Faculty of Asian Studies

EDUCATION
NEWS
PUBLICATIONS
THE FACULTY
LINKS


What's Happened to Asian Values?
Anthony Milner

On the face of it, the case for 'Asian values' is in tatters. The advocates of 'Asian values', from the outset, met powerful intellectual and ideological opposition, particularly from Western commentators. 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, and we read increasingly of the triumph of 'Anglo-Saxon Market values' [1] and even of a new, expanded, American 'hegemon' [2] .

A certain degree of triumphalism, it must be admitted, is tempting at the present time. The assertive and sometimes arrogant tone of many advocates of 'Asian values' - Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, for instance - has helped to provoke this response. But however tempting a comprehensive dismissal of 'Asian values' might be, it is also an unwise strategy for those seeking to look 'beyond the Asia Crisis' because it may lead us to ignore deeper social and cultural processes that tend to work against a liberal convergence of values in the region.

The Asian Values Debate

The main facts of the so-called 'Asian values' debate, which emerged with some vigour in this decade, are by now reasonably well known. The most prominent advocates of the importance of the role of 'Asian values' in the economic, social and political development of East and Southeast Asian nations have certainly been Mahathir, Lee and a number of public intellectuals who tend to be associated with the ruling regimes of Malaysia and Singapore. [3] The 'Asian values' position consists of a complex combination of arguments and assertions, some of them capable of causing considerable confusion. They include the following:

A further feature of the case for 'Asian values' concerns the way it has been delivered. The style of Mahathir's and Lee's pronouncements, in particular, conveyed the new confidence that emerged in the region at the time of record-breaking economic growth, and also a degree of irritability arising from what some saw as the complacent dismissal of 'Asian values' over many years by Western commentators. It needs to be remembered that for decades those usually Western, development specialists who attempted to identify why Asian societies had lagged behind the West in economic development often cited the role of Asian values, and they were in many cases precisely the same values that were to be cited later in a spirit of triumph by Mahathir and others [6]

To some extent provoked by the assertive way in which Mahathir and Lee advocated 'Asian values', their pronouncements met a rapid and vigorous response, particularly from academics and other intellectuals, many but not all of whom are based in 'the West'. This response has included the following points:

The 'anti-Asian values' case, it is clear for all to see, has had a massive extra boost with the collapse of the economies of a number of Southeast Asian and East Asian countries. The specific point that is urged, of course, is that the 'Asia crisis' discredits the 'Asian values' position. (In fact, logically, it might be argued that the crisis only proves that 'Asian values' could not have been a sufficient explanation of the 'miracle'). The rhetoric of many of the opponents of 'Asian values', however, would suggest that it is not merely the economic potency of 'Asian values' that is considered to be discredited at this stage. In many public pronouncements the anti 'Asian values' spokespeople now write with a triumphalism that seems to announce that Mahathir and others could not have been more wrong about the rise of Asia and the fall of the West.

In the words of one commentator, the economic crisis has sounded 'the death knell for the Asia-values debate'. It shows that 'in the long run you need openness and accountability to have sustainable economic growth' [12]0 . 'Asian values', claims the Editor-in-Chief of the US News and World Report , 'have become Asian liabilities' [13]1 . According to the widely-read Francis Fukuyama, 'What the current crisis will end up doing is to puncture the idea of Asian exceptionalism. The laws of economics have not been suspended in Asia' [14]2 . Writing in The Independent , Diane Coyle concludes that the crisis will 'finally lay to rest this unquestioning worship of Asian values ... capitalism in its free-wheeling, Anglo-Saxon variety is coming into its own' [15]3 .

The New Statesman is explicit in going beyond economics. In May of this year, it observes that 'yesterday, we admired Asian values and almost despised our own. Today, deregulated America is in fashion' [16]4 . Sebastian Mallaby, writing recently in The National Interest , sees with perhaps unrivalled clarity the imperialist possibilities in the Asian economic crisis. The 'Rise of the East' could not be further from his mind. America, he observes, 'enjoys world dominance in diplomacy, warfare, industry, science, media and the sheer sense of how to live'. He admits that some 'conservative' Americans ponder 'whether Asian values might teach Americans something'. In fact, however, America now has the opportunity, especially through the IMF, to 'spread its worldview at almost no cost to itself', though, Mallaby adds with due humility, 'a hegemon should proceed cautiously by all means' [17]5 .

The case for 'Asian values' does indeed seem to be in retreat, although, revealingly, some of the critics at least now admit that these values were once significant, albeit in the most damaging way. In the rest of this paper, however, I wish to go further and draw attention to a number of reasons why we should be careful not to underestimate the continuing significance of the 'Asian values' discourse, or at least some elements of that discourse.

