Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values
More than economics, more than politics, a nation's culture will determine its fate. So says the man who built Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Lee is not optimistic that other nations can replicate East Asia's staggering growth. He is critical of the social breakdown that he sees in America: "The expansion of the rights of the individual has come at the expense of orderly society." East Asia is changing in the face of rapid growth, but Lee doubts that American-style individualism will ever catch on there. While critical of American social order, Lee strongly supports America's role as a balancer in East Asia. If it withdraws, other powers, notably Japan, would go their own way. And that would unsettle the region's peace.
In his interview with Foreign Affairs (March/April 1994), Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, presents interesting ideas about cultural differences between Western and East Asian societies and the political implications of those differences. Although he does not explicitly say so, his statements throughout the interview and his track record make it obvious that his admonition to Americans "not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work" implies that Western-style democracy is not applicable to East Asia. Considering the esteem in which he is held among world leaders and the prestige of this journal, this kind of argument is likely to have considerable impact and therefore deserves a careful reply.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, socialism has been in retreat. Some people conclude that the Soviet demise was the result of the victory of capitalism over socialism. But I believe it represented the triumph of democracy over dictatorship. Without democracy, capitalism in Prussian Germany and Meiji Japan eventually met its tragic end. The many Latin American states that in recent decades embraced capitalism while rejecting democracy failed miserably. On the other hand, countries practicing democratic capitalism or democratic socialism, despite temporary setbacks, have prospered.
In spite of these trends, lingering doubts remain about the applicability of and prospects for democracy in Asia. Such doubts have been raised mainly by Asia's authoritarian leaders, Lee being the most articulate among them. They have long maintained that cultural differences make the "Western concept" of democracy and human rights inapplicable to East Asia. Does Asia have the philosophical and historical underpinnings suitable for democracy? Is democracy achievable there?
This is a premium article
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.