After having a debate about democracy and authoritarianism, my professor asked my class which form of government we’d prefer. To her surprise, those who spoke up chose authoritarianism. At the time, I myself was one of those in favor of authoritarianism with the condition of an exceptional leader. I am not sure if my decision was swayed by the fact that I was required to defend authoritarianism during the debate, or if it was my own preference. In hindsight, however, I realized that I would never be able to give up the rights accorded to me by democracy, nor accept the violent methods normalized in authoritarian regimes.
Considering the situation in various authoritarian regimes—even in some democracies, as well—I should be grateful for the fact that I am allowed to vote, go to school, and drive. However, I know that I take these things for granted, and that I am not the only one. All over social media, there are calls for the implementation of Martial Law and restrictions on human rights. I cannot say if people really know what this request entails, but I think it’s high time to take a deeper look into authoritarianism and its possibilities.
Within the region, there are four countries under an authoritarian regime (Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar), but three run under a hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism (Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia). In addition to those countries, two of the three currently democratic countries (Indonesia and Thailand) experienced great economic growth during their authoritarian regimes in the twilight years of the Cold War. By having tighter control of the media, politics, and various industries, authoritarian leaders were able to pass significant economic policies that greatly improved their respective economies. The stable governments also attracted numerous foreign investors due to the predictability of the region, a plus for any businessman.
Economics aside, authoritarianism also has its advantages in the political realm. Single-party governments, such as Singapore and Vietnam, experience greater institutional capacity, with the line separating the party and the bureaucracy often getting erased in the process. This has also proved influential in their hold of power as they can present an effective and efficient bureaucracy. Lastly, proponents identify ‘Asian Values’ as another factor behind the success of authoritarianism in the continent. The general notion behind the values is the willingness to put the group, in this case, the nation, ahead of the individual. This is often interpreted as the curtailment of individual human rights for the sake of the rest of the community. Lee Kuan Yew, the famous founder of Singapore, is known for his iron-fist rule during the state’s growth into a first world country.
However, what all these points and arguments fail to consider are the actual experiences of those under authoritarian regimes. As Amartya Sen says, “Development must be judged by its impact on people, not only by changes in their income, but more generally in terms of their choices, capabilities and freedoms; and we should be concerned about the distribution of these improvements, not just the simple average for a society.” In his work, Human Rights and Asian Values, Sen disputes the notion that democracy and its values, specifically freedom, tolerance, and equality, are western imports and representations of its modern-day imperialism. He identifies works and stories of ancient Asian states and leaders, such as the Moghul empire and Buddha, that show the materialization of the aforementioned values, and even draws on Confucian’s own teachings, commonly used to defend Asian Values, that denies blind allegiance to a state or leader.
Authoritarianism continues down a dark path once political aspects are considered. The well-being and personal growth of the citizens are dependent on the benevolence of the ruler. However, to ensure the stability and order expected in authoritarian regimes, dissenters often need to be dealt with immediately and without regard to their human rights. There are numerous stories of kidnappings, torture, and murders from the heyday of the Marcos regime that continue to haunt survivors to this day. Checks and balances that prevent corruption also become highly limited, if not non-existent, during authoritarian regimes for the sake of political stability and continuing support of cronies.
Some may say that these sacrifices will all be worth it once the country achieves economic success similar to the likes of Japan, South Korea, and China. Yet Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi proved that the type of political regime has little to no effect on economic growth. Instead, institutions lie at the heart of growth which are not mutually exclusive to either authoritarian or democratic regimes, with both having good and bad examples. In the Philippines’ own experience with authoritarianism, the country’s debt multiplied, GDP declined, manufacturing stagnated, and we were labeled as the ‘sick man of Asia.’
Only 30 years after the historic dismantling of a dictator, some Filipinos call for the reinstitution of martial law and authoritarian rule for the sake of order and development. The proliferation of misinformation or selective information has painted an incorrect picture of the Philippines’ own authoritarian experience. However, even looking at authoritarianism if done ‘correctly,’ true development cannot be achieved. It’s important to look beyond the flimsy promise of economic success and consider the actual restricted human experience in authoritarian regimes where a discussion like this would not even be possible, where dissent is already a crime against the state, and where little things we take for granted, like freedom of speech and mobility, do not exist.