See More on Facebook

Analysis, Opinion

After the protests, what next? A debate on liberalism

Andrew Sheng writes exclusively for the Asia News Network.


Written by

Updated: July 8, 2019

The old order is broken.  No less than Russian President Putin has declared the Neoliberal order “obsolete”.   We now have to think the unthinkable – every dream has turned into a nightmare – the land of the free no longer seems to welcome anyone, whilst the freest economy in the world is under siege by massive protests.

What is the New Order?  How do we deal with the myriad problems of inequality, climate change, technological disruption to jobs, de-globalization and fragmentation of society?   If everyone protests to hold the rest of society at ransom, how is possible to govern?

We can trace this tectonic shift to America’s disorderly abandonment of the order she helped to construct over the last 70 years.   In the last six months, the Tweet Tiger in the White House has threatened almost every ally you can think of – Europe and Japan (threatening auto tariffs and renegotiating security arrangements), India (imposing new tariffs), Singapore and Malaysia (added to currency watch-list) and even called Vietnam “almost the single worst abuser of everybody”.

As the old saying goes, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

The irony is that the problem is actually world-wide.  Rational thinking does not seem to work in a world where irrationality and radical uncertainty seems to be the rule.

At the heart of the issue is the loss of trust between the masses and the elites.  Once trust is lost, order descends to disorder.

Most societies are hierarchical, with an elite at the top and the public essentially delegating their governance to the elite under an important social contract.   The few who govern take care of the interests of everyone else, especially the weak and under-privileged.

The fundamental weakness of the “free market” liberal order is that in the last forty years, especially with the spread of the Internet and financialization, inequality haswidened to breaking point.  The complacent elites have been blind to the emergence of the Precariat, so called because much of the middle class is precariously hanging on and is in serious danger of slipping into poverty or becoming more in debt.

Elite blindness is not unique to this age.   During the French Revolution, the ruling royalty had no clue that the growing agricultural masses, as well as the exploited workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, were about to storm the Bastille.

250 years later, mass rebellion is becoming viral.   You vote with your feet, as desperate farmers in the water-stressed and strive torn areas of Sub-Sahara and Middle East are migrating to Europe.  The middle class in the rich countries are feeling massive insecurity from the loss of good jobs, as the listed companies have no conscience in cutting staff whenever they need to cut costs.  Technocratic elites celebrate robotics and Artificial Intelligence, but forget how working in the“gig” economy, more and more people become independent sub-contractors, who face uneven anduncertain income, but with growing expenditure from health care and education costs for their young.   No wonder more and more are stressed by their growing debt burden.

According to one survey, as much as 39 percent of Americans have $1,000 in savings to cover emergencies and one fifth would borrow from credit cards to cover emergencies.   If rich countries feel this pain, you can imagine why mass protests appear to break out sporadically in Czech Republic, Venezuela and Hong Kong, each for very different reasons.

There is a pattern to this madness.

First, we have arrived at the era of the Knowledge Society, when most people don’t know the difference between true and fake news!

Before the Internet, most people relied on experts, professionals or leaders, who have more experience and skills built up over daily interaction with them.

Today, we need experts, when anyone can ask Google or Wikipedia for any opinion and view on anything.   We feel empowered by our access to knowledge, available instantly on our mobile phones, but in instant form that we either like or delete in 5 seconds.   This creates an echo chamber of “likes” and “dislikes”, in which we are fed by algorithms that reinforces our beliefs, prejudices and biases.

These algorithms reduce complexity to sound bites or video cartoons, creating the illusion that you can have anything you want instantly (but only if you have money).   If not, you simply network to those who think alike, creating digital crowds that feed your grievances.  Indeed, there are groups that go round the world teaching the young how to protest and create the digital mob!

At the other spectrum, politics has become a Gladiator game in which you can do anything to win.  But thedigital gladiators have lost sight of why they are in politics.  Politicis is not there to serve the public good, but to inflate the digital ego, a sense of billion-sized power who live for the moment and to hell with thedelivery of promises.

To Putin, liberal democracy can only fail because there is no “hard budget constraint” to liberalism.  We would all like to be kinder, gentler and tolerant of everything – but we cannot afford it.   But why worry if the politicians are able to entertain you with all kinds of promises that cannot be delivered.   The point of electoral democracy is that they are chosen to disrupt, rather than the harder task of reform or actual governance.

As FT.com columnist Martin Wolf aptly puts it, “people increasingly think of their elites as incompetent, or crooks”.   Worse still, the politicians are “captured”, representing whoever funds their elections rather than the public at large.

The Web demands instant sound-bites and simple answers to very complex questions.  So the only way politicians can respond is to promise everything that sounds great, but deliver nothing but entertainment for some, but higher stress for anyone who knows all this will end in tears.

