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23/02/2020
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Taiwan: a democracy in Asia that works

 Ask any Taiwanese who owns Taiwan, and the answer invariably will be "the Taiwanese people" or sometimes simply "the people". That the country should belong to its people should be obvious, but this is not always the case in a place where equality is lacking and entitlement is rife. Thailand is a telling example.

In Thailand, public demands for democracy revolve around political parties, constitutions, elections and the parliament. While these democratic institutions are instrumental and indispensable, they are neither decisive nor the most basic. For democracy to take root in the long term, Thai people should feel and act like they own the country in equal share, no one more than others. Previous constitutions, after all, stipulated that "sovereignty belongs to the people", implying that each and every Thai person owns Thai sovereignty, covering everything from territory and resources to the government.

While liberty, its associated rights and basic freedoms are critical, the value and virtue of equality under a commonly enforceable and fair set of laws are arguably the most vital and decisive in the construction of democracy. This represents the notion that all citizens are fundamentally equal despite differences in wealth, race, gender, religious faiths and education levels, underpinning the cardinal "one-citizen, one-vote" principle in the election of representatives who are to govern on behalf of and for the benefit of the people.

Demands for democracy are often explicit on such freedoms and rights but mostly implicit on equality. Without respect and acceptance of basic equality, liberty and freedom can lead to abuse of power and misrule.

As travel takes me to Taiwan, these basic questions and issues seem so minor and yet so existential at the same time. Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China, is a thriving Asian country of Chinese origins that is both democratic and capitalist. Like South Korea to its north, Taiwan confronts a giant threat in its west from China, or formally the People's Republic of China.

To say that Taiwan is an Asian democracy that works, with a market economy that flourishes, does not take away from China's own top-down communist rule. The governments of both countries enjoy political legitimacy from the people they govern. It may be that China's democratic way and meritocracy exists within its Communist Party, whereas Taiwan has a strong multiparty democratic system revolving around the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposing Kuomintang Party.

With elections scheduled for next month, the DPP is poised to return to power under President Tsai Ing-wen whose resolute stance on Taiwan's sovereignty has heightened tensions with Beijing. Upholding democracy and safeguarding sovereignty are the DPP's mantra in running this island nation of 23 million. Beijing continues to claim Taiwan is a renegade province, but the Taiwanese will have none of that.

Visitors to Taiwan can see why. Taiwan is akin to South Korea and Japan, fellow Asian democracies that harbour Asian values, such as deference, filial piety and hard work. Yet these three democracies also hold their democratic institutions like parliament and political parties sacrosanct.

It is a myth in some Thai quarters that democracy is a Western import, unfit for Asian societies like Thailand. Taiwan is a living and thriving example of being Asian, democratic and economically successful at the same time. Thailand is not prone to strongman rule and authoritarian culture just because it is Asian. It is where it is because of a lack in continuity and effort in building its democratic institutions.

Chief among the myriad strengths of Taiwanese democracy is its rule of law. Every person in Taiwan is equal under the law. This is how Taiwanese authorities and the justice system put a former president behind bars on bribery and corruption charges in the recent past. Taiwanese people's collective faith in their equality is the most basic tenet of their democratic values and system of governance.

It is unthinkable, the Taiwanese say, that some people can be politically superior than others based on wealth and status, or educational levels and family backgrounds. This means that hapless farmers and doctorate degree holders to owners of fancy cars and the elite of all stripes are the same when it comes to owning the country and choosing a representative government.

Thailand has not been like that. In its recent past, voter priorities and preference for an elected government have been repeatedly overturned because some of the electorate have felt more entitled and more powerful than others. If Thais end up with governments the majority have voted for, Thailand would not have gone through two military seizures of power and a series of judicial decisions that thwarted the popular will and representative rule in favour of minority rights.

The problem with Thai democracy is not a lack of freedom but a dearth of equality. Both naturally go hand in hand, but equality must come first and foremost because freedom that is armed with a sense of entitlement and superiority can lead to authoritarian and abusive outcomes.

A major battleground in the intensifying rivalry and competition between China and the United States is the competing visions and arrangements of how peoples are governed.

In Southeast Asia, China's method of centralised rule with economic dynamism is gaining ground and support but the battle is ongoing. Asian democracies, particularly Taiwan, Japan and South Korea as well as India, must speak up and stand taller for democracy and democratisation. Democracy does not have to be Western; it can be as Asian as Asians, such as the Thai people, want it to be.
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** Associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science