As Canadian leaders look to emulate Asian nations, they fail to see that the tigers' fatal flaw is the absence of democracy.
It is a habit of participants in national debates to illustrate their points by invoking other countries as examples to be followed or avoided. In this way, other nations become the property, often unfairly, of defined ideological tendencies. During the Cold War, Western conservatives evoked the Soviet Gulag as a warning; liberals who contested this outlook alluded to apartheid in South Africa, or US-sponsored right-wing violence in Chile or El Salvador. Since the rise of the cult of Japanese management in the 1980s, Asia has belonged to the pro-business right. In the 1990s, as Japan’s economy faltered and the country’s culture turned inward, the emergence of the “Asian Tigers” of South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and, eventually, China, took over this role. Asia became a useful stick with which to beat the welfare state over the head. We must cut taxes and social and cultural programs, Canadians were told, or we would not be able to compete with Asia. The current prime minister of Canada, in ideological terms the most conservative individual ever to hold this post, is rearranging the country’s infrastructure to supply Asia with raw materials and replicate an authoritarian, minimalist state. These beliefs filter down to the local level, where, for example, the languages department in which I teach was ordered to add Mandarin Chinese to its offerings when our university launched a business school. Business and Chinese, the university administration decreed, were synonymous.
Such prejudices are unfair to Asia. Accustomed to travelling in European, Latin American or African countries—whose histories I’ve studied and with some of whose languages I’m familiar, I’m wary of drawing sweeping conclusions from my first trip to Asia, where my preparation was more limited. Yet three weeks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia—all former British colonies where English is widely spoken—allows an observer to understand that the depiction of Asia as a libertarian nirvana is a sham. Experiencing the realities of these societies threw into relief the contrary expectations that had been inculcated in me by government pronouncements and Canada’s two national newspapers. Where I expected to find societies that revered private property, I found exquisite parks and gardens and scrupulously maintained public facilities. Even the public washrooms put ours to shame. Jurisdictions whose systems our leaders evoke to justify cutting public investment, in fact, pride themselves on their public services. On busy Hong Kong Island, pedestrians skirt the hectic traffic by striding from building to building on elevated walkways, a planning measure that would be welcome in many packed North American downtowns. Though Hong Kong is expensive, a journey of over thirty kilometres from Kowloon to Lantau Island in the speedy rapid transit system costs less than $3. The return journey allows the visitor to survey the massed towers of subsidized public housing projects. In late 2011, as his last public act, Hong Kong’s outgoing governor, Donald Tsang, who ruled the territory on behalf of the People’s Republic of China, to which this former British colony has belonged since 1997, renewed his commitment to public housing policy. Public housing in Hong Kong is like health care in Canada: it is, as John Lanchester points out in his novel Fragrant Harbour, one of the territory’s defining characteristics.
In Singapore the distinctively Asian roots of the care for public welfare are presented as the expression of a “Confucian” culture. (Whether Singapore’s paternalistic policies accurately reflect the writings of Confucius is a separate question.) By placing a premium on caring for the poor and maintaining social order, Asian paternalism eludes Western efforts to categorize countries on a left-right spectrum. In a city-state where life revolves around enormous shopping malls, it is startling to learn that Lee Kwan Yew, the stern leader who transformed Singapore from an impoverished swamp riven by ethnic strife into a multicultural capitalist success story, at the cost of quashing basic civil liberties, described himself as both “anti-Communist” and “socialist.” In the turbulent 1950s, one of Lee’s first policy successes was to promote subsidized public housing. The Confucian approach is not without a price that belies the glitz of the malls on posh Orchard Road: local intellectuals complain that Singaporean young people, unless they have studied overseas, display a stultifying conformism and a reluctance to challenge received opinion.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Asian societies I visited is that the free market thrives at the expense of other freedoms. Both the Straits Times in Singapore and the New Straits Times in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are newspapers that print government propaganda. English-language radio announcers in Malaysia refer to the country’s prime minister, unironically, as “our beloved leader.” In contrast to manicured Hong Kong and Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is a rough-edged boomtown where the reflections of shanties shimmer in the glass panels of the new high-rises and squads of motorcycles blast down the sidewalks to circumvent the snarled traffic. Yet Malaysia, too, recognizes the value of public investment: monorails and elevated light railways whisk pedestrians over the traffic chaos. The airport-like bus terminal is of a grandeur, cleanliness and efficiency that no North American city can match.
In spite of this public investment, the tigers’ fatal flaw is the absence of democracy. In Singapore and Malaysia, complaints are muted. Yet the day prior to my arrival in Hong Kong, 400,000 people marched in protest at the swearing-in of the new Chinese governor; three weeks later more protests erupted against the imposition on Hong Kong schools of the educational curriculum of the People’s Republic of China. These one-time British subjects, now ruled by a Stalinist party that embraces capitalism, do not wish to barter away democratic freedoms in the name of the free market. When our own leaders endorse the Asian tigers as models, we should ask them difficult questions. Are they pursuing our economic well-being, or do they simply yearn for the day when our media, too, will be obliged to refer to the prime minister as “our beloved leader”?