13 April 2008

Judgment on Democracy

By Ignas Kleden

Democracy, as a political system, is faced with many objections, be they economic, political or cultural. This article will deal with one such cultural objection that is usually reiterated time and again in non-western countries.

It contends that democracy basically originates from western cultural values, and that treating such values as universal and trying to implement them in countries outside of the western hemisphere that already have their own cultures and traditions is the same as endorsing new cultural imperialism or western hegemony.

The Singaporean cultural offensive, armed with a proclamation of Asian values, launched by Lee Kuan Yew in early 1990s, has something to do with this objection.

There is no denying democracy has western origins, but what is wrong with that?

In politics, no one argues anymore about the republic form of the Indonesian state, the implementation of Trias Politica in the sense of Montesquieu, the functioning of the presidency as the embodiment of national leadership, the role of the ministerial cabinet as a governing body, the implementation of civil law and criminal law, or the use of mass-media as the fourth estate -- all things that are obviously the products of western ideology.

In technology, almost everything that we use today is of Western origin: from transportation to medical care, from war technology to communication, from production to processing techniques. If one looks at lifestyles, one can hardly miss the conspicuous embrace of western products: From fashion to dressing patterns, from table manners to house interiors, or from cinematographic preference to the use of leisure time.

This short description does not aim to defend or advocate Western cultures. Instead, it aims to show the embracement of foreign cultural patterns is something natural in everyday life.

It is rare to meet somebody who rejects wearing shoes or neckties simply in disapproval of their western roots.

In fact, when discussing cultural development, origin is only of secondary importance. The main question is whether or not certain spreading cultural values are relevant and acceptable to the societies embracing them.

Relevance and suitability have nothing to do with cultural origins, but rather relate to the cultural needs of the recipients.

To put it more formally: the genealogy and origin of cultural values can never become the basis on which to judge their acceptability or desirability.

A set of values is not good because it originates in the East or bad because it is pregnant of western culture. Both in the East and the West there are values worth maintaining and cherishing and those that should be better left out.

One can only say that democracy pertains good and bad values, not that it matters where those values come from, just as one can enjoy or not enjoy a piece of pizza, regardless of whether it was made in Italy.

Judgment on democracy must be made in relation to a nation's needs and to the problems it faces.

On the other hand, one is not obliged to defend democratic values assumed to be indigenous. One has to be critical enough to examine which values are worth sustaining and defending and which ones should be abandoned.

In the case of Indonesia, corruption, which increases at an astronomical rate, should be eliminated once and for all, regardless of whether it is indigenous to the nation's culture.

One need not be a post-modernist to understand the dialectical relationship between a particular culture and its cultural bearers. A man or a woman will become Javanese because the Javanese culture has made him or her Javanese.

However, it is equally true that Javanese culture is made by the Javanese, who are in the position to change and renew their culture. Culture is never final or ontological. Instead, it is constructed and reconstructed.

Everybody is in the position to make his or her culture and society more democratic in the firm belief that the universal values of democracy can help protect and foster human dignity in any country, regardless of where one lives or to which social class one belongs.

The writer, a sociologist, is chairman of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID), Jakarta. Source: The Jakarta Post, April, 10 2008.

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