Twilight of the Despots: Asian-Authoritarians and the Need for Enlightenment

By Bhala, Kara Tan | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Twilight of the Despots: Asian-Authoritarians and the Need for Enlightenment


Bhala, Kara Tan, Harvard International Review


KARA TAN BHALA is First Vice President and Senior Portfolio Manager at Merrill Lynch Asset Management.

Before President Suharto of Indonesia was forced to resign, he was already an anachronism in Asia. He belonged to a dying breed of Asian dictators who ruled the people with iron fists and approached business concerns with open palms. A survey around Asia reveals a body of despots reduced to ghosts of their former selves. Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines' dictator, was whisked away on a US military helicopter in 1986. Corazon Aquino was subsequently elected president of the Philippines and two further presidential elections have occurred. Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea was replaced by democratically elected successors. Chiang Ching-kuo of Taiwan died and his successor, Lee Teng-hui, was democratically elected. The military had a large influence over Thai governments until 1992, when parties opposed to the military won a majority in parliament. Since then, the country has seen a train of elected, albeit ineffectual, coalition governments.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Merrill Lynch.

The number of despots in Asia will continue to shrink. The transition from authoritarianism to liberal democracy is the result of ineluctable socioeconomic forces that the despots themselves have unleashed. All Asian countries profess a desire to pursue economic development based to some degree on Western technological and scientific progress and Western-style liberalized markets. Yet to develop in this manner, authoritarian regimes as paradigm and practice necessarily must be discarded. The philosophy behind the modern political economy of the West is based on Enlightenment principles. The pillars of this intellectual edifice are reason, individualism and freedom. These pillars underlie all areas of human achievement, particularly in science, economics, and politics. It was during the Enlightenment that modern ideas in these fields were developed. In science, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton advanced the scientific method. In economics, Adam Smith expounded the theory of free markets. In politics, John Locke advocated the rule of law and the rights of an individual. The three principles must pervade all areas of human endeavor, including politics, if the Western development model is to be emulated successfully. Some Asian leaders want reason, individualism and freedom to operate only in the economic and scientific/technological sphere, but not in the political arena. This clinical selection of ideals cannot work. It will not work for any authoritarian regime, whether benign and paternalistic, as in Singapore and Malaysia, or malignant and self-serving, as in Cambodia and Myanmar.

Authoritarianism, whatever the type, is ultimately based on the concept that one individual knows what is best for the country and its people. He (political despots are mostly males) enjoys absolute power. The sovereign neutralizes threats to his power by outlawing political dissent. He may be more or less oppressive, depending on whether the dictator is merely a megalomaniac or also a sadist.

If Asian leaders are serious about promoting sustained economic growth with attendant high GDP per capita akin to the Western model of economic and scientific development, then they cannot simultaneously and conveniently discard the Western political model. The labeled "Asian model" and the Western one are born from the same principles. A government cannot expect long-term, Western-style economic performance --encouraging reason, individualism, and freedom in the pursuits of science and economics--while simultaneously banishing these principles from politics. If the political atmosphere excises these principles from the political arena, how can they survive in other intellectual areas? And, if reason, individualism, and liberty do not flourish in all fields of intellectual undertaking, how is sustained progress possible? …

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