This essay will critically analyse available evidence to define what is meant by ‘good governance’. Using this established definition and by applying additional critical analysis, this essay will examine why the concept has become popular among international financial institutions and policymakers.
Understanding why the concept has become popular will allow further analysis of the concept and provide an evidentiary basis for the determination that good governance can both act as a driver for democratic political change in Asia, and provide the means by which an established government may retard the advance of a liberal style democracy by using the tenets good governance.
The basis of evidence will be formed by case studies that examine how good governance has been implemented in Asian governments; an examination of Malaysia will show how opposition movement have been able to use the lack of good governance in Malaysian policy to highlight the deficiencies in the ruling elite. Looking at Singapore will demonstrate how the same narrative on good governance, can be used by a ruling elite to demonstrate why their current system is sufficient and to therefore retard any progress toward real change.
Understanding how these particular Asia governments have changed and either progressed or regressed in the context of democratic political change will establish that good governance can act to either progress or retard democratic political change in Asia To begin to define what the terms good governance means, especially in the context of South Asian geographical locations, this paper will utilise the definitions as provided by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). Beginning with a definition of what Governance means, the UNESCAP paper offers this definition.
Governance is the, “process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)”. 1 UNESCAP goes on to define the main players in governance, listing government as one of the principle actors, but also highlighting the involvement of other actors depending on the context. IN rural areas we see the involvement of actors such as influential land owners, associations of peasant farmers, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), research institutes, religious leaders, financial institutions, political parties and the military.
In the urban context we add to his list the various social strata of the urban poor, the urban middle class and the urban elite, and various political entities such as unions and businesses. At a national level we see the addition of media, lobbyists, international donors and multi-national corporations (MNCs), as well as other players who may play a role in influencing the decision making process. These various non -governmental actors are grouped together as ‘civil society’. Finally in certain spaces we may also see criminal organisations acting as influencing factors.
This then is the basis of governance; the process of decision making and the process by which those decision are then implemented as policy, and the formal and informal actors that influence that process. What then is good governance? Continuing to utilise the definitions provided by UNESCAP good governance rests on a foundation of eight specific principles. Firstly good governance must be participatory by both men and women, and take into account the most vulnerable elements of society. Participation can either be through direct participation or through legitimate intermediate representatives. Secondly it must be consensus oriented.
With some many actors involved in the general governance of any nation state there must be mediation process that facilities the broad consensus on what is in the interest for that particular society. Thirdly good governance must be an accountable variant of governing methodologies. Accountability cannot simply be the sole responsibility of government, but all elements of that established civil society must be accountable to the general public and their institutional stakeholders and those that are affected by the decisions of those elements that make up the governing structures of a nation state.
Fourthly good governance is transparent. This means that the decision making processes, the decisions made and their enforcement, are done in a manner that follows the established rule set that governs the nation state. It also means that information about those processes must be freely available to those who seek that information. Fifthly good governance is responsive, and requires that processes and those in charge of those processes try as best they can to serve the stakeholders in a within a reasonable timeframe. Sixthly good governance must be both effective and efficient.
This translates to the best possible use of the resources that are required to meet the needs of the various stakeholders that make up a nation state in the most sustainable manner feasible. Seventhly there is a requirement that good governance is equitable and inclusive. UNESCAP places a high degree of importance on this particular principle. A society that is governed well will see the benefits accrued to that society apportioned to all its members, inclusive of the most disadvantaged, and not simply allocate to elites or a stable middle class that can vocalise its need for those benefits.
Opportunities to improve an individuals or groups particular societal standing must be freely available and supported by the state. Lastly good governance dictates that the nation state must follow the rule of law, both internal rule sets and those external to the state such as international law, and the governing principles of international organisations. This will require a robust legal framework that is enforced impartially and without favour for a particular element of society.
It includes the promotion of human rights, and requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force. In addition to these eight principles, UNESCAP also highlights the importance of broader characteristics, such as a responsiveness to the present and future needs of society, the assurance that corruption will be minimised and the views of minorities will be heard. 3 This then defines what the term good governance means, what elements provide the foundation for assessing whether a state has a semblance of good governance inherent to its governing structures.
