Liberalism Lite

Is Singapore a liberal democracy or a social democracy?

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days — not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian”. To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy — that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity — is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised — or rejected — in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy”. After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is — because of its rejection of many liberal tenets — not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit at top of this re-post is a screenshot from Episode 6 of 宇宙よりも遠い場所 via reviewer Guan Zhen Tan at Mothership.sg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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Party Preference in Myanmar’s Democratization Context

Abstract

Myanmar provides a unique opportunity to study a polity that only recently has begun the processes of political liberalization and democratization. A necessary, though not sufficient, element of this transition was the 2015 general elections, which resulted in a handover of governmental power from the military-turned-civilian-led United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to the main prodemocracy opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The factors that influenced the behavior of the Burmese voter have yet to be examined at the individual level. This study explores the relationship between various variables and political party choice by analyzing a newly created dataset of Burmese party preference in Thailand. Utilizing a multinomial logistic regression of survey data (n of 3,671), traditional variables of demographic differentials and value of democracy—as well as newly theorized factors of diaspora conditions and past persecution—are tested against party preference. Specifically, the indicators of ethnicity, democratic values, years spent abroad, and governmental threat of persecution prove to be salient in the likelihood that a Burmese voter would choose either the NLD or any “ethnic” party over the USDP. New avenues of research are recommended based on the findings for Burmese party preference, including important considerations for the study of newly democratizing regimes in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Introduction

This research is a first cut at understanding the political party preferences of the Burmese diaspora currently living in Thailand. Use of original data leading up to the 2015 national elections in Myanmar presents an opportunity to speculate about a counterfactual situation of Burmese voters abroad.

Southeast Asia is an empirically rich region of the world for creating theory and testing hypotheses for a variety political science subjects. The variance in political, economic, social, and cultural realities across this region allows the scholar to posit questions that may be difficult for researchers working in other areas of globe. Political science has come to value this wealth of political diversity as a tool for understanding not just Southeast Asia, but also for further developing theory relevant to the field more generally. Some examples include, first, the variance in regime type across Southeast Asia, which allows for new ideas and hypothesis testing regarding political modernization, liberalization, and democratization. Second, the largely free and fair elections and the “caretaking democratization” in Myanmar (Burma) recently have
challenged previous research on political transitions. Similarly, Thailand’s recent backslide into military authoritarianism, compared to Indonesia’s consolidation of democratic processes, continues to make world headlines. Third, some of the world’s longest-running violent political conflicts are in the southern Philippines, East Timor, southern Thailand, and many of the border areas of Myanmarall of which complicate any analysis of democratization where the power of the state still is challenged openly through coercive means.

This study explores one facet of the political variance across Southeast Asia by examining political party preference in recent national elections in the newest national state to make real gains in democratization. Myanmar is a special case of… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Taiwan Journal of Democracy by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via the talented Hein Htet at European Photo Press Agency. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Too Much Democracy

Despite appearances, something is missing at the heart of Thai democracy.

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful

It is quite all right to hate democracy. T. F. Rhoden dislikes democracy immensely. Without classical liberalism, he argues, it is normal to mistrust democracy in its purer form. Democracy is dreadful without the classifier “liberal” in front – because liberalism is a safeguard against democracy’s inherent decadence of rule by the people.

Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful. Fortunately We Have Both

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, we might do well to pause briefly and consider the state of democracy as a regime type. Both elections make useful pedagogical tools. They toss into relief inherent aspects of this regime type – aspects that may appear hidden most of the time for many of us who fret over the condition of such things.

More than anything else, they should serve as a reminder that Britain and the United States are not pure democracies, but rather liberal democracies.

Democracy as Demagoguery

As long as no monarch, no military junta, no unelected revolutionary vanguard or commission impedes this process of the people in their governing body, then democracy can be said to be working well. The people – the demos – vote on some course of action, as in the EU referendum, or they vote on some individual to lead a slew of actions in the US example. For those who win at this process, then there is much at which to rejoice. For those who lose, there is even more to dread. Indeed, without some form of institutional brakes and constitutional liberties, very little can stop a demos from putting into power a “tyranny of the majority.”

