Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A jolt of reality to Asian Dream

Apr 09, 2013
Is Professor Kishore Mahbubani's idea of an Asian Dream an overly optimistic one? One writer says 'yes' in this article.

[This article is not about the Asian Dream. The ST editor or blurb writer or whatever needs reading and comprehension lessons! This article is a critique of Mahbubani's positon that Democracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for good governance.]

By Sun Xi For The Straits Times

PROFESSOR Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, has been described as "the muse of the Asian century". He is widely known for his famous idea, "the rise of Asia and the decline of the West".

His full perspectives on the idea can be intensively explored in his books - The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift Of Global Power To The East, and The Great Convergence: Asia, The West And The Logic Of One World.

As an Asian youth, I am actually very receptive to his idea of the rise of Asia, since it gives us an unprecedented dose of confidence in our future.

However, Prof Mahbubani's idea also casts a doubt in my mind: Is he too optimistic about Asia's rise? As a matter of fact, his argument is mainly based on the evidence that some of the major Asian emerging countries (China, India and Indonesia) have been enjoying rapid economic growth and relative success in recent decades. However, I question if Asia as a whole is also rising comprehensively and sustainably in terms of political, social and cultural power.

On March 26, The Governance journal blog published an article by Prof Mahbubani in response to American academic Francis Fukuyama's essay, What Is Governance?

Prof Mahbubani welcomed Professor Fukuyama's distinction between democracy and good governance, particularly in the Asian context. As I scrutinised Prof Mahbubani's article, I started to wonder if he was too optimistic again.

Although Prof Mahbubani mentioned in his article that "democracy is a desirable goal", his key arguments over-emphasised democracy as just a means of governance.

This is evident from his claim: "To put it bluntly, democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. And, yes, it is possible to have good governance without democracy."

Unfortunately, this point may be easily misunderstood by the public as: democracy is regarded as dispensable or optional, so long as there is good governance.

[I am sure he wrote what he meant and meant what he wrote. Your disagreement with his position does not give you the right to either distort his words or "correct" his meaning. So all he is saying is that governance and democracy are independent and separate characteristics. One does not follow from the other. Nor does either mutually exclude the other. ]

On the contrary, I want to re-emphasise that democracy is not only a means to governance, but also an extremely critical social development goal.

[You can emphasise anything you want. But if you want to make a point, you need to argue for it with logic and reason. Just emphasising it, cuts no ice.]

In its proclamation of Independence in 1965, Singapore proposed the blueprint of constructing a nation with democracy, independence, freedom, justice, fairness, equality, welfare and well-being.

[You're not doing so good. Instead of logic and reason, you went into history. Aspirational declarations are not arguments, or proof of anything other than a historical fact, if true.]

Even the People's Republic of China, which always firmly declares "building socialism with Chinese characteristics", clearly states its national goal of "building a prosperous, democratic and civilised socialist country" in its Constitution. Therefore, it is very obvious that even if there is good governance, democracy is still an inevitable objective to pursue.

[Still not doing so good. Again, aspirational declaration without explanation of words like "democratic" and "civilised" means nothing. Oh dear. I just realised, Singapore NEVER declared an intent to develop a "civilised society"! We're fucked!]

China was cited by Prof Mahbubani to support his idea. He commented in his article that "anyone who doubts this (it is possible to have good governance without democracy) should look at the record of China's government over the past 30 years".

As a mainland-born Chinese, I should be very proud if China's so-called unique development model can be considered as a sustainable paradigm of good governance.

However, Prof Mahbubani's statement raises a pertinent question: Why should we look only at the past 30 years of China's governance but not the past 40 or even 50 years?

Obviously, China has been enjoying fast economic growth over the past 30 years since the opening up of its economy in the late 1970s. Nonetheless, China and its people suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 and the earlier Great Leap Forward years (1958-1960).

What type of governance had existed in China during the 30 years between the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the opening up of the economy in 1978?

[So you have your answer to why 30 years and not 50 years. There was good governance only in the last 30 years. Prior to that, bad governance. You don't seem to dispute this.]

Yes, democracy may not necessarily ensure good governance, but in my view, it should at its minimum prevent the rise of "evil governance".