Why then is the term so popular among international financial institutions and policymakers? The development of nation states is bound to the idea that it is money that drives any development. Martin Doornbos notes that while good governance served as a guiding principle for agencies committing development funds to ensure that the recipients adhered to certain best practise for over a decade, it is increasingly used as a criterion for selection for investment.
Countries that do not exhibit signs of good governance will not qualify for development aid. 4 The power of the World Bank to determine where development dollars flow allows the Bank to influence those receiving investments to change governing structures, fail to change those structures and the dollars will cease to flow. This power forces states to comply with what is seen by the West as appropriate policy, short hand for elements of good governance. This flexing of political muscle is understandable as financial institutions and donor countries want to know that their money is well spent. The term good governance has the ability to enable judgement on the capacity of a nation state to conduct its affairs in a manner that is internationally acceptable (Western orientated) standard.
Its use enables the raising of evaluative questions about the states use of proper procedures, transparency and the quality of decision making processes. As a term Doornbos notes that increasingly academics, economists, and commentators alike cloud hardy do without the phrase as it neatly allows the facilitation of debate on the subject of best practise within nation states while allowing its integration with existent doctrine of thought, such as structuralism, Marxism, transition or modernisation theory. 7 This means that the discourse on good governance can be neatly leverage those existing theories.
Having now established why the term good governance has become a popular term in defining a nation’s states level of western style democratic normalcy we can begin to examine if the tenets of good governance have in fact impacted in emerging sates in Asia in either a positive or a negative way. However it is vital to highlight that good governance, while a concept that has certain core tents, as outlined in our definition, can be used as a narrative with difference purposes.
Looking at Malaysia and Singapore we see two Asian states where good governance has been used in difference ways both within the framework of a move toward a stronger more stable and accountable government. As Subramanian points out, in Malaysia, good governance “assumes the role of a reformist discourse adopted by opposition groups to pressure to ruling regime into introducing liberal democratic reforms”. 8 Looking at Singapore we can see how the same tents of good governance can be used in a completely different discourse, one that has little to do with advancing a liberal democracy.
In Singapore good governance, “plays the role of dominant discourse employed by ruling elites as a defence against liberal democratic reforms”. 9 Examining these two states within the context of a transition theory we can see the interplay between elites10 in both countries and other elements of civil society at work as each group seeks greater dominance in the political space and resultantly clashes provide the opportunity for compromise.
Both Malaysia and Singapore provide excellent case studies to examine how the inclusion of good governance can both advance and retard the state of liberal democratic change. Looking first at Malaysia we can see the compromise between the middle class and the ruling elites that has existed throughout the end of the last century and the start of this century.
Here we see some elements of good governance and what we would recognise a liberal democratic ideas, but with a government that it still resistant to change and with little tolerance for opposition. 11 That status quo has increasingly been challenged by the use of technological innovation to highlight the corruption, collusion and nepotism of the ruling elite. 12 That challenge was based on the need to dramatically increase the level of good governance that the Malaysia government implemented. 3 Throughout the events of the Asian Finacial Crises the growing nexus between the ruling political and elites business elites became the touchstone for opposition forces seeking a move toward a more liberal democracy.
The Reformasi Movement, headed by Anwar focused on those issues of corruption, collusion and nepotism, while this garnered support from the electorate, in the main part Malaysian politics was still a space were the main considerate was given over to the race related political discourse whereby the ruling elite allocates benefits to the majority while attempting to minimise provocation of the minorities. 5 This discourse of racial peace and stability is however increasingly challenged by the Reformasi discourse. These challenges, when viewed through the context of transitional theory, demonstrate how the compromises that define transitional theory are moving Malaysia toward a more liberal style democracy. Responding to the Reformasi movement the ruling elite has co-opted the rhetoric of GG to naturalise the political value of the oppositions view point.
Additionally they have continuingly challenged the veracity of good governance in the liberal context to defuse the value of it to their opponents and they have enacted changes to state institutions that have fared badly in opposition opinion such as appointing new Chief Justices and Attorney Generals. This last aspect bears further examination. Examining whether good governance has been a force for democratic change in Asia we can see that by pushing an agenda of good governance the opposition has forced the ruling elite to manifest some aspects of a liberal style good governance program.
If opposition pressure, manifested by a discourse of good governance, has forced the ruling elite to co-opt that discourse and institute some measures of traditional liberal good governance then we can see that the entire process has had a beneficial effect for Malaysia. The previous political discourse, based solely on racial peace and stability, is increasingly running parallel to a discourse of individual freedom, transparency that seeks to shed light on the corruption of previous elites and generally moves Malaysia toward a state more recognizable as a liberal democracy with strong civil institutions and freedom for individuals.
The discourse of good governance in Singapore represents a different narrative, whereby the ruling elite have placed good governance at the forefront of Singaporean politics, not to advance movement toward a liberal democracy but rather to retard that progress and demonise the opposition17. While local media has constantly raised the compatibility of Singaporean politics with a liberal democracy, the contenting discourse has pitted that against the tenets of good governance in the Singaporean context. 8In that context good governance constitutes an accountable and transparent government, a long term commitment by the government to deciding policy options for society and social justice, irrespective of race. 19 At face value tenets that align with previously detailed definitions of good governance. However there are some issues that warrant examination.
Certainly the idea that the long term goal of government is to impose policy that it see as beneficial may appear to be without malice however it does represent a departure from the values of a liberal democracy that sees empowerment of policy by the electorate, rather than a direct imposition by the government as a core value. 20 Likewise the third aspect of social policy has elements that are not aligned with a liberal democracy. The idea of a meritocracy is given moral credence under cover of this social policy.
This policy is directed towards to common good being advanced over the individual self interest. This entire Singaporean concept of good governance is bound by a principle of strong leadership. This leads to a paternalistic context for Singaporean politics whereby a father knows best mentality permeates the development of policy. This weakens the standing of civil institutes that otherwise would have a leading role in the development of policy in a western style liberal democracy. 1 The demarcation was enshrined by Goh when he spoke of the national ethos being based on a meritocracy that was pragmatic and fair. The Singaporean good governance model is based on the Confucianist ideal that community is far more important than the individual.
This religious model sees the importance of human rights, and individual civil liberties, cornerstones of a liberal democracy, largely overshadowed by a government imposed set of policies aimed at a commonality of meritocracy and survivability for the state. 2 That this model is based on good governance is challenged by other Asian states, a challenge that was stated by the Presidents of Taiwan and South Korea in this manner, “You do not have a democracy in Singapore and you rationalize it by drawing upon some nondemocratic values within Confucianism. We are better democrats, and better Confucians, than you, so don’t you dare attempt to hijack ‘Asian Values. ‘”
Examining how good governance could possibly be a force for democratisation we look to Singapore’s deft handling of globalisation to see that it is unlikely that even this massive driver of change will advance the prospects for a liberal style democracy to take root in Singapore. 24 The use of a paternalistic model of good governance allows the ruling elite in Singapore to push the more liberal affiliated concepts to one side, even when they harness globalisation to increase the reach of their economic reach.
Singapore has managed to harness the benefits of globalisation, while monitoring the increase of liberal ideas that its bread mass compunctions based technology often brings. 25 Singapore’s increasing cooperation with the United States in matter of security has allowed it to neatly side step many of the fundamentals of good governance in the name of increased security. 26 This is reflecting of the continued paternalistic state driven policy initiatives that are driven from the top down, with little regard for the thoughts or policy needs of non-elites.
Good governance is ideally a driver for progressive political change, and ideally should provide the cornerstones and the foundation for a robust and sustainable form of representative government that has civil rights and a constitutionally based idea of justice at its core. However we can see that while reformist movements might seek these elements and may very well use the lack of these elements to highlight the deficiencies of a ruling elite, as in the case of Malaya, other governments such as that in Singapore will use a variant of those foundations to justify their existence and the need to remain static in their develop.
So good governance can provide a discourse that both provides a justification for change and a justification for remaining static. Change in Malaysia points to the fact that good governance can indeed be a force for democratic change in Asia. While Singapore’s continued use of their own variant of good governance, used to justify the stranglehold the elites have on the development of policy, demonstrate how that discourse can be subjugated to the needs of a particular ruling elite and their agenda.
This should not discount the viability of good governance as force for change. The foundational elements laid out by UNESCAP provide a template for emerging states and developing economies across Asia and the rest of the developing world. But we must be mindful that those states may not require the full gamut of options as provided by the defined elements of good governance. What we must accept and be grateful for is that any stare, any ruling elite, at least includes some form of good governance in their new policy direction.