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

A more abstract problem connected with the authoritarian style pertains to creativity. The emphasis on order, it is reasonable to
think, is mistaken: originality and novelty have typically flourished in individualistic, even disorderly, societies. At the moment the
instrumentalist approach which diverts so much Asian talent into engineering, computer science and the like is paying off. Overseas Chinese families need no encouragement to oblige their children to enter these fields; they know life is hard and livings have to be made. Harsh experience makes them risk-averse. Authoritarianism, with its pragmatic orientation, reinforces this trait, which however is a rigidifying one.

Technologically there is plenty of catching up to be done. There is such a backlog of unadopted technology that it is possible for the Chinese, in particular, to ride free on Western inventions, adding little more than the polish which can come, as it came in post-war Japan, from reverse engineering. But this will not do in the end. East Asia will not come to contribute its equilibrium share to world science and technology (the share proportionate to the size of its population) if it remains so defensive. It will not get back to the days when China was the world's creative leader, under that remarkable dynasty, the Song.

Wesley, Schumpeter, and Quebec

The emphasis in the last few paragraphs has been on historically conditioned current attitudes and behavior. Our expectations depend on whether we think that historical conditioning is hard to change, or whether fresh incentives can alter the behavior of rising age groups. The task for authoritarian governments may turn out to be managing prosperity's unintended enfeebling of motivation. Thinkers in the Western world long ago became anxious about such effects. John Wesley and Joseph Schumpeter worried, respectively, that nonconformity and capitalism would undermine their moral foundations through success. Why work as hard as your father if you are already well-off?

This is a test which has scarcely begun to confront the Confucian world. The Japanese are close to the brink, but their engrained
attitudes are being challenged in a recession which blurs the rise in consumerism and masks any softening of the work ethic. If we believe, as historians often do, in a kind of cultural fixity, we will discount the new tendencies and rely on inherent "Japaneseness" to predict what the Japanese may do. If, like economists, we expect people to respond to changing incentives we will anticipate that novel tides may wash over East Asia.

When such things start to happen, they can happen fast--with what are known as "Quebec Effects," after the rapid, unheralded decline of Roman Catholic observances in 1960s Quebec. We should note, too, a sizeable difference between modern East Asia and the West of Wesley's day or even Schumpeter's: East Asian incomes are rising across whole societies faster than anywhere or anywhen in history. The experiment as a totality is unprecedented. The consequences too may be bigger and quicker than ever before.

The Singapore School takes the culturist line. It thinks Asians and Westerners will go on being fundamentally different. It is
disinclined to accept that the so-called "Western" values of individualism are really universally wanted. In response we may urge
that Western societies have been able to express individualist and democratic values largely because, in comparative world terms, their history has been rather benign. The history of their political and legal ideas has also been distinctive, certainly, but this is too
much dwelt on in standard accounts. The special enabling feature was the experience of relative ease and prosperity, notably during the nineteenth century, which permitted democracy to evolve. The Singapore School has not faced up to the way in which the more successful parts of East Asia are already changing in similar directions, nor how much faster that evolution is likely to prove in the twin circumstances of faster growth than the West ever managed and the far greater integration of the modern world. Some groups are already tentatively exhibiting preferences for supposedly "Western" curiosities like multi-party elections, more leisure, and a cleaner environment. The prior existence of Western role models will speed up the process.

Just as authoritarian systems fail to specify how they will get down from the tiger's back, they also fail, almost by definition, to
answer the age-old question about forms of government, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?--or as Marc Bloch put it with respect to Europe's achievement, who will bind the ruler? This issue, then, is accountability, that is to say not only when but how rulers are to be made accountable. With respect to how and when the authoritarian task will be completed, Lee Kuan Yew admits that East Asian societies may become individualistic, here after thirty years, there after ninety years, but he does not say what will be the means. As to binding the ruler, the Singapore School is obliged to be silent, since authoritarianism would cease to be authoritarian if it submitted to restraint.

Related to these dilemmas is a third set. Who is to choose the leaders? How may a society ensure that one philosopher-king will be succeeded by another? Few societies are as fortunate as Singapore in having had as ruler a genuine philosopher like Mr. Lee and making the transition from his direct control so smoothly. But Singapore, for all its drama, is very small; generalizing its methods or replicating its luck on the scale of China cannot be easy, as Mr. Lee is the first to say. That, however, is the challenge.

Peace and order are certainly universal desiderata. Ironically, we may suspect that East Asians, whom we are told admire "good
government," may be placing a short-run bet in choosing the authoritarian route, since every so often--more often than in the
democracies--transition to a new leadership is likely to be nastily contested. Orderly succession is nowhere as satisfactorily guaranteed as in Western parliamentary democracies. Historically the competing nation-states of Europe out-performed any ancient or oriental empire, despite the economies of scale which favored empires. Democratic states also have a good chance of out-lasting authoritarian ones. Authoritarianism, like empires, may prove to be better on paper than in practice. Of course, if society is no more than the vector of a Darwinian struggle, no matter, and all these concerns are otiose. The fittest will announce himself, which however does not promise that he will turn out to be as much of a philosopher as he intends to be a king. We have yet to see whether the crown will be calmly and lastingly handed on after Deng dies in China or Suharto vacates his position in Indonesia.

The Limitations of Scenarios

To cast a cold eye on the quality of East Asian societies a generation from now we require more than a casual means of canvassing the future. Yet, as the world slides off the euphoric cusp following the Cold War, seeing ahead becomes chancier than ever. Business analysts are still riding the chariot of globalization whereas foreign policy analysts are starting to cry "whoa." Both offer forecasts and scenarios. Before coming to the different visions which the parties espy, how do these approaches differ?

Scenarios are forecasts made by people who do not trust their judgement. Why ever not? The reason seems to be that whereas it is possible to believe one has identified inner logics propelling society down particular tracks (the logic of the Product Cycle will
be handy for thinking about East Asia), no-one has found a way of telling when the train may jump the rails. Notice that whereas
foreign policy analysts leave room for shocks (like wars), business analysts often tend to imply that the mood of the moment will last indefinitely.

The timing of the system-breaks is what defeats us all. Thus an econometrician named Looney projected the national income of Iran through the 1970s and into the early 1980s but failed to predict the fall of the Shah in the midst of his series. Otherwise, no doubt, his model and data were to be relied on. The difficulty, then, is to convert scenarios into forecasts proofed against such shocks, given that international politics may snarl up the red carpet being unrolled by the business commentators.

The upshot is that we can suggest scenarios but only guess at forecasts, which is what will be done here. The entire East Asian
region is various enough to be experiencing disparate rates of growth and to have divergent interests, incompatible regimes, differences in culture, which make generalizing somewhat artificial. There are however some central tendencies with which we may make a start. Thus three startlingly different outcomes for East Asia as a whole over the next generation may be, first, a strategically-pessimistic outcome in which after some growth there is a breakdown into conflict, even war; second, an economically optimistic outcome in which growth occurs, the economies become still more competitive than they are already, but political cultures do not much change; and third, a politically optimistic outcome in which growth continues, slowing down as each economy approaches current average oecd levels, meanwhile softening those elements in Asian political life for which Western distaste is evident in the so-called human rights crusade.

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