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Asia’s Growth-Driven Model of Political Change: An Analysis of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand in their Political Transformations

The Pacific Asian region is one of incredible diversity in terms of culture, geography, demography, and global permeation. Despite staggering differences in resources endowments, economic strategy, and both internal and external political climates among East and Southeast Asian countries, the overall relationship between economic development and political transformation among them is the same: economic growth fosters social and political liberalization, ultimately resulting in democratization. In general, economic development — notably prosperity — within East Asian countries has lead to education, awareness, and pluralism within society, and thus, a popular demand for political participation. The growth of a middle class and a private sector entwines social and economic concerns, resulting in a complex spectrum of interests within society that can only be satisfied by democratization.

The cases intended to contend this argument are four countries in the region: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand. Many factors present in these countries slow the process of democratic transition: the communitarian view of society taken by many Asian countries — that the community supersedes the individual; the seemingly boundless prosperity achieved under authoritarian circumstances — as in Singapore; and the escalation of social inequality, corruption, and materialism — as in Thailand. However, the similarities of political transformations of countries within this region cannot be mistaken. It seems to be no accident that “those Asia-Pacific countries with low levels of economic development tend to have autocratic governments, [and] those with high levels of economic growth tend to have democratic forms.”1) Continuing tendencies towards political openness under even authoritarian regimes in the Pacific Asian region signify that political liberalization and democratization is just a matter of time provided adequate economic development.

Of the case studies, South Korea offers the most compelling example of the idea that economic development fosters social and political mobilization and democracy. With the formation of its republic in 1948, the institutions of democracy were initially in place, but the hastily-installed Rhee regime was unable to consolidate democracy — demonstrate responsiveness to popular preferences or achieve stability.2) Korea’s attempt at democracy failed as General Park Chung Hee led a military coup that overthrew the government, establishing almost three decades of authoritarian rule. It was during these years that the seeds for democracy in South Korea were sewn.

The authoritarian Park regime and that of his successor, General Chun Doo Hwan, fostered an economic miracle. They revolutionized Korea’s economic strategy, taking after Japan’s developmental state model and established tendencies of a state-led, export-promotion economy. Compared to the Japanese model, however, the extent to which the state pervaded economic planning was immense. For example, the Economic Planning Board, the pilot organization that fostered economic strategy in South Korea, answered directly to the president.3) The state-led economic program and its counterpart, the Chaebol—a group of industry-crossing conglomerates — became inextricable. The top-down administration of the authoritarian regimes left no room for opposition in politics. The stage for formal democracy could not be set until the middle class was secure enough in “its political and economic status to opt decisively for political freedom and democracy at the risk of sacrificing the country’s continued economic growth and its own newly secured socioeconomic status.”4) Thus, economic development had not reached a point where the middle class was willing to risk its economic position for political rights.

Throughout South Korea’s bout with authoritarian rule, heavy emphasis has been placed on economic and financial development; political repression to carry out the Park and Chun regimes’ economic plans was justified under the threat of possible North Korean aggression. By 1987, however, there were several catalysts of democratic transition: the death of Park Chong Chol after being arrested for his participation in a government-repressed demonstration; the planning of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul — which placed the government under intense scrutiny from the international community; and demonstrations for a new constitution that required popular election of the president. At this point, the middle class had become very prosperous; there was enormous political pressure “from students, religious leaders, intellectuals.”5) Awareness of Park Chong Chol’s death was widespread. Massive demonstrations over his death coincided with ones over the Chun regime’s continual repression. The socioeconomic system, fostered by economic growth, had developed to a point where the middle class was willing to sacrifice the status quo in favor of its political freedom, suggesting that significant economic development leads to political liberalization — in the case of South Korea, democratization.

Similar to the case of South Korea is the case of the East Asian state of Taiwan. For over three decades after 1950, Taiwan was essentially a party state; it was controlled by an authoritarian regime that ran parallel to the KMT, a party originally Leninist in ideology. Like the Park regime in Korea, the KMT regime held sway over all economic and social policies and began to establish similar economic guidelines for Taiwan’s economy when old policies failed to provide adequate growth:

“The KMT regime, under the persuasion of indigenous technocrats and American aid-giving agencies, reoriented Taiwan’s economy towards export markets at the turn of the 1960s, when the early phase of import-substitution industrialization or ISI reached a limit.”6)

Utilizing the Asian model of export-led growth, Taiwan achieved remarkable industrialization and GNP growth, and even established a promising income distribution among classes. Staggering economic development quickly produced the characteristics of a rapidly-growing capitalist society — increasing literacy rate and per capita income, the spread of mass communication, the acceleration of social mobility, urbanization, and the establishment of prominent middle and business classes. A tremendous majority began to identify as middle class, setting the stage for democratization.7)

As is the case with many East Asian countries, one of the root causes of the democratic movement in Taiwan lied with the intellectuals — a product of the KMT-fostered economic miracle. By the 1970s, the circumstances of democratic movements — education, leading to public awareness and a desire for political participation; increasingly intertwined social and economic interests with the rise of the middle class and the private business sector; and the increased cost of control such a complex economic system—were realized.8) A new wave of social critics and scholars emerged, cultivating criticism of the authoritarian institutions of the KMT regime.

