East Asian Culture, Governance and Economic Growth


The economic dynamism of East Asia was evident in the astonishing growth rates during its early decades of development. Much of the success of countries like China, Korea, Japan and Singapore has been attributed to governance cultures influenced by Confucianism with strong centralised structures.

On 28 August 2018, Prof Hong Hai, Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, NTU, discussed if these paradigms of governance can and should endure, considering the eastward spread of Western liberalism and business school management ideologies.

Prof Hong Hai began by talking about what many would consider East Asian values, and the style of governance sometimes associated with those values: authoritarianism. He approached the topic addressing four questions from a management perspective:

  1. Are the traditional cultures of East Asia conducive to authoritarianism?

Focusing particularly on Confucianism, he outlined its core principals such as benevolence, propriety, justice, loyalty and filial piety. He then asserted that authoritarianism can be benevolent and even natural as observed in many societies throughout history, and thus not something we should be apprehensive about. Confucianism and authoritarianism are often linked together because Confucianism encourages respect for authority, hierarchy and benevolence. Hence many leaders in the region saw its value when it comes to governance and control. Confucianism’s influence can be observed in the way many modern-day corporations in East Asian countries are managed.

  1. Is authoritarian governance better for economic growth?

Prof Hong Hai shared two videos of speakers arguing for and against the idea that this style of governance resulted in economic growth. Eric Lee explained how meritocracy is greatly valued under such governance in China and good leaders emerge after undergoing a rigorous screening process over decades to climb to the top, contributing to China’s progress. Huang Yasheng on the other hand argued that a more developed human capital and a more educated population, contributed to China’s progress, which also goes against the “Shanghai Theory of Economic Growth”. Prof Hong Hai believes it is futile to determine the real cause as this progress happened through a confluence of many factors; a ‘perfect storm’.

  1. How do authoritarian regimes last a long time?

Prof Hong Hai quoted, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics which pointed out that some of the characteristics of long-lasting authoritarian regimes include the control of the population through repression, leaders buying loyalty, and making being part of the regime the safest path to success. This can be in the form of being able to run for office, gaining a position, or a fast-track to getting material rewards. Prof Hong Hai also argued that many authoritarian regimes, particularly East Asian countries, have relied significantly on performance legitimacy to ensure their survival.

  1. How does Singapore fit in?

Prof Hong Hai pointed out that throughout history, paradigm shifts occur when those considered to be gospel truths change as discoveries emerge overtime, such as the discovery of the earth being round instead of flat, and the subsequent scientific discoveries made by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. This can also apply to Singapore’s political system, which focuses on nation-building and political stability, but may need to evolve according to the needs and circumstances of the country.

The session ended with Prof Hong Hai addressing questions from the audience which included the check and balances in an authoritarian governance and the relevance of authoritarianism to a country’s needs and stage of development.