By Sholto Byrnes
"With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries... What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient."
The words are long-time leader Lee Kuan Yew's, but they could as well have been written by the Singaporean High Commissioner, Michael Teo, who argued in this space earlier this week that liberal democracy may work for the west, but that south-east Asians prefer a different model.
Emotions are easily roused by this debate. The British press is never slow to condemn the governments of south-east Asia as being "repressive" or "police states". The reality, however, is much more complex, as I, the former Far Eastern Economic Review editor Philip Bowring and health and women's rights activist Marina Mahathir, among others, discuss in a special report in today's New Statesman.
That Singapore's government is a form of "guided democracy" is a statement of fact, not opinion. Michael Teo is being disingenuous when he writes of "opposition parties" and "diversity of views", as genuine opposition figures such as Chee Soon Juan, no stranger to the courts or the prisons due to his political activities, could testify. The tone is still set by the city-state's long-time prime minister, now minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, whose comments are always characterised by an admirable, if somewhat bracing, clarity. "We decide what is right," he said in 1987. "Never mind what the people think."
But Teo is quite right to point out that many south-east Asian nations lack a long history of shared nationhood or are divided on racial and religious grounds. There were practical reasons for strong governments to prevail. In the post-war years the region's newly independent states were riven by Communist insurgencies and secessionist movements. Borders shifted; nations were created, such as Singapore, which came into being as a sovereign state only after being ejected from Malaysia in 1965. When liberal democracy was tried – as in Indonesia, where there were 17 different cabinets in 13 years between 1944 and 1957 – it led to chaos.
The more interesting point is whether, as Teo implied, these societies have struck a different "balance between individual liberties and the common good". Western critics seize on individuals such as Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader, and make them into liberal heroes, without pausing to question just how representative they are of the populations they seek to lead. London-based commentators may be surprised by the degree of acceptance of the status quo they would find on the ground in these largely conservative, religious, family-oriented societies. We take stability for granted; it has been a hard-won prize in south-east Asia.
Those who dismiss the Singapore model should also remember that democratic processes can have illiberal outcomes. It is no coincidence that conservative and radical forms of Islam have gained ground in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto, and that women there and in Malaysia (one of the more consistently democratic countries in the region) face increasing legal and societal pressures to wear the hijab. More authoritarian regimes were secularism's friend; more unrestrained pluralism has sometimes led to extremist voices shouting the loudest and threatening the liberties of those who differ.
Ask Lilis Lindawati, a waitress picked up by police in the city of Tangerang on Java two years ago, what she thinks of Indonesia's new democracy. The married mother of two was waiting for a bus home after work, but because she was alone and not wearing a headscarf, she was arrested under new "religious" bylaws. The next day she was convicted of being a prostitute – because she had lipstick in her handbag. I wonder where she would feel more free now – in Indonesia, or in Singapore?