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So much for the "Asian Way"

The phrase "The Asian Way" was offered by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during the controversy over the caning of an American teenager on a vandalism charge. He used it to explain that Asians preferred an orderly society over the chaos of the west, particularly the United States. They had, he put forth, successfully combined authoritarian government with capitalism to make for a prosperous, peaceful, and orderly society. He was referring to Asian nations including his own Singapore, and others on the Pacific rim sometimes referred to as the "Asian Tigers". What he neglected to mention was that if any Singaporans disagreed with him, they could be jailed for it. Amazing how a dictatorship can bring consensus.

In fact, it's an interesting coincidence that the governments that claim their people desire order over "chaos" don't ask their people if they agree. It seems only dictators claim different cultural values as a justification for repression. Their people don't value individual liberty, human rights, and such foreign notions. Of course, being dictators, they don't ask their people if this is so. Sometimes, their people tell them anyway, which brings us to Indonesia.

At the time of this writing, Indonesian dictator Suharto just resigned, which in English means, "skedaddled before he was carried out of office feet first." With the economy in the tank, he lost the biggest prop to his power. When the instruments of repression were insufficient to keep enough people scared, he lost his other prop. Now his family and cronies are losing their sweetheart government contracts left and right.

At the same time, the voters in Hong Kong just overwhelmingly cast their votes for the pro-democracy parties in the legislative elections. The legislature is stacked against the elected members, but the voters defied Beijing anyway. In South Korea, the voters elected to the presidency a dissident who spent much of his life in prison and was a last-minute American intervention away from disappearing at the bottom of the ocean. Just what's going on here?

What's going on is that the "Asian Way" of crony-capitalism and dictatorship could stand while the economies were improving. People will tolerate a lot when they have hope of a better standard of living. When the corruption is intolerable, they will still keep quiet when there's a great risk in speaking out. When they lose that fear, governments that have relied on corruption and repression are in serious trouble.

Lesson Number One: The messiness of democracy is nothing compared to the disorder of collapsing economies and dictators. Corruption gets revealed much sooner or at least can be discussed without those in opposition going to prison for it. South Korea and Thailand reformed relatively quickly. 400 died in Indonesia, and who knows how much worse it would have been if some in the power structure hadn't bailed out on Suharto. It may be bad again if a new dictator tries to establish himself.

Unfortunately, as has been revealed in new democracies the world over, disorder seems to be a prerequisite to democratic revolution. Dictators can last while they're stable. A healthy economy buys time and aids stability. Only the bravest oppose such governments. Economic problems undermine that stability, which raises an issue for the West: why do we aid crumbling dictatorships?

The Indonesian government, for example, has a terrible human rights record. Dissidents are locked up, rural people were displaced by the Suharto family's companies, East Timor has been under brutal occupation for 20 years, there has been wanton environmental destruction of Indonesian rainforests, and foreign factories use Indonesians as cheap labor. What was our response? IMF loans to prop up the economy! We didn't do this when the Soviet satellites were falling, but we try to sustain corrupt Asian regimes. Of course, Eastern Europe didn't have lots of American factories building cheap crap with cheap labor and big profits.

Lesson Number Two: disorder is necessary to give democracy a chance. When dictators are struggling with collapsing economies, don't help them! We don't need to force them out of power: it appears that dictatorships are inherently inefficient economically and will collapse on their own. We need to focus on defending human rights and thereby remove some instruments of repression.

Lee Kuan Yew spoke only for the dictators (any shakiness in Singapore these days?). The difference between dictatorships and democracies is night and day. Thailand and South Korea have been shaken by the same "Asian flu," but they've addressed their problems without hundreds of people being killed. Whether they succeed in reducing the power of their economic elite is another question of course, which leads to---

Lesson Number Three: when corrupt and ossified economic institutions are ready to tumble down, let them. Humanitarian aid, of course. Development aid, yes. Prop up banks that made stupid real estate investments like in Thailand, or securities firms that bought tons of junk bonds like Korea, no. It makes no sense to aid such businesses since they're exactly what caused the problem. If we dig them out, they won't change. Or is there some rule that when capitalists get rich enough, they no longer have to risk failure? It oft times appears so.

What next? We tell Indonesia that there's no aid without free and fair elections, better working conditions, curbs on environmental destruction, and East Timor must go free. For the rest of Asia, future aid and trade agreements must be contingent on respect for human rights. Only in this way will dictators open up and maybe go peacefully, saving their people the travail of Indonesia.

Update: In the years since this was written, Indonesia has been making attempts at democracy, with Suharto's successor being thrown out without complete chaos, and East Timor getting independence with the help of the UN, despite brutal attempts of some of the Indonesian army and some militias to hold it by force. It's still struggling with separatist movements but it looks like the government is trying to resolve things peacefully and democratically. Singapore has shown itself stable, and appears to be reasonably democratic. America's problems in the Middle East, however, indicate that we still haven't learned the folly of backing dictators.

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