[ISEAS Perspective #23/2014]
INTRODUCTION: DEMOCRATISATION IN ASIA
Many countries around the world have undergone a transition to democracy over the last few decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called “third wave of democratisation”1 swept through Asia to bring about democratic transitions in nine countries: Bangladesh (1990), Indonesia (1998), Mongolia (1990), Nepal (1990), Pakistan (1988), the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Taiwan (1987), and Thailand (1992). In tandem with fast-changing world developments, both the scholarly community and policy practitioners have been revisiting the processes of democracy-building and discussing how democracies develop.
There are many theories and models of democratisation but explanations usually begin with classic modernisation theory which proposes that democracy is more likely to emerge in a sustainable fashion as countries develop and accumulate wealth. In particular, ‘modernisation’ is typically defined as the process through which a given society gains greater levels of wealth, industrialisation, education, and urbanisation (Lipset, 1959). Such a process, among other things, transforms the social structure, breeding and nurturing modern groups such as the middle classes, the industrial bourgeoisie and workers who tend to favour democracy, while marginalising those who tend to reject it, such as traditional landowners.2 In Seymour Lipset’s (1959, p. 75) words, “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater chances that it will sustain democracy.”
Yet when it comes to explaining such transitions in Asia, the relationship between modernisation and democracy—as proposed in Lipset’s original research agenda—seems to become weaker in comparison with other settings in the world. Seven out of the nine countries that have undergone democratic transitions in Asia were low or middle-income economies, and only two of them were upper-middle or high-income ones, namely South Korea and Taiwan.3 The fact that some of these countries transitioned into democracy when they were still low or middle-income economies suggests that there are factors other than socio-economic development that can nudge a country into the democratisation process.
A number of Southeast Asian countries also seem to challenge the belief that industrialisation and economic development will lead to liberal forms or a Western conception of a democratic regime. Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, for example, remain authoritarian or semi-democratic states despite their high levels of economic development and per capita income. These divergent cases have prompted scholars as well as policy makers to seek alternative explanations, in which the most notable one is the “Asian values” thesis.4 Prominent proponents of the thesis—such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Singaporean counterpart Lee Kuan Yew—contend that the “Asian values” make the Western model of liberal democracy undesirable, if not detrimental, to the stability and prosperity of East Asian societies.
The “Asian values” thesis, however, tends to be used as an argument to defend semi-democratic rule in certain countries. At the broader regional level, it becomes an inadequate intellectual endeavour to explain the region’s dynamics of political democratisation. Certain East Asian societies such as South Korea and Taiwan did transition successfully into liberal democracy despite their longstanding embedded traditions of “Asian values”. These two are textbook cases supporting modernisation theory, as both started their democratisation process after reaching upper-middle or high levels of per capita income following decades of robust economic development.
The global spread of free markets and democratization’s ‘third wave’ have ensured that modernisation theory—albeit now appearing in looser and hybrid versions of Lipset’s original research agenda—continues to inform many a government policy towards the developing world. Observations from Asia and elsewhere in the world, however, lend support to the argument that a single theoretical formulation cannot account for the diverse circumstances under which regional regimes operate, as well as their embrace or rejection of liberal democracy. While the level of a country’s socio-economic development may offer an important indicator as to how and/or whether it will democratise or remain undemocratic, the most plausible answer can more likely be found in each country’s specific political, historical, socio-economic and cultural conditions.
THE CASE OF CHINA AND VIETNAM
AUTHORITARIAN PERSISTENCE IN VIETNAM AND CHINA
CONCLUSION: AN UNEASY BALACING ACT