Why 'Asian Values' cannot be dismissed

First, it would be unwise to overlook the ideological resourcefulness of the leading 'Asian values' advocates. Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, argues with some bluntness, and some justification, that 'Asian values are not the cause of the meltdown because nepotism, favouritism and corruption have been endemic and present since the 'Asian Economic Miracle' which - with its high growth rates - began nearly twenty years ago' [18]6 . Furthermore, if Asian values were to blame, he asks, 'how come Hong Kong and Singapore have not been affected?'. Turning to the Philippines, he notes that that country has been 'praised for democracy and freedom of the press', but 'have they done better in this crisis?' [19]7 .

Lee is not rigid in his defence of Asian values. He admits the advantage of certain institutions inherited from the West - particularly institutions related to the civil service and open competition - and also criticises 'cronyism and corruption'. The latter, he says, is not the result of Confucianism, as some would claim, but of the 'debasement of Confucian values'. In the final outcome, he insists, 'Asian values will help these countries recover', just as they helped economic growth in the past [20]8 .

Prime Minister Mahathir's response to his liberal critics possesses no hint of compromise. He actually seems to see the Asian crisis as an opportunity to reassert Asian values and Asian unity, warning that it was Western capitalism not Asian values that brought about the crisis in the first place [21]9 . He even raises the spectre of a 'Western conspiracy' to 'shake up the economies of the Asian Miracle nations' [22]0 , and speaks of 'racists' who are 'not happy to see us prosper' [23]1 and who are 'descendants of the old white-supremacist colonialists'. Mahathir then proceeds to identify some solutions to the crisis that entail employing the traditional 'Asian' style of intervention by government and, furthermore, he suggests such a solution should involve greater collaboration between Asian countries [24]2 .

There is real defiance in Mahathir's statements, and at present this is inevitably encouraged by the seriousness of the domestic, political and economic challenges which he faces. He reminds the world that, despite Western attacks on Asian values and Asian governments, 'East Asian countries had all grown at a rate well above that of the developed countries of the West. And their growth can be shown to have benefited people as a whole'. He also repeats his long-time praise for what he calls the 'Asian system of lifetime employment and low wages' [25]3 . He confirms that he 'still believes Asian values will pull us through' [26]4 . After all, Mahathir says, 'hard work, discipline, a strong commitment to the community, thrift and moderation are Asian values which have in fact contributed to the emergence of the Asian Tigers and Dragons' [27]5 .

As for Western or Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, Mahathir could not be more dismissive. Those who brought down Asia's economies he accuses of being 'totally materialistic, inconsiderate of the problems of others'. He asks whether 'Asian values are bad as compared to Western values'. 'History', he argues in an angry and almost foolishly one-sided account of the twentieth century, 'provides the answer. The two world wars and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Asian cities, the holocaust, the killings of Bosnians - these are not perpetrated by Asians' [28]6 .

It would be easy to portray Mahathir as an isolated and perhaps desperate figure, especially in the context of the international and local criticism he faces over his treatment of former Deputy Premier, Anwar Ibrahim. But Mahathir's (and Lee's) response to the economic crisis cannot be portrayed as unique in the Asian region. Although systematic critiques of the type carried out by Mahathir are rare, from time to time we see clear evidence from elsewhere of support for the type of viewpoints he enunciates. To take some random examples, Kim Yong Hwan, the former Chairman of the Joint Presidential Committee on economic policies in South Korea, has criticised the International Monetary Fund program for his country, arguing that reform should be more suited to the 'Asian constitution', and that closer cooperation should be fostered among Asian nations [29]7 . Thailand, in 1997, it should be noted, proposed a single Asian currency [30]8 . Sura Sanittanant, Adviser to the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, was reported in January 1998 to be engaged (in the spirit of Mahathir) in promoting the idea of Asians bonding together to overcome the financial crisis. He is reported as having pointed to special meetings with Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, and having argued that an Asian trading block similar to Mahathir's East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) is currently gaining international support [31]9.

Whether or not Mahathir-type solutions to the Asian economic crisis make economic sense, the need to estimate how far they have attracted support around the region is clearly a matter of genuine significance even for economists [32].

As already suggested, the view that the 'Asian values' support base is narrow has long been a feature of the condemnation of those values, and this feature has probably been promoted by the media's tendency to concentrate on Mahathir and Lee. But if we look back over the last few years the support base, in fact, has long been far from narrow. Indeed in a general sense the 'Asian values' viewpoint has a longer history than many observers admit. With respect to the breadth of support, the evidence is largely anecdotal. Thus, the Seoul Bureau Chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review commented in 1994 on the 'suspicion arising from Malaysia to Korea to Japan, that the Western media's agenda of human rights and environmental protection......are means to keep Asia from developing further economically' [33]0 . Chinese spokespeople, not surprisingly, have made so-called 'Confucian' values central to an 'Asian' cultural unity, arguing that in East Asia the 'Confucian' commitment to 'hard work, thrift, filial, piety and national pride' has encouraged rapid economic growth [34]1 . In Japan, Thailand and the Philippines there has also been a growing interest in 'Asian values' and an upsurge of enthusiasm for the whole concept of 'Asia' [35]2 . The expression 'the Asianisation of Asia' has been used by the Japanese intellectual, Yoichi Funabashi, to describe the well-documented development of regional interest in the 'Asia' ideal and 'Asian values' [36]3 .

