Culture and modernity: Learnings from Korea

South Korea celebrates Korean culture side by side with modernity and has acculturated Western norms into its own. Colonised peoples, too, can modernise and adapt. Our cultures, too, can embrace the best of both worlds.

by Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

Recently I attended the Eighth Global Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Seoul, South Korea.

Until the late 19th century, Korea was ruled by a centuries old dynasty which adopted a policy of isolationism, resisting attempts to open up trade and diplomacy. Korea was colonised by Japan in 1910 and World War II left it under Allied occupation – Soviets in the north and the USA in the south. The North’s invasion of the South triggered the Korean War. There have been two Koreas ever since.

Seoul, South Korea at Bongeunsa Temple

Half a century ago South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with few natural resources and little industry. Today it’s an economic powerhouse, a member of the G20 and a leading global manufacturer.

South Korea consistently positioned itself where it had the most competitive advantage. Initially this was low-cost labour and exporting cheap goods.  As GDP grew it invested in infrastructure and industry and moved to high-tech manufacturing. It also embraced Western ideas like democracy and free markets.

Meanwhile North Korea remained locked in poverty and isolation.

Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Those of us who live in modern democracies can take them for granted, even be self-critical. We forget most people don’t have what we have.

The Economist Intelligence Unit publishes a Democracy Index that scores electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Countries are grouped into full democracies (score 8 or more), flawed democracies (6-8), hybrid regimes (4-6) and authoritarian regimes (below 4). “Flaws” include weak democratic culture, low political participation, political instability and corruption.

The 2014 Index had only 24 full democracies, covering 12.5% of the world’s population, and 52 flawed democracies covering a further 35.5%.  More than half the world – 3.6 billion people – live in systems that are not democracies. Very few have the kind of democracy and liberty Australia enjoys.

South Korea has a liberal democracy, a free market economy, civil liberties, the rule of law and participates in the global marketplace. It ranks 21st on the Democracy Index. North Korea has a totalitarian dictatorship, a centrally controlled, dysfunctional economy and chooses complete isolation. It ranks last.

Australia consistently scores in the top 10. We’re one of the freest countries in the world. Like most countries, Australia’s history includes shameful chapters. We need to be able to leave them in history. Closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is therefore critical.

The greatest challenge to economic development for Indigenous Australians isn’t a lack of money, assets or opportunities; nor discrimination and historical wrongs. It’s a mindset that afflicts many colonised peoples – that participating in the modern economy means turning your back on your culture.

The mindset is wrong. For thousands of years, humans have shared ideas and innovations and used them to advance their societies.  Democracy, for example, was an innovation originating in Greece that took hold throughout Europe.  South Korea celebrates Korean culture side by side with modernity and has acculturated Western norms into its own.

Australia’s first nations were isolated from other human groups until the late 1700s. First contact with Europeans wasn’t about sharing ideas, but dispossession and death. But today Indigenous Australians can and should embrace the best the world has to offer.

Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanaks of New Caledonia, once said: “we are not survivors of prehistory, still less archaeological fossils, but men of flesh and blood.” The greatest threat to indigenous cultures is to be treated like museum pieces. Colonised peoples, too, can modernise and adapt. Our cultures, too, can embrace the best of both worlds.

Democracy; corporate governance; competition and free market economics; private land title; using land as an economic asset; protection against discrimination. These are all ideas colonised peoples can benefit from.

Australia, too, can learn from South Korea. The world is constantly changing. Ideas that worked in the past wont always make sense in the future. Our system wasn’t built for a 24/7 digital, globalised economy. We must reform areas like penalty rates, subsidies, free trade and tax without seeing proposals howled down or political leaders too timid to pursue them. Clinging to rusted on principles will impede Australia and leave us uncompetitive.

Reform is hard. Great political leaders clearly communicate why reform is needed. They say – this is where I’m going to take you and this is how I’m going to take you there. And clear communication means speaking to people in a way they understand; not treating them like fools.

Democracy, opportunity, free markets and adaptation are far more important to achieving sustainable economic growth than natural resources, wealth or history. There’s no better illustration of this than the Korean Peninsula. It’s one we can all learn from.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 3 December 2015.

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