In the aftermath of the Cold War and what was prematurely assumed to be the final triumph of democracy and the market, ideological challenges to Western-style liberal democracy have been chiefly confined to the worlds-within-worlds of Islam, and to various eastern European ethnic and ethno-religious movements (of which the madcap Russian neo-fascism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky is perhaps the most potentially lethal). But now a more intellectually serious challenge has arisen, one that is all the more compelling because it presents itself, not as an atavistic return to a traditional past, but as an alternative form of organizing a prosperous society under the conditions of modernity.
This new challenge to liberal democracy has come from East Asian political leaders, diplomats, and political theorists, in countries ranging from the massive People’s Republic of China to medium-sized Malaysia to the tiny city-state of Singapore: which is to say, from a curious coterie of Communists, modernizing Muslims, and gung-ho capitalist Confucians. Aspects of their critique of the West and its liberal institutions can be glimpsed in international forums (like last year’s World conference on Human Rights) and in recent policy quarrels (such as the question of “Most Favored Nation” trading status for China); a window into the debate also opened briefly during the multicultural drama surrounding Singapore’s caning of American teenager and truant Michael Fay. But the philosophical roots of the new East Asian critique of Western democracy, and the moral challenge that this critique poses to the West, comes into clearest focus in the writings of the three most prominent members of the “Singapore School”: former prime minister (and current “senior minister”) Lee Kuan Yew, Bilahari Kausikan of the ministry of foreign affairs, and Kishore Mahbubani, a career diplomat who served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations 1984-89.
It may seem excessive to suggest that the ruminations of a trio of men from the ruling elite of a microstate smaller than Chicago could pose a serious challenge to Western understandings of democracy and human rights. But the “Singapore School” has had an impact far beyond the borders of that state itself. Officials of the PRC have come to Singapore to study the island-city-state as a model of economic and political development; Singapore has reciprocated by agreeing to manage the city of Suzhou in the Chinese province of Jiangsu. A downmarket version of the Singapore critique, articulated by Malaysian prime minister Muhamad Mahathir, has driven the usually phlegmatic English into a fury, with the London Spectator opening its March 5 editorial in these sulphurous terms:
There are many good things about Dr. Muhamad Mahathir. Probably the best of them is that his job as prime minister of Malaysia keeps him some 7,000 miles distant from Britain, such that his periodic lectures on the dangers of democracy, the decline of the West, the rise of Asia, and the invigorating leadership of Dr. Mahathir himself can be heard here much more faintly and fitfully than in Malaysia itself, where they are held to embody a new and great wisdom.
On a wider canvas (and of considerably greater consequence), the Singapore School critique was central to the April 1993 “Bangkok Declaration” that set the terms of debate for the June 1993 World Conference on Human Rights; key elements in the ideology of the Singapore School could be found in the Bangkok Declaration’s rejection of the universality of civil rights and political freedoms, and in its celebration of the so-called right to development. Perhaps most ominously, the Bangkok Declaration raised the moral stakes in the world debate by dismissing traditional notions of civil rights and political freedoms (as adumbrated in that Magna Carta of the human-rights movement, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as examples of an odious Western cultural imperialism.
Ideologically volatile political arguments are rarely pure, and this one sets no new standards of disinterestedness. Indeed, a considerable part of the East Asian critique of the decadent democratic West is little more than a rationalization for authoritarianism by authoritarians comfortable with their power and intent on maintaining it. That the arguments for repression are tarted up philosophically makes little difference to the essential hypocrisy involved.
But not all of the East Asian critique is of this more tawdry sort. Some of it is quite serious and deserves to be engaged as such. Moreover, at its most penetrating the East Asian critique cuts close to the heart of our current domestic debate over how the character and virtues of the American people relate to the security of our democratic institutions. Thus a thoughtful consideration of this critique will help us clear our heads about the future of American society and culture, even as it prepares us for what is likely to be one of the enduring foreign-policy debates of the next decade.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.