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Subject: Asians and Democracy

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Organization: CONTOURS Bangalore.

Asians and Democracy

By Barry Wain. From Contours, Bangalore.
11 September, 1996

Here's a question that surfaced in the late 1980s, when demands for democracy were rising in East Asia: If the expanding middle-class in South Korea and Taiwan is taking to the streets to overturn the old order, why is it not marching in Singapore?

It is a reasonable inquiry even today, given that the three nations, together with Hong Kong, form the four tigers, the world's most famous newly industrialised economies, all of which achieved their stunning success within an authoritarian political structure. The assumption is that dynamic development breeds a well-educated and well-heeled stratum of society that wants - indeed, insists on - a bigger say in decision-making.

Area specialists have explained Singapore's acquiescence in a variety of ways: good governance, with the ruling People's Action Party consistently delivering higher living standards without corruption; the PAP's effective co-option efforts, recruiting top talent and undermining the opposition; the selective nature of official repression; and the city-state's precarious geographic location as a Chinese island in a Malay sea, which makes people nervous about survival.

Now, here are two academics, Richard Robison and David S. G. Goodman, with a completely different interpretation of the issue. Without referring specifically to Singapore, they provide an explanation of why what is happening there is not exceptional at all.

According to them, "The new rich in Asia appear as likely to embrace authoritarian rule, xenophobic nationalism, religious fundamentalism and dirigisme as to support democracy, internationalism, secularism and free markets."

They make their observation in The New Rich in Asia: Mobile phones, McDonalds and Middle-class Revolution, (Routledge). Mr. Robison is professor of Southeast Asian studies and director of the centre. Mr. Goodman, the former director, heads the Institute of International Studies at the University of Technology in Sydney.

The book they edited breaks ground in the understanding of Asians who have benefited most from the region's economic miracle and the impact they are likely to have on their countries. Five more volumes are planned in the series. Previously, these highflyers have been lumped together and viewed mainly as conspicuous consumers of Western products. The popular image is of them wearing imported designer clothes, catching a bite at a fast-food outlet while placing an order for hot shares on a cellular phone before heading out in a fancy car to party at an upmarket disco.

As social forecaster John Naisbitt has commented, urban centers have become so sophisticated that downtown Jakarta and Shanghai these days have the feel of Chicago or London.

It is easy to assume that this tribe of yuppies will adopt liberal political values. Events in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand appear to provide supporting evidence of a deepending interest in more participatory government. That is a "fatal flaw" in danger of becoming mythology, cry Messrs. Robison and Goodman. In some cases where the Asian middle-class led efforts to depose dictators - Indonesia in 1966, for example - those people have been unable or unwilling to construct democratic regimes, the scholars point out.

A key point of the book's argument, and one that helps explain many of the seeming contradictions in Asia's recent political evolution, is that the new rich are far from homogeneous. Indeed, their ranks include both various middle-classes, often managers and professionals, and bourgeoisie, which includes owners of small businesses, who logically would be often in conflict with one another.

While contemporary analysts frequently lump the new rich together in one monolithic category as the bearers of modernity, write Messrs. Robison and Goodman, "they are in fact a diverse and fractured social force."

Moreover, different elements in one country may favour different forms of social and economic organisation, be it oligarchy, corporatist authoritarianism or liberal democracy.

Consisting of nine country chapters written by different authors, The New Rich in Asia sets out to isolate the component parts of its subject. It is a worthwhile and revealing exercise.

In Taiwan, for instance, where the per capita gross national product rose to $10,215 in 1992 from $162 in 1962, the transformation to an export-oriented economy has created a large number of wealthy individuals. They emerged from different classes and status groups at different stages of the 30-year industrialisation process and are susceptible to different sets of social values.

J.J. Chu, an assistant professor at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, identifies three main categories: the new middle-class, rich in intellectual and electoral influence; affluent workers interested in year-end bonus bargaining; and lower white-collar employees wielding consumption power.

The role of the state is obvious in China and Vietnam, where central planning has given way to market-oriented reforms. Cadres clearly formulate the policies that generate private investment capital, disposable income and an initial crop of entrepreneurs. But the same thing has happened subtly in almost all other countries. Within an authoritarian framework, the agendas have been set largely by generals, party bosses or bureaucrats.

While the growing middle-class based on educational qualifications and expertise often coexists uneasily with old networks of patronage and loyalty, the two are not always inherently hostile. They can just as easily be allies as enemies.

The new rich, wherever located and regardless of history, will move to protect the bases of their social and economic standing. And that is why it is a mistake to believe that in every case they will have a vested interest in opening political systems and markets, and making officials more accountable.

Garry Rodan, a senior research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, argues convincingly that the middle-class is in no mood to take chances with alternatives. Rather, he says, it is the government's traditional supporter, the working class, that is vulnerable to alienation.

(1996, Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.)

Business Line, Bangalore
2 September 1996

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