23 January 2016

Should Asia play by Western rules?

Discussion about good governance is dominated by Western thought. Perhaps it’s time for Asian countries to define and defend their own particular governance styles, write Asit Biswas and Kris Hartley.

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” lamented French President Charles de Gaulle. India, with 22 official languages (and over 1,000 mother tongues), faces a similar puzzle. Of all places to run a democratic experiment, exceptionally diverse India seems the unlikeliest; its democracy is messy and graft is persistent. However, India has recently earned Asia’s top ranking for data openness. What does this say about government transparency elsewhere in Asia, and about the universal application of Western ideals and metrics?

This is the age of rankings; many are developed by scholars at Western institutions, universities, and think-tanks. In addition to Washington Consensus neoliberalism (Western in its own right), there is an underlying liberal-populist orientation in what many indices measure – corruption, democracy, social justice, economic equality, and transparency. Predictably, countries with non-Western economic and institutional histories fare poorly in such indices, prompting commentators to relentlessly lecture policymakers about better governance.

The Global Open Data Index 2014 is yet another opportunity to do so. Measuring data transparency in a variety of dimensions (e.g. government budget, government spending, national statistics, and legislation), the index includes 97 countries: 40 Western, 20 African, 14 Asian, and 13 Latin American, among others. Of the top 50, six are Asian. These are India (#10), Taiwan (#11), Japan (#19), South Korea (#28), Pakistan (#41), and Indonesia (#45). China is #57, tied with El Salvador. At #63, Singapore is tied with Bangladesh, Bermuda, Nepal, Senegal, and Tunisia, and ranks third-to-last among Asian countries after the Philippines (#71) and Cambodia (#76). Western countries have the highest average ranking (31.2) and African countries the lowest (78.85). Latin America averages 41 and Asia 47.14.

Lack of transparency often raises concerns about corruption, with the assumption that “closed” governments have something to hide. To determine whether the data affirm this, it is helpful to compare the Global Open Data Index (ranking 97 countries) with the Corruption Perceptions Index (174 countries). A comparison was made of rankings for all East and Southeast Asian countries included in both indices. To adjust for the difference in number of countries surveyed, the chart scores each ranking as a percentage of the total. For example, #10 of 97 would be 10.3 per cent. In both indices, higher is “worse.” Variance, measured in percentage points, is the degree to which rankings for the same country differ between indices.

Although the two indices use differing indicators, the assumption is that they correlate. However, there is little correlation for some countries, and the reasons go beyond methodological differences to reveal case-specific insights.

The greatest variance is Singapore, which scores exceptionally well on corruption perception but 60 per cent lower on data openness. What formula has the Singaporean government developed that makes it the third-worst country in Asia for transparency but by far the least corrupt? One answer is trust; people seem to have faith in the Singaporean government despite its lack of transparency. An admirable development story and outward perspective have garnered the country global acclaim and credibility, but should this success earn a free pass on transparency?

The second largest variance (38 per cent) is India, whose performance is the opposite of Singapore’s: positive on transparency but negative on corruption perception. Paradoxically, India has developed a transparent data system but failed to cultivate a clean government image. There are two possible explanations. Either access to data has exposed graft, or the type of transparency measured by the data index is unrelated to measures of corruption perception (a composite of surveys conducted by independent governance institutions).

Taiwan’s high performance in data access is also worth noting, given that the country shares India’s well-established and politically competitive democracy. Is this a coincidence, or is democracy a prerequisite for transparency? Asia’s entrenched political parties appear to have adopted a “bend-don’t-break” strategy for surviving democratising forces and the pressures of socio-economic transformation, but this may not be sustainable. Either these are the waning days of Asian authoritarianism and political dynasties, or adaptability represents a new model of governance: safeguarding legitimacy by taking small but measurable steps towards Western-style openness. Whether this means gaming the indices or adopting substantive reform is uncertain.

For better or worse, the conversation about “good governance” is dominated by Western academic thought. With over a century of publishing history (and an intellectual provenance traceable to ancient Athens), Western scholarship in Public Administration has a mature theoretical basis supported by decades of empirical verification. Concepts of political representation, collaborative governance, and social justice have emerged from earlier debates about statism versus privatisation. In the global marketplace of ideas, the West—with its indices measuring democracy, openness, and equality—has the bully pulpit on governance.

If Asian leaders are uninspired by Western tenets, they have two options. First, they can accept being repeatedly scorned about poor performance in governance indices, potentially compromising their efforts to economically and diplomatically engage the “liberal” West. Alternatively, they can define and defend their own particular governance styles, and develop rival indices to encourage contestability in the global realm of scholarship. If the Asian governance model is defensible, there should be no reluctance to do this.

Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. Does India’s unexpectedly high data openness signify enlightened governance, or is it the lingering effect of Western institutional legacy? Asian governments face a fork in the road. The path to economic growth is no longer a mystery, and many countries are making progress on basic human development. Higher order needs will soon call for attention—the same needs that many developed countries already acknowledge. These include social equity, personal fulfillment, and even political engagement.

Can Asia’s governance systems accommodate them? According to Western views about data and corruption, the prevailing answer is no. It is up to Asian countries to justify their governance philosophies—if not to the world, then to their own citizens. The least they could do is be “open” about this.


Asit K Biswas, is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore, Singapore. Kris Hartley is a Visiting Lecturer at Vietnam National University (HCMC), and a PhD Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS).

This article was first published by the APPS Policy Forum in December 2015.
Tags: asia

Social share