Culture, Relativism and Democracy: Political Myths About 'Asia' and the 'West'

Author/s (editor/s):

Stephanie Lawson

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

Find this publication at:
IR Working Paper 1995/6 (PDF, 3.40MB)

Stephanie Lawson, 'Culture, Relativism and Democracy: Political Myths about "Asia" and the "West"', IR Working Paper 1995/6, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, August 1995.

This paper critically explores the way in which some debates about democracy in Southeast Asia have utilised notions of 'Asia' and the 'West' as specific cultural constructions underscoring the legitimacy of certain political practices and institutions. More specifically, these cultural constructions serve as legitimating devices for a style of political rule known as 'Asian democracy', versions of which have been put forward from time to time by political elites in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. 'Asian democracy' is said by its proponents to reflect genuine 'Asian' cultural values such as harmony, consensus and community. These are contrasted with a set of cultural values assumed to be characteristic of the 'West', namely, dissensus, conflict and individualism. Apart from pointing to the inaccuracy of these claims, it is argued that these formulations represent an inverted Orientalist discourse which is best described as Occidentalism. Problems of universalism and relativism, especially as these relate to what 'democracy' means, are also canvassed. The paper concludes with some critical reflections on 'political myths', not simply in relation to Asia, but also with respect to the United States and Australia and their recent efforts to 'engage with Asia'.

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