One tactic used to demonstrate the narrowness of support for the Mahathir-Lee position has been to cite what are perceived to be the liberal views of their most influential, Asian opponents. It is true, for instance, that Anwar Ibrahim, the beleaguered former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, has pleased the international proponents of liberal values with the declaration that 'it is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practises and denial of basic rights and civil liberties' [37]4. It is also true that the Philippines leadership has not tended to provide enthusiastic public support specifically for the 'Asian values' case. But one cannot move from these observations to the conclusion that Anwar and the current Philippines leader are advocates of universal liberal values. They seem to be influenced by the spirit, at least, of the 'Asian values' argument, in the sense of being determined to assert the local against the global, the national or regional perspective against the Western one.

In September 1997, for instance, Anwar was using Mahathir-type language when he spoke of the need for ASEAN members to 'draw up collective strategies to fight those vicious speculators' who had been destroying Asian economies [38]5 . It is also important to remember Anwar's long and impressive record as an Islamic intellectual and activist. Once the leader of the reformist Muslim youth movement, ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia), that called for a return in Malaysian society to true Islamic values, he was recruited to the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) government in 1982. As a junior Minister visiting Australia in 1983, Anwar complained about the 'wholesale imitation of Western values and practices' in Malaysia and explained that 'Islam provides an ideological alternative to the dominant paradigm' [39]6 . In recent years and months he has continued to speak of a Western/Asian dichotomy, noting in particular that, unlike the Westerner, 'the Asian man is a persona religiosus . Faith and religious practice....permeates the life of the community' [40]7 . Anwar goes on to argue that 'Asians firmly rooted in their cultural and spiritual traditions do posses the intellectual capacity to perceive the cultural unity of Asia, its meta-culture' [41]8 .

Another Asian leader - one who has been supportive of Anwar since his arrest in October 1998, and who has therefore been associated with a liberal perspective - also deserves more careful attention from Western commentators. Joseph Estrada, President of the Philippines, possesses an approach to government which involves not only support for democratic procedures but also the aim of re-establishing the national leadership's communication with the non-elite, Filipino community and, indeed, re-establishing its roots in the populist heritage of the country. He is remarkable for having been the first Philippines' President to give his inaugural address in the Tagalog language rather than English and, at the time of celebration of the centenary of the Philippines' revolution, the nineteenth-century revolutionary hero he appears most to admire is not the largely Spanish-speaking Jose Rizal, who is usually given most official adoration, but the Tagalog-speaking populist figure, Bonifacio, who was remarkable for addressing the masses in the language and idiom of their own folk literature [42]9 . In this sense, in this seemingly most Western democratic of Asian states, President Estrada seems to be engaging in the 're-Asianisation' of The Philippines.

Why culture still matters

Looking a little more closely at Anwar and Estrada is important because it reminds us of the danger of relying too heavily on an overly simplistic opposition between 'Asian values' and liberal democracy. As stated above, some of the criticisms of the 'Asian values' position carry the further implication that the stress on 'Asian culture' is found only at the elite, leadership level. The wider population in Malaysia, Singapore and the other countries of Asia, it seems to be suggested, hold values that are not radically different from those usually associated with liberal democracy. Condemnation of the analytical concept of 'culture' as a factor in social investigations, which has achieved academic potency in recent years [43]0 , adds to the credentials of this argument.

Despite these question marks over the practice of cultural analysis, however, a number of recent studies underline the danger of dismissing entirely the role of different cultural perspectives in analysing processes of change and interaction within the Asian region. Some of these studies involve surveys of opinion. Take for example, David Hitchcock's 1994 survey of the value preferences of officials, business people, scholars and professionals from the United States and eight East Asian societies. This survey is not supportive of the 'Asian values' case in that it confirms that genuine differences in value perspective exist in the region, and in certain areas it also points to clear agreement over values between United States and Asian interviewees. Nevertheless, Hitchcock reports that a strong majority of Asian respondents favoured an 'orderly society' and 'harmony', which were values given little attention by Americans. The reverse result occurred, it should be added, in respect of the value of 'personal freedom' [44]1 . In a further survey analysis, Joel Kahn has reported on the one hundred and twenty interviews with 'middle class Malays' he carried out from 1992-1994. He 'found that almost all respondents articulated some form of the Asian values argument'. They stressed concerns about the 'threat posed to Malay culture by modernisation' and criticised the West for its 'lack of family values, individual and selfishness, a lack of cultural values, permissiveness, secularisation and uncaringness.' [45]2

