Asian Model of Democracy, Changing of Old Notions

Asian Model of Democracy, Changing of Old Notions

Article by Hazem Almassry.


The Asian model of democracy presented special experiences that are at odds with the prevailing notions about democracy derived from Western experiences, like democracy brings prosperity and development, and democracy is not suitable for all societies, like Muslim societies… etc. In this study, we will learn about the reasons that make the Asian model of democracy different from other models, particularly from the western one. The following main question will be answered: What are the characteristics of the Asian model of democracy that makes it special? To answer this question, the researcher assumes the following hypotheses: 1) Asian countries have been able to draw a new path that doesn’t follow the traditional one that claims democracy comes before development. The Asian model of democracy emphasizes the necessity or inevitability of the achievement of development before democratic transition can take place. And 2) The Asian model of democracy succeeded in refuting the notion that Islamic culture and societies do not accept democracy as we saw in Indonesia and Malaysia, where they provided examples of the Muslims’ ability to integrate into the democratic system. In the context of showing the validity of the above hypotheses and other characteristics that characterized the Asian model of democracy, we will focus on the experiences of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as models of our study.

Keywords: Islam, Asia, democracy
Header image “Democracy” by Roel Wijnants is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Over the past three decades, the Asian continent witnessed a series of political reforms, which resulted from a wide-range of structural transformations, and its political arena flooded with changes that reflected a global transformation encompassing many economic, political and social spheres.

With the growing effectiveness of civil society in contemporary international developments, the voices calling for political reform and democratization in many Asian countries increased, and many writings defended this reform, which the West viewed as the final and optimal form of human organization.

The Asian continent was not immune to these developments on the international scene, and many of its countries feared their potential effects on the traditional value systems, which have long been a solid foundation for their regimes.

In general, it can be said that clarifying the issue of political reform in the Asian continent reflected the emergence of a special pattern in political reform fundamentally different from the Western concept of political reform and democratic transformation. The Asian reform differed in light of the existence of an Asian value system imposing a special pattern in the relationship between the ruler and the governed. This also fundamentally differed from the pattern prevailing in the Western countries, in the context of the two different historical experiences in dealing with the ruler. In Western history, societies witnessed several conflicts between the state and society in order for individuals to obtain their freedom. Hence, in order to preserve the freedom obtained in the face of the state, they established a group of institutions rather than rulers for that purpose, which is radically different from the situation in Asia. In traditional Asian societies, there was a belief that the ruler was mentally and morally superior to the public. In ancient China, for instance, the rulers were subject to civil tests that focused on their knowledge of traditional Confucian writings (Smith, 1957). Thus, the political rights of individuals were viewed as a grant from the ruler, instead of a right of citizens.

Thus, we find many Western writings in the field of democratization that defend the idea of Western singularity, both at the level of political structures and cultural or social systems.

On the other hand, these writings promoted the idea of the inadequacy of non-Western societies and cultures to build democratic systems similar to those developed in Western societies. This included the idea that Muslim societies are unable to embrace democratic political systems. These writings were based on the dissection of the cultural and social structures of these societies to emphasize their hypotheses and assumptions, particularly focusing on specific values such as the priority of group’s interest over the individual’s one and their inability to embrace the values of modernity.

These assumptions were spread with the help of the fact that the process of democratization was already delayed in the Asian societies. Moreover, much emphasis was made on these societies if their experiences subjected to the Western standards of democratic transformation, like multi-party, periodic elections, alternation of power and so forth. Where the collapse of authoritarian regimes and the beginning of democratization in many of these countries – such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea – only came about near the end of the 1980s. Such examples include the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986, the first democratic presidential elections in South Korea in 1987, the fall of Suharto in May 1998, and the first direct presidential elections in Indonesia’s history in 2004.

This led to a delay in the stability of the classification of Asian systems within the democracies of the world. Indonesia, for example, stabilized at 8 points in 2010 on the Polity index (CSP)[1], Compared to 2-3 points during the period 1995-1997. Similarly, the situation of the Philippines on the same index stabilized between 6 and 7 points during the period 1987-2013, compared with only 2 points during the period 1981-1985, and 1 point during the period 1972-80 (Peev, 2012).

Hence, the stability of the process of democratic transition and the stability of the classification of the Asian democracies within the emerging world democracies over the past two or three decades, has led us to ask if we are really in a state of natural, historical or structural stalemate in Asian cultural and social systems on democracy, or if we are in a state of peculiarity, starting from the peculiarity of the transition process to the peculiarity of the model?


Four reasons that make it exceptional

In this context, we note a number of general observations on the Asian model of democracy, which support the idea of peculiarity of Asian democracy:


The first observation or peculiarity is the relationship between development processes and democratic transition.

Democracy is a central determinant of the quality of life, and a central element in the ability of men and women to live freely and autonomously as human beings. This is no less so in poor and developing countries than it is in the North and the West.”

The Western writings emphasize that democracy should come first, and then development follows as a result (Huntington, 1975, Huber, Rueschemeyer, and Stephens 1992, 1997; Huber, Ragin, and Stephens 1993). In this context, the economists Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson espouse the view that political institutions promote economic performance. These authors found a strong correlation between a measure of protection against government expropriation (to proxy for political institutions) and economic performance (measured by real income per capita) across a large sample of countries (Acemoglu, and all, 2001).

Many other Western studies also suggest that democracy promotes economic liberalization (Fidrmuc, 2001, Peev and Murller, 2012), and that democracy is preferable for long-term and sustainable growth (North, 1990, North, 1993, Olson, 2000).

