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THE TRUTH ABOUT 'ASIAN VALUES'
By Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Unit Pendidikan Politik, Institut Kajian
Dasar.

 

Before the economic crisis of 1997, East Asian nations were generally accelerating at an impressive pace in developing their economy. What started with Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea were being emulated in China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Each year, the countries recorded impressive growth rates and were attracting huge numbers of foreign investment. However the economic liberalism did not go hand in hand with political democratization. Leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Le Peng, Jiang Zemin and Dr. Mahathir Mohammad defended political authoritarianism jealously, claiming that a move towards Western liberal democracy would harm the so-called Asian values'.
What are the Asian Values as defined by these leaders? Asian Values are a set of values that they view unique to `Asia' - by Asia they do not mean the geographical expression from Kamchatka in the East to Asia Minor in the West, but generally confined to the Eastern and South-East part. These values include stressing the importance of the community at the expense of the individual; stability, order and harmony over personal freedoms; a belief that the line between business and government need not be so distinct; obedience to authority and a strong family unit.

This seemed to confirm Thomas Paine's observation in 1776 - that Asia had long `expelled freedom'. In Common Sense, he wrote, "Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart." During those times, East Asia - the Orient, was a place that was far away, mystical and mysterious to the Westerners. Way before
the word `Asian Tigers' came into place, people in the West were intrigued by the legacy of the Islamic, Chinese and Indian civilizations in these far-away places. This was because prior to Europe's Renaissance, Asia was the leading continent. Dr. Mahathir wrote in The Voice of Asia, together with Shintaro Ishihara, "In
Europe's Dark Ages, Asian civilisation was quite advanced, and industrialised too... In many aspects, the wave of civilisation spread to the West from the wellsprings of the East."

However when the European nations sought to colonise the Orient, they viewed Asian values as a justification for their colonisation to carry out their la mission civilsatrice. The last British Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten remarked in East and West, "The `white man's burden' was made all heavier by alleged
Asian reluctance to get involved in their own affairs. ...Some of this attitude coloured official British attitudes to Hong Kong until quite late in the days of our sovereign responsibility there."

When the Cold War broke up after Japan was driven from the Orient, several emerging governments took advantage of the West's ideological struggle with Communism to have them supporting their authoritarian regimes. Suharto for example, was able to drive Sukarno from power with American support. Singapore became a well-known ally of the United States, while to protect Taiwan from China, American money flowed freely into the island, making it one of the most developed economies in the region, apart from Japan. Some Asian leaders seek to align the so-called Asian values with religious and philosophical ideals. However examining the great
teachings in Asia - Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism, we can see that many of their teachings corresponds to modern notions of liberty and democracy.

Islam for example, has always advocated a democratic political system. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not name his successor, because he wanted the people to choose their leader. The four righteous caliphs carried on this tradition, and even when elected caliphs were replaced with dynastic ones - modern ideals of the
separation of state, the rule of law, etc - were embodied by Islamic governments. Rose Wilder Lane, in her book Islam and the Discovery of Freedom suggested that Europeans learnt a fair deal of freedom from
the Muslims.

Buddhism also places a great importance on the freedom of thought. As a tradition, it allows a lot of room for volition and free choice. Confucius himself also did not ask for a blind loyalty to the state. When Zilu asked him on how to serve a prince, Confucius replied, "Tell him the truth even if it offends him." Elias Canetti
said that in interpreting the teachings of Confucius, we have to examine not only what he says, but what he does not say - known as `the silence of Confucius.'

Then we have `the half-naked seditious fakir', in the words of a British Governor of India; Mahatma Gandhi. His satyagraha became an inspiration to other civil rights leaders throughout the world - such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Civil disobedience, which included demonstrations and peaceful protests, had its roots in Asia.

Thus history would bear witness that Asia itself is not a stranger to democracy, just as Europe is no stranger to tyranny. Asian values for many Asian politicians, is a justification for authoritarianism (or in Sukarno's words, `guided democracy), cronyism, nepotism and non-accountability in economic management. It must of course be accepted that the world is not a single cultural entity, but a diverse one. The East differs from the West, but it also should be noted that many parts of the East differ with each other. Amartya K. Sen stressed in his book Development and Freedom, that Asia is a melting-pot of cultures, religions and traditions that to
spell out the existence of homogenous 'Asian Values' common to all cultures is a big mistake. As this article has illustrated in great detail, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and all sorts of
shamanism and animist cultures and traditions blend in Asia.

Nevertheless, how different the world is, it does not mean that certain governments should be grossly less democratic than other governments, or that basic human rights in Asia should not be the same as in Europe.
True enough, part of the high rate of economic growth experienced by the region was because the so-called `Asian values'. This growth was fueled by a low-cost export driven industrialiasation, coupled with an environment not receptive to unionism. Most of the countries totally ignored environmental and
welfare aspects - for the sake of economic growth, unlike in the West (as far as the 20th century). Nevertheless, the businesses align themselves closely with the ruling elite - thus contributing to rampant corruption and scandals, what is known as `Crony Capitalism'. The only reason economic growth managed to transpire despite all the impropriety was because the cost of production was so low, ensuring that Asia maintained an edge to compete globally.

The economic downturn signaled an end to many of the Asian dictators. While previously the people got some of the riches while the leaders and their associates were creating even more wealth for themselves - now to safeguard the interests of businesses, wealth had to be piped into their coffers at the people's expense. Suharto took a tumbling in Indonesia, while Kuomintang, which had been in power for so long in Taiwan lost in the elections. Only the pre-crisis regimes in Malaysia and Singapore remained - but as far as Malaysia
is concerned, the ruling party was no longer the force it used to be. Sic temper tyrannis - thus always the fate of tyranny. Says Anthony Milner from the Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University, "By the end of 1998, faced by the humiliation of a far-reaching Asian financial crisis, these values were presented as having been utterly discredited."

Democracy, social justice and basic human rights are not confined to certain cultures or people, but are universal concepts that appeal to the nature of the whole of mankind. These principles underline the vision of Anwar Ibrahim's Asian Renaissance. His views now echoes the fact that despite impressive GNP and GDP growths, the improvement in living standards for the urban middle-class and material wealth for the people- Asians need to also look into issues such as freedom, distribution of wealth and justice. Ideals such as
democracy, freedom of speech and liberty are in fact important for the long term growth of all nations - Asians or otherwise.

The underlying motive of these Asian Values rhetoric was to justify authoritarian regimes. With the accelerating pace of globalisation - it seems that the voices defending the so-called Asian Values would slowly disappear. What the Japanese call gaiatsu - outside pressure, would push Asian governments to be more
transparent, liberal and accountable to the rule of law and the basic notions of justice; just as Asians themselves are pushing for reform. This is because oppressive rule, corruption, lack of transparency and
unquestionable loyalty to the government are not something `Asian', but merely opportunities for certain people only interested in power and wealth for themselves.

If they are indeed Asian values - then it is better not to be Asian.