by Pravit Rojanaphruk (Seoul, South Korea), The Nation, 9 Dec 2006

The South Korean government-funded Korea Democracy Foundation (KDF) is thinking big and trying to produce the region’s first-ever Democracy Development Index for Asian countries in order to help compare and nuture democratic development across the region.

Not to be outdone by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, for the past two years, a comprehensive democracy development index has been under development by KDF, part of a two-year research and the first findings for South Korea was announced in July this year. They hope that in two years, adapted indexes for the region could be introduced.

Father Ham Sei-ung, president of Korea Democracy Foundation said during a gathering of some 30 activists who are fellows of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (Arena), a regional body of activists and concerned scholars, that it’s “part of [their] obligation as a member of the international community.”

The foundation plans to conduct the ambitious research every year and publish its comparative analysis and findings and are already working with political scientists and activists across the region from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia to pursue the goal.

The challenge, said Sonn Hochul, a well-known professor of political science at Seoul’s Sogang University, is to develop a comprehensive and authoritative index more fine-tuned to understanding democracy in Asia than the existing similar indexes such as the US-based Freedom House and others.

“We could then use this index to monitor countries in Asia [and] to report to the public our assessment,” said Sonn who added that the index should not be narrow in its understanding of democracy.

The Korean political scientist proposed five dimensions of democracy to be taken into consideration, namely: political, social-economic, everyday life, worker’s democracy, and international democracy.

Everyday life, for example, refers to how democratic is the local culture and everyday interaction amongst people, while international democracy how equal the relationship between different governments are. Social-economic democracy looks at the income and opportunity divides that often render genuine democracy and equality impossible in poorer countries.

One challenge would be how to measure and grade the so-called Asian values and Asian-specific norms that affect the function of a democracy in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand where some people claim that out and out western notion of democracy doesn’t work there and benign rulers ranging from strong statesman or monarch has a special role to play.

Shall these values be outrightly classified as anti-democratic or should it receive more sympathetic treatment as part of the country’s specific socio historical context?

There will not likely to be any simple answer.

Sonn admits Korea’s democracy, despite being arguably the brightest star in the region as it has successfully transformed its society from military dictatorship to stable civilian rule with vibrant civil society while having successfully prosecuted two of its former presidents, is yet a full-fledged democracy. The Korean National Security Act, for example, prevents publication of sensitive issues between North and South Korea’s relations. South Korea also remains in a grossly unequal relationship with the United States which maintains its military bases there.

Southeast Asian activists and scholars expressed concerns that Korea should not appear to be pratronising in imposing its judgement on others and consider the whole venture more of a process of mutual learning, however. – The Nation

While you’re at it, I suggest reading this recent democracy index by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Singapore ranks 84 out of 167 countries in the index.