The democratic transition historically took precedence over development, which made development depend on the process of the democratic transition. This was the basis for formulating many Western assumptions about democracy as a necessary condition for the success of development.

In contrast to the Western experiences, the Asian experiences in democratization succeeded in confirming the possibility, and perhaps even necessity of completing development before moving to the democratic transition. The cases of South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines provide clear examples of this hypothesis. China’s experience still involves the insistence of the ruling political elite on the priority of achieving development before the democratic transition (Klein, 2004).

Although this elite is aware of the difficulty of ignoring the effects of the democratic transition between geographical regions, they still consciously adhere to the level of democratic transition on one hand, and the level of economic and social development and the reduction of development gaps between regions on the other hand (Kalathil, 2018). Furthermore, there is even a clear precedence of the planned process to the path of development leading to a democratic transition, in a way that confirms clear dependence of the latter on the path of development. Thus, it is not about the impossibility of the process of a democratic transition as much as the degree of specificity of the path.


The second peculiarity is that some Asian societies succeeded in refuting the idea that Islamic culture and societies are incompatible with democracy.

A number of scholars argue that Islam acts as a hindrance to democratic forms of government and/or democratic values (Fukuyama 1992; Huntington 1991, 1996; Lewis 1994, 2001, 2004; Pipes 1995, 2002; Kedourie 1994). These scholars argue for Islam’s incompatibility with democracy on the grounds that democracy requires openness, competition, pluralism, and a tolerance of diversity, whereas Islam encourages intellectual conformity and an uncritical acceptance of authority. They also stress that the Islamic tradition does not match with democratic ideals because it vests sovereignty in God, who is the sole source of political power and from whose divine law must emanate all regulations governing the community of believers (Tessler, 2002). These scholars’ views, therefore, reflect the notion that an Islamic political order must culminate in totalitarianism (Lewis 1994).

The cases of Indonesia and Malaysia provide two important examples in this area. The Muslim minority in Singapore also presented an example of the Muslims’ ability to integrate into the democratic system. The Malay Muslim majority in Malaysia also presented another example of the possibility of accepting the disparity between the two types of distribution of economic resources and political resources when they accepted the idea of the distinct economic status of the Chinese and Indian minorities and a distinct political status of Malay people without getting involved in political or economic quotas (Thaib, 2013; Noh, 2010).

Thus, the issue here is not about the assumed Islamic rejection of democracy as much as it is about the availability of other important conditions for the occurrence of this transformation. Such conditions include – but are not limited to – the level of economic and social development achieved, the existence of elite and political leadership that have the desire and ability to achieve compatibility and to develop their communities on the path of a democratic transition, and the existence of a favorable regional environment free of acute conflicts to achieve such a transition.


The third peculiarity is the success of these countries in dealing with the state of religious and ethnic pluralism within the traditional model of majoritarian democracies[2] (Ritchie, 2004). In contrast to Western theories or models, these countries were able to promote the idea of adapting democracies to the reality of religious and ethnic pluralism in some societies. Particularly the models of consociational democracies based on religious, sectarian or ethnic quotas, i.e. the distribution of political and economic resources on the basis of religion, sect, or race, which were promoted by the writings of Arend Lijphart, at the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s (Lijphart, 1968, 1977). The Asian countries have succeeded to build normal democracies under pluralist societies (Singapore, India, Malaysia and Indonesia), and have not taken the model of consensual democracies[3]. Thus, these models themselves represented a departure from the traditional ideas promoted by the Western theories and models.


The fourth peculiarity is that some Asian societies demonstrated a great willingness to accept and assimilate democratic models imposed from abroad. We saw the failure of the international powers, represented mainly in the United States, to impose imported democratic values and regimes from abroad on many societies (the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq are important examples in this context), however, the United States succeeded in imposing such regimes on Japan after World War II (Nehru, 1979).

Based on the study of the history of this phenomenon, the success or failure of this policy was due in part to the nature of the international system and the regional environment in which this policy was implemented, as well as the nature of the policies of the external powers that adopted these projects. However, much of the success or failure of these experiments was also due to the nature of the societies subjected to these regimes. Thus, it can be said here that Asian societies and cultures were more willing to accept democratization from outside.



We can learn from the democratic transition experiences in Asia that economic transformation and the accompanying modernization of society have had a significant impact on supporting the democratic transition process in a number of these countries, as in the case of Korea and Taiwan.

We can also learn from these experiences that a consensus between different forces and political currents is necessary to support a democratic transition, as a way to overcome unilateralism and inclusiveness, to adopt a democratic choice and flexibility to deal with major contentious issues. Consensus is usually to involve various forces in the construction process and to develop strategic perceptions to define the political and economic future, and to manage various crises and conflicts.

In short, the Asian model of democratic transformation is different from the traditional one. However, the features of the Asian model of democracy are clear, the debate is still ongoing about what model is the best choice for nations looking for democracy, the mainstream Western model or the Asian model. Although we emphasize the specificity of the Asian democratic transition, this does not mean that we adopt this or that model. It depends on the specificity of each nation and the culture and nature of that nation’s people to determine the most appropriate model. All we emphasize on is that democracy – regardless of its shortcomings – is a grace that all peoples should enjoy sooner or later.



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[1] The Center for Systemic Peace, measures the evolution of the state of democracy in the world through a series of time starting from 1800.

[2] Majoritarian democracy models like Malaysia, India, and Singapore. For further information refer to  Peter Emerson’s works “From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politic”

[3] Constitutional democracies like Lebanon, Iraq and Bosnia. for further info about constitutional democracy look at Thomas Fleiner and Lidija Basta Fleiner’s work “Constitutional Democracy in a Multicultural and Globalised World”