Review— How to Look at Asian Politics: From Development Dictatorship to Civil Society

Aizawa Nobuhiro

How to Look at Asian Politics:
From Development Dictatorship to Civil Society 
Ajia Seiji wo Miru Me—Kaihatsu Dokusai kara Shiminsyakai e
Iwasaki Ikuo
Tokyo / Chuokouron Shinsha / 2001

“The Ending of Development Dictatorship”—this was the title of a series of articles featured in the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most distinguished newspapers, in 1999. Series of this type, featuring articles by both scholars and journalists, are common in Japanese mass media; other series have looked at East Asian cooperative security and Japan’s role in Asia’s economic revival. The title of this particular series illustrates something interesting about the way the Japanese are looking at Southeast Asia these days.

Before we jump to its end, let us briefly consider the career of kaihatsu dokusai (development dictatorship) in the world of Japanese publishing. Unlike many words used in Japanese media and scholarship to describe or analyze political economy, this word is not a translation from another language. It has been used in reference to Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia, as well as to Southeast Asia. According to Tokyo University scholar Suehiro Akira, it appeared in the 1980s in the context of democratization in South Korea and Taiwan and economic growth in East and Southeast Asia. “Development dictatorship” presents a strong image and quickly gained popularity in the Japanese press as a simple way to describe Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, and Suharto’s Indonesia.

However, presenting a strong image is not the same as having a clear meaning. The word simply and literally indicates two features of the state so described: it strives for economic development; it is a dictatorship. “Development dictatorship” does nothing more than juxtapose these two ideas which have opposite connotations, one positive and one negative. It has been used to headline articles emphasizing economic matters and those emphasizing politics. A relationship between the two is, at most, implied. Despite a vagueness in definition and lack of criteria to identify a development dictatorship, or perhaps because of this, the word became a favorite of the mass media and helped frame Japan’s way of looking at Southeast Asia. To describe something with opposite faces without explaining why and how the two unlikely aspects are successfully combined is, so to speak, an art.

But why did the Japanese media frame its articles in this way? We should consider the strength of a word that can generate a strong image in a simple form. It could be used as if it were a brand name. No need to explain the political situation from A to Z to readers who demand brevity. This one word was enough to frame a newspaper article, which could then move quickly to the main topic.

In contrast, this word was a nightmare for scholars, whose attitude toward explanation and detailed description is quite different. Scholars can specialize in explaining, for example, the relationship between “dictatorship” and “development.” To be sincere in analyzing diversity in states and their leaderships, in a style neither simple nor naïve, is the fascinating task for academics. And academics have been creating new images of Southeast Asian countries and analyzing what they have prefered to call developmental regimes/states. This word has no strong image so it is rather useful as an analytical tool. It requires and also leaves room for an explanation of the type of regime and its characteristics. However, the popular image of “development dictatorship” had already spread through the mass media. It was too strong and simple to be challenged by those who want to avoid simplification. In fact, “development dictatorship” had the power to end argument just where scholars wanted to start it.

One might say that the unique Japanese use of “development dictatorship” revealed an opposing attitude between the broad public audience and the academic one. or rather between the spheres in which an argument was presented. (Even a scholar might use “development dictatorship” carefully when writing for a newspaper.) Looking back at the Asahi Shimbun articles of 1999, it is interesting to note that all the scholars’ works, which at their best are careful and do not mention the word, have nevertheless been categorized under the headline “The Ending of Development Dictatorship.”

We should understand that the Asahi Shimbun is not an academic journal, but a newspaper with a wide audience. So it is important not only to be correct, but to be understandable. And, of course, the series is not really about “development dictatorship,” but about its end. Still, the word seems to be surviving, although the reality that supported the word has collapsed. And it still seems to capture Japan’s way of understanding the Southeast Asian political economy, by retaining the starting point of “development dictatorship.” It is clear that the newspaper editor shapes the way the academics are read.

The political and economical situation has changed drastically from the time “development dictatorship” was in its heyday. Many dictators have stepped down and the style of governance is changing. Then, too, the economic development of many countries has stalled since 1997. Everyone realizes that the image of “development dictatorship” is no longer suited to reality, and the mass media has been looking for the next simple and clear word to take its place. Academics, though doing much research, haven’t yet come up with a word that has fully attracted the mass media’s attention, that is to say, haven’t succeeded in re-framing the viewpoint of the Japanese toward Southeast Asia’s political economy.

So how to look at “How to Look at Asian Politics—Development Dictatorship to Civil Society”? Written by Iwasaki Ikuo, a former researcher at Tokyo’s Institute of Developing Economies (IDE), it was published in the form of a shinsho, a pocketsize, inexpensive, softcover book which is regarded as a book for a wide audience. With a long career and numerous works as an IDE researcher behind him, he gives readers a grand overview of Asian political economies in the latter half of the twentieth century, focusing on South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Despite variety in each country’s character, Iwasaki argues that there are common aspects that must be emphasized in the history of East and Southeast Asia. He thinks the history of the past fifty years can be divided into three stages. First, the era of building the nation state. Second, the era of development. Third, the era of democratization. He argues that we are now in the era of democratization and asserts that we ought to have a new way of looking at Asian politics. Until now, he argues, too much emphasis was put on state analysis, clearly represented in the framework of the developmental state, and we need to re-frame our understanding of the changing situation. He carefully agrees with many other scholars in proposing a new focus on so-called “civil society,” or on the state-civil society relationship. Iwasaki’s understanding of civil society is not of individuals in opposition to the state, but of groups—NGOs, unions, corporations—whose relationship with the state will be important to the evolving political economy. In sum, Iwasaki is saying that the way to look at Asian politics must now be shifted from a developmental state to a civil society framework. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the tentative character of this analysis, wondering if the civil society argument will be around in ten years.

One interesting point, of course, is that the subtitle of this book includes the word “development dictatorship,” not the “developmental state” that is mainly used in the text. Here is another example of how this unique word has become so deeply rooted in Japanese publications meant for a wide audience. The editor must have thought it would encourage people to buy the book.

“How to Look at Asian Politics” is a book about how to say goodbye to the word and the framework of “development dictatorship,” how to say goodbye to the long-time loving sweetheart of the mass media, even though “civil society” hasn’t yet proved itself an ideal new mate. It is understandable that saying goodbye and ending up lost are pretty hard. But at least three years have already passed since we started saying goodbye.

Aizawa Nobuhiro
The author is a student of Indonesian politics at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 1 (March 2002). Power and Politics