NB: This speech was delivered at the inaugural conference of the ASEAN Coalition for Clean Governance on 25 June 2012. The following reproduction is abridged.

The great statesman Sir Winston Churchill once noted, with customary astuteness, that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. In this vein, I posit that the current global financial crisis, though potentially perilous, may in effect present a golden opportunity to us in ASEAN.

While it is true that the traditional consumer markets of the West are now sinking in a sea of debt, thereby causing direct and substantial impact to our export-oriented economies, it is also true that industrial production and exports have begun to cautiously accelerate in this region. Momentum in the last one year has been positive, with contracting demand from America and Europe offset by growing regional demand, especially from China.

In fact, statistics from the last three quarters of last year reveal that Southeast Asian consumption expenditure had expanded by a healthy 4.7 per cent. This interesting trend suggests that domestic demand in East Asia is not only able to withstand the financial pressures from the West, but also reveals the potential of this region to become the next major consumer market.

This is particularly significant to us. Geographically bridging the rising giants of East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and with more than 600 million people or nearly a tenth of the world’s population living in ASEAN countries, we are well-poised to take advantage of this emerging development.

However, it is imperative that we tread carefully. This promised opportunity is doubled-edged. While we must be prepared to realise the prospective benefits of economic growth, we must also take great care in leveraging on this opportunity to ensure that any development that results is one that is equitable, just and inclusive.

This is where our public institutions are critical. If our executive, legislative, judicial, financial and electoral systems are not robust, durable and even more importantly clean, then we will not be able to safeguard the fundamental rights and well-being of our people.

Avoiding tragedy

That said, economic opportunities – and this also applies to conditions of economic uncertainty – are rife with pitfalls. In a capitalistic environment unfettered by the absence of strong, functional and accountable public institutions, it is only too easy to fall into either one or both of two traps.

Firstly, corruption and abuse of power usually thrive in such circumstances. As a result, state monopoly capitalism and rent-seeking behaviour will lead to an inefficient economy that benefits only politically-connected capitalists and those adept at the art of bureaucratic lubrication. In this case, economic development will occur, but corruption will produce inequitable development.

The other trap is known as the tragedy of the commons; a dilemma characterised by independent, rational actors in singular pursuit of their own self-interest. This behavioural pattern is unsustainable and will ultimately result in long-term ruin as resources are greedily exhausted without regard for collective consciousness. In this case, “every one for himself” will mean that the biggest, strongest and richest will amass the lion’s share, while everyone else will be left fighting for scraps.

In the context of ASEAN today, with some member countries in a state of transitional flux and others still entrenched in the old habits of patronage, corruption and abuse of power, it would be only too easy to fall into either one or both of these traps.

The only way to prevent such adverse circumstances is to provide the necessary institutional protections through good and clean governance based on the rule of law, legitimacy of power, consistency and integrity in public service delivery, and participatory processes that will provide every man and woman with a real and lasting stake in their own future.

Is freedom not an Asian value?

There are of course those who argue against the need for values such as freedom and democracy as a basis for clean governance. In their opinion, the peculiarities of “Asian values” make democracy and human rights incompatible with the genetic makeup of our society. They instead argue that economic needs are more important than human rights and political freedoms, and that development can in fact be achieved without freedom.

This is of course the hypothesis of the “absolute benign dictator”, most recently postulated by a prominent former prime minister. Such a leader would indeed be powerful and strong enough to engender efficient and effective functioning of public institutions. The system will work as intended, so long as the dictator is inclined to be benign and benevolent. Unfortunately, no one has told us what will happen when the dictator is eventually replaced or when he or she decides one day that being benign is not that fun, after all.

Advocates of this thesis often point out that development and freedom are not necessarily mutually inclusive. After all, some Asian economies have been able to achieve development without necessarily giving due regards to freedom and human rights. However, here we must ask ourselves two important questions. To whom does development benefit, and what do we mean by development?

To address the first question, it is often the case that economic development in authoritarian regimes, even with double digit expansion, results only in one-sided distribution and widening inequality. In other words, while the pie gets bigger, the crumbs for those at the bottom of society do not increase. It is only the elite that enjoy the excesses.

Secondly, development should not only be measured in material terms. While the escape from income poverty must be a goal, development should also entail the release of the shackles of “unfreedom”, to use the term made famous by Amartya Sen. In other words, societal development can only be achieved when people are empowered with the freedom to live their lives to their fullest capabilities. That is the only way to ensure sustainable and equitable development.

Opportunity to cultivate freedom

The “Asian values” thesis is a fallacy and at best a justification for authoritarian regimes. We must remember that democracy, which is the structural manifestation of freedom, is founded upon the derivation of legitimacy from the masses. Though it is a Western term, it is not a Western concept.

As Kim Dae Jung pointed out in his seminal rebuttal against the notion of “Asian values”, Chinese philosophy dating as far back as a few millennia ago have been advancing the idea that the “heavenly” mandate bestowed upon rulers were not only derived from the will of the people, but also predicated upon good and righteous governance.

And this was long before John Locke articulated the foundations of modern democracy. In other words, the fundamental values and traditions for democracy are not peculiar to the West, or the East for that matter. They are in fact universal human values.

Therefore, Asian cultural heritage is not an obstacle but in fact a platform to foster and encourage the values of freedom and democracy. In this regard, the challenge for us is to ensure the embodiment of these values into our public institutions. And this is something that only we can do ourselves.

The responsibility to exercise clean, efficient and accountable governance in ASEAN cannot be imposed or imported from the outside. After all, it is our own freedom, our own development and our own livelihood that is at stake. Thus, it is entirely incumbent upon us to meet this challenge of ensuring that our public institutions embrace the universal values of truth, freedom and democracy.

Conclusion

In a turbulent future that promises both challenges and opportunity, it is critical that we get our foundations right. We must resist the urge to retreat into our own comfort zones. We need to recognise that only by a collective regional effort can we build a substantive force to face the coming shift in the global order.

The key to building sustainable development is to empower our people through the adherence of the fundamental principles of truth, freedom and democracy. It is our duty to ensure that development and its distribution is not only fair materially, but also inclusive in terms of access and opportunity. To do this, we must avoid the pitfalls of selfishness and corruption.

We must also take heed that freedom and democracy are not concepts that are anathema to our culture; they are in fact symbiotic values that must be embraced in order to achieve the ultimate goal of human development.

At the end of the day, whether we call it clean governance, good governance or judicious governance, it is about building strong, functioning, accountable and transparent public institutions. Only then can we reduce the avenues for corruption, provide representation at all levels of society, allow meaningful space for democratic participation and be responsive to the present and future needs of our society.