Let 21st Century Be The Century For Social Democracy in Asia

- Socialist International Council Meeting
"Social Democracy and Asia Today:
Developing Common Policy for Global Change"
by Lim Kit Siang

(New Delhi, Monday): The Socialist International Council is meeting in New Delhi at a turning point in history, which is presenting social democracy the greatest challenges and promises in Asia. Our gathering in New Delhi is even more significant as it is an occasion for us to pay tribute to the largest functioning democracy in the world, as well as to salute Janata Dal, which is leading the coalition government in India, for hosting this Council meeting.

In the past few months, as the result of financial and economic turmoils, which have rocked not only the Asian Tigers but also developed economies in Japan and the West, the advocates of Asian Values who have presented the false choices between prosperity and freedom, good governance and democracy, stabiliy and respect for human rights are in retreat.

This has presented Socialist International a historic opening to spread the message about the relevance of the social democratic vision and the core beliefs in freedom, democracy, social justice, peace and solidarity as an integral part of human aspirations whether in the Asia Pacific or in the other continents.

For most of the five decades since the reconstitution of the Socialist International in 1951, Social Democracy has asserted itself as the primary political force in Europe, and increasingly in Latin America and Africa. Despite some successes in Asia as in the formation of coalition governments in India and Japan, where social democratic parties played an important role, the forces of social democracy faced a very uphill battle in Asia, especially with the ascendance of the tiger economies in the past two decades.

It has always been an illusion to believe thatpolitical liberalisation would necessarily follow as a result of economic liberalisation and success, and this was the reason for the emergence of the School of Asian Values, which is nothing more than thinly-veiled justification for auhoritarianism cloaked in the language of democracy.

The economic turmoil of the tiger economies which have sent huge shockwaves to the developed world markets have both political as well as global roots. Domestically, the political dimension of the economic turmoil are related to the absence of democracy, like the lack of transparency and prevalent corruption, resulting in mismanagement like excessive credit growth, over exposure to property and stock market, weakening export competitiveness and ill-conceived investments. But they also have global implications as well as global causes.

Th country of East Asia, excluding Japan, have accounted for half of thegrowth in world output in 1991, evern though they account for only about 20% of the world GDP. If their growth rate slows sharply because of financial and economic problems, and reduced access to foreign capital, they will more than offset the upturn that is projected next year in the depressed economies of Western Europe.

The economic turmoils affecting the Asian economies and the global markets highlight the relevance of the social democratic message about the international economy as encapsulated in the theme of the 20th Socialist International Congress in the United Nation last year of "Market Serving People, Not People Serving Market".

We leave it to a different forum to discuss the serious implication of globalisation in the financial crisis, which has thrown new light as to the comprehensive revolution which is being wrought by globalisation with new paradigms of the international order, commercial enterprise, national sovereignty and social control, raising the fundamental question whether globalisation is leading to greater disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the people rather than the reverse.

Unfortunately, certain leaders of tiger economies who are expounding the cause of greater transparency and equity in the international economic system, such as the regulation of the international capital market to prevent great volatility of currencies which can be disastrous to national economies, are not prepared to practise what they preach in their national policies and programmes at home.

In fact, there is the danger that they may be a relapse to greater undemocratic practices and authoritarianism in the face of the economic crisis, as in stamping out criticism and dissent, to the extent that free discussion on environmental and economic issues could be regarded as too "sensitive", anti-national and even disloyal as to justify the use of the most draconian laws against fundamental liberties of freedom of speech, expression, information and personal liberty against prolonged detention without trial.

Be that as it may, the crisis facing the School of Asian Values is a historic opportunity to social democrats to fly high the standard of social democracy in Asia that economic growth per se without democracy, equity, sustainable development based on the best environmental practices, protection of consumer rights and the building of a civil society is not a viable option.

The economic crisis in Asia is also a political crisis. In Chinese, the term ‘crisis’ is representing by two words, meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ and this best depicts the political scenario for Asia on the eve of the new millennium – danger for the School of Asian Values and opportunity for social democracy in Asia.

Asians who have unthinkingly accepted the Asian Values argument are now questioning it and the challenge for social democrats is whether we can rise up to the occasion to establish social democracy as the primary political force in Asia in the new millennium.

While voices about the next century as the Pacific Century is now much abated as a result of the fumblings of the tiger economies and the bursting of the so call ‘Asian Miracle’ of perpetual high economic growth, let us make a supreme and historic commitment in this SI Council in New Delhi to make the 21st century the Century for Social Democracy in the Asia Pacific.

We must be prepared to fully restructure and reorganise the SI Asia Pacific Committee so that it is an vigorous and dynamic promoter of social democracy in the Asia Pacific, which is not only prepared to open dialogue with all political forces whatever their hue, but acively cultivate and nurture social democratic ideas and forces. A revived and reinvigorated SI Asia Pacific Committee should bring to the continent a distinctive presence for social democracy in Asia, whether to spearhead the struggle for the restoration of democracy in Burma or to articulate the aspirations for a free, democratic and equitable Asia.

For this historic objective, the SI should rethink not only basic new applications of the principle of freedom, democracy, equity, peace and solidarity to the new challenges of the new millennium, but should harness all the resources of the new technology brought about by the information revolution to create a New Asia.

I would even be so bold as to throw up an idea which many may regard as heretical, whether we should be thinking about changing Socialist International to Social Democracy International.

This is not a rejection of the socialist ideology but a recognition that if SI is to make a historic breakthrough in Asia, we have to address an issue which is distinctively Asian.

In Europe, where the great movement for socialism was founded, there is no major misunderstanding of the ideology of socialism as a variant of communism.

However in many parts of Asia, as a result of decades of misinformation, socialism is quite a dirty word as socialism has been equated with communism and the fall of communism regarded as the fall of socialism, and the advocates of socialism labelled as the advocates of a defeated ideology.

With such a prevalent, preconceived though mistaken notion in major parts of Asia that socialism is no different from communism, a change of the name of SI to Social Democracy International would be a major step if social democracy is to take the offensive in Asia in the 21st Century, instead of being placed in a perpetual defensive position because of the politics of vocabulary.

I know that most if not all comrades from Europe would find this poposal distasteful and even presumptious, but sometimes to grasp the historic opportunity which has opened up for social democracy in Asia in the new century, we must be prepared to think the unthinkable so that Socialist International can be fully universal to tame the beast, Capitalism Untrammelled especially in the era of globalisation.

Let me close by expressing my Party’s hope that the 1997 SI Council Meeting in New Delhi will go down in SI history as the historic gathering where SI decides to make the next century the Century for Social Democracy in Asia.

My Party has not played a very active role in SI all these years but we are prepared to make a commitment to play a full role so that SI can seize the historic opportunity to make the next decade and century the Age for Social Democracy in Asia.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong