The Gifts of Democracy
World Affairs Council, Houston, Texas
May 28, 1999
This century began with a war to make the world safe for democracy. Then Democracy needed protection.
The century comes to a close in a world fairly covered with democracies; a world where dictatorships are no longer safe and are taught sharp lessons by free countries on how governments should treat their people.
Today, democracy needs only a little push, here and there, and a protective arm upon occasion, to complete the circle of its success around the world so that democracy can make the world safe.
It has been a long and difficult journey for democracy, but it is finally at home in the world.
Yet, long before this, democracy already won the argument. Dictatorships, on the left and the right, paid it the ultimate honor of going through its usual motions.
Dictatorships hold as many elections as democracies, and the old joke was that the East German government cancelled elections only when somebody lost the results the day before. Marcos’s cohorts in the Philippines used to say, we already gave you elections, why you do insist we count the votes?
Every dictator has claimed to rule by popular will. The Philippine dictator explained that democracy was never suspended but only to be able to prepare the country for the genuine article later on.
And others would say that a country must be able to afford democracy before enjoying it. I still remember the many times this unsolicited advice was given to me when I was president. (Thank goodness, I paid no attention to that kind advice.)
None of these arguments wash anymore.
Like free markets in economics, democracy has become the last word in political arrangement. No one accepts the old trade argument that a country must nurse its industries to strength, before exposing them to competition. Only competition can make them strong.
No one says that a country has to be rich to afford democracy; now they say that it is only by democracy that a country can achieve a real and sustainable progress.
Not too long ago, East Asia still offered the last admired examples of authoritarianism as a faster way to economic growth, and the necessary prelude to real democracy.
But the East Asian economies collapsed precisely under the weight of the abuses common to dictatorships. Favoritism, corruption, the suppression of second opinion, the fear of subjects and the arrogance of the masters, the pride that comes before the fall because the ruler is too proud to look down at what he is stepping on: the last best hope of his people.
There was progress but the wrong king and at too high a price: kickbacks for white elephants.
The old democracies in the West and the young ones in the East, however, would show a remarkable resiliency in the crisis of the past two years.
Churchill said that the democracy is the worst form of government with the exception of all the others. Democracy has come a long way in public opinion from that negative view. Now democracy is acknowledged as the best form of government all things considered.
Respect for human rights enhances the quality of life thereunder. The habit of criticism catches mistakes. Nobel economist Amartya Sen noted that there has not been a famine in India since the British were expelled. No democratic country, even in Africa, has experienced a famine because the virtue of democracy is that it puts a constant pressure on governments to act responsibly and in time. The least hit country in the Asian crisis is its most famous democracy. The Philippines, still weak from the plunder of the Marcos years — combined with some mistakes of policy and shortcomings in administration — is weathering the Asian crisis better than most.
Democracy made the Philippine government more responsive and conscious of the impact of the crisis on society. Public opinion, freely express, put pressure on the government to pursue policies that would benefit the entire economy instead of a few interest groups. The free flow of ideas likewise guided policy making, hastening the recovery process.
Moreover, to the extent that democratic societies promote market orientation, the Philippines was able to benefit from more efficient and flexible firms and institutions. They were able to weather external shocks better. This is in contrast to less democratic societies where governments dominate, creating market distortions and inefficiencies in the allocation of resources.
A comparison may be made between the banking systems of the Philippines and Indonesia. In the former case, the Central Bank of the Philippines endeavoured to let markets work, instituting strict prudential regulations that ensure the soundness of banks. This allowed Philippine banks to survive the crisis. In contrast, Indonesia’s banking system was dominated by close associates of the former President. The policies then of Indonesia has been protective and lax so that many of the banks folded up as a result of the crisis.
In our free country, the free press showed us that a crisis was inevitable, the bubble would burst. The fresh memory of crony capitalism under Marcos made us allergic to special business favors. Democratic discussion allowed our people to complain, but it taught them also to listen to the government's case that, if the painful structural reforms imposed by the World Bank and the IMF did not kill us as they feared, the reforms would make stronger in the end. Because they were not imposed but explained, the people cooperated with these reforms whose great success the IMF has put on record. The economic wisdom today is the primacy of truth. No hidden factors, no special favors, everything up for grabs but out in the open. Trust people to make the right decisions if they know all the facts.
If history is the story of conflicts, then the end of history must come with the global victory democracy.
Common folk, who make up the democratic constituency everywhere, hold certain values in common, color and creed rgardless. Values like work which was disrupt; wealth which wars consume; life which peace preserves; and freedom which realizes lifes’s rich potential.
In a democratic world, peace is a certainty. Where governments do nor just symbolize countries but actually represent their people through free and fair elections, it is these universal values that shape relations among nations.
Democracies do not fight each other because they can find no reason to. It therefore becomes a geopolitical concern, and not just liberal sentiment, to advance democracy everywhere so as to eliminate threats to peace from any quarter.
We who live in democracies don’t see that always. But those who run dictatorship spot right away.
Not surprisingly, the Malaysian government strongly protested the warm and rousing welcome that we gave the wife of Malaysian patriot, Anwar Ibrahim, in Manila last month. Anwar Ibrahim is in jail on a variety of spurious charges, but ultimately for advocating free market principles and honest accounting practices in the teeth of Malaysian crony capitalism, which is the fatal flaw in the otherwise remarkable economic achievement of Mahathir.
