Embracing Diversity: Asian Experts Offer Insights into Region’s Shared Values and Democracy
The world today is marked by growing divisiveness, as manifested in sectarian violence and extremist political positions—even in industrial countries. In Asia, though, the region’s traditional tolerance of divergent viewpoints is encouraging democratization. Indeed, Asia now has more
people living under democracies than any other region of the world. While democracy is often regarded as a Western concept, the fact that it has been embraced by so many Asian countries today suggests that they share certain core values that have made them receptive to democratic systems of government, despite their myriad philosophical and religious traditions.
On January 19, 2016, political, religious, and intellectual leaders from the region gathered at the Nikkei Hall in Tokyo to explore the topic of “Shared Values and Democracy in Asia” from a broad spectrum of viewpoints and experiences. The international symposium featured keynote speeches by former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Abbot Emeritus Kosei Morimoto of the temple Todaiji; closing remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ; a video message by Indian Prime Minister Naredra Modi ; and panel discussions among experts on Asian history, religion, and political systems.
Organized by Nikkei Inc. and co-organized by the Tokyo Foundation, Japan Foundation, and Vivekananda International Foundation, the symposium was held as the second leg of a pair of Japan-India conferences. The first, titled “ Samvad : A Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness,” was held in September 2015 in New Delhi, India.
World’s Largest Democratic Bloc
Asia’s diversity was perhaps best highlighted during the second panel discussion, as some of the region’s leading researchers shared their insights from a broad range of perspectives.
Referring to Margaret Thatcher’s comment that Europe was determined by its thousand-year history, while the much younger United States was determined by philosophy, University of Niigata Prefecture President Takashi Inoguchi noted that Asia, with a history of around two thousand years, could be defined by coexistence with nature. “In the West, there is a clear tendency to overestimate the human ability to control nature, whose negative side effects have been felt in recent changes to the climate. In Asia, by contrast, humans are regarded as being part of nature,” Inoguchi said. “In 2014, national elections were held in Indonesia, India, and Japan involving 1.8 billion people. The EU has a population of just 500 million and the United States 300 million. The Asian region is now largest democratic bloc in the world. To accommodate such diversity, efforts are being made to embrace such values as freedom, human rights, compassion, and human dignity.”
The civilizations, cultures, and economies of Asia evolved in very different ways, noted Tsuneo Watanabe , director of policy research at the Tokyo Foundation, who summarized the discussions conducted during the morning, closed-door panel. “The diverse backgrounds of Asian countries pose a stark contrast with European countries, which share a common path of development, and can more easily work together. One key to meeting the challenge of moving toward democracy under such diversity is to aim for good governance, which might be described as the promotion of the welfare and prosperity of the people. Democracy is a means to those ends, but establishing democratic institutions and actually making them work are two different things. And in terms of values,” Watanabe pointed out, “you shouldn’t forget China, since Confucianism has had an enormous impact on governance in Asia.”
History underlies Asian values, claimed Ambeth Ocampo , associate professor at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. “But when people talk of history, they tend to frame it in the past, making it irrelevant to the present and to the future. If we actually take a look back, though, we see that the Philippines hasn’t changed in 2,000 years,” despite the many years under Western colonial rule, he said. “The basic value underlying Philippine society is to accommodate—rather than control—the other. And individualism in Asia is always seen in the context of others: family, peers, community. These Asian values should be seen not only as objects of comparison, contrast, and the search for commonalities but also for how they can help people better manage the changes taking place today as barriers between states, cultures, and national identities are lowered.”
“Democratic transitions take time,” said Rahimah “Ima” Abdulrahim , executive director of the Habibie Center in Indonesia, who pointed out that considerable groundwork had been done by civil societies and students before Reformasi, or the process of democratization, began in her country. “We’ve accomplished quite a lot in a short span of time, compared to countries that have been democracies for decades or even centuries, but we also can’t be complacent. We have to keep in mind the role of civil society and the role of women in transitioning to democracy.”
Shokei Matsumoto , a Buddhist Priest at Komyoji Temple in Tokyo, talked about the Japanese word for “nature”— shizen —which originally meant not just the trees, plants, and animals in the natural environment but also one’s natural, unadulterated self. “ Shizen —or jinen as it was formerly pronounced—is much broader than the English term and sees humans as part of the external world, not separate from it. It’s a view,” he remarked, “that is widely shared in Asia that enables a uniquely Asian approach to democracy.”
“Geographically speaking, Asia was largely defined through the process of Western colonization,” remarked University of Tokyo Professor Shin Kawashima . “And it was in the wake of their struggles for independence that they developed as democracies, nurturing systems based on such shared cultural and religious values as pluralism, tolerance, and acceptance of differences.”
The Arab Spring and Its Aftermath
Moderator Sota Kato , director of policy research at the Tokyo Foundation, raised the issue of the Arab Spring democratization movement and its subsequent deterioration into sectarian conflict and political turmoil. Reminding panelists of substantial Muslim populations in non-Arabic Asia, he asked panelists to compare the compatibility of democracy with the cultures and traditions of the Middle East and the rest of Asia and to offer suggestions on how such conflicts may be mitigated through Asia’s values.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak , director of the Institute of Security and International Relations at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, reminded participants that 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, by which the British and the French “drew the map of the Middle East in the sand.” The Arab Spring was the “culmination of a decade-long period of instability that originated in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan,” triggering an effort by countries in the Middle East to “reclaim the global preeminence they enjoyed a thousand years ago. The parameters for the rest of Asia were largely set up after World War II, including for Japan and India—the wealthiest and largest democracies in Asia today.” The course democracy takes in East Asia, he noted, pivots around the new axis between Japan and India and the kind of democratic values that Prime Ministers Abe and Modi promote.
Shin Kawashima added that the Middle East cannot be blamed for the failures in democracy, noting that it was after 1925, when universal male suffrage was introduced in Japan, that the country took a more militant path and that in Germany, fascism gained ground through democratic elections.
“We may be asking too much from the Arab Spring,” admitted Shamsul Amri Baharuddin , director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies, National University of Malaysia, who noted that the real issue is not democracy but “mediacracy,” under which the mass media effectively controls the voting public by setting the agenda, choosing what is presented to the public, and giving opinions. “There’s been a McDonaldization of the news. We have to look at the platform on which information is delivered to the public, and democracy now is delivered through not only market capitalism but also digital capitalism.”
The Chinese understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East is that the democratization process carries high risks, noted Yu Tiejun , associate professor and vice president of the School of International Studies at Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies. “Democracy as a value system is a source of political legitimacy. But how it is introduced must be considered very cautiously,” he said, referring to the remarks by Shin Kawashima about greater democratization abetting militaristic and fascist forces in prewar Japan and Germany. “China, according to the Chinese constitution, is a democracy, since the supreme authority lies with the People’s Congress, which is a representative organization. It’s a democracy with Chinese characteristics based on Confucian values, placing emphasis on the community rather than the individual, harmony rather than competition, and responsibility rather than freedom.”
“All Rivers Flow to the Same Ocean”
Attempts at homogenization are counterproductive to democracy, asserted R. Vaidyanathan , professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. “We have to accept heterogeneity. In India we believe that truth is one—that god is one—but people call it by different names. Just as all rivers flow to the same ocean, people can reach the same goal even when they take different paths. Accepting different approaches is the path of conflict avoidance , which eliminates the need for conflict resolution . East Asian Islam may be different from that in the Middle East because of Buddhist and Hindu influences. There’s a willingness to accept differences and to recognize that there are multiple paths to the ultimate truth.”
“Myanmar started with a top-down form of transition,” said Myanmar-born Tin Maung Maung Than , now a visiting senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Singapore. “It was the military junta that set the rules for the transition to so-called democracy. But because of the law of unintended consequences, the election of November 2015 resulted in a kind of bottom-up meeting the top-down. The ruling party expected to lose, but not by that much. As our Chinese friend said, there needs to be some caution and a harmonization of values among the military, the ruling party, and the democratic opposition. People are now worried that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party could become authoritarian because of its landslide victory and supermajority in both house of parliament. The problems we’ve seen in the Middle East is not so much with democracy; whenever you have a violent revolution against a repressive regime, a vacuum emerges, and democracy cannot fill that gap—it’s not designed to fill that gap.”
With regard to the correlation between religion and politics, Thitinan Pongsudhirak pointed out that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world with a flourishing democracy, “So Islam and democracy are certainly compatible. Parties in Indonesia understand the importance of waiting their turns to contest for the popular mandate. When the players accept the rules, the game can move on.”
“The pattern of democracy in Southeast Asia—and perhaps also other parts of the Asia—is that different civilizations have existed for thousands of years before democracy was imported,” said Shamsul Amri Baharuddin . “These civilizations are a permanent feature of what we’ve inherited, and they cannot be ignored. The most important analytical tool we have to study this phenomenon is “embeddedness”—the layers of a civilization that have existed for thousands of years and that continue to inform those societies when new cultural elements are introduced. People in Southeast Asia had their own religions and civilizations, so when Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism came to Southeast Asia, they manifested differently in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. If you see democracy in an embedded sense, you can see how it has been adopted and reshaped in ways that are suited to each region.
Home Grown Democracy
Asian experts also considered the issue of democracy from the viewpoint of political leadership. In the first panel session, Swaminathan Gurumurthy , a distinguished research professor at Sastra University in India, remarked, “Our democratic roots go back to Emperor Ashoka, who established a large empire covering most of the Indian subcontinent that was marked by a most peaceful and honorable rule. He did much more than merely arithmetically aggregate the people. Given that every democracy is home grown, he realized need for democratic traditions to evolve from within and take root in the culture, traditions, and philosophies of the country.”
In 1951 the United Nations notified the underdeveloped nations they would have to give up their native culture and value systems in order to modernize. “But there is a U-turn taking place today,” Gurumurthy said. “In 2008, the G20 countries came to the conclusion that there is no universal model of economics which fits all. Each nation has to develop its own economic model and unless it develops its own economic model, there is no way it can grow.”
“From a Southeast Asian perspective,” said Thailand’s Surin Pitsuwan , who is former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, “the only way to manage the diversity we see in Asia is for each and every one of us to open up more space, allowing and inviting people to participate and to make a contribution to the different forms of democracy that we are now pursuing. My country, Thailand, may be called one of the ‘noisy democracies’ in ASEAN,” he said, “where democracy has not always been a guarantee of good governance. To create a prosperous East Asian community, we need to work with each other and have people participating in this evolution.”
“Mongolians are a nomadic people,” said Sangajav Bayartsgot , minister and chief of the Cabinet Secretariat of the government of Mongolia, “and nomadic culture emphasizes coexistence with a harsh environment.” This was already evident in the great Mongolian empire during the thirteenth century,” he said when “Islamic mosques, Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and shamanistic practices all coexisted in the capital city of Kharkhorin. Of Genghis Khan’s nine famous advisors, five were foreigners. Asia is very diverse, so we have to accept and coexist with one another. This is a very important point in developing democracy in own ways in our countries.
Moderator Masayuki Yamauchi , emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo and a professor at Meiji University, concluded the session by noting that Asia must experiment with its own brand of “noisy democracy.” This, rather than insisting on harmony, “may be the key to achieving coexistence with the diversity of values of Asia.” (Report compiled by Nozomu Kawamoto)
All photos courtesy of Nikkei Inc.
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Opening Remarks : Masahiro Akiyama (President, Tokyo Foundation)
Message from the Government of India : Kiren Rijiju (Minister of State, Indian Ministry of Home Affairs)
Vote of Thanks : Gen. N.C. Vij (Director, Vivekananda International Foundation, India)
Kosei Morimoto (Abbot Emeritus, Todaiji Temple, Japan)
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Former President, Republic of Indonesia)
Panel Session 1. “Shared Values and Leadership in Asia”
Swaminathan Gurumurthy (Distinguished Research Professor, Sastra University, India)
Surin Pitsuwan (Former ASEAN Secretary General, Thailand)
Kosei Morimoto (Abbot Emeritus, Todaiji Temple, Japan)
Sangajav Bayartsogt (Minister, Chief of the Cabinet Secretariat of the Government of Mongolia)
Masayuki Yamauchi (Emeritus Professor, University of Tokyo; Professor, Meiji University)
Video Message: Narendra Modi (Prime Minister of India)
Panel Session 2: “Shared Values and Democracy in Asia”
Takashi Inoguchi (President, University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan)
Shin Kawashima (Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo)
Shokei Matsumoto (Priest, Komyoji Temple, Tokyo)
R. Vaidyanathan (Professor, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore)
Rahimah “Ima” Abdulrahim (Executive Director, Habibie Center, Indonesia)
Shamsul Amri Baharuddin (Director, Institute of Ethnic Studies, National University of Malaysia)
Tin Maung Maung Than (Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Singapore, Myanmar)
Ambeth R. Ocampo (Associate Professor and former Chair, Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines)
Thitinan Pongsudhirak (Director, Institute of Security and International Relations, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand)
Yu Tiejun (Associate Professor and Vice President, School of International Studies; Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University)
Tsuneo Watanabe (Senior Fellow and Director of Foreign & Security Policy Research, Tokyo Foundation)
Sota Kato (Senior Fellow and Director of Policy Research, Tokyo Foundation)
Closing Address: Shinzo Abe (Prime Minister of Japan)
Symposium emceed by Mikiko Fujiwara, Public Communications Officer, Tokyo Foundation