[So how did China end the "evil governance"? Democratic uprising? What role did Democracy have in either ending the "evil governance", or establishing "good governance"? So your view that democracy should prevent the rise of "evil governance" is at best a wishful idiosyncrasy, unsupported by any evidence, historical or otherwise?]

In addition, Prof Mahbubani wrote that "no other society in human history has improved human welfare as much as the Chinese government".

I personally agree but this judgment comes a bit too early.

It may not be reasonable to compare economic performance between developed countries and emerging countries simply in terms of the speed of growth as it is similar to comparing the growth rate between the elderly and the young.

Although the West is currently experiencing certain crises, isn't it unfair to blame the Western model of democracy as a scapegoat? The United States has been prosperous for hundreds of years, with its democratic system as one element underpinning its success.

[No. You are not reading Mahbubani carefully. If the west is having crises it is because it is badly governed. This is despite democracy. You are still not disproving Fukuyama or Mahbubani wrong, or even inconsistent.]

Perhaps China did not need democracy for the past 30 years during its initial phase of wealth creation. Nevertheless, without a functional democratic system in place in the near future to ensure equal participation from the public in the wealth allocation, China will not be able to build an inclusive society based on fairness, justice and less corruption.

[And now you introduce concepts of fairness, justice, and corruption. It is the sign of a disordered mind that words are used without definition, without clarity, and without distinction. It would seem that you would imply that democracy is either the same as fairness, justice, and non-corruption, or leads to these three concepts, or encompasses these three concepts, or means these three concepts. It is hard to know your intent when you make no links or explanations as you jump from one concept to another!]

Singapore is another example which Prof Mahbubani favours. His article stated: "The Singapore civil service has performed brilliantly but it has not done so because it is the most autonomous. It has done so because it has imbibed a culture which focuses the minds of civil servants on improving the livelihood of Singaporeans."

In fact, the professor has listed the key factors of Singapore's success as MPH, namely Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. I would never deny the importance of MPH, but it should not be taken to mean that Singapore does not require democracy.

[Then explain why and how democracy is essential, either to Singapore's past success or future continuing success.]

If MPH is really sufficient for Singapore, then the public support for the ruling party in the recent elections and by-elections would have not declined continuously and significantly.

[Again, a non sequitur. You have not made a link between democracy and good governance. And now you confuse democracy with electoral results. Again, evidence of a very disordered mind.]

Although it is unclear what kind of democracy is best for Singapore, electorates have repeatedly used their ballots to indicate a preference for more political competition as well as greater checks and balances on the ruling government.

Asians should respect universal values such as democracy and human rights. It would not be beneficial to overly emphasise Asia's uniqueness which may only lead to selective interpretation or even misinterpretation of democracy.

[Thank you for telling us what Asians should respect. I really miss having someone tell me what to think. ]

North Korea may call itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" but the rest of the world is left in no doubt that it is a totalitarian and Stalinist dictatorship.

[And may I refer you to your earlier point about China espousing a "democratic and civilised society" in her Constitution? So if you accept that China believes this as an aspirational goal, can not North Korea also have the aspiration to a Democracy? And can both aspirations be completely divorced from reality? And have no bearing on actual efforts to pursue either stated aspirations?]

Furthermore, Asia itself is facing crises. Dozens of Asian countries are still struggling with poverty; while the nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran are seeking wars.

[Appropos of...?]

Moreover, the simmering territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea can potentially trigger unrest in the region and impact global security.

[And democracy would immediately solve this problem!.... How? You're just tossing in current affairs issues right? Or do you mean to have a democratic regional voting to decide how the territorial disputes be resolved? So one man one vote, decide which country have control over Diaoyu Dao?]

Hopefully, most of such crises in Asia are just the exception and Prof Mahbubani's great "Asian Dream" will not turn out to be just a beautiful mirage.

[You know, you should just go to the comments on Mahbubani's article and just say, "I disagree!" Because your article is a waste of time.]


The writer, a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an investment analyst based in Singapore. He was born in China and became a Singapore permanent resident in 2011.

[I hope he is a better investment analyst than a political writer. Oh wait. I'm sure he is a better investment analyst than a writer.]

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