In 1994 the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, gave a fascinating interview to the prestigious Foreign Affairs journal, in which he castigated Americans “not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work”.
He argued that, given the cultural differences between Western and East Asian societies, Western-style democracy was not applicable to East Asia.
He expounded the virtues of the “Asian developmental model” based on Confucian ethics such as strong leadership, respect for elders, fraternal brotherhood, loyalty, thrift, and passion for education. This was a rebuke of Western democracy which, he stated, was blighted by excessive individualism, moral corruption and the collapse of the family structure.
The Singaporean statesman’s interview sparked a heated debate in scholarly circles and in the popular media, pitting those who were in favour of his assertions against those who were against.
Amid the global coronavirus pandemic that debate has resurfaced in the context of the contrasts in responses to its outbreak between, on the one hand, liberal democracies such as the US and Britain and, on the other, authoritarian states such as China.
At issue is whether China’s apparent success in containing the spread of the coronavirus can be attributed to the country’s authoritarian governance model. The coronavirus crisis originated in China. Amid concerns about an extensive cover-up, the country implemented stringent measures to halt the pandemic in its tracks, including massive lockdowns and electronic surveillance actions as well as the construction of two dedicated hospitals in Wuhan.
In the US, President Donald Trump has attracted criticism for what Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent has described as “his catastrophic handling of the coronavirus”. His response to the crisis has alternated between bluster, denial, defensiveness, dissembling, and outright lies.
Having initially called the pandemic “fake news” and a hoax”, he later changed his tune and advised people to stay at home. It did not take him long, however, to alter his mind again and start talking about reopening the economy by Easter, against the recommendation of medical experts.
US overtakes China
The US has overtaken China to have more cases of the virus than any other country. And the government announced that 3.3 million people had filed jobless claims in one week. Trump’s disastrous leadership has stood in contrast to that of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose statesmanlike daily media briefings have reassured and endeared him to the American public.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not escaped criticism, either. His management of the coronavirus crisis has been labelled by one British commentator as “indecisive, contradictory, confused and confusing, jovial when he should be grave, muddled when a frightened nation desperately needs him to be clear”.
What’s more, he flirted with a policy that encouraged herd immunity, implicitly accepting the potential death of thousands of people. The policy is based on a contentious theory that the best way to forestall the long-range consequences of the pandemic was to allow the virus to spread naturally so as to build up the population’s herd immunity.
Having pivoted away from the herd immunity approach, Johnson announced a nationwide closure of pubs, bars, cafés, nightclubs, cinemas and gyms. The British government had the benefit of more time to mount an immediate and effective response to the coronavirus outbreak, but it failed to do so.
It remains to be seen what the ultimate repercussions of Johnson’s initial dithering and inability to recognise the risks will be.
China’s relative success in combating the coronavirus has reinforced a thesis, propounded by the country’s leader Xi Jinping and other leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, that the authoritarian governance model is innately superior to Western liberal democracy.
This is a moot point. What China’s success speaks to, however, is the importance of decisive leadership in dealing with a crisis. On this score, both the US and British leaders have been found wanting.
* Mills Soko is professor of International Business and Strategy at Wits Business School.