The French Revolution was unfinished, because Napoleon restored order through fighting the rest of Europe.   He diverted mob energy to fight foreigners.

I totally understand why the young want to protest in Hong Kong.   But after the protest, what is the next step?

If the ultimate outcome of the liberal order is to protest, with no solutions on how to address the inequalities, then the liberal order is truly obsolete.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Asia News Network
About the Author: Asia News Network is a regional media alliance comprising 24 media entities.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Analysis, Opinion

How governments can manage the risks of digitalisation without hindering innovation

The world is moving towards an algorithmic economy, which depends largely on data and data-driven innovation. The United States Embassy in Hà Nội yesterday held a discussion on data mobilisation and how authorities can manage the risks of digitalisation without hindering innovation. The speaker of the event, Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of ITIF’s Center for Data Innovation, said in the past 10 years, the world had been shifting to a data-based economy. “The economy has been focused on mobile technologies, big data analytics technologies, and social networks,” Castro said. In the latest trend, the world is now moving towards an algorithmic economy with new technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things, blockchain, etc. In this stage, the economy depends largely on data and data-driven innovation, whi


By Viet Nam News
October 11, 2019

Analysis, Opinion

Frontier technologies pathway for prosperity, says Indonesian Finance Minister

Frontier technologies bring new opportunities as well as wide-ranging impacts and policy implications for the economy at the national, regional and global levels, writes Sri Mulyani Indrawati in an Oped. Rapid technological transformation is one of the defining factors in shaping the future of our economy — at the national, regional and global levels. Frontier technologies bring new opportunities, as well as wide-ranging impacts and policy implications. This transformation has affected economic performance, fostered production efficiency, revolutionized society and accelerated globalization. This trend is a key issue of our time and should spur renewed momentum for policy cooperation. The current wave of technological change is unique in terms of the breadth of its scope and the pace of change. It affects how goods, services and ideas are exchanged. The fast-declining costs of these technologies make


By The Jakarta Post
October 10, 2019

Analysis, Opinion

Which way are Sino-US ties headed?

The US has listed China as a strategic competitor and the Sino-US economic/trade conflict is a clear manifestation of this categorization. Bidding farewell to 40 years of friendship, some in the United States want to replace cooperation with competition as the tone of Sino-US ties in future. At present, with right-wing conservatism and nationalism peaking, the US has listed China as a strategic competitor, and the recent Sino-US economic and trade conflict is a clear manifestation of this accusation. The US has adopted a flurry of radical and inappropriate policies and measures to counter China, exposing Washington’s short-term overanxiety. Whenever the US calms down, Beijing and Washington will return to seeking rational major power relations, but it will take time. The US should not hold the unrealistic expectation that trade negotiations can resolve all major issues and concerns between the


By China Daily
October 9, 2019

Analysis, Opinion

Securing the future of quality journalism

Credible content that audiences value and new sources of revenue needed to sustain newsrooms. The poster boy for robust health in the media industry used to have decidedly Indian features. Even as their counterparts elsewhere languished, Indian media houses were once busy launching new titles, snapping up journalists and boosting orders for newsprint, bucking global trends several years ago. Today, sadly, a pall appears to have settled over many of these newsrooms. “We need to change… we are playing catch-up now,” one top Indian editor told me at a dinner on the sidelines of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ (Wan-Ifra) India Conference last Wednesday. Lacklustre advertising during recent festive seasons has taken a toll on print advertising revenues, as circulations slide, he says. Like many others, he laments


By Asia News Network
September 23, 2019

Analysis, Opinion

Challenges loom for Asia’s digital landscape

An overview of digital strategies across Asia in light of the first ever annual Digital Economy Report released by UNCTAD last week. Last week, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released its first ever annual Digital Economy Report (2019). It came at a time when countries across Asia have been grappling with a complex digital future. Digital technologies help cut costs, enable delivery of services without leakages, reduce opportunities for graft, promote ease of doing business, leverage an increasingly non-tactile world, grow economies, have the potential to create millions of new jobs and, it appears, even help fight fake news. On the flip side, there are concerns of the cost of the emerging digital economy in terms of loss of traditional employment sectors, eroding the right to privacy, abetting authoritarian state-control of citizens’ lives, causing a s


By Ishan Joshi
September 19, 2019

Analysis, Opinion

South Korea and Japan have more in common than they think

Republished with permission for Asia News Network members by The Brookings Institution. With South Korea’s decision to scrap the 2016 military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, the two sides have dramatically aggravated their fraught relationship. Bilateral ties had never been great, but in the past several weeks, a trade spat has snowballed into a confrontation that apparently has yet to reach rock bottom. Last month, Tokyo decided to remove South Korea from its list of favored trading partners, which includes the United States, Germany, France, and two dozen other countries, placing export curbs on industrial and high-tech p


By Asia News Network
September 16, 2019