Culture is important in the development of a democratic system of government. What is meant by culture is something that is related to values, traditions and, perhaps, even dreams that grow within any given society. As such, it shapes and influences the way people see things and how goals and objectives can be achieved.
Unfortunately, it is a rarity for political theorists to mention culture as a prerequisite for democratic crafting. They are preoccupied with conventional factors, such as literacy; exposure to mass media; urbanization; per capita income; education; domination of foreign powers; historical sequences; and so on.
Other theorists suggested that belief of political activists is something important in creating democracy. I am not sure whether a prominent theorist such as Robert Dahl, who believes in the “belief of a political activist” factor, puts this factor in the context of culture.
The way I read it is that this “belief of a political activist” has to be understood as a commitment that democracy is good and that democracy is a better system available to manage and administer the state — its society and government. Because of that, we have to believe in democracy; we have to take it seriously in administering the state and society.
Samuel Huntington is perhaps a little more explicit in assessing the role of culture in democracy. He regards culture as an important variable. Unfortunately, he not only puts it in the context of Islam and Confucianism, but also in negative notes. He sees Islam as culturally ambiguous to democracy, whereas Confucianism is inimical to it.
His views on the role of culture in democratic crafting were influenced by George Kennan, who was more direct in pointing out the sort of culture that is inimical, or otherwise, to democracy. Kennan basically does not believe that non-Western, non-European culture is supportive to democracy. Democracy must be supported by certain cultures, values and traditions.
Knowing that modern democracy originated from the West, and the fact that until the 1990s, more European and North American countries were democratic than other countries, Huntington concludes that “democracy is appropriate only for northwestern and perhaps central European countries and their settler-colony offshoots”. At least, he feels that there are limits to the extent that democracy can actually be “exported”.
From the year 2000 on, however, more and more non-Western or North American countries became democratic. Were Huntington and Kennan wrong? There are two short answers for that: yes, and no.
The fact that many non-Western countries are now embracing democracy shows the exportability of this system of government beyond Europe and its colonial offshoots. The fact that somehow democracy is being practiced differently indicates the limits of this system.
I am not defending either of these two theorists, but many Southeast Asians themselves believe that they are culturally different from the West. As such, it has certain implications to the development of democracy in the region — compared to the democracy that has been practiced in its places of origin.
In other words, culture has made the form, style, character, perhaps even the substance of democracy in Southeast Asia different from its heartland — or the rest of the democratic world for that matter.
Here is where the idea of a regional architecture of democracy matters. It implies the things that a region such as Southeast Asia has to take into account in our efforts to craft, design and formulate a decent and workable democracy.
Contemporary Southeast Asia has had a considerable length of time in experiencing democracy. After the proclamation of independence in 1945, for more than 10 years or so, Indonesia was considered democratic. Malaysia had been once identified as practicing consociational democracy. So was the pre-Marcos Philippines.
The breakdowns of their democratic experiences were more because of the inability of their elites to put democracy in the local, Southeast Asian context — rather than simply due to the lack of social, economic, educational or political prerequisites.
Yes, these are important factors. But to make democracy work decently and appropriately, to have a sustainable democracy, one needs to take into account these local ingredients — such as values and traditions.
Like many other “imported” goods, belief systems (i.e. religions), democracy has to be contextualized — translated and adjusted, so that it can blend with the dreams, traditions and value systems of the Southeast Asian region.
Perhaps, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are metaphors. These giant food outlets have gained considerable success in becoming part of consumption habits of many Southeast Asian peoples.
To me, this is because of the ability of their management to contextualize McD and KFC in the culinary traditions of the region. Unlike McD and KFC in their place of origin, they include rice and soup on their menus. This has enabled customers to enjoy fried chicken especially with rice and soup. In other words, both McD and KFC have actually undergone a process of contextualization or indigenization. Democracy has yet to experience the same process to be able to develop and become sustainable.
In short, the regional architecture of democracy must take into account the traditions, values and dreams of the peoples in Southeast Asia.
The writer is the dean of the School of Social and Political Sciences at State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta