No longer in thrall to Western democracy, Asia turns to technocrats for answers
Parag Khanna says increasingly, Asians favour pragmatic, outcome-oriented governance, and prefer to be ruled by civil servants rather than politicians
After a 2016 that will forever be remembered for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, most commentators have taken it as a foregone conclusion that 2017 will feature yet more populist electoral victories in Europe, to say nothing of the global fallout from Trump’s planned trade policies. Combined with slow global economic growth and rising geopolitical tensions, it is all too easy to assume that the world is going down the same path of nationalism and protectionism that sparked the first world war and the Great Depression.
But what may be true for the West need not derail the East, where governments have generally stayed a pragmatic course. The difference is more than just politics; it is about systems. While Western democracies are creaking, Asia’s more technocratic governments are committing maximum effort to address the underlying challenges of infrastructure, education and jobs. This is good both for Asia and the world.
In the Western and particularly American narrative, a deep complacency has set in that confuses politics with governance, democracy with delivery, process with outcomes. Good governments are equally focused on inputs and outputs. Their legitimacy comes both from the process by which the government is selected and the delivery of what citizens universally proclaim they want: solid infrastructure, public safety, clean air and water, reliable transportation, ease of doing business, good schools, quality housing, dependable childcare, freedom of expression, access to jobs, and so on.
The Asian technocratic mindset is that delay in getting these things done is itself a form of corruption. Instead of indulging in perpetual blame games, good technocracies are always out to solve their problems. The only ideology of technocracy is pragmatism.
Because Asian societies are modernising, they will evolve towards better governance that balances political openness with goal-oriented technocracy. But there’s no way they want to wind up as the divided societies they once were and that Western nations have become. As far as Asians are concerned, for democracy to be taken seriously, it has to deliver.
Technocracy, then, is a more important feature of Asia’s future than democracy. Asia’s major democracies – India, Indonesia and the Philippines – are all in the process of getting their act together in the hope of emulating the region’s better-run technocracies.
This means not just Singapore and China but even Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Malaysia is mired in corruption but is a stable, modern multi-ethnic state with first-world infrastructure and rising prosperity. Vietnam is a single-party regime yet has massively modernised the country and reduced poverty. Thailand’s 2014 coup ousted incompetent democratic leaders in favour of a military junta, and Thais backed a permanent political role for the military in a referendum last year. These aren’t ideal regimes, but they are superior in their postcolonial performance than numerous large Asian democracies such as Bangladesh.
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It is precisely because India, Indonesia and the Philippines have each endured decades of forgettable or regrettable governments that they have all, in recent years, elected leaders with explicitly technocratic pretensions. Indians, Indonesians and Filipinos are no longer content to be part of vibrant commercial societies but with dysfunctional governments. Fed up with patronising cliches about how they thrive despite their political systems, they have voted in governments with no-nonsense agendas focused on infrastructure, jobs, education and technology.
In Asia, technocracy has become a form of political salvation. Democracy eventually gets sick of itself and votes for technocracy.
In the long run, the quality of governance matters more than regime type. That is why the most important institution in a technocratic society is not the office of the prime minister but the civil service. In major Western countries such as the US and UK, the professional civil service has withered since Reagan and Thatcher. In America, independent agencies have lost autonomy, and government bureaucrats have no upward mobility as the top ranks are all reserved for political appointees and friends of the president. In Britain, after the Brexit results emerged, a civil service committee was hastily cobbled together to examine the implications of the decision.
In a proper technocracy, the civil service studies the scenarios and consequences of issues before the parliament or people decide which course to take – not after. Not surprisingly, today it is Singapore’s Civil Service College and the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong that have become the epicentres for rigorous thinking about how to bridge data and governance, with emphasis on foresight and economic master-planning.
What Asia now needs most is more technocratic thinking at the regional level. Indeed, pragmatic leadership that avoids excessive populism should also be circumspect about nationalism. China, Japan and India must be careful not to let the messaging aimed at domestic audiences seep into their foreign policies, which have on the one hand already sparked international crises in Asian waters while also fortunately stopping short of uncontrolled escalation.
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But hope is not the strategy of true technocracies.
If Asian powers want to be seen – both individually and collectively – as the world’s geopolitical and geoeconomic centre of gravity, then they will have to take credible steps towards resolving deep insecurities.
For example, there are ample precedents for joint exploration and revenue-sharing agreements over disputed maritime boundaries and energy deposits that can be applied to the South and East China sea regions. An independent working group of experts from littoral states could determine the political contours of such an agreement, while an international consortium of oil and gas companies could financially distribute the gains from extraction in these waters.
Such a step would go a long way towards reassuring the world that Asian nations don’t require Western security forces to guarantee freedom of navigation and commerce in the world’s most heavily transited waterways on which most global goods trade depends. Asia now carries the mantle of defending the continued globalisation of trade, but must do its part to maintain the stable foundation of global markets as well.
The combination of Brexit and Trump has made 2016 the year when the hegemony of Western political thought finally crumbled. Every country is now in the same race, not to emulate America but to deliver security and welfare to its population by whatever means necessary. In this new competition, rigorous technocratic approaches will prove superior to haphazard democratic cycles. Winners and losers in the 21st century will be determined not by hewing to a Western political arc but through rigorous technocratic learning and adaptation.
Parag Khanna is a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization and the new book, Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State, from which this article is adapted