Lessons Britain and the West can learn from Asian democracies

East and South-East Asia are worth emulating for how far they have come following years of instability

British national newspapers reacting to the resignation of Liz Truss as UK prime minister last Friday. AP Photo
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With Rishi Sunak becoming the newest resident of 10 Downing Street, the UK has had five prime ministers and seven chancellors of the exchequer over the past six years. Of late, the turnover has been even faster: three prime ministers in less than two months and four chancellors in just over three. No wonder the country has become a global laughing stock.

On social media, one Fatima Said tweeted: “As an Arab, I have to ask: is Britain ready for democracy? Does the UK need a strongman to help them overcome their political instability?” After that, the jokes came thick and fast. “Maybe after they resolve their ‘ancient hatreds’ they can learn to share the island,” was one reply. “Here in Africa, we can only watch as tensions rise and political unrest grows. As winter approaches in the UK, what lies ahead for this troubled island nation?” was another. “Britain needs to be put under some internationally approved mandate status until it is ready to govern itself,” was a third.

But it’s not just Britain that’s in trouble. Tens of thousands have been protesting about the cost-of-living crisis in France, while there have been strikes at the country’s refineries. The far right has been gaining ground all over Europe; the current Swedish government stands only with its support and it is in office in Italy. The eurozone posted its biggest ever trade deficit in August. In the US, a poll last month found that more than 60 per cent of Republicans and nearly one third of all Americans still believe Joe Biden did not win the 2020 presidential election legitimately. And in many of the richest countries in the world, millions are having to resort not only to food banks, but potentially, this coming winter, to “warm banks” as well.

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Without the imperative to act responsibly and ensure the primacy of stability, there is no real freedom at all

The fabled liberal democratic model long vaunted by a West that has pressed the rest of the world to adopt it, sometimes by force of arms, is faltering badly. It really is time to suggest that Europe and America might try to learn a few lessons from other countries, rather than giving them lectures on how to behave.

Let’s start with South-East and East Asia in particular. For it’s there that, on the whole, stability and moderation (the latter sometimes more in name than in action, but all the same) that have been the key words for decades. That emphasis has pretty much kept the peace in an area of the continent that was often called the Balkans of Asia – riven by religious and ethnic faults both in the region and within countries. That is what has driven the spectacular growth, and it’s at the core of the nearly 700 million strong Association of South-East Asian Nations – one of the few parts of the world that economists predict could escape the global trend towards stagflation.

Stability is so prized because they know very well it cannot be taken for granted. Communism was a genuine threat in the region from the 1950s to the 1970s, leading to an insurgency in what was then Malaya and the full takeover of Laos and Vietnam. Communal tensions could boil over if order was not determinedly kept. In the case of Singapore, the very long-term existence of the state was not assured – as one of the country’s great thinkers, Kishore Mahbubani, has pointed out, city-states tend to get swallowed up by neighbours.

CORRECTION-ADDING NAMES
This handout photo received 10 August, 2007 from Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows during a signing ceremony at the very first meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok on 08 August, 1967. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded as a pro-western bloc at the height of the Cold War, but its 10 members now include communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos.  ASEAN marked its 40th anniversary 08 August, 2007.  Pictured (from L to R) are then-Philippine Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos, Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik, Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam.     RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE   AFP PHOTO / HO / THAI MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS / AFP PHOTO / MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS / AFP

Moderation has been necessary as inclusive nation-building is still ongoing, especially in countries whose borders were set, often arbitrarily, by their former colonisers’ empires. Ideology unhinged from reality has been seen as the catastrophe that it is, especially in the case of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Even Vietnam has ditched communist strictures in its successful path to development. Not for this region the “disruptor in chief” style of outgoing UK prime minister Liz Truss, who destroyed the Conservative party’s reputation for economic competence in her mere 45 days in office. Instead, pragmatism has generally ruled. As the Guardian’s Larry Elliott wrote recently, “The tiger economies of East Asia used the full range of measures available to them, including tax, procurement, public ownership, state aid, infant industry support and capital controls.”

There is no space here to go into the merits or demerits of the “Asian values” argument, but it is certainly the case that there is very little enthusiasm for the hyper-individualism that animates so many in the West – an attitude that has undermined the very concept of objective reality, since numerous people now insist that “their truth” must be respected, however little evidence backs it up. The community and the country come first, an approach that Europeans frequently lambast as being oppressive, but which is vital to any society that wishes to resist the loneliness and anomie of atomisation and remain cohesive.

“Freedom”, that great watchword of everyone from American gun rights lobbyists, to Atlanticist libertarians, to the warmongers who have bombed developing countries for decades to bring them its blessings: this means little if you can no longer pay your mortgage due to skyrocketing interest rates; if you have to choose between having enough to eat and heating your home; and if, as the peoples of the Middle East know so well, the price of it being "gifted" to you causes your state institutions to disintegrate, and crime, terrorism and even slavery to thrive.

A distinguished Malaysian diplomat once told me that the French national motto, “liberty, equality, fraternity”, lacked a further indispensable noun – “responsibility”. He was right. The states of South-East and East Asia are by no means perfect, but many have come very far in a short time. They have done so, by and large, by bearing in mind a lesson that the western nations currently facing both internal and external crises appear to have forgotten. For without the imperative to act responsibly and ensure the primacy of stability, there is no real freedom at all.

Published: October 25, 2022, 2:00 PM