Unlike South Korea, however, growing opposition to the regime did not result in prolonged demonstration and violent confrontation. The middle class was heavily comprised of groups that represented a whole spectrum of interests. There were no industry-crossing corporate interests embedded within the government, as in South Korea, and a prosperous middle class comprised of both Mainlanders and indigenous Taiwanese called for an active democratic political arena. Eventually, organized opposition to the KMT and structural reform by the KMT itself resulted in the establishment of formal democracy in 1990. The democratic process has since shown to be successfully consolidated, contributing to the belief that economic development is the driving force behind political change and democratization.

In contrast to the fully democratized nations of South Korea and Taiwan, Singapore, the tiny island nation in Southeast Asia, raises the idea that impressive economic development may not necessarily lead to democracy but also regimes that “retain authoritarian structures but create institutions that enable them to respond to pressures from society.”9) The authoritarian nature of Singapore’s ruling party, the PAP, proposes the idea that economic development may not necessarily produce a liberal democracy, but an illiberal democracy — a political structure in which a semi-authoritarian state promotes stability and growth while actively repressing any movement within society that threatens the state’s social and economic plan.

Singapore’s exception to the prevailing tendencies towards liberal democracy among rich countries can be explained by a few key factors: the state’s skewing of Confucian values to its administrative needs and the state’s justification of illiberal policy under the blanket of geographic vulnerability. Traditional Confucian beliefs assert that subjects owe rulers respect and obedience in exchange for a benevolent, if paternalistic, reign over the state. The PAP promoted a version of Confucianism that confronted liberal Western values and fostered a sense of communitarian sense of loyalty to the state.10) It is possible that as long as the PAP continues to cultivate this symbiotic ruler-subject relationship by providing social and economic harmony and prosperity, respectively, the masses will be sufficed. In essence, a weak society is one of the factors by which authoritarianism has survived in Singapore.

The PAP has also been able to excuse its lack of democratizing elements by pointing to Singapore’s vulnerability in terms of size, external threats, and lack of natural resources. Accordingly, “they claim that unbridled liberal democracy is bad for economic growth, fiscal prudence, political stability, and social cohesion.”11) Therefore, the PAP, as the proven paternalistic force in Singapore’s history, has presented itself as the necessary element to Singapore’s national survival. It is under these circumstances that the PAP has been able to establish an authoritarian party state in a rich, economically developed country and created circumstances under which the middle class — historically the source of democratic movements — is dependent on the state.

Contrary to Singapore’s seemingly illiberal tendencies, there have been indications that democratization is possible yet. Although the state has strived to depoliticize its society, “autonomous organizations pursuing agendas of environmentalism, the interests of ethnic minorities, and women’s rights have sprouted.”12) As long these groups, such as the Nature Society and the Association of Malay Professionals, do not rally mass demonstrations or threaten the primacy of the PAP within the state apparatus, the state tolerates them. Members of opposition parties have been able to secure seats in regional constituencies — notably J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Worker’s Party, who became MP in the Anson constituency for two terms — “shattering the myth of PAP invincibility.”13) Still, in a country where the wealthy middle class is so dependent on the state to maintain the status quo, no real alternative to PAP primacy has been suggested; it appears that until a group of catalysts arise that mobilizes a popular call for wider participation, one will have to wait to see when democratic institutions are established in Singapore. Still yet, liberalizing elements have given hope to the idea of consolidated democracy there.

Thailand, like Singapore, has yet to consolidate democracy. In contrast to most other East Asian countries, its economy remained stagnant for decades after the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Until the 1980s, economic development was unimpressive; there was hardly a formation of a middle class to pressure the military regime. It seems that the main difference between Thailand’s political transformation and that of other Pacific Asian countries is one of timing: “The modern history of Thailand suggests that the impact of the market and the accompanying growth comes in stages and is indeed ambivalent.”14)

An economic boom in the 1980s finally fostered a middle class and business sector which pressed for political and social liberalization. General Prem Tinsulanond’s military government achieved several positive developments — the shift to an export-promotion economic strategy; a relatively open political atmosphere, which satisfied popular demand for participation; and the creation of committees to unify the interests of the state and the private sector. The authoritarian regime provided many of the socioeconomic conditions necessary for democratization, but obstacles to its realization remained. Despite several promises by the military to withdraw from the political arena and respect the rule of democracy, military coups have plagued Thailand’s political history. The economic policies of authoritarian regimes have brought prosperity, but have left a legacy of corruption and inequality that has ensured the military’s repeated intervention in politics and squashed hopes of achieving a stable, consolidated government.

