Why, according to Lee Kuan Yew, are Western democratic systems unsuited to East Asia?

Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990, and now Senior Minister of his country, commands much respect and influence in both the East and the West. This respect and influence reaches to the highest echelons of world leaders, to the vast multitude of academics, commentators and development strategists, and to the millions of people who live in East Asia. Regardless of whether or not this esteem is justified and deserved, ti is real, and therefore must be analysed, interpreted, criticised or praised while not forgetting the importance and effect his beliefs and proclamations have had, and will have.

Any discussion of world politics, especially in East Asia, cannot ignore the hows, whys and wherefores of the current situation and the influence that current ideas and thought may have on the future. Lee’s views have undoubtedly shaped his own country, certainly have influenced other governments in the region, and will definitely bear their markon the short- to mid-term future of East Asian politics. This explains the reasons why this essay solely deals with him.

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The essay is divided into three main sections. Firstly, I will discuss Lee’s ideas and policies, and why he believes in an ‘Asian values’ view of the politics of the region. Secondly, I will explore some of the responses that have been made in opposition to his views, and thirdly, I will present some observations and conclusions of my own. These observations will draw on some other problems and inconsistencies with Lee’s ideas. Let us turn then to the man and his ideas.

The central theme running through any study or discussion of his political ideas and actions is the importance that culture has on shaping the society and its structures. The shared history, traditions, make-up, worldview and social relationships are the key factors that determine how a state should be organised and governed. Thus, if the culture is different between two sets of peoples, then the resulting state structure and government type will also be different. Culture is the driver, the basis of society and the legitimacy used by those in power to decree what is best for their people.

This viewpoint is often referred to as the ‘Asian values’ system (Ng, 1997, Theodore de Bary, 1999, Hague & Harrop, 2001) and is summed up succinctly by the title of a famous interview with Lee which appeared in a 1994 edition of Foreign Affairs – ‘Culture is Destiny’ (Zakiria, 1994). The importance that Lee places on the cultural aspect of a society does not mean that what is right for his country is also right for other countries. Whilst consistently dismissing Western-, and in particular, US-style democratic systems as valid models for Singapore, he does not suggest that the US-style system is neccessarily wrong for the US.

It is not my business to tell people what’s wrong with their system. It is my business to tell people not to foist their system indiscrimately on societies in which it will not work (Zakiria quoting Lee, 1994, p. 110). This can be seen as a statement recognising the particularity of political systems depending on the society / culture in question. Whilst Lee has been described as being authoritarian, semi-, or soft-authoritarian, he certainly doesn’t make claims for the world to be based on an Asian values system.

It appears that his position is more concerned about keeping hold of power in Singapore rather than exporting it around the world. The main, fundamental as Lee calls it, cultural reason why Western democratic systems are unsuited to East Asia is the difference between the place and status of the individual in those societies. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts… is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate.

The family is part of the extended family, and the friends and the wider society. The ruler or government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides (Zakiria quoting Lee, 1994, p. 113). This focus on the moral and virtuous notion of society is stongly linked to Confucianism, so often portrayed as being fundamentally East Asian and always compared with Western systems. Lee’s manifestation of this doctrine is used by him to legitimate and promote an East Asian society based on strong hierarchical structures to bring about social and political stability.

In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy (Zakiria quoting Le, 1994, p. 111). These three main features of Lee’s take on East Asia’s political and social climate – culture, the place in society of the individual, and a well-ordered society – are admittedly affected and influenced by the West over time, and are not seen as developing without the impact of colonial rule and imperialism. … ur Confucianism has been attenuated by 120 years of British rule and education in British and other English-speaking universities (IHT, 2001). But, despite this impact Lee steadfastly denies any further infusion of Western democracy into East Asia, especially Singapore. … this doesn’t mean we are going to be like a Western society. The values are different (de Borch, 2001). Lee is not the torch-holder for everyone though. Whilst he receives praise from his counterparts around the world, there are many in the academic and development strategist world that strongly disagree with him.

Of course, it is not just a simple case of disagreeing over a matter of opinion, there are many valid and strong arguments against Lee’s ideas. From this myriad of arguments, I have identified three main strands of contestation – historical arguments against Lee’s ‘Asian values’, the theoretical arguments concerning discussions of what democracy should be and how it should be followed in East Asia, and the problems and criticisms of the actually existing governing style of Lee. First then, arguments against Lee taken from history.

There are two key aspects to this – the relevance of Confucianism to East Asia today, and evidence of a democratic tradition throughout East Asia’s past. Famously, Max Weber theorised about the particular contribution to advanced capitalism of the ‘Protestant ethic’. This, in turn, explained how other cultures, including Confucian cultures, were not suited to advanced capitalism. Clearly this can now be questionned, especially if, as many commentators have said, that East Asia is economically dynamic.

If Confucianism explains the economic boom in East Asia today, does it not also explain that region’s stagnation for four centuries? Zakiria, 1994, p. 125). Kin Dae Jung, writing in response to the ‘Culture is Destiny’ interview, identifies a strong tradition and history of democratic ideals and institutions in East Asia’s past. This suggests that an argument could be made for ‘Asian values’ actually referring to a much more democratic system than the Confucian-based one that Lee propagates. A thorough anaylsis makes it clear that Asia has a rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions. Asia has already made great strides toward democratisation and possesses the necessary conditions to develop democracy even beyond the level of the West (Jung, 1994, p. 91).

The second major criticism of Lee comes from studies of the theoretical nature of democracy and what it means, shuold mean, or can mean to East Asia. The basic premise is that why should democracy only be relevant to particular cultures and why should particular cultures have to follow other political paths? This highlights the argument for democracy’s universality. There is nothing special about torturing the Asian way… human rights are human rights (Vatikiotis cited by Hague & Harrop, 2001, p. 29).

The rejection of Western-style democracy by East Asian leaders is also seen by some as merely an excuse for not moving beyond ‘soft-authoritarianism’ and into democracy. This is strongly tied up with the observation that this is simply the most effective way for leaders such as Lee to rule their countries. The biggest obstacle is not its cultural heritage but the resistance of authoritarian rulers and their apologists (Jung, 1994, p. 194). The third area of opposition to Lee’s ideas that can be identified is that of problems with the actually exisitng state and society structures and institutions.

For some, just observing Lee’s form of rule is enough to reject his notions of what is the correct way to govern. These doubts stem chiefly from the Singapore government’s undeniably harsh treatment of the opposition, as evidenced in its most recent elections (Ng, 1997, p. 21) Also, there appears to be two threats to the whole ‘Asian values’ theory. Firstly, we have on the one hand Lee purporting to leave the individual’s private matters to the individual, whilst on the other it can be observed that his government is actually intruding into the private sphere more than ever (Jung, 1994, p. 90).

Secondly, an external threat is apparent from the global spread of modernisation. … as an inevitable consequence of industrialisation, the family-centred East Asian societies are also rapidly moving toward self-centred individualism. Nothing in human history is permanent (Jun, 1994, p. 21). In conclusion it must be said that Lee’s position in East Asia, and his reverance amongst Western opinion-formers should not distract us from dissecting and criticising his ideas.

It is not good enough to assume that cultural traits should determine, worse still, justify the actions of governments, particularly Lee’s. There should be certain aspects to a government and society that are unacceptable no matter what setting. Lee makes much of the need for a ‘well-ordered’ society. The heavy-handed way this society is brought about blatantly contradicts Lee’s notions of freedom. He talks of East Asians being able to have “maximum enjoyment of his freedoms” but Lee’s notion of what is behaving and what is misbehaving sets a Singaporean’s realm of freedom for him.

This is certainly not the freedom that John Stuart Mill wrote about. It could be argued that it is better to have a society that is not so ‘well-ordered’ but democratic, than it is to live in a society such as one that Lee envisages; faith must be placed with society to check its members’ activities rather than have all aspects of life limited by an all-seeing government. Lee’s ways may also only be suited to a small state such as Singapore. Even he admits that, within that small population, total control is practically impossible.

This for me leads to the heart of the importance placed by Lee on ‘Asian values’ and why Western ideas of democracy are unsuited to East Asia. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the justification of ‘Asian values’ is solely a political smokescreen to maintain power. It is even harder to escape this conclusion when the man himself proclaims: So when Americans tell me: you ought to govern in this way, I say thank you very much, I have listened to you very carefully, if I don’t think we are ready for that, I have to do it my way (IHT, 2001, my emphasis).

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