Democracy not a Western product

December 15, 2011
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

The Singapore Democrats recently marked World Human Rights Day on 10 December with this video message from Ms Teo Soh Lung. But the PAP insists that human rights – and by extension, democracy – is a Western concept alien to the Asian mindset.

We present below historical facts to demonstrate that this is patently untrue and debunk, once and for all, the idea that advocates of democracy are doing the bidding of the West. 

Following WWII, the Allied Powers announced the formation of the United Nations. The UN was tasked with bringing governments together with the hope of preventing a repeat of the atrocities committed during the World Wars that took place in the first half of the twentieth century.

The UN developed a charter which leads with the affirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women”. Eleanor Roosevelt, then widow of president Franklin D Roosevelt, was charged with leading a commission to codify the UN Charter.

Among some of the governments that were involved in the commission were several from Asia and the Middle East: China, India, the Philippines, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. Among those whom the commission consulted was a certain Mohandas K Gandhi. 

The process took a couple of years to complete. It resulted in a document named the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR). The UDHR spelt out specific provisions of human rights which member states are obliged to follow. It was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, a date commemorated today by many in the world.

But way before the formalisation of human rights in the form of the UDHR, the practice of democracy was observed in early human civilisation. Contrary to the popular belief that democracy was a Greek invention political scientist John Keane notes in his tome, The Life and Death of Democracy, that the earliest recorded form of democratic process was recorded in ancient Sumerian references.

Assembly-based democracy, primitive as it was, had taken place in lands that now correspond to Iran, Iraq and Syria circa 1500 BCE. This spread to places like India where “republics governed by assemblies became common.” It wasn’t until about 500 BCE that the idea of demokratia came to the West via Athens.

The late Kim Dae Jung, former president of South Korea, noted that in ancient China, philosopher Mencius had advocated “people-based politics” and that the “will of the people is the will of heaven.” More pointedly, Mencius said that the people came first, the emperor second.

Today, we see Asian peoples from India to Indonesia, Mongolia to Malaysia insisting on their human rights. Even the Chinese are becoming increasing restless and speaking out against authoritarian control in their country.

The tragedy for Singapore is that while the PAP paints democracy and human rights as Western, it has enthusiastically embraced Western greed and crass consumerism by turning Singapore into a mindless financial and shopping capital. (Read also Asian values or aping the West? Part 1 and Part 2)

Given these irrefutable facts, we hope that the PAP and its supporters will once and for all stop repeating the untruth that human rights is a Western idea. More important it should, for the good of this nation, stop trying to prevent the tide of democracy from reaching our shores.