Democracy in its purest forms captures the joys of a winning majority as much as it does the fears of a losing minority. The ancient Greeks knew this well. So too did many of the founders of American government. Democracy as a regime type is nothing other than a vehicle for the demagogue. A well working democracy is, in fact, demagoguery pure and simple.

One of the more humorous misadventures in the scholarly literature on political transitology and democratisation is how comparative political scientists have thought that they need to “depict a ‘new species’, a type of existing democracies that has yet to be theorised” whenever they encounter a democracy that appears wanton. When we think of democracy in this more fundamental and classical sense, democracy naturally appears less appealing to the contemporary thinker. Is it any wonder that for many of the people living under one of these truer forms of democracy, governmental rule may seem more capricious and less predictable? “Democratisation” takes on a more sobering, even sinister, meaning for those citizens who have lost at the ballot box.

Some theorists have gone out of their way to describe this uglier aspect of democracy and call it a “delegative democracy.” Yet if we could only remember that democracy always has this harsher aspect within it, one could leave out the moniker “delegative” altogether. Unchecked, unbalanced incompetence voted into power: this is democracy without liberalism.

Liberalism before Democracy

Democracy, when denuded and reaffirmed as “rule by the people”, does not in any way include… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratic Audit UK by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to ModDB. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Liberal in Liberal Democracy

Abstract

This article argues that much of the work on democratization and democratic consolidation is obscured by a conceptual fog, when at the very least some of this confusion could be ameliorated by parsing out components that are obviously liberal in nature. An admission of the importance of liberalization and liberal consolidation as distinctly different in form and measurement from democratization and democratic consolidation are the first steps to better research on the varieties of causation that constitute and propel the dissolution of more authoritarian regimes towards more liberal democratic regimes. Acknowledging that the liberal in liberal democracy is unpopular for some, and that liberal democracy does not necessarily mean American liberal democracy, go a long way to freeing these terms from ethnocentric misconceptions, as well as cementing analytical clarification. Though all modern democracies have both liberal and democratic components, democratic consolidation does not guarantee liberal consolidation.

Keywords: liberalization; liberal consolidation; liberalism; democratization;democratic consolidation; democracy; liberal democracy.

Introduction

A causal argument, whether borne by a statistical inquiry or a qualitative articulation, is in the aggregate the most valued species of argument in contemporary political science. If we are to present an argument that veers away from causation and instead focuses our attention on the level of concept, we must justify ourselves to those who prefer the middle path. A linguistic trial by classification and typology creation can “have a useful role, however, as a way of categorizing causes and effects that cannot be measured using numbers”. In order to avoid a droll discussion of conceptual classification and clarification, some imperative must excite us away from a question of what causes what towards a more fundamental query of what are we even talking about. Something like a normative imperative surely exists amongst the community of scholars and practitioners of what is normally  referred to as “democratization” and its various offspring: “democratic transition”,“democratic consolidation”, and “quality of democracy.” If scholars get these concepts wrong, how should we expect those in the world of policy to get it right? This article has a singular argument: in the twenty-first century, any concept of democratization is wrong when liberalization is also assumed to be an inherent part of that process. If democracy and liberalism are not the same thing, then why do we expect (1) democratization to automatically include liberalization, and (2)democratic consolidation to include liberal consolidation?

To state the conclusion first: we should not. Liberal democracy, though more than a simple sum of its parts, can never be “consolidated” unless both of its parts are understood. Furthermore, the liberal must be accepted and embraced in the same way that the democratic has been if we are to ever make sense of the various paths of transition from more authoritarian regimes. This article begins by reviewing the current confusion caused by the concept of democratization that values rule by the people more than liberty. A review of what democracy and liberalism mean and how they do or do not fit together to create a liberal democracy is in order. An alternative classification o fcurrent regimes will be provided in order to ground future theories of causation in a plane of greater clarity. The remainder of the article will then ask why it is that researchers have been so reluctant to use the adjective liberal in their projects and what might be gained by shifting a focus towards ideas of liberal consolidation…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratization by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit to Biography.com. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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