By Michael S. H. Heng

Asian Democracy

Dec. 02, 2016  |     |  0 comments

There are essentially two main contending voices in the decade-long debate about Asia embracing democracy. The core argument against it is that the value systems of Asian countries are not compatible with democracy which emerged historically in western cultural and intellectual contexts.1 The counter-argument is that Asian values do contain elements of democratic ideals, such as moderation and toleration, and people-centered political philosophy.2

This article takes a different approach. It reflects on the adoption and adaptation by Southeast Asia of religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, and the Middle East. These influences from distant lands had originated in cultural-intellectual settings that were alien to Southeast Asia. Yet, Southeast Asians were able to borrow what they needed and they adapted them to serve their own needs. Southeast Asians were not passive beneficiaries and the results were rarely carbon copies of the sources; instead they created in the process a distinctive synthesis.3 For example, the Hindu temples in the Indonesian island of Bali were not like the Hindu temples built in Myanmar centuries earlier, and neither resembled Hindu temples in India. In transplanting foreign cultures into local cultural soil, Southeast Asians showed a penchant for combining seemingly incompatible elements into a cultural unity. Animism was incorporated into or existed alongside imported faiths. Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. After centuries of such mixing and integration, Southeast Asia has a transformed but richer cultural-intellectual landscape.

To be sure, the phenomenon of cultural cross-fertilization is not unique to Southeast Asia. A more-or-less similar process was observed during the long march of European history. Ancient Greek civilization drank from the cultural and ideational wells of Ancient Egypt.4 Another example is provided by the European Enlightenment:

According to John Hobson in his book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, “Chinese ideas were particularly important in stimulating the Continental European and British Enlightenment. Chinese ideas influenced European ideas on government, moral philosophy, artistic styles (e.g. rococo), clothes, furniture and wallpaper, gardens, political economy, tea-drinking and many other matters. The link between the European Enlightenment and Chinese thought was ultimately bridged by the shared faith in human reason as the centre of all things.”5

One key idea and institution is bureaucracy. Combining it with check and balance by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master.

In its long history, China too has displayed willingness in borrowing and learning from non-Chinese sources. Contrary to China’s official narrative, modern China has displayed a strong affinity for democracy and its practices. It is evident in the May 4th movement. More interesting is the positive reports on Western democratic systems written by Chinese court officials and embassy staff sent to the West in the late Qing period.6 In fact, what we call the Chinese way of life contains many elements of non-Chinese origins. At the level of ideas, China has accepted Buddhism and Marxism — two systems of thoughts that are foreign to Chinese tradition.

In the course of its integration into Asian political life, Asian democracy has the potential to enrich the theory and practice of democracy.

The above few examples from the past suggest that borrowings and learnings from sources with very different cultural backgrounds could and did happen. Democracy was alien to Asian countries before the 20th century. But today the vast continent has, according to Freedom House, five countries — India, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and Taiwan — ranked as free based on democratic criteria as well as several countries ranked as semi-free.7 The fate of democracy in these countries and the question of whether democracy will take root in the rest of Asia can best be answered by history. Social and political scientists do not have an impressive track record of predicting future events. Take the case of Germany, which for a long time was thought to have little democratic potential. “Germany, for instance, [is] seen as synonymous with democracy today, whereas from the middle of the 19th century and until the end of the Second World War, the concept was viewed by many social groups as fundamentally non-German and alien.”8

Many Asians do not accept that Western liberal democracy is the best form of democracy. This does not mean that they disparage the core ideas of democracy: sovereignty of the people; rule of law; guarantee of human rights; majority rule with guarantee of minority rights; checks and balances. It is succinctly formulated by Abraham Lincoln in his famous “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Like other systems of thought and institutions, democracy displays a variety of forms and practices. Democracy in America is different from democracy in the Nordic countries. It makes sense therefore to talk about American democracy, Scandinavian democracy, and Asian democracy. The ascent to power by Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populist demagogues and xenophobes in Europe and India have exposed some critical flaws of democracy as it is practiced in these countries.9 All those who cherish the ideals of democracy should therefore strive to improve the theory and practice of democracy. And this brings us to the historical project of realizing democracy in Asia or the development of Asian democracy.

What then is Asian democracy? Instead of trying to offer a definition to this fuzzy and perhaps controversial concept, the author again falls back on history to illustrate the underlying ideas, very much like using case studies to convey concepts in management courses. This article uses the case of Chinese Buddhism. After being introduced to China, the new religion had to adapt itself to a civilization profoundly different from the one in its birth place. Buddhism became acclimatized in the Chinese world to the extent that certain of its components corresponded with the preoccupations and traditions of the Han period and subsequent ages. At the beginning, Buddhist texts were interpreted with ideas taken from Daoism. Chinese Buddhism is the form of Buddhism that made contact with Chinese thought and thus developed in conjunction with Chinese philosophical traditions. In doing so, the Chinese Buddhists enriched the teachings and practice of Buddhism and promoted it to neighboring countries. One example is provided by what is known in Chinese as “Chan” and in Japanese as “Zen”.

In the course of its integration into Asian political life, Asian democracy has the potential to enrich the theory and practice of democracy, just like how “Chan/Zen” has contributed to Buddhism. This is something to be welcomed by any open-minded non-Asians.


1. See, for example, Zakaria, F. (1994). A conversation with Lee Kuan Yew. Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr, 109-126.

2. See for example, Kim, D. J. (1994). Is culture destiny? The myth of Asia’s anti-democratic values. Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec, 189-194; Sen, A. (1997). Human rights and Asian values.

Sixteenth Morgenthau Memorial Lecture on Ethics & Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

3. Lockard, C. A. (2009). Southeast Asia in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Bernal, M. (1991). Black Athena, and Black Athena. The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1. Vintage.

5. Hobson, J. M. (2004). The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge University Press.

6. Qin, H. (2015). Zǒuchū dìzhì: cóng wǎn qīng dào mínguó lìshǐ de huí wàng” 《走出帝制—从晚清到民国历史的回望》. Qún yán chūbǎn shè 群言出版社.

7. Freedom House. (2016). Freedom in the World 2016. Retrieved from

8. Lang, J. (2014, December 8). Democracy and Southeast Asia are not incompatible.

Fair Observer. Retrieved from

9. Mishra, P. (2016, November 13). The incendiary appeal of demagoguery in our time. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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