I have received a web response for my last article, ‘From Political Autocracy to Economic Autocracy,’ stating that sometimes autocracy is better than chaos of ‘democrazy’. I have heard this view many a time in Sri Lanka, citing examples of Eastern nations – Singapore under Lee, Iraq under Saddam and Libya under Gaddafi. Probably unexpressed examples were Zimbabwe under Mugabe, North Korea under Kim and Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa. Discussing this a little deeper is appropriate since there are deliberations about a new constitution.
We received democracy from Britain where democracy evolved through the centuries and turned into a way of governance suitable for that country. Parliamentary sovereignty is a basic principle of the governance system of Britain. Democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. Modern constitutions were evolved based on the concepts of liberty, equality and justice. These are the values of the individualist western cultures especially in United States of America and Britain.
Compared to the previous governance systems by kings or queens, which prevail in some countries even today, the democratic governance system is a great achievement. Democracy is governance by majority. The persons who drafted the Constitution of USA, which was the pioneering constitution by the people in the modern world, ensured that liberty of the people would not be sacrificed by the rule of the majority. They defined the authorities of Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary; ensured that none of the said institutions could act arbitrarily and thereby ensured democracy and especially liberty which goes beyond democracy. The Preamble of US constitution goes as follows.
“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Liberty is defined in the Oxford dictionary as follows: “The state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s behaviour or political views.”
In the Constitution of Sri Lanka also, Chapter III of Fundamental Rights deals with Liberty of the people but the collectivist Sri Lankan society does not recognise the value of liberty. Not even a proper Sinhala word exists for the word liberty. It is very freely translated to Sinhala as freedom.
Societies which value liberty respect the rights of the others and the behaviour of the members of the society is rule based. Authority of the law is prevalent. Sri Lankan society comprises of groups, large or small. Largest group they have is race or religion and unfortunately it is not the nation. They do not conceptualise the word nation and very often it is used to denote the race which they belong to. They are hostile to the out-group members. They break rules very often and things happen based on relationships. When there is queue they try to break it and by breaking it they do not realise that they break the rights of the others but they think that they are smarter. Once they belong to a group they are very protective of that group and the tendency is group view supersedes the independent views. By creating political parties under the Western form of democracy, an additional in-group was created. When they support a political party, they defend the wrongdoings of that party even though those have devastating effects to the country. The political party which is in power necessarily would be hostile to the members of the political parties which are not in power. Democracy would be diminished to the level of tyranny of the majority which means autocracy. Majority and the minority do not have a sense of liberty so that minority will wait until they get the power in order to do the same in retaliation. On the other hand political parties which are not in power would try to get power using whatever means. They might try some destructive methods even though those are against the national interest. This is the point one would say that autocracy is better than democracy.
Therefore implementation of democracy in the collectivist Eastern cultures would either create autocracy if the majority rule is powerful or create anarchy if the opposition is powerful. Sri Lanka is an example of the former and Thailand is an example of the latter.
Individualism and collectivism
Geert Hofstede, the foremost social psychologist who developed the theory of cultural dimensions, defined individualism and collectivism as follows: “Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.”
He further observed: “In collectivist societies Identity is based in the social net-work to which one belongs and in individualist societies Identity is based in the individual. In collectivist societies opinions are pre- determined by group membership and in individualist societies everyone is expected to have a private opinion.”
Western democracy was evolved in those countries based on their culture and way they think and behave which is individualistic. In these societies it is appreciated that people have different views. The best example is the quote of Voltaire who shaped the minds of the people for French Revolution. He said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
This type of thinking is alien to the collectivist eastern cultures. In the societies where individual views are appreciated, democracy can be evolved only through a system where majority view gets the priority. In these societies with the sense of Liberty, minority who is having a different view will not be harassed. Therefore there would be no autocracy. On the other hand parties who do not have power would not be impatient and create unnecessary troubles so that there would be no anarchy.
History says that democracy originated in Greek city states in 8th to 6th centuries BC. During the time of Buddha in 6th century BC, Ajasath the king of Magadha and a devotee of Buddha wanted to invade the Vajji territory. Buddha advised the Chief Minister of Ajasath, Vassakara, not to go ahead with war.
The Buddha further said that the Lichchavis, rulers of Vajji, could not be suppressed and defeated until they adhered to the seven Dhammas which were not conducive to defeat (Saptaaparihaniya Dhamma). Those are given below:
- They held regular meetings to discuss matters pertaining to the day-to-day administration.
- They met, worked and dispersed as a team.
- They strictly followed the law of the country.
- They were submissive to the elders.
- They respected the women-folk and condemned the oppression of women.
- They followed the religious customs and protected them.
- They respected the clergy and held them in veneration.
- In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha said as follows.
“Oh, bhikkus, so long as you sit together and discuss your problems together as a matter of routine, you are assured of progress but no set-backs. Oh bhikkus, so long as you are bound together in unity you are assured of progress but no set-backs.” Those were in fact the democratic traditions followed by the Vajjis which Buddha wanted to introduce into the bhikku order.
The values behind these seven points can be identified as follows:
- Maintain the rule of law
- Protect the weak
- Respect those who are respectable
These values other than the second one are contrary to the Western protestant work ethic which was defined by Max Weber in 1904. Consensus is prevalent in the thinking pattern of the Eastern nations. In Japanese businesses, decision making time is very longer since they seek the approval of all the members of the team whereas in American business decisions are made by the top management fairly quickly. Implementation time of the decisions in Japanese businesses is much quicker compared to the American companies since the support of all the team members are there since they made the decision. Therefore if democracy can be introduced to Eastern collectivist cultures by way of consensus instead of majority rule, it would be lasting and beneficial. In collectivist cultures in-groups can be as small as the unit of family and can be as large as the entire nation. Within these in-groups inter personal relationship and consensus would be valued rather than liberty, which is valued very much in individualist countries.
In this light we should view the proposal for a new constitution by the United National Party where it was suggested as follows.
“The Member who commands the majority of a Provincial Council shall be appointed as the Chief Minister and the Leader of the political party which has secured the next highest number of seats shall be appointed as the Deputy Chief Minister. The Boards of Ministers of the Provincial Councils will be appointed proportionately to the votes polled by the respective political parties in such Council.”
We had this type of governance under the Donoughmore constitution where a committee system of government was created with consensual decision making and the in-built series of checks and balances. Probably China is trying to follow this type of model of governance although with lot of deficiencies. East should explore the best form of democracy they can implement rather than relying on autocracy.
However whether it is in an individualist, collectivist, capitalist or socialist society it is a must in governance to follow the rules. As adhered by Vajjis, to maintain rule of law is of paramount importance for the strength of a state. Sometimes kings of Sri Lanka placed rule of law above themselves. Elara was one of them. When Elara arrived to a temple for a discussion with Bhikkus, his wagon stuck the stupa and an injury was caused. It was reported in Mahavamsa that the King leaped from his car and flung himself down upon the road with the words: “Sever my head also (from the trunk) with the wheel.” Bhikkus intervened and the King was appeased.
The incumbent Sri Lankan President, all his predecessors and successors if any, are above the law constitutionally and his henchmen are above the law unconstitutionally. The situation was aggravated in recent times resulting lawlessness throughout the country. This is a dangerous situation and this type of state is bound to collapse. Even the Buddha vouched for that.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)