ABSTRACT

Why resuscitate an apparently mortally wounded debate about “Asian democracy” (or, more precisely, how “Asian values” make “Western-style democracy” a culturally inappropriate regime form)? This discourse made only a brief political appearance in Southeast Asia (touted in particular by the Singapore school) in the mid-1990s and then disappeared, seemingly unmourned, after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8. Some Western commentators and even politicians had treated seriously these political claims that cultural differences justified political authoritarianism because they saw the argument linked to the region’s rapid economic growth. For example, then Conservative Party chairman David Howell called on Britain to adopt some of the values underlying Asia’s economic success (cited in Robinson 1996). Former prime minister Edward Heath, in a debate with Martin Lee, a leading Hong Kong democrat, defended “Asian values,” claiming that the “Asiatic countries have a very different view” of democracy (cited in Mallet 1999: 54). In a neo-Weberian vein, Confucian traditions were seen to have provided a favorable cultural context for financial success. But when the Asian economic “miracle” proved to have been but a mirage, many Western observers reversed themselves, instead blaming Asian values for the cronyism they claimed underlay the financial meltdown (Wade 1998).