Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Democracy and Western Values

Written by johnleemk on 2:07:32 pm Jan 24, 2008.
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Democracy doesn't help human rights. A hypothesis which finds supporting evidence in authoritarian regimes all over the world, from Singapore to the Philippines to Venezuela, this idea is crucial to Samuel Huntington's famous book The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington observes that democracy has hardly been conducive to the growth of "Western values" like human rights around the world, and concludes that this is a direct symptom of the clash of civilisations.

Is this really the case? Huntington does not provide a clear definition of what constitutes a democracy in his book. We can, however, attempt to determine his definition from the examples he provides.

Huntington points to authoritarian practices in countries like Singapore, where he contends that democracy has failed to produce either a country or government supportive of "Western values" like the rule of law and human rights.

Huntington's argument is that this is a direct result of different civilisations having different priorities. The West prioritises the individual and his liberty; the Confucian civilisations lend their support to an "ends justify the means" mentality for the sake of the collective society.

Unsurprisingly, he says, non-Western civilisations which import democracy tend to produce governments which reflect non-Western values. So how true is this claim?

I believe that Huntington in his eagerness may have overstated his case. One hallmark of the Commonwealth countries is that an overwhelming majority have adhered to several values that the British colonial regimes imported, such as the rule of law. Singapore is an ideal example — the government is authoritarian in the extreme, but its authority is directly derived from the law. The government does not wield unseen power to get its own way in the face of the law. Even Pakistan, with all its military coups, has maintained a semblance of the rule of law, because the rule of law is seen as paramount. Huntington appears to have underestimated the degree to which Western values can permeate non-Western societies.

There is not enough space within a brief article, however, to examine Huntington's main hypothesis about a clash of civilisations. Instead, let us return to democracy — what does Huntington seem to think about it?

Going on Huntington's examples of authoritarian democracies, it seems clear that he defines a democracy as a country which holds relatively representative elections. Despite the prevalence of this definition, I think this quite misses the point of democracy.

Democracy is about change, not the status quo. If we define a democracy based on the ability of the people to change who is in power, and to change the direction their country is going in, we substantially alter our sample of democracies.

Now, going on this new sample, we see countries like Taiwan and South Korea which, in spite of their non-Western civilisations, have adopted true democracy in the Western sense. Human and civil rights and the rule of law are highly valued in these countries, just as they are in the West.

It is certainly the case that elections in many countries have produced governments which do not share the values of the West — and Huntington is right that this is typically because the electorate does not share the values of the West. But his assertion that these non-Western peoples cannot absorb "Western" values is not exactly proven.

Huntington's hypothesis may be true; perhaps Taiwan and South Korea are outliers. But it seems to me that it is just as likely that there is potential for countries to evolve towards democracy — the liberal kind of democracy. After all, both Taiwan and South Korea initially seemed to prove his point, but in the 1980s and 1990s, they underwent dramatic transformations into liberal democracies.

In other words, the authoritarian states that Huntington calls democracies may in some sense be reflective of their people's wishes (perhaps in the same way that North Korea's government reflects its people's wishes). But his claim that the people's wishes are static, that non-Western civilisations can't be affected by Western civilisations or share some fundamental values is a claim that has not quite been proven.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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