That is not to say that economic success has not reinforced Thailand’s civil society or that democracy is an impossibility. A multiparty system exists — albeit within a system where parties can be banned at the whim of the military junta — and parties are beginning to gain regional strength, suggesting that a party system based on region is foreseeable in Thailand’s future. In addition, “several civic or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were established in the last decade…environmentalist and wildlife protection organizations, human rights groups, rural development organizations, and student associations.”15) There are social forces at work to achieve economic equality and political enfranchisement. Change is slow; corporate and conservative interests, as well as the middle class, prefer the existing state of affairs, or at the very most, steady change. However, it appears that democratic elements have permeated the political and social atmosphere of Thai society and that these elements are rooted in economic development, further proving the relationship between economic growth and political change.

From the cases presented here, it becomes clear that economic growth in these regions fosters political transformation. Democracy is the ultimate end to this transformation, but there are clearly many factors that affect the timing of political liberalization and cause distinctions among the patterns of democratization that individual countries take. For example, the prolonged turmoil and violence that characterized South Korea’s transition to democracy was due especially to the heavily embedded nature of the state within the private sector. This caused heightened conflict when pressure for political democratization came forth; a rift significantly divided society between those for the status quo and those for change. In addition, harsh political repression under the justification of North Korean aggression played an important role in social and political mobilization.

In contrast, Taiwan’s transition to democracy was relatively smooth due to a lack of big business entities and a harmonious social atmosphere in which the rural class was unexploited and the middle class very diverse. Singapore’s lagging democratization can be explained mostly by its Confucian, anti-Western culture and its vulnerability in terms of size and military weakness. Likewise, Thailand’s lack of democratic consolidation lies in its legacy of inequality and government corruption, which has allowed military coups to epitomize its struggle with formal democracy. It seems apparent, however, that democratic tendencies even in these authoritarian states are emerging as states become more economically developed and as capitalistic economies grow too large and complex to be managed by a single party-run bureaucracy.16) The general precedent holds that the more economically developed a country becomes, the more emphasis placed by its population on political liberalization and democratization. There is never any guarantee that successfully consolidated democracy will ever be achieved despite economic development.

Still, it is important to take lessons from the democratic transition of Pacific Asian countries insofar as developing states all over the world are beginning the long road to industrialization, economic growth, social and political mobilization, and possibly democratization. In the interest of global stability and benevolence, this Pacific Asian model — that political liberalization is inevitable under favorable economic circumstances — should be used to realize liberalization and democracy in illiberal and chaotic political systems elsewhere in the world.

1) Shinichi Ichimura and James W. Morley, “Introduction: The Varieties of Asia-Pacific Experience”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 31.
2) Shinichi Ichimura and James W. Morley, “Introduction: The Varieties of Asia-Pacific Experience”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 25.
3) Min Ye, “Developmental Experience: South Korea”, PO365 Course Notes (Boston, MA: Boston University, 15 Oct. 2007).
4) Sung-Joo Han and Oknim Chung, “South Korea: Economic Management and Democratization”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 206.
5) Mark Borthwick, Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007), 349.
6) Tun-jen Cheng and Chia-lung Lin, “Taiwan: A Long Decade of Democratic Transition”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 226.
7) Tun-jen Cheng and Chia-lung Lin, “Taiwan: A Long Decade of Democratic Transition”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 227.
8) Tun-jen Cheng and Chia-lung Lin, “Taiwan: A Long Decade of Democratic Transition”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 229.
9) Harold Crouch and James W. Morley, “The Dynamics of Political Change”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 317.
10) Lam Peng Er, “Singapore: Rich State, Illiberal Regime”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 259.
11) Lam Peng Er, “Singapore: Rich State, Illiberal Regime”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 260.
12) Gary Rodan, “State-Society Relations and Political Opposition in Singapore”, Political Oppositions in Industrializing Asia, ed. Gary Rodan (London: Routledge, 1996).
13) Lam Peng Er, “Singapore: Rich State, Illiberal Regime”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 267.
14) Suchit Bunbongkarn, “Thailand: Democracy Under Siege”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 161.
15) Suchit Bunbongkarn, “Thailand: Democracy Under Siege”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 173.
16) Harold Crouch and James W. Morley, “The Dynamics of Political Change”, Driven By Growth: Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. James W. Morley (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1999) 319.

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