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  • Hong Kong, Singapore, and “Asian Values”Governance That Works
  • Bilahari Kausikan (bio)

In a short book published more than 30 years ago, C.B. Macpherson, an authority on the history and theory of democracy, argued that the real world of democracy had changed and would continue to change. Moreover, he argued, Western liberal democracy was only one historical variant of democracy. 1 It is unfortunate that this sensible approach is apparently no longer fashionable. If it were taken by more people today, much futile debate might be avoided. It seems self-evident that there are many varieties of democracy. The world is a vast and diverse place, and what will work in one country will not necessarily be appropriate for another. Every country is characterized by a unique set of circumstances, with natural, human, and cultural resources and historical experiences that differentiate it from all other nations. Therefore, every country must find its own specific solutions to the problems of governance. The concept of democracy is surely robust and flexible enough to survive this diversity.

Nevertheless, debates over the appropriateness of one democratic model or another in Asia and elsewhere (and, more generally, over whether or not there is such a thing as “universal” human rights) are now commonplace. 2 The current debate began among various governments in the early 1990s—when the end of the Cold War seemed to open up boundless possibilities—as part of preparations for the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993. These were perhaps not the most propitious of circumstances for [End Page 24] a balanced or nuanced examination of the issues. At any rate, such debate is increasingly of greater concern to the academy and to the scribbling and chattering classes—that is, to pundits, journalists, and miscellaneous commentators—than to governments themselves.

For most governments, the enthusiasms that marked the immediate post-Cold War period have faded, giving way to a more sober outlook. Events not only in Asia but also in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union seem to have demonstrated that reality is too complex and intractable to be forced into a simple or single pattern. Of course, the rhetoric persists, and these matters will certainly remain on intergovernmental agendas, assuming lesser or greater prominence as circumstances change. Democracy and human rights are undoubtedly very important matters. But they are also becoming much too constricting filters for the ever more complex and multidimensional nature of interstate relations. Governments are again dealing with one another the way they always have—pragmatically. This is a healthy development. It does not mean that any country or group of countries is required to give up its most cherished values. It merely means that it is now widely recognized that we need not all have the same beliefs in order to cooperate effectively or be friends. Indeed, such homogeneity is not even desirable.

The differences among countries are not really all that acute. Their extent has been exaggerated owing to the common failure to make a critical distinction between democracy as a political theory of legitimation of government and democracy as a mechanism or instrument of government. There is, of course, some overlap between the two meanings of the term. But they are not the same thing. Democracy in the first sense is now almost universal. Today, few governments seek to justify their rule by reference to divine right, the will of the proletariat, lineage, or some other nondemocratic principle. Democracy in the second sense is naturally a very flexible concept, because it must adapt to specific sets of circumstances and evolve as those circumstances change. Its shape cannot be determined by a process of a priori reasoning from a set of values or principles. Not everyone is comfortable with this.

It is easy to see, then, why debate over these issues is becoming more relevant to the academy than to interstate relations. It is Adam Smith who is credited with the wry observation that “the learned give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination.” 3 As the arena of debate over Asian democracy shifts away from those with...

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pp. 24-34
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