Asian Values, Western Dreams


REVIEWER: Ng Kam Weng (Kairos Research Centre)

Jan 2000

Western media experts tend to rely on convenient stereotypes in their representation of Asia and in news coverage. Such stereotypes may provide some good entertainment. Thus Hollywood presents to us mysterious Kung Fu masters and Tibetan monks who speak in riddles and dish out aphoristic wisdom. On the other hand, shallow stereotypes can also perpetuate prejudices that mislead policy makers. For instance, Western media reports on Asian societies rightly critique the abuses of authoritarian governments in Asia. Unfortunately, these reports show little awareness of the complexities that arose when diverse ethnic communities were artificially bonded together by colonial administrators in history of these new modern nation-states.

Not surprisingly, Asians perceive the analyses of Western journalists and their proffered solutions to social problems as either naive or condescending. It is easy for abusive authorities to reject Western international relations as cynical manipulations to protect American interests, even on occasions when abuse of political power is a matter of genuine concern.

Asian leaders have countered Western demands for greater democratic freedom in Asia with the rhetoric of Asian values that emphasizes a different set of political priorities for Asian societies. To be sure, such forceful responses are aimed towards gaining the moral high ground which Western policy makers have arrogated to themselves in their role as global sheriffs, especially in areas of human rights. Asian governments are essentially demanding for recognition and respect which Westerners are evidently reluctant to offer to their former colonies.

Extreme positions emerge from this unfortunate contestation in the arena of international power politics. Some Westerners argue that the concept of ‘Asian values’ is a myth given the diversity of Asia itself. In other words, Asians might just as well gratefully accept Western policies as the proven products of the best developed universal value system there is. Likewise, some Asian leaders are equally adroit at exploiting the controversy to reject legitimate criticisms of their abuse of power. After all, Asians imbued with wisdom accumulated through millennia should be allowed to order their societies in ways true to such wisdom, even if Westerners may find them perplexing.

Obviously, the debate on Asian values is fraught with emotions and vested interests. A constructive engagement in this debate calls for moral courage and clear sightedness. It is true that discourse on Asian values must take into account the diversity and the dynamic changes of society at large, and the dreams and struggles of individuals in particular. It is already a daunting task for any Asian to undertake. It would be nothing short of audacity for any non-Asian to tell us Asians how we should order our society with its distinctive history and values.

Audacious Western journalists are an abundant species, but thankfully, Greg Sheridan is not one of them. In his latest book, Asian Values, Western Dreams, Sheridan offers an account that is both culturally sensitive and historically informed. This is not least due to decades of personal involvement as an accomplished Asian correspondent for many top newspapers in the West and Australia. I note that he has an Asian wife. Sheridan offers us a panoramic excursion into the diversity of Asian cultures befitting the vast landmass of Asia that ranges from China to India, Japan, Indonesia and, of course, Malaysia and others. But the sheer scope of his reports is splendidly laced with touching cameos of ordinary human beings caught in the swirl of the twists and tragedies of life. We can only be touched by the resolute hope of a Korean mother who daily goes to church to pray for her son, or the loyalty of a Japanese wife who successfully persuads a company not to lay off her husband even though the company needs to downsize.

All too often, debates on Asian values assume a surreal quality and colourless abstraction. One wonders, why all the fuss over free floating and abstract values? One misses in the political debates between Asians and their Western protagonists the tension and delicate relations between communities still haunted by hostile memories or the ambiguities and anguish of victims of injustice. Sheridan’s perceptive observations and compelling accounts of human dilemmas and eventual triumphs of ordinary people in crises suggest that the choice between universal and particular human values is unnecessary. Members of the political elite do us an injustice if they force us to choose between Asian and Western values – they both are, after all, human values.

Sheridan rightly rejects being boxed in by political debates couched in slogans and ideological pronouncements. It is granted that his strategy of distilling insights from actual concrete human relationships would not provide neat criteria that policy makers dearly love. However, to the extent that Sheridan connects his insights to common human experiences he is most likely to elicit resonance from common Asian readers.

Sheridan displays qualities of sympathy that are unusual among Western journalists. Indeed, I find him a bit too sympathetic. I am grateful that he takes to task the superficial judgments of his compatriots who fail to take into account the complexities and dilemmas of Asian societies. He rightly challenges Western journalists to go beyond making smug judgements on Asian values which they deem to be discredited by the recent economic crisis. A fairer judgment will acknowledge the decisive role played by influential fund managers in triggering off the crisis . Sheridan even mischievously likens the USA to an Asian superpower. His conclusive rebuttals of slips found in Christ Patten’s engaging book, East and West, display evenhandedness. I am warmed when I sense he shares the optimism of Asians in their efforts to rebuild their societies.

