In Asia's `economic miracles,' leaders face demands for reform

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

East Asia's ``economic miracles'' are facing mounting pressure for political change. The region's newly industrialized countries (or NICs) -- South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore -- have just completed the longest period of high economic growth ever recorded anywhere. But material success has led to a questioning of the authoritarian regimes that made such success possible.

``We're looking at a paradox,'' says a political analyst in Hong Kong. ``Affluence has made us more politicized, but this is eroding one of the values that helped us grow.''

That value is political stability. It is widely recognized that rigidly ordered societies and the absence of democracy are key factors in the NICs' rise from postwar poverty to a level of affluence unmatched elsewhere in the region except by Japan. But the NICs share the dilemma of how to meet growing demands for more representative government -- demands that many Asians feel would allow the political instability that could hinder further growth.

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The issue is fast becoming critical. Several of the region's longtime leaders are aging, and they face the pressing question of how -- and how smoothly -- their successors will be chosen.

Viewed broadly, the four are evolving from traditional to modern societies. Politically, that translates into restive opposition movements and calls for more freedom of speech, movement, and other basic rights.

Analysts are now uncertain about what impact slower growth, apparent in the four economies since last year, will have on political stability. Until now, they have foregone democratic government as the price of prosperity; a prolonged slowdown, many believe, could easily upset the equation.

The governments' claims that rigid controls are necessary for economic prosperity are quickly losing credibility. Unemployment is worsening, for instance, in South Korea and Singapore. In all of the NICs, reduced growth is likely to exacerbate already deep divisions between the rich and poor.

At the same time, longstanding problems of political succession are becoming more acute. The most pressing question in each of the NICs now is how democratically a new generation of leaders should be chosen.

In Hong Kong, the succession crisis takes an unusual form. The territory is cautiously preparing for an elected government to replace British administration when the colonial leases expire in 1997. But there is increasing pressure from Peking to limit democratic reforms.

China has effectively divided the colony. Conservatives argue that Hong Kong's prosperity is based on its unrepresentative colonial government. Effectively, most of Hong Kong's business leaders have sided with the communists in supporting as little change as possible.

Many others -- particularly the younger generation here -- are anxious to institute some form of representative government before Peking reasserts its sovereignty. For them, democratic values outweigh Hong Kong's contribution to China's modernization and traditional Chinese bonds with the mainland.

``We should go ahead with our reforms as quickly as possible,'' says a young Chinese filmmaker here. ``It's the only thing we can do.''

Hong Kong and the other NICs are not the only ones in Asia with political problems. Throughout the region, the success of the recent popular uprising in the Philippines has encouraged those seeking political reform and has heightened concerns about stability among both leaders and citizens who want to maintain the status quo.

But the NICs are distinguished by their roots in the Chinese tradition of moral and political order, first codified by Confucius in the sixth century BC. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's prime minister, has often called the NICs part of the ``chopstick civilization.''

In some respects, the Confucian system is ready-made for developing countries. Under it, leaders -- in Hong Kong's case, colonial leaders -- offer security and efficient administration in exchange for the citizens' trust and obedience. Modern notions of political and civil rights are often dismissed, and there is no provision for effective political opposition (although there are token ``loyal oppositions''). Power is usually passed on through a form of dynastic succession.

Heavily influenced by this system, the NICs have emerged as highly disciplined societies in which authority -- in the family, the workplace, and the polity -- is largely unquestioned. And although the NICs are committed to free-market economics, government policy has played a large role in directing industry, except in laissez-faire Hong Kong.

Union strife is rare among the NICs, because consensus, based on a group identity, usually replaces confrontation. Strong family ties have reduced the need for Western-style welfare systems.

The economic results of this cultural heritage are telling. The NICs have averaged growth of nearly 9 percent annually since the 1960s.

But with the spread of education and increased contacts with the West, the tradition itself is becoming less relevant. Inevitably, economic modernization is spilling over into the political sphere.

``Political change is coming very rapidly,'' says Chiam See-tong, who is among a handful of oppositionists in Singapore. ``People are educated enough to know they want a more democratic system.''

This is evident in all four NICs. But it is unclear what is to replace the systems they are outgrowing. East Asians, in short, are groping toward their political futures with only vague notions of what they are seeking. Mr. Chiam asserted in an interview four years ago, for instance, that Singapore's ruling party should remain in power for the sake of stability. As head of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party, he said then that his aspiration was ``to act as a check against extreme policies and abuses of power.''

Chiam has since been elected to office -- he is now one of two opposition members in Singapore's 79-seat Parliament. ``The ultimate aim of every politician is to form the next government,'' he says.

Many analysts in the region support the idea of a loyal opposition, as Chiam did four years ago. Some look to Japan -- where the Liberal Democrats recently celebrated 30 years of uninterrupted power -- as an Asian version of Western democracy.

South Korea is a clear exception. ``The opposition would certainly not mind the Japanese model,'' says Han Sung Joo, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul, ``so long as they can be the dominant party.''

But few politicians of any persuasion are prepared to jeopardize economic gains in the course of political evolution. Dependent on exports and in some cases foreign investment, the NICs can ill afford political upsets.

Beyond that, traditions will die hard: for many East Asians, particularly in the older generation, politics in any form is still little more than a distraction.

``There really is a silent majority,'' says a young banker in Hong Kong, ``silent because they're only interested in making money.''

There are other constraints. Unpracticed in the ways of democracy, most oppositions are as underdeveloped as the region's economies were a few decades ago. More important, each of the NICs is faced with an external threat -- South Korea from its northern neighbor, Taiwan and Hong Kong from China, and Singapore from potentially unfriendly, non-Chinese nations around it. These factors weigh heavily in favor of the administrations that have monopolized power.

Nonetheless, few question the political impulses now sweeping East Asia's NICs. ``The old ways are no longer acceptable, and new ways have not yet been found,'' says Professor Han. ``But ultimately, we all have to move in the direction of democracy.'' Tomorrow: South Korea -- ripe for change

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