In today’s raging battle between liberalism and illiberalism, which side does Asia belong?
This was the main question that participants to the 11th CALD General Assembly Conference grappled with, reflecting the concern of the liberal political establishment about the ‘specter of illiberalism’ now haunting the world. Held on 6 November 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand, the conference was formally opened by Liberal International (LI) President Juli Minoves-Triquell, Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) Regional Director for Southeast and East Asia Siegfried Herzog, and Democrat Party (DP) of Thailand’s Deputy Leader Kiat Sittheeamorn.
In his keynote address, former Thai Prime Minister and incumbent CALD Chairperson and DP Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva noted the popular perception that connects liberalism with elitism, or being too distant with the people. Reflecting on the victories of liberal parties in Canada, Taiwan and South Africa, he said that liberals must “regain the competitive edge by saying that we too want change.” “We have to make sure that we fully live up to our values… and that the people feel that we are relevant – that we respond to their needs”, he added.
The keynote address was followed by two panel discussions in the morning – “What Every Liberal Ought to Know about the Global Rise of Illiberalism” and “Trends You Need to Understand about Liberalism in Asia.” In the first panel, Liberal Party of the Philippines (LP) Secretary General Josephine Sato described the rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines as part of the global trend that shows an increasing number of illiberal democracies. Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), highlighted the need to connect free trade with its attendant civil and political freedoms – otherwise, free trade becomes exploitation. Ted Hui Chi-fung, a newly elected Legislative Councilor from Hong Kong, closed the session with an elaboration of China’s tightening grip over Hong Kong and its implications for the city’s democracy and the rule of law.
In the second session, Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University, Thailand set the context by describing the political and economic trends in the region, particularly those aspects that limit the exercise of political and economic freedom. Her presentation was followed by two liberal success stories in Asia, that of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwan. PDIP’s Hanjaya Setiawan tackled the 9 priorities of the Jokowi administration, particularly those dealing with infrastructure, human development and economic deregulation. DPP’s Ya-wei Chou, on the other hand, focused on the success of the party in advancing liberal issues such as LGBTI rights, immigrant rights and the promotion of innovation-based economy.
In the afternoon, an open and frank fish bowl conversation involving key CALD personalities took place on the topic, “The Most Common Mistakes that Liberals Everywhere Make”. The participants made a straightforward assessment of how and why their respective political parties lost elections or popular support, as well as on how to move forward from the current predicament. The discussions continued in the world café session where they dealt with the question, “How to Make Liberal Parties Win Again?”
The event was brought to a close by the keynote address of LP’s Florencio Abad, former Secretary (Minister) of Budget and Management of the Philippines and former CALD Chairperson. In his address, he gave a timely reminder to all liberals: “Ultimately, it is the people themselves whom we must never lose sight of… we mustn’t forget that it is the ordinary person — in their entire humanness — whose interests we shouldn’t neglect… And if history proves one thing, it is this: that hope will time and again outlive fear. That the power in brute force is false and fleeting, and what will always endure, in the end, is the purest strength of freedom.”
This post was written by CALD