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

Unfortunately the other two possibilities are more dire. Before we turn to them we should however dissect the authoritarian case in its own terms. For the moment it represents reality, and the assumptions and propositions involved throw light on its likely stability as well as its merits or demerits.

No Sunset Clause

The most prominent advocate of authoritarianism, then, is Lee Kuan Yew. He depicts human existence explicitly as a Darwinian struggle in which the West is close to eliminating itself through its private indulgences, proliferating special interests and slack leadership. The Singapore School is willing to debate the issue in these terms, which is novel for cautious people previously disinclined to traffic in abstractions. More significantly, Beijing has been consulting closely with Singapore (population 3 millions) in a search for the secret of retaining political control while permitting 1.2 billion people to get rich, or at any rate much less poor.

Should the authoritarian experiment come off, and especially if the West stands by without attending to its own social sores, moral as well as economic primacy may pass into East Asian hands. The proof of the pudding will be that "good" government, by which Mr. Lee's circle means its own hard-headed and unchallengeable control, will have delivered the material goods and will demand the moral reward: continued righteous authority. East Asia, then, will not simply dominate the world economy within a generation but become the model of choice for less-developed countries, in social mores as well as policies. The Less Developed Countries (LDCs) will look East, not West, in ways unwarranted since the early Ming dynasty.

Order is the touchstone of the Singaporeans' argument. Without order, they say, there can be no certainty or even probability of economic advance. If order breaks down, at least in China, there will be what China's rulers have always feared, turmoil, and maybe a resumption of the suffering, starvation, and warlordism that in any case lie only a couple of generations back. Rather than that, let the people feel the smack of "good" government and live under the sway of philosopher-kings.

These are not irrelevant matters. Shorn of the Singapore School's contempt for the West; shorn of specious appeals to an unchangeable sinitic personality and "4,000 years of Chinese history"; and even absent the self-interest of officials close enough to power to bathe in its glow, East Asia does indeed walk a tightrope over an abyss. With fourteen million additional unemployed peasants fetching up in China's interior cities every year, the authorities do have a duty as well as an interest in maintaining public order. The threat of turmoil among the masses, rather than student protest, was probably Deng's fear when he reacted in Tiananmen Square.

Less clear is it that detention without trial, a muzzled press and other unfreedoms arise from a similar threat in tiny Singapore. What is more, it has not been shown that economic growth would decelerate in places like Singapore given greater democracy and more popular rights. A distaste for what some individuals might do with their lives, given the choice, is being permitted to obscure the benefits of freedoms. Those benefits include wider, potentially self-correcting, public discussion of the methods and aims of policy.

The authoritarian argument is by no means fully persuasive. Were the case to be granted, safeguards to ensure a genuine intention of ultimately relaxing the grip would still be needed--since, whatever the justifications for control at present, it is disingenuous to
imply that Asians positively like regimes where political activity must take place beneath a Damocles Sword. It is dangerous to believe that Asians can be expected to remain quiet for ever under leaders who retain office by such means, at any rate without steadily increasing surveillance and policing. "Preference falsification" of the type that marked Soviet rule may make it seem so, but authoritarian rulers are likely to be told what they wish to hear.

Where, then, is the sunset clause? Lee Kuan Yew gives varying answers, suggesting that it may be one hundred years before Asians can be trusted with individual Western-style freedoms though claiming elsewhere that, whereas China, India and Indonesia's people will need ninety years to learn how to handle modernity in a balanced way, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore may need only thirty years. He thus foreshadows the emergence of "universal" values after a century even
in China. This seems to admit that individual rights will finally come, though with luck not yet, rather like St. Augustine's chastity, and that when they do they will not cause society to decay as it has in the West. There is no acknowledgement that the already-educated may be trusted to compete responsibly for the votes of the less educated.

The standing and motives of Western countries with respect to the promotion of democracy and human rights are not, for present purposes, much to the point. The supposed motives are dismissed by the Singapore School as commercial (attempts to raise labor costs in competing countries), culturally imperialistic, and hypocritical (given the social problems in the West itself and its willingness to indulge similar authoritarian behavior on behalf of the Saudi Arabias of the world). The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir, calls for a Europe Watch, an America Watch and an Australia Watch, if there is to be an Asia Watch.

The tabescence of society in the West is indeed much as these people portray it. The record of unemployment, homelessness, beggary, and crime does not need to be rehearsed. Not the cost but a lack of will gets in the way of solutions; Western countries were poorer in the late 1940s and 1950s, but they were then more cohesive, safer, and more salubrious. The West's present faults do shame us. They erode, though they do not quite nullify, our right to carp at others. Even to many Western eyes the spectacle of a German leader bargaining for human rights in Beijing must seem ludicrous. The line-up for an Oxford lecture series on human rights, which includes one historian known for describing the executions of the French Terror as "glorious," must give rise to suspicions that this is another of those issues which underemployed Western Marxists would like to capture. At the other political extreme is the surely cynical "cautioning" of Washington by the Australian Prime Minister not to take a hard-line stance on Indonesian human rights' issues.

Defects of Authoritarianism

But two wrongs do not make a right, and the injustices in West and East remain incommensurable. Authoritarianism fails to address its own greater defects. Its proponents ask us to forget the processes of government and measure only by outcomes, defined as superior materialism and social order. The West is enjoined to keep its mouth shut and put its own shabby house in order. Admonitions and trade sanctions directed anywhere else are "interferences."

An inconsistency soon appears in what the Singapore School, at least, would wish the West to do. Withdrawing the American navy from the eastern seas would not suit it at all. The United States, then, must pay to hold the ring, for it has interests in open sea-lanes and Asian peace, but it must abstain from criticizing those for whom it thus bears the external shield. Presumably Asia may then get on with becoming still more competitive, without footing the bill for maritime policing.

The more central problems which the stated case for authoritarianism fails to address, beyond the lack of a clear statement of how and when its dissolution may be anticipated, are as follows. First, no guarantee is offered, nor of course can be offered, that the growth which it claims to engender will go on being delivered. Continued growth would require the leadership to be able always to resist pleas for bail-outs from special interests, ignore false signals, and place only winning bets on the industries it would like to promote or see wound down. The economic prospects which appear so good are actually
ambiguous. Serious miscalculations have been made, notably the Japanese persistence with mainframes when the United States shifted to personal computers. With industry policy, any mistake will be industry-wide. East Asia has been lucky, but if mistakes are made the non-market disciplines on its policy-makers may be too weak to offset them.

Authoritarian government has delivered economic growth in much of post-war island and peninsular Asia, but almost never did so
throughout the economic history of the Confucian world. "Old-style Confucianism of the wrong sort" is the Singapore School's response, but we may suspect that the circumstances of the post-war world have more to do with modern success than does a style of government which, as of old, involves the suppression of freedoms and an absence of impartial law.

Mr. Lee believes that guanxi (connections) substitute for law. Guanxi always have been a substitute for law in China, but incompletely. I believe that the lack of contract law was one cause of China's long history of expansion without real growth, and may yet restrict the market. The current enthusiasm for investing in China, though new in scale and sustained because the Overseas Chinese entered when the West and (less so) Japan were scared off by Tiananmen, is not entirely unprecedented. The Overseas Chinese could develop guanxi and make money by exploiting imperfections in Chinese markets. For Westerners, this virtual feeding frenzy should not obscure the remaining distortions and risks of investing in a country where personal and political contacts replace black-letter law.

Essay Types: Essay