Apart from conducting and assessing surveys that focus on values in the abstract, there has been a certain amount of other, recent culture analysis that is concerned with everyday economic and social behaviour in the Asian region and that does take into account current conceptual critiques of the category 'culture'. This new analysis does not seek to establish evidence of a homogeneous body of 'Asian values' and is impatient with the idea of civilisational blocs (as formulated by the political scientist, Samuel Huntington). It does not expect 'culture' to be unchanging, or uncontested, even within a single society, and takes note of the obvious and multiple ways in which Western, global influences continue to transform behaviour, style and taste in the region. Moreover, this new analysis accepts that 'culture' is a contingent thing, dependant upon political and other imperatives. At the same time, however, it does insist that 'culture' has a potential independent significance in explaining human behaviour. Although it accepts that the phrase 'Asian values' possesses real inadequacies as a descriptive expression, it also argues that we cannot proceed from this point to the further assumption that there is no need to examine the substantial range of cultural perspectives and values which influence behaviour within and between Asian societies.

One recent exercise in such 'open' cultural analysis, concerned primarily with specific features of commercial activity in the Asian region, has drawn attention to the particular characteristics of 'Chinese capitalism', insisting that it is 'first and foremost a network capitalism. It is built from the ground up, not on the basis of legal contracts and the supervisory authority of the state but on particularistic relationships of trust'. In turning to a discussion of Malay and Javanese organisational perspectives, the analysis observes that quite unlike the Chinese, they tend to be 'reluctant to submit to patriarchal authority, at least when it comes to economic affairs', and thus their families seem 'more individualistic than their Chinese counterparts'. Another contrast within the Asian region in the area of business culture, remarked upon in this study, is the way successful Chinese businesses are 'marked not by the creation of an ever-larger and vertically integrated corporation as in South Korea or Japan, but by a mother company's establishment of independent firms loosely tethered in a multi-firm business group' [46]3 .

In a second, Australia-based investigation dealing with Asian values and conceptual perspectives in a broad range of practical relationships, Malay business people, for instance, are described as perceiving the Chinese habit of charging interest on loans to family members as repugnant to their sense of family obligation. Industrial relations is presented in this study as a further area in which there exist considerable contrasts in perspective in the Asian region, with South Korea, in particular, being especially confrontationist by other Asian standards. In business ethics, to take another dimension of business culture, Thais and Indonesians are identified as holding a very different view of gifts of money in the carrying out of a commercial transaction, compared, for instance, with Chinese or Malaysians. In a series of other areas - including the analysis of such phenomena as perceptions of 'national security', the role of government and the meaning of democracy - this Australian study draws attention both to the range of perspectives operating within the Asian region and to the way in which virtually any value or perspective is subject to far-reaching processes of change [47]4 .

The type of observations made in both these studies - which focus on day-to-day practical experience rather than the broad influence of, and contest between, cultural traditions - reinforce strongly the image of cultural complexity in the Asian region. The presence of such cultural complexity, it should be stressed, contradicts the viewpoints of both the 'Asian values' proponents and their critics. The examination of economic and social interaction provides little evidence of a coherent value system across Asia, but it also makes absolutely clear that it is impossible to discount the importance in the society and economy of the role of contrasting value systems. Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, of course, are well aware of the political usefulness of 'Asian values', but the type of recent cultural analysis I describe, like the conclusions offered by opinion surveys and questionnaires, demonstrates that these Southeast Asian leaders do not by any means construct their ideological packages in a cultural vacuum.

Ideological work

The rhetorical style of both these men, it is true, has helped to focus attention on the instrumentalist, didactic aspect of the 'Asian values' point of view in Asian societies. What has received too little notice [48]5 is the degree of genuine intellectual and ideological endeavour involved - the real ideological work of probing the often contested, constantly changing, value systems of the Asian countries in order to formulate 'national' and 'Asian' political visions appropriate to the post-colonial era. Anwar Ibrahim has been someone who does not disguise the confusion and uncertainty that exists about ideological objectives. He has explained, for instance, that 'Asia has no settled identity as yet. It is in the process of coming into being. The long and intense process of self-definition and self-understanding is just beginning' [49]6 . Anwar, it is clear, has been well aware of the developing contest between Islamic, East Asian, Western and many other types of perspectives and values in Malaysia and other parts of Asia. He has, in fact, promoted ambitious 'dialogues' on Asian civilizations that aim to assist Asian 'self discovery' by investigating 'the myriad Asian traditions in order to understand and know each other better' [50]7 .

