False dichotomy for Asia

April 28, 1995

It is rather disappointing that Michael Leifer (THES April 21) has chosen to rely uncritically on popularised conceptual categories in his analysis of the East Asian situation without reflexively examining the robustness of such concepts. Specifically, he uses the false (but popularly held) dichotomy between the "individual" and the "collective" in order to set up a shadow of distinctions between "democracy" and "developmental authoritarianism".

The former supposedly identifying with the west's championing of individual "rights" while the latter refers to a model of political economy that Leifer conveniently uses to label East Asian countries where "the state intervenes to dampen political opposition in the declared interest of social order and economic development".

Sadly, it is the continued perpetration of such simplistic and abstracted either/or notions which contrives to distort and obscure lived experiences both in the east and west. Take the term "individual" for instance. Had Leifer taken time to trace its etymology he would have discovered that the individual/collective dichotomy on which his whole argument hinges is a modern day aberration. Boethius, writing in the 12th century, defined individual as "that which cannot be separated" or "stand alone". He gave "steel" as an example of individuality because of its apparently indivisible quality. For Boethius, the individual is a moment of the larger collective. This is the aspect which the east retains but which much of the western world has conveniently forgotten in their obsession with individual "rights" in abstraction from social responsibilities.

A notion of "reflexive rights" incorporating the responsibility element provides an equally valid means of understanding the process of political economic transformation. Democracy can then be understood as a "collective local outcome" not as a pre-specified ideal "goal" to be striven after or externally enforced upon. That would itself be undemocratic. Democratisation has always been a painful experience and the so-called western democracy is but a specific version of its outcome. To idealize it as a universal feature is to participate in the systematic colonisation of thought - hardly a democratic practice. To unreflexively install a familiar version as the reference point for comparative analysis is to violate the first principles of ethnographic understanding. More important, it is to promulgate false conflictful images that obscure the real possibilities of arriving at a deeper common understanding.

Robert Chia Department of Management and Organisation University of Stirling

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