Still, how is it possible for Sheridan to miss out the many obvious social contradictions and pathologies that are evident all around us? We cannot excuse ourselves if Asian leaders abuse their powers to benefit their cronies, when minorities are marginalized or when legitimate dissent is suppressed in the name of ensuring better economic development and vital fine tuning of racial harmony. I think Sheridan has bent backwards to excuse these leaders despite their abuse of political power. Surely Sheridan does not expect Asians to rest content with just some passable form of democracy? Surely democratic ideals should not be lowered just because we are Asians when such compromises will not be acceptable for Western societies? I welcome Sheridan as a sincere and sympathetic friend. Still, I must note that he walks a thin line between sympathy and condescension.

It is only too natural for Asian leaders to become defensive when faced with criticisms coming from overwhelming Western powers. How true indeed that it is only when we have achieved a sense of security and national pride that we can have the ability to take a critical look at ourselves. Self-respect begins with proper affirmation of one’s strengths. In this regard, Asians need not apologize when they commend to the wider world their social values as reflected in strong investments in education, expectation of loyalty found in a strong work ethic and the protective concern of governing authorities. The Asian practice of mutual respect and a spirit of compromise between different social groups spring up again and again in Sheridan’s dialogues and interviews. Undergirding these social practices are Asian values governing social relationships that uphold the centrality of the family and commitment to social morality and religious values.

Surprisingly, and notwithstanding the suggestion found in some debates on Asian values, some Asian scholars argue that Asians need not choose between economic development and democratic rights. For example, Confucianism, if liberated from the restrictive commentaries of ideological mandarins, encourages social criticism. It democratizes civil service by making public office an achieved status through exams rather than an inherited position. Sheridan points to a pertinent comment from a Malaysian leader, “Does not Sun Yat-Sen represent Asian values? Of course he does. He was a democrat and he believed in freedom of the press. And the media played a role in Sun’s revolutionary era. The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand – they all had similar experiences. The founding fathers always subscribed to moral fervour and traditional values – very Asian at that – but certainly they were great democrats.”

Undoubtedly, Asian leaders are capable of honest self-criticism. Sheridan provides a salutary comment from Lee Kuan Yew . “There are certain weaknesses in Confucianism. From time to time in the history of China, whenever there was a weak government, Confucianism led to nepotism and favouritism. . . Unfortunately, quite a few of the countries that have been growing fast have this incestuous system where banks are owned by conglomerates and lend money to another section in the group without proper feasibility studies.”

Such honest criticisms are admirable. They constitute a sobering reminder to Asians to go beyond parading values, and challenge them to set up social institutions that embody the ideals of democracy. What matters, after all, is not what we claim so much as what we practise. Social justice comes not from grand political slogans or empty election promises but from concrete social policies that promote economic equality and human rights. In this regard, honest self criticism challenges Asians to set up democratic institutions that provide adequate checks and balances to the powers of the state. Asian values like Confucian guanxi and Islamic Shura remain academic abstractions and irrelevant cultural leftovers unless the state tolerates lawful dissent and grants social space for the development of strong and vibrant NGOs in Civil Society. It is only too easy for Asian leaders to reject criticisms from Western media on grounds of Western imperialistic prejudices. Still, the quest for a democratic and just society challenges us to refine old cultural ways and rectify the weaknesses of our political systems.

Asian leaders cannot turn a deaf ear to criticisms coming from their own citizens, especially those from the younger generation who are undeniably well educated and informed. There has been much annoyance expressed recently towards Asian yuppies who immersed themselves in frenzied hedonism in the recent Millenium celebrations. I am personally concerned that a blind imitation of Western media heroes is indicative of a lack of self-respect among Asian youths towards their own culture. Their adoration of foreign artists confirms the Asian saying that “local ginger is not hot”.

But can Asian leaders blame young people if they themselves fail to provide wholesome role models for the young? Can we reproach the cynicism of the young people who see through the hypocrisy of leaders who publicly affirm Asian values but nevertheless practice a leadership that is evidently to the contrary? Asian youths are crying out to their leaders to discard old intolerant authoritarian ways. This calls for inspiring leadership that honours and practices Asian (and universal) ideals for social righteousness.

The claim that Asian values can be deployed to sustain distinctive Asian societies in the modern world gains credibility only if their leaders take the lead to embody these values in public policies forged through consensual politics. Such a creative retrieval of Asian values is necessary to enable Asians to acquire the economic and technological goods evident in Western society without falling into their cultural trappings and social pathologies. In Sheridan’s words, we can uphold Asian values and pursue western dreams.

Credit must be given where credit is due. Sheridan may be a Western journalist, but he has given us a fascinating and empathetic account of the mosaic of Asian values. Discerning critics like Sheridan should always be welcomed. Oh yes, foreign ginger can be hot without stinging. Conversely, Asians are challenged to offer local ginger that is hot but not stinging, and also nourishing at that. Will our Asian leaders and writers be able to take up this challenge?

Ng Kam Weng

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