The much-published Singapore diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani, is also eloquent in his portrayal of the intellectual endeavour and contest that has been a part of the 'Asian values' debate. He observes that

'it is vital for Western minds to understand that the efforts by Asians to rediscover Asian values are not only or even primarily a search for political values. They involve, for instance, a desire to reconnect with their historical past after this connection had been ruptured both by colonial rule and the subsequent domination of the globe by a Western Weltanschauung '.

What Asian thinkers have been undertaking, Mahbubani insists, is 'an effort to define their own personal, social and national identities that enhances their sense of self-esteem in a world in which their immediate ancestors had subconsciously accepted the fact that they were lesser beings in the Western universe' [51]8 .

The 'Asian values' project, from this perspective, is part of a far-reaching intellectual and ideological enterprise taking place in the Asian region. Moreover, the cultural 'rediscovering' spoken of by Mahbubani and Anwar Ibrahim is by no means a phenomenon only of the 1990's. Historians are well aware of the way in which intellectuals in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Japan, China, Southeast Asia and India responded to the challenges of modernity not only by adopting the novel European doctrines, but also by interrogating their own indigenous, cultural resources. It was in the opening years of this century also that, especially in India and Japan, influential thinkers began to experiment with the concept of an 'Asian' cultural unity. In the nineteen thirties and forties such experimentation, for very different reasons in each decade, was intense [52]9 .

An historical account of the ideological work in the area of both national and regional 'Asian' value systems would reach back into these developments in the nineteenth century, providing an intellectual genealogy for the current protagonists in the 'Asian values' debate. Such an historical account would also explore the different practical ways in which, year by year and week by week, an 'Asia' consciousness has been promoted in the region. The operations of the Japanese Co-prosperity Sphere, the Indian 'Asian Relations' conferences of the nineteen forties, SEATO, ASA, ASEAN, ASEM, APEC and so forth, all play a role in shaping the way those living in the Asian region view their national and regional identities. In recent times a number of these organisations, including ASEAN, have been criticised for their failure to achieve executive solutions to major crises in the region. In these circumstances it is easy to overlook the apparently mundane way in which their routine processes can promote a sense of community in a growing sphere of bureaucratic and other participating groups.

For example, in the first week of September, the ASEAN Sub-Committee of Health and Nutrition met in Brunei; the ASEAN Experts Working Group in WTO matters met in Bangkok; the coordinating meeting for the ASEAN Network for Rapid Exchange of Strong Earthquake Data met in Jakarta; the ASEAN Work Group on Air Navigation met in Singapore and the 'ASEAN Select Committee' met in Kuala Lumpur. The meetings continued with the same frequency right through September and October, so that merely reading the relentless listing of such events helps to promote a sense of community that reaches beyond the individual nation states involved.

Aspects of popular culture, of course, also contribute to the development of community identity, though probably unintentionally so on the part of the participants themselves. The increasing numbers of people in Asian countries outside Japan who have been converts to Japanese New Religions, or the Taiwanese and Hong Kong soap opera producers who are selling their products in Malaysia and Singapore are, in their way, drawing attention to issues concerning the creation of an 'Asian' consciousness [53]0 . The Japanese concert video cassettes so popular in Thailand, or the Japanese clothing that sells so well in Singapore and South Korea also play a part, as does the TV show 'Asia Bagus' which is conducted in Japanese, English, and Malay, and is compered by a Malay man and a Japanese woman [54]1 .

The tension between the 'Asia' ideal and a range of national, religious or ethnic aspirations is nearly always present. In an important essay on 'the empowerment of Asia', for instance, Alexander Woodside has cited the planning for an Asia-Pacific information highway as an example of a specific attempt to promote 'Asianness'. Although the plans speak of an 'Asia' ideal, explains Woodside, the fact that it would be based on the Chinese language, focuses on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and invokes the 'sunshine of Confucian culture' suggests it would do more to promote 'Chineseness' than 'Asianness' [55]2 .

'Asian' or 'Confucian', whichever prevails, there is an implicit resistance to the idea of a solely Western-driven globalisation. The superhighway, the ASEAN meetings, the criss-crossing of religious influences, television programs and clothing styles within the Asian community, are all in their different ways helping to develop alternatives to the powerful European and American discourses that have been seeking hegemony in Asia since the beginning of high-colonialism in the nineteenth-century. In resisting the West, however, it is perhaps for once that the intellectual deserves pride of place.

