When the 'Asian Way' Can Be the Wrong Way

Mongolian President President Tsakhia Elbegdorj at Asia Society New York on Sept. 19, 2011. (Suzanna Finley/Asia Society)

Originally published in the Bangkok Post, Oct. 11, 2011

East Asian countries are well-known for nationalist policies that coalesce around single ethnicities, or in the case of Singapore, recognition of diversity, but careful management of diversity in the name of a higher national calling.

Much of the nationalism is driven by desires to achieve economic success, a reasonable endeavor for any country, except that too often it pre-empts opportunities for freedom of expression and increased opportunity for political participation.

Three weeks ago, President Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia spoke at the Asia Society in New York, where he emphasized the "Asian Way,'' a concept he describes as prioritizing economic success above and beyond addressing political issues. He went on to describe the universality of freedom, justice, and rule of law, not for an elite few but for all. And while Mongolia has not consistently been a model in upholding these values, it does fare considerably better than its neighbors China and Russia on many fronts, including in upholding journalistic freedoms.

Elbegdorj's rhetoric, and the Mongolian model, is counter to those who tout the Asian Century.

Asia, in the last half century, has achieved phenomenal economic growth, but its record on political growth is, on most accounts, lacking. Its economic growth has empowered a new, young generation who are better educated, better resourced, and more demanding of its leaders. This fact is the greatest threat to stability in the region when their appetite for success is not fed by equivalent opportunity. There has been no shortage of Asian scholars trumpeting "Asian Values" and the forthcoming Asian Century. And while the United States, in spite of its wishes, is far from a model for the protection of universal values, leaders like President Elbegdorj come to the US every year and describe the efforts their governments are making in achieving these values.

(Incidentally the Asia Society hosted four Asian heads of state last month, all of whom spoke toward their efforts in sustaining rule of law and democracy.)

But what are the implications for failing to recognize the political discontent lurking just below the surface? In the case of most East Asian countries, this issue is very real. The fact remains that Asians, particularly youth, crave increased participation in government and are increasingly disenfranchised by the leadership status quo. Lee Kuan Yew himself, the stalwart proponent of unwavering single party governance, said in a recent interview of the political party he founded, "Our total dominance was not sustainable. [The] younger generation wants to see competition and they voted in an opposition party.''

So, how do Asia's political challenges relate to America? While scholars like Kishore Mahbubani discuss the unsettled post-crisis world economy, really the danger is more for Asia than for the United States.

In spite of all of America's economic and political problems at present, including high unemployment and political dysfunction, there have been relatively few protests precisely because there are sufficient outlets available to America's disenfranchised to voice their discontent. For better or worse, this often plays out in the form of polarized talking heads in the news media, but their freedom to criticize government at least provides an outlet for Americans to rally behind.

A similar large-scale economic depression in East Asia would flare up in violence, as we already see with factory workers in Cambodia or the marginalization of ethnic minorities in China. It is hard enough, in what continues to be Singapore's rosy economic climate, for the government to convince its population that migrants are not taking jobs, but rather are needed for the country's long-term development.

What would happen to that small island state if unemployment climbed to 10% and year upon year growth slowed? Without avenues for free expression, the danger of violent unrest is increased.

The problems are more serious for East Asian countries, precisely because governments in the region have failed to address the political issues sufficiently. Mahbubani and others are accurate in their assessment of Asian economic success, but they should temper their rhetoric with regard to the Asian century. Asia is not quite there yet, nor will it ever be, if East Asia's economy-centric states fail to secure equivalent political progress.

Elbegdorj has sacrificed some of his country's immediate economic gains in favor of longer-term stability and sustainability, and other Asian leaders ought to heed Mongolia's lesson in this regard.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Andrew Billo
Andrew Billo is Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society's New York Public Programs office. He previously worked for six years on migration issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.