Learning from history - Eaglewatch by Leonardo A. Lanzona Jr.
October 07, 2016
The 44th anniversary of martial law two weeks ago should give us some pause to assess the way the current events are unfolding. History matters not only because the current institutions are, to some extent, products of the past but also because we can learn from it. Indeed, while we cannot change the past, we are not prevented from reassessing the values, which we have fought for and from which we now stand.
As some historians have already pointed out, the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in the 1970s was not a unique development. Several other countries, particularly Singapore and South Korea, had similarly instituted dictatorial forms of government in an attempt to pursue economic growth. In varied degrees, these countries, as in the Philippines, have also trampled upon basic civil and political rights, and veered away from due process as a means to spur economic growth and achieve development.
An argument advocated by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore appeals to so-called Asian values. As explained by Lee, this thesis claims that the cultural inclination to respect authority and hard work allows East Asian countries to pursue liberal economic policies without democracy. The central argument is that democracy is not a necessary condition in pursuing economic growth through capitalism. Dictatorial systems can engage in liberal economic policies even at the expense of the rule of law.
In fact, some would argue that autocracies, because they are insulated from political pressure, are better able to improve economic conditions. Democracy, the argument goes, is a luxury that the poorest countries cannot afford. The implication of this theory is that democracy has never been part of the culture of these countries as Western countries have forced this system upon them. According to this theory, Eastern and Western countries are different and what works to promote development in the West will not work in East Asia. Lee says East Asian values emphasize that an individual is not a separate entity, but part of a family, which is then part of society. Mere policy prescriptions, he explains, do not capture the cultural contributions to economic growth. Cultures with less emphasis on scholarship, hard work and thrift, he says, will grow much more slowly than the countries of East Asia did. Asian values, the thesis goes, create a new path to economic growth that is inconsistent with democracy.
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Several counterarguments can be raised. First, there is no such thing as Asian values. Each country, even in Southeast Asia, is unique and as different as any country in the Western hemisphere. What works in Singapore will not necessary succeed in the Philippines. While values may be similar in countries, such as the Philippines, India or Singapore, it is a stretch to say Asian countries share the same values.
Second, Western values are not entirely different from the so-called Asian values. In fact, respect for authority, along with devotion to hard work and merit, is as much a value in the West as in Asia. What differs, perhaps, is the long history in Western countries of authoritarian rulers abusing of power and corruption. In all countries, except perhaps in Hong Kong and Singapore, modernization and economic development are positively correlated with democracy.
Third and most important, the economic growth in Singapore cannot be fully attributed to its culture, but more important, to the type of institutions that they created. As a number of scholars have noted, government policy in Singapore has very carefully not only created growth, but also moderated the negative effects of development on the least well-off and limited the creation of a strong civil society. Hence, the state has created stakeholders or citizens with a direct interest in the state. Consequently, vested political power of the few was controlled as the distribution of income and power became more equal. While it is possible that Lee’s authoritarian regime may be responsible for setting up this situation, there is nothing in a democracy that can prevent this happening. Regardless of the government structure, the ability and cultural inclination of the country and its state to achieve the necessary institutional development that encourages greater efficiency, participation and social mobility are all that matters.
While President Ferdinand Marcos imitated the authoritarian regimes in other countries, with all the consequent violations to due process, the institutions created only ensured the concentration of power and wealth to him and his family. In the process, instead of a culture of hard work and merit, we had the corruption and violence, bringing us worldwide ignominy. Yet, what set us apart as a nation was how we eventually championed democracy and respect for individual human rights. Indeed, as the song goes, Edsa was our gift to the world and influenced similar revolutions in other countries.
Unfortunately, with our new found democracy, institutions remained weak and failed to correct the unequal distribution of power which we sought to eliminate. In fact, the present acceptance of the public to extrajudicial violence reflects our lack of trust in state institutions, causing many to believe again in more immediate forms of punishment and control. In particular, the previous administration failed to fix the corrupt and ineffective justice system, and encountered a series of security-related scandals. These caused a significant portion of the electorate to ignore the lessons of martial law and vote for President Duterte and his program of law and order.
True to its campaign promise, this current administration follows a path that contradicts our cultural inclinations, but results in substantial social loss. Instead of respecting human rights and protecting the poor, we see deaths and misery to poor communities, leading to greater uncertainty in the ability of our institutions to care for the disadvantaged and the sick, and adhere to basic human rights.
Indeed, this government must learn from our history and return to the values that will restore our position as citizens of the modern world. It needs to go back to our true nature as a decent and self-respecting nation by following due process and focusing on the business of building the right institutions.
Leonardo Lanzona Jr., PhD is professor of economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and a senior fellow of Eagle Watch, the school’s macroeconomic research and forecasting unit. He is also the director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development.