Listening to the Intellectuals

The attempt to discover alternatives to the Western narratives and Western conceptual architecture is an academic enterprise, as much as any other, and one of its consequences is to breathe new life into previously moribund academic disciplines [56]3 . In the words of Partha Chatterjee, the influential Indian historian, 'against the arrogant, intolerant, self-aggrandising national subject of modernity, critics in recent years have been trying to resurrect the virtues of the fragmentary, the local, and the subjugated...' [57]4 . When Anwar Ibrahim speaks of Islam as providing 'an ideological alternative to the dominant paradigm', he is engaged in precisely this type of intellectual subversion on behalf of Islam. He and other Islamic intellectuals are well aware of the complex, deep-running influences of colonialism in Malay society. In social, legal and economic matters they look for ways to introduce an Islamic perspective, including an Islamic epistemology. To quote an English philosopher who engaged in close debate with Muslim intellectuals at the high point of Islamic revivalism in Malaysia during the 1970's and 1980's, Islamic critics of the 'dominant paradigm' have been 'reasserting the place of Revelation as an epistemologically legitimate mode of knowledge' [58]5 .

Even in the Philippines, after centuries of Spanish and, later, American rule, there has been an academic endeavour to resist the Western global, especially in the form of an attempt to re-establish dialogue with a pre-colonial past. The written evidence of the 'Malayan' heritage of the Filipinos is being closely examined with the warning that 'our so-called national culture is still emerging'. Certain old values, or key concepts located in the different Filipino languages are identified - concepts concerned with 'spirit', 'internality', 'conscience', 'life drive', 'personhood' and so forth - and then consideration given to the way in which these critical categories might be incorporated in interpretations of the past and, by implication, future projections for Filipino society [59]6 .

This type of intellectual inquiry is integral to the ideological project announced so eloquently by Anwar Ibrahim, Mahbubani and others. Also, although it often leads to conclusions that differ sharply from the specific package of values and aspirations insisted on by Mahathir and Lee, the determination to counter the pervasive colonial heritage is very much in the spirit of the 'Asian values' ideology. Linking together these different types of activists - ranging from the defiant, didactic Mahathir to the determined academic researcher who seeks to strip back the layers of Western hegemony - helps to underline the fact that the 'Asian values' phenomenon cannot be seen in crude terms merely as a tool manipulated by a political or capitalist regime, or an artificial screen behind which to hide willfully illiberal government. The 'Asian values' debate of the 1990's, it must be emphasised, is an episode in the long-term, post-colonial cultural project. There is no question about the colonial heritage being the target of this ideological attack, but there is genuine confusion and debate about precisely what type of regional, national, religious and other visions will be developed to replace, or at least modify, the powerful globalising forces that in many cases trace their origins to that European heritage. The 'dialogue' with Asian civilisations, the attempt to 'reconnect with (an) historical past' (to recall the aspiration of Mahbubani) is a genuine intellectual inquiry and the possible outcomes, as he himself admits, are not yet fully known to the participants.

Conclusions

During the years of the 'Asian miracle', of course, there was a sense of exhilaration about the 'Asian values' campaign. Mahbubani wrote of the 'explosion of confidence' that gave East Asians the sense that 'they can do anything as well as, if not better than other cultures' [60]7 . These were indeed heady days for those public intellectuals who, working to some extent in sympathy with the 'Asian values' political leaderships, committed themselves to the task of asserting intellectual as well as political agency on behalf of their region. Today Mahbubani admits a 'genuine hint of regret at having spoken so confidently of the rise of Asia' [61]8 . But I think he is right to see the 'Asian values' debate of the 1990's as only one episode in a much longer process of international, cultural reconfiguration.

Mahbubani is quite mistaken, however, in my view, when he expects that this 1990's debate will be seen in retrospect as the 'initial round' in the long campaign. It actually strengthens his case to situate the debate in its proper place, as occurring well into the long-term process of defending the 'local' in the Asian region against what is seen to be the Western global. To understand the 'Asian values' program within the context of this larger historical realignment, that began in the nineteenth-century, draws attention to the well established forces that will help maintain the momentum for change, even at a time of economic reversal.

While the economic crisis certainly challenges the 'Asian values' proponents and their intellectual allies, the way it is interpreted in the region has to be influenced by the firmly-established 'Asian' campaign of resistance against the liberal, Western ideological program. As we have seen, Mahathir is by no means the only influential figure in the Asian region who resists IMF interpretations and solutions. For many intellectuals and other opinion leaders in Asia the economic downturn has been perceived as a reason for condemning liberal as much, or more than, Asian values. Bitter about the revealed economic vulnerability of their countries and their region, prominent many members of Asian societies feel a renewed distrust of 'The West' and are hardened in their resolve to develop post-colonial visions and meanings for the people of Asia.

The main game in the next months and years will be economic, and the forces of globalisation continue to be formidable in bad as well as good times, as anyone visiting Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Taipei or Manila notices immediately. The power of the United States is such that it is not surprising to hear talk of the triumph of 'Anglo-Saxon market values' and the likelihood of a consolidated American 'hegemon'. In speculating about future directions in Asia, however, it may be dangerous to trivialise 'Asian values'. The real, everyday presence of different and contrasting value systems to be encountered as one crosses the Asian region will continue to influence practical developments in all sorts of fields, including the economic.

