much of the sound and fury in the democracies may surely be regarded as inherent in self-correction. Contrary to the Singapore School, we may be forgiven for thinking that democracy has historically shown more staying-power.

If, however, the efforts of that School succeed at insulating Asia from effective criticisms of its human rights' behavior, a new
species of society could arise in the Far East. The social form would be mass prosperity under authoritarian control. If they can guarantee growth, those in charge would be able to go on herding society this way or that by means of instruments of government ranging from muzzling the press to arbitrary arrest, forced labor, and public executions, as in China today.

Prosperity of itself supposedly justifies actions like these. It is a sufficient condition. It transforms arbitrariness into the "good
government" which, we are assured, is the choice of a populace made comfortable with authoritarian rule by its history, but which we are also told remains too uneducated to choose wisely for itself. Presumably only if growth fails will the Mandate of Heaven be removed from the wise rulers, the philosopher-kings.

There have been notorious totalitarian aberrations in the West but they were probably inherently unstable, and the rest of the West resisted and even struggled at great cost to eliminate them. Is the West (a better social than political catchall, of course) now to stand by while East Asia uses abhorrent methods to help it overtake in the fast lane of world trade? Are East Asian opinion-makers correct in arguing that the expectations and problems of their massive region, coupled with what they see as the self-interest and hypocrisy of the West, exempt them from moving towards representative government, independent law and individual freedoms? Are their acts of suppression truly "internal matters"? Are there really no universals?

To consider these matters, we will first examine the authoritarian case and then sketch three conceivable outcomes of the Far East's great experiment. Two of these futures will be unappealing to liberal Western eyes. The remaining possibility implies not merely that Asians are far from being as different from Westerners as their leaders declare, but that growth-with-authoritarianism may prove to be self-limiting.

If this more cheerful prospect obtains, the first East Asian generation to experience rapid economic growth, and its authoritarian
leaders, will have been but actors in a passing play. What happened to them will have been transient and historically contingent, not the working out of some indefeasible sinitic trait. Leaders who currently employ severe methods to reach the goal of growth may then still wish to claim that the end justifies the means, but success will have changed the context of political life. It will have had unintended consequences: on this showing, a generation or two down the track East Asia will have an evolved political clientele living amidst relative plenty. In this event, the most that will remain to be discussed will be whether one or two postwar generations should have had to suffer the chastisements of leaders chasing after growth. Such a debate will exude all the lack of urgency that surrounds, say, the dispute over whether the British standard of living fell during the early industrial revolution. East Asia will have the leisure for speculation like that.

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