Democracy and the Asian Wall Street Journal

Philip Bowring
2 July 2004

The Wests inability, born of a mix of conceit and ignorance, to recognise the global realities of the world in 2004 is bad for everyone. It is bad because it gives an illusion that events are more capable of benign control than is actually the case.

Bad because it invites a backlash by the non-West which would have negative consequences. Bad because it could eventually lead to the West in general and the US in particular turning in on itself out of frustration and a sense of rejection.

The virus has many symptoms. A recurrent one is the G8 of self-styled global leaders who, with the exception of Japan, are all white and all except Russia are linked by military alliances. Their meetings may appear harmless, meaningless photo ops. But the very fact that they take place is a triumph of illusion and hubris. Unless these leader meetings can be expanded to include major countries such as China, Brazil and India, there is absolutely no hope that they can achieve meaningful global consensus on issues ranging from the World Trade Organisation to AIDS and weapons of mass destruction (whatever they may actually be).

Europe complains much about alleged US attempts at hegemonism. But European posturing is little different albeit its pretensions are more readily ignored than those of the US. Take for example the EUs apparent determination to create problems for EU relations with Asia the Asia-Europe Summit due in October because of the presence of Myanmar.

I happen to believe that it was foolish of Asean to admit Myanmar while it had a Government so far removed from the regional spirit, so ill-governed, so tainted by drug connections. Aseans influence on the Yangon regime is minimal. Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. The economy is unreformed and such little investment as takes place is often driven by cronyism. But it was a collective Asean decision to admit Myanmar and it is no business of the EU any more than it is Aseans job to comment on, for example, the fitness of Turkey to join the EU.

While parading a high moral stance against Myanmar, the EU largely keeps quiet about oppression in China for example the treatment of former premier Zhao Ziyang and positively fawns over Singapore. In places where there is money to be made, the moralising quickly moderates. In the case of Singapore, the supine Western media not only practises extreme self-censorship but feeds out of the hand of local officialdom and think- tanks and “experts” on terrorism. Much of the ensuing “reportage” is to the detriment of neighbouring countries which give the media, local and foreign, freer rein.

Singapore offers views on a plate and some handy tax breaks so why risk losing those by reporting the realities of Singapore politics, racial realities and ownership and control of its economy. (emphasis added)

The media can be revealing in other ways too. Take for example the Asian Wall Street Journal of June 23. It ran a column one story on its front page headlined: “Mali elects to stand out in the Muslim world by adopting democracy”. It went on to proclaim that Mali “showcased something highly unusual in the Muslim world: a thriving democracy”. Such gratuitous remarks in an otherwise fair story on Mali were instructive.

One has long been accustomed to ignorance, ethnic bias and anti-Muslim prejudice from domestic media in the West. But isnt the “Asian” Wall Street Journal supposed to be edited in Asia? Does it not count the ongoing elections in the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, as democratic? Or of the recent polls in Malaysia? Or the well established free media and election-based changes of government in poor but open Bangladesh population 130 million? Or Turkey? For sure, none of these democracies is without its blemishes. But who is? Surely not the US of Guantanamo and the claims of George W. Bushs advisers that he can be exempted from the law.

One might even consider that Pakistan would have fair elections but for Western backing of the Musharraf regime, and Algeria an elected Government but for French preference for authoritarianism over Islamists. The democrats of Iran might by now have triumphed over the ulama but for “axis of evil” talk and Washingtons unremitting hostility to the freely elected President Khatami.

The Arab world is singularly lacking in open, liberal and democratic government. But most Muslims are not Arabs. Those Wall Street Journal phrases, clearly a product of ignorance not malice, help explain why the US policy has been based on illusions which have provided recruits for al-Qaeda and led it into the Iraq quagmire.

The danger now is that a combination of failure of its Iraq venture, general international rejection of Americas Christian fundamentalist values and its mega foreign debts will cause it to turn its back on a world where there will soon be more Muslims than Christians, where US industries are no longer leaders and where the dollar has outstayed its welcome.

Given how much the US and Europe can contribute as strategic presence or source of ideas, technology and investment, that would be a huge and dangerous loss to the world. But it will happen if the West does not wake up to realities and regain some political wisdom.

The writer is a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a columnist with the International Herald Tribune.