We need to be aware also that the category 'Asian', however problematic it might be in cultural terms, is attracting a growing emotional investment. Consciousness of 'Asian', as well as 'Confucian', 'Islamic' or 'Malay' identity - just like the promotion of nationalism within the specific nation states of the region - works to reinforce resistance to the claims of a purportedly universal, global community. For many people, ' the global' has a Western flavour. And the fact that a global economy seems to have failed Asian states makes it possible that the long ideological campaign that seeks to undermine the colonial heritage, and that has underpinned the 'Asian values' proclamations, may gain rather than lose momentum in the next decades.

I should like to thank Alison Broinowski, Rey Ileto and Deborah Johnson for their assistance and advice in writing this essay.

This paper is being published in a forthcoming volume edited by David Goodman and Gerald Segal titled, 'Beyond the Asia Crisis', Rutledge, 1999.


[1] Diane Coyle, 'Why Asian Capitalism is faltering', Canberra Times 26 November 1997.

[2] Sebastion Mallaby, 'In Asia's Mirror', The National Interest, Summer 1998, 21

[3] Noordin Sopiee in Malaysia; Tommy Koh, George Yeo, Kishore Mahbubani in Singapore. Other proponents of 'Asian values' outside this group will be discussed later in this paper.

[4] Anthony Milner and Deborah Johnson, 'The Idea of Asia', in John Ingleson (ed) ]Regionalism, Subregionalism and APEC , (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute 1997) 1-19

[5] See, for instance, Noordin Sopiee, 'The Development of an East Asian Consciousness', in G. Sheridan (ed), Living with Dragons (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1995), 180-193. A listing of 'Asian values' by Hong Kong Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hua, is contained in J. Mirsky, 'Asian values, a fabulous notion', New Statesman , 3 April 1998, 26. Also, 'The Asian Way', Asiaweek, 2 March 1994, 22-25.

[6] See, for instance, WM. Theodore de Bary, Asian Values and Human Rights Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1998, 159.

[7] Anthony Milner and Mary Quilty, Australia in Asia: Communities of Thought (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996), 10-17; Chen Maiping, 'What are 'Asian Values'', NIAS nytt , 1997, 2: 5-6.

[8] See especially, Earl H. Kinmonth, The Self Made Man in Meiji Japanese thought from Samurai to Salary Men , (Berkeley: University of California 1981); Anthony Milner, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 125.

[9] S. Lawson, 'Cultural Relationism and Democracy: Political Myths about 'Asia' and the 'West', in R. Robison (ed), Pathways to Asia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1995).

[10] Kanishka Jayasuriya, 'Asian Values as Reactionary Modernization', NIAS nytt 1997, 23. See also R. Robison, 'The Politics of 'Asian Values'', Pacific Review (3), 309-327.

[11] See China News , 13 May 1996, for a statement by President Lee Teng-hui.

[12] 'Democracy in Asia', the CQ Researcher, 24 July 1998, p629.

[13] Mortimer B. Zuckerman, 'Japan Inc. unravels', US News and World Report 17 August 1998, 77.

[14] Francis Fukuyama, 'Asian Values and the Asian Crisis', Commentary, February 1998, 27.

[15] Diane Coyle, 'Why Asia Capitalism is faltering', The Independent , reprinted in The Canberra Times 26 November 1997.

[16] 'It's best to be unfashionable', New Statesman , 22 May 1998, 4.

[17] Sebastian Mallaby, 'In Asia's Mirror', The National Interest , Summer 1998, 21. For See also David Roche, 'And now for the Political Premium', The Asian Wall Street Journal , 1 October 1997; Christopher Lingle, 'Eternal Contradictions stifle the tigers', The Australian , 27 October 1997; Robert Elegant, 'A region lost in unreality', The Australian , 10 November 1997.

[18] Bangkok Post , 15 March 1998.

[19] Time, 16 March 1998.

[20] 'Asia will rise again', Forbes, 23 March 1998, 114; also, 'Asian values did not cause meltdown', Npq Spring 1998, 32-34.

[21] 'No gain in making others poor', Utusan Express , 2 October 1997; 'Mahathir blames West', The Canberra Times , 20 June 1998; Mahathir Mohamed, 'Management of an economy in crisis', 6th Prime Ministerial Lecture of the Harvard Club, 5 October 1998.

[22] Adlina Wahab, 'Fight Back', The Star 31 August 1997.

[23] 'Malaysia plans economic war as ringgit plummets', The Australian , 5 September 1997.

[24] 'Mahathir airs Asian financial unity', The Australian , 17 October 1997; 'Mahathir in call for unity to overcome speculations', The Australian , 18 August 1997; 'Financial woes due to greed', Utusan Express , 10 November 1997.

[25] 'Management of an economy in Crisis', 5 October 1998.

[26] 'Region making most of Devaluation - generated opportunities', Utusan Express , 14 March 1998.

[27] 'No gain in making others poor', Utusan Express , 2 October 1997.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Oon Yeoh, 'Asian Leaders dissect what hit the region', The Nikkei Weekly , 8 June 1998.

[30] 'Mahathir blames Manipulative West', The Australian , 22 September 1997.

[31] Paul M. Sherer, 'Thailand Rethinks notions of Globalization', Asian Wall Street Journal , 18 January 1998. For evidence of a spread of support for an Asian Monetary Fund, see R Higgott 'The Asian Economic Crisis: A study in the politics of resentment' New Political Economy, 3,3 1998, 340-346. Higgott also predicts that despite the battering of the 'Asian Way' in the international media 'Asia's greater permissiveness towards state intervention may not yet have run its course' (351)

[32] I thank Ross Garnaut for making this point to me.

[33] 'Asian values and the role of the media in society', Freedom Forum and the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, 1-3 December 1994.

[34] Quoted in Alan Dupont, 'Is there an 'Asian Way'', Survival, Summer 1996 page 15.

[35] Ibid 14-15.

[36] Yoichi Funabashi, 'The Asianisation of Asia', Foreign Affairs , 72, 5 1993.

[37] Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance (Singapore: Times Book International, 1996), 28.

[38] Ian Stewart, 'Malaysia plans economic war as ringgit plummets', The Australian , 5 September 1997.

[39] Anwar Ibrahim, 'Development and changing political ideas', 50th Anniversary Conference of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, 26-28 August 1983.

[40] Anwar Ibrahim, 'Asia's Moral Imperative', Asian Wall Street Journal , 13 May 1996.

[41] Anwar Ibrahim, 'The Next 50 Years', Far Eastern Economic Review , 50th Anniversary Issue, 187.

[42] Reynaldo C. Ileto, Filipinos and their Revolution (Quezon City: Atenao de Manila University Press, 1998), 20, 243-251.

[43] See, for instance, the discussion in Joel S. Kahn, 'Culture, Demise or Resurrection?', Critique of Anthropology , 9,2, 1989, 5-29.

[44] David Hitchcock, Asian Values and the United States: How much Conflict? (Washington: Centre to Strategic and International Studies 1994). See also Donald K. Emmerson, 'Singapore and the 'Asian Values' Debate'', Journal of Democracy , 6,4, October 1995, 101-102; and the Far Eastern Economic Review , survey of 1996, cited in Diane K. Mauzy, 'The human rights and 'Asian values' debate in Southeast Asia: Trying to clarify the key issues', The Pacific Review , 10, 2, 1997, 216-217.

[45] Joel S. Kahn, 'Malaysian Modern or Anti-anti Asian values', Thesis Eleven , 50 August 1997, 29-30.

[46] Robert W. Hefner (ed), Market Cultures (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998).

[47] Anthony Milner and Mary Quilty (eds), Asia in Australia: Comparing Cultures , (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[48] For example, see Alan Dupont, 'Is there an 'Asian Way'?', Survival, Summer 1996, 22, for a stress on 'strategies', 'instrument', 'manipulation', 'image building' and 'inculcating'.

[49] Anwar Ibrahim, 'The Next 50 Years', Far Eastern Economic Review , 50th Anniversary Issue, 186.

[50] See his opening chapter, 'Islam-Confucianism Dialogue and the quest for a New Asia', in Osman Bakar (ed), Islam and Confucianism. A Civilizational Dialogue (Kuala Lumpur: Centre for Civilizational Dialogue, University of Malaya, 1997), 11-17. See also Osman Bakar, Islam and Civilizational Dialogue. The Quest for a Truly Universial Civilization (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1997).

[51] Kishore Mahbubani, 'Can Asians think?', The National Interest , 52, Summer 1998, p35.

[52] Anthony Milner and Deborah Johnson, 'The Idea of Asia', in John Ingleson (ed), Regionalism, Subregionalism and APEC (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 1997), 1-19. See also Tessa Morris-Suzuki, 'Invisible Countries: Japan and the Asian Dream', Asian Studies Review , 22, 1, March 1998, 5-22; and Pekka Korhonen, 'Monopolizing Asia: the politics of Metaphor', The Pacific Review , 10, 3, 1997, 347-365.

[53] Sharon Siddique, 'The Asian Diaspora', Pemikir, July/September 1993, p64.

[54] Milner and Quilty, Comparing Cultures , 202.

[55] Alexander Woodside, 'The Empowerment of Asia and the Weakness of Global Theory', in The Empowerment of Asia: Reshaping Global Society (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1996), 22-23. For further discussion of the 'Asianization of Asia', see Yoichi Funabashi, Asia Pacific Fusion. Japan's role in APEC (Washington DC: Institute for International Economics, 1995