The diplomatic row worsened when the Philippine president accorded to the wife of a political dissident in another country the honor due a distinguished guest by meeting with her. On top of which he told the media that he has asked her to tell his friend in a Malaysian jail: “Don’t lose heart, persevere truth and justice will win in the end.”
Anwar Ibrahim’s wife was no longer alone.
Speaking before the Manila Rotary Club, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail recalled a time when she was never alone.
As the wife of Malaysia’s wonder boy and the first in the line of succession, she had more friends than names she could remember. But her wish was to raise a family in peace and privacy, wit her husband more to herself.
She got her wish the day Anwar fell from grace and lost his positions.
Friends fell away; colleagues kept an impolite distance. It was as if they had a disease, she recalled, or perhaps it was my own recollection.
The same of defeat, even when you are right.
The shame of being in the grip even of those wrong is illegal.
The embarrassment at your helplessness, because you must ask permission for the most ordinary things, like bringing a small amenity to your husband in jail. Embarrassment, too, for those friends who will not speak to you anymore or hurry thought a conversation lest the phones be bugged or they be seen too long in your company.
The need to cater to total strangers, like the foreign media, for a sympathetic ear to your story of injustice.
It was not too long ago that I experienced all that. I am sure you have also, in the context of your own lives.
This is the ground where Third World Politics meets First World corporate in-fighting. There are more ways than martial law to lose your standing and with it your friends. In vastly different ways, we yet go through the same disappointments. I think that is the universal language of mankind. It is the lesson I would tell Anwar’s wife.
Wan Azizah recalled that when the police came for her husband, they really came for all of them.
They came with their faces covered and in three waves: the first to do the job, the second to clean up, and the third to make sure no traces were left.
They would have made short work of Anwar and his family if they had not mixed up the dates. They barged in the house while Anwar was giving a press conference to the international media. So they just led him away.
As they lead away my husband, Ninoy Aquino 27 years ago, while he and other senators and congressmen, all members of the House-Senate Conference Committee, were working on the tariff and Customs Code of 1972 in the Manila Hilton Hotel. My husband was arrested by a colonel, who informed him that President Marcos had signed Proclamation 1081, placing the entire country under martial rule. The arrest was made without any charges. It would take eleven months after the arrest, for the martial law authorities to come up with fabrications against my husband and bring him to trial before a military tribunal.
Before his arrest, Ninoy as well as other senators and congressmen had engaged in a continuing debate on how they should react to a possible plot to declare martial law. Their endless talk was interrupted for a good by the declaration of martial law.
There was a lesson to be learned there about the uses of talk when the other side has resolved upon action. It is a lesson I would remember when an American official asked me to talk with Mr. Marcos about a power-sharing scheme. I told him it was way past for talking.
Talking would put a stop to the demonstrations that had paralyzed the economy and brought the dictatorship to its knees. It would have sent people back to their homes, alone again and powerless.
The isolation that Wan Azizah and I experienced is what every ordinary person feels before the power of lawless government. A power only collective action can address.
After the rubber-stamp parliament declared Marcos the winner of the 1986 elections, I called for a rally and around half a million Filipinos joined in me proclaiming the People’s Victory and there I launched a non-violent protest movement. I called on the people to boycott banks, newspapers and other establishments owned and/or operated by Marcos or Marcos cronies and they enthusiastically supported the movement.
During her visit to Manila, Wan Azizah asked my advise on how to bring about the power of collective action, or People Power as it came to be called in the Philippines — and in Tiananmen Square, I mention the latter, because it doesn’t always work.
I felt a little uneasy about giving her advice. I was a housewife and she is a doctor. But I was seated across from her, in the freedom I had won for my country and defended against seven military coup attempts. I suggested she might try doing what I had done.
“Tell the people your story,” I said, “what happened to Anwar, what has happened to you and your children. Trust them to relate it to their lives. If the police can trump up charges against someone as favored by fortune as Anwar Ibrahim, they can also do it to them. If it took a director-general of police to beat up Anwar in jail, they can also be in danger from any cop on the beat.”
In the Snap Election campaign where I had challenged President Marcos, inspite of the tremendous odds against me, I worked 16 or more hours a day, appealing for the people’s support all over the country. I laid aside the well-crafted speeches of my advisers and I just told my story. I trusted the people to see its point that under a government without just laws or any moral restraint, it could happen to anyone. In time, the common people were convinced to make my cause their own.
While my advisers had to beg their business colleagues for campaign contributions, on the ground that you need money to turn popularity into votes, the poor were pressing their hard-earned pesos into my hands. “For the campaign and because we believe in your cause,” they said.
But I hasten to warn Anwar’s wife that my lessons are heard not just by her and others, with causes like her husband’s, but by the people who took him away from her and put him in jail. Every advanced in the technique of democratic struggle is superseded by its success. In the end, one fact remains unchanged — the only power that can challenge bad governments is in the people. Therefore, make your cause their own. And the only advice that may always hold true may well be the same as Anwar heard: “Never lose heart, persevere, and believe that truth and justice will win in the end.”
The friends of freedom are engaged in a common struggle throughout the world. The beauty of it lies in two things. One is that they are winning and it takes just one or two special efforts in a few spots to complete the triumph of freedom around the globe. The other is that this will be good for business like nothing before.