Back in the 90s, I interviewed a Hong Kong financier named Philip Tose for Asia Inc magazine. Tose—whose Peregrine Investment Holdings later went belly up amid charges of incompetence and negligence—had recently caused something of a stir in the local press by saying that “Western-style political democracy” was the root cause of many of the West’s problems, and that what Asia needed was “economic democracy,” and not lectures from “do-gooders.” In my interview, I asked Tose to expand on his statement, and he grudgingly admitted that “there are many great things that come out of democracy,” and that democracy is a “wonderful concept.” However, he insisted that, for the emerging economies of Asia, “most people are not interested” in voting, and that “the man in the street is more interested in a dollar in his pocket than a ballot slip.”
Tose’s ideas were certainly consistent with the values held by many Asian governments, including those of China and Singapore. And Asia Inc itself often flew the banner of “economic democracy,” talking up the reforms of leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, who famously declared that “to get rich is glorious.” Occasionally, we did hint at support for something more universal; at one point Sondhi Limthongkul, our Editor-in-Chief, praised the reforms of “enlightened capitalism” in his monthly column; the article linked from the column criticized Philippine oligarchs who wrecked the country with “disastrous political and economic decisions designed to benefit themselves.”
I was reminded of my interview with Tose—and of Khun Sondhi’s limited support for political democracy—by recent events in Thailand. For the third time in as many years, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has succeeded in bringing down the country’s prime minister. I’m not an astute enough student of Thai politics to say whether or not elected prime minister Somchai Wongsawat deserved to be ousted. However, I do find some of the statements of my old boss—and current PAD leader—Sondhi Limthongkul, to be an unfortunate echo of Tose’s long-ago comments. Sondhi, who also helped overthrow elected prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Samak Sundaravej, has stated publicly that, despite his organization’s name, “representative democracy is not suitable for Thailand.” Instead, he proposes a model in which the majority of the country’s parliament would be appointed officials, leaving a mere 30% to be elected. “Let’s not get democracy as you would go to McDonalds and order a hamburger, because democracy is still a Western export,” he has said in defense of his proposal.
I’m sorry, Khun Sondhi, but you’re wrong, just as Philip Tose was in 1992. Yes, democracy can be imperfect and messy, and can occasionally lead to the election of popular but corrupt officials. And even the most open and democratic nations have had to deal with electoral fraud and its consequences. But a democracy can also provide fair recourse; Thailand’s two most recent prime ministers were ousted not by PAD’s mass rallies, but by the county’s courts and judges. And if the judges and courts were influenced by PAD, that’s also a tribute to the democratic rights of free speech and assembly enjoyed in Thailand. As Aung San Suu Kyi—probably Asia’s best-known democracy activist—has said, the “struggle for democracy is a struggle for our everyday life.” On “economic democracy,” she has said that the idea that “man is primarily an economic animal interested only in his material well-being” is “too narrow a view of a species which has produced numberless brave men and women who are prepared to undergo relentless persecution to uphold deeply held beliefs and principles.”
That said, I do agree with another prominent Asian supporter of democracy, Gandhi, who said that “the spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.” In that regard, Sondhi is right; imported or imposed democracy is doomed to failure. But Thailand’s democracy does come from within. The fact that the country has continued to embrace the electoral process in the face of decades of coups, corruption and failed governments is proof of that. The Thai people—or at least most of them—have embraced democracy. I hope that my old boss someday does the same.