The Second Pacific Dialogue at Hotel Istana, Kuala Lumpur on 9 January 1996
In a little more than a year, we have progressed rapidly, from realizing the need for a forum such as this, to actually engaging in expressing our views with candour, forthrightness and sincerity. I therefore intend to be just as faithful to the spirit of the occasion.
In a period where the issue of civil society is generating sustained debate around the globe, there is an increasing need for such dialogues. This is particularly so when it involves the multiplicity of assumptions and past baggage that continues to weigh down trans-Pacific discussions. There are some in an emerging Asia and an uncertain America who too easily resort to streo typing and being judgmental in debating our mutual concerns. In facing a scenario such as this we ought to take the position of the audience vis-a-vis the sentinel in Hamlet, whose pleading we should heed:
In this time of growing anxiety, the need for a global civil society to address the legitimate grievances of our peoples and their demands for increased transparency and accountability in government becomes increasingly urgent. Asian traditions do place a premium on ethical ideals with regard to governance, seeking justice as the ultimate end and prescribing uprightness as a cardinal principle. Whilst in the West, the criticism against the powers that be is filled with vigour, albeit increasingly rancourous, Asians should not be seen as being completely benign towards the holders of public office.
The recent revelations about corruption in high places in certain countries exemplify this growing trend in Asia -- where business as usual is fast becoming unusual. It certainly exposes the vanality of Asian governments. But corruption knows no national boundaries. The malady afflicts societies, East and West, as evident in no-less sensational exposes in Europe in the not-too-distant past and the unrelenting push for campaign reform and election funding in th United States. Corruption is essentially a moral issue that offends the conscience of any society.
Indeed, there is a line beyond which a civil society will not allow itself to be pushed. As such political debate in Asia has progressed to a new stage. The contention is no longer one of democracy versus totalitarianism, or multi-party versus single party politics. We believe the democratisation of Asia is now on an irreversible course. At issue is the practice of democracy itself, or rather the conduct of those purporting to play by its rules. Democracy is not merely about holding regular elections, although that is a central feature. The true functioning of democracy, to my mind, must be seen in its effectiveness in promoting an active citizenry, uprooting corruption and preventing the abuse of power and other excesses. A government which prides itself in winning elections as proof of its democratic credentials but has little concern for morality and uprightness of conduct can rapidly degenerate into a concert for the rich, the powerful and the privileged.
But let us not misread the current dissatisfaction among many in Asia with the present state of democracy as a desire to return to authoritarianism. On the contrary, we seek a functioning democracy which truly serves the people, promotes economic growth and advances social justice. Such a system must be free of the excesses widely associated with the individualistic societies of the West. However, whilst upholding a position against such excesses, under no circustances should we be seen as either condoning or being apologists for those proponents of authoritarian or paternal governments.
In our zeal to promote the achievements of Asia, let us recognise too that our economic growth has brought with it new challenges. Urban and rural income disparity is just one of them. There are other issues: the provision of decent housing, the eradication of absolute poverty and the creation of an educated population are among those that Asian governments need to face up to.
But in seeking emancipation for its people, Asia cannot proceed alone. It needs others as much as it relies on its own strengths. In this context, I would like to voice the genuine puzzlement of many of us in Asia on the reemergence of the voices of the past in America. Even more worrying is that these appeals to narrow nationalism and neo-isolationism seem to be striking a chord with the American electorate. It would appear that the ghost of Smoot-Hawley, the tariff laws that triggered the Great Depression, continues to haunt an America groping through the new economic landscape of the 21st century. Add to this the new twist, fashionable in certain quarters, of blaming cultural differences for trade difficulties and diplomatic tensions between Asia and America. This preaching of the ersatz populism of protectionism, isolationism and chauvinistic nationalism endangers not just the economic fortunes of an interdependent world but also the prospect of a global civil society. The florid rhetoric that abridges complex issues into simplistic sound bites for the purpose of political expediency demonstrates an astonishing vacuity of responsibility. For as economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region progresses, the price to pay for unsound policies will be increasingly heavy. To avoid costly mistakes, we need to frame policies based on understanding of complex socio-cultural realities rather than naive popular perceptions. We cannot, and must not, succumb to the stereotypes perpetuated and amplified by the sound bite.
We welcome, for example, the growing realisation in the West of the importance of religion and family in the nurturing of a nation. The awareness of these principles, once dismissed as the preoccupation of an unenlightened East, manifests the convergence of our ideals and aspirations. However, in pursuing religious and moral revivalism, we must not allow our cause to be hijacked by the rabid ayatollahs of moral and cultural extremism, be they from the East or from the West.
We need to rethink the conventional wisdoms, the accepted notions on policies, from human rights to poverty eradication, to the seductive mantra of free markets as the cure-all for every ill that afflicts our societies. In Asia, we believe that governments have a proper role not only in promoting economic growth but also in correcting economic imbalances and ensuring social justice. In so doing, we are treading a middle path -- the Islamic awsatuha or Chun Yung, according to Confucius -- in economic policy, between the extremes of socialism on the one hand and market capitalism on the other. The economic revival of East Asia will deliver some 2 billion people from the shackles of poverty. This will surely be among the most welcome phenomena in human history. It is doubtful, however, that this can be achieved without the dedication and commitment to the genuine welfare of the people among those in authority.
A prosperous Asia has to give birth to a new Asian renaissance that goes beyond economics and the enhancement of a material culture. The development of an intellectual and artistic culture too requires, at this stage in our development, the benevolent hand of government. At the very minimum, it requires the acknowledgement that the well-being of the people encompasses more than what can be measured by economic data and financial indices.
In the conduct of governance, universal standards and accepted norms based on shared values must be recognised. First is the idea of human dignity, from which we conceptualise and articulate the contemporary notion of human rights. Admittedly, we may differ in the details but despite the differences, no value system or culture, Asian, European, African or American, can condone or sanction the killing of citizens or their arrest and imprisonment without due process.
Political institutions too take time to evolve and each society has to summon its own wisdom to respond to its own problems, thus resulting in a diversity of political approaches. But whilst no two democracies will be the same, the acceptance of diversity does not imply the suspension of certain universally recognised basic rights. Paramount among these are economic rights. Mass poverty and human misery are stark realities in Asia. It was Adlai Stevenson who asserted not too long ago that a hungry man is not a free man. Thus, battling poverty must be high on our list of priorities.
Finally, the growth of civil society and economic prosperity will not be possible without regional stability. We need a collective, credible and reliable security system. Thus, we must establish strong interdependibility, economic and political, to forestall any ambition of military adventurism. The nurturing of democracy and civil society, in tandem with economic growth -- for democracy and growth are not mutually exclusive -- is our best guarantee of regional peace and security for future generations.