Can Western Governments Learn from the New Asian Values?
BY PARAG KHANNA, Founder & CEO of Climate Alpha
Trust in government is fraying in the U.S., U.K. and other advanced economies, battered by decades of rising inequality, declining state capacity and partisan politics. Many developing nations are themselves wobbling or outright failing under the pressure of volatile markets, technological change and generational demands for change. In sharp contrast, much of Asia is bucking this downward slide.
Despite some short-term volatility, the trendline for trust in government in Asian countries over the past decade, as measured by the Edelman Trust Barometer, has been steadily upward or stable — and remains generally higher than in Western societies. Other measures confirm this positive trust gap. Asian states have been rising simultaneously in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators ranking of government effectiveness and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s scorecard of inclusiveness, as I noted in my book The Future is Asian.
Which raises the question: Is there something the West can learn from Asia about rebuilding trust? While it’s difficult to generalize about the world’s most populous region, which represents more than forty countries and a dizzying array of civilizations and cultures — some admittedly thoroughly disapproved of by the West — I believe the answer is a resounding yes.
The key is to focus on a few common denominators that are noticeable across Asia, in countries rich and poor, democratic and illiberal. I call these tendencies the new Asian values. Whereas in the 1990s the term “Asian values” was shorthand for paternalism, and too often tied to corruption, today it increasingly stands for an almost scientific approach to governance, one that applies trial and error methods to deliver utilitarian outcomes.
Three principles underlie these new Asian values. The first is a common reliance on technocratic governance. Don’t forget that, despite the large exception of China, more people live in democracies in Asia than in the entire rest of the world. Here, too, there are competitive elections and populist pressures. With few exceptions, Asians are not afraid of their rulers and will toss under-performing governments to the curb — as has been the case in South Korea and the Philippines, for example.
But across the region, there is also a deference to executive leaders, which gives them a long-term mandate. For their part, whether the mode of their selection is democratic elections or hereditary succession, Asian elites feel strong pressure to deliver national modernization — with no excuses. They remember the late 1990s Asian financial crisis, which toppled governments that were caught off guard, and so they now focus laser-like on infrastructure investment, technology, education and social inclusion. They recruit competent civil servants, equip them with rigorous training and competitive pay and empower them to manage strong bureaucracies. Legitimacy is based on performance outputs, not just democratic inputs.
The second principle is a strong belief in the government’s essential role in driving long-term strategic planning. This is a necessary corrective against over-reliance on free-market orthodoxy. Everywhere, government and industry collaborate to determine what segments of global value chains they seek to capture, which sectors should benefit from subsidies, where to direct R&D expenditure, which companies to target to lure foreign investment and other interventions. Even in hyper-capitalist Singapore, government-linked companies (GLCs) feature prominently in the economy. Laissez-faire is simply not in the Asian vocabulary. Asians don’t want to see Wall Street vs. Main Street divisions; they want all stakeholders working towards a common purpose.
The third principle involves taking a cautious and incremental approach towards societal change, one that places a premium on maintaining social harmony. This too is a natural corrective to some of the excesses of the me-first, liberal ideology that prevails in much of the West. It’s an attitude rooted in history. Most Asian nations embody a delicate tapestry of co-existing ethnicities and religions. Allowing people to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater is not something they need to test to know it’s a bad idea.
Such social conservatism, properly understood, should not provide an excuse for media censorship or discrimination against minorities on the basis of sexual orientation or other differences, though striking the right balance remains a struggle. But it may explain, for instance, why Asians — outside of China, which is leading the way in developing authoritarian social media — are rightly cynical about the notion that social media might somehow become an ersatz democratic agora, a way to dodge focusing on the hard work of delivering real-world benefits to the public. As regulators across North America and Europe seek to rein in tech companies and other corporate giants, maybe the West will tend toward becoming more Asian rather than the reverse?
Undeniably, too many exceptions remain to both the letter and spirit of these new Asian values. China has cracked down on even the minimal forms of free expression that once seemed possible. India’s government has taken a markedly chauvinistic turn in undermining the country’s once sacred secularism. Still, the overarching pattern of stability in much of Asia reflects the critical presence of a workable social contract, one where citizens trust that leaders on balance are striving to serve a greater good. They may prove bitterly disappointed by governments that are slow to restore democracy (such as the military junta in Thailand) or by the revolving door of democracy (as in Malaysia), but solidarity appears to remain intact.
Furthermore, despite episodes of COVID fatigue, most notably the backlash against China’s reluctance to abandon its “Zero-COVID” policy, Asian democratic technocracy, at least, has been elevated by the pandemic in the global public mind. On balance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have proven to be role models for their blend of competence and transparency. Expertise is not shunned, law and order are respected, citizens are willing to make sacrifices for the common good and governments spared no expense to protect families, workers and small businesses adversely affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns. They embody a far healthier relationship between rationalism and freedom than, say, U.S. or Britain today.
Ultimately, we ought to move beyond the kind of parsing of East-West divides that I have just engaged in. We should strive, instead, to forge a new form of syncretism, one that combines the best of Western atomism and Eastern holism, humanism and materialism, democracy and technocracy.
What does that lofty aspiration mean when it comes to the specific task of enabling more successful governance? It means focusing less on style and more on substance, less on tweaking the mechanics of the democratic process and more on the twin pillars of transparency and accountability. These are the insights at the core of the new Asian values. Citizens have a right to know how their government operates. Feedback loops are essential to guide course corrections and promote inclusive progress. Technology should be a platform for disseminating information and gathering feedback to advance national self-improvement, not an unchecked tool for stoking communal rivalries.
We are living in what should be a golden age of cross-border learning. Both West and East have much to share in applying this kind of common sense to the essential task of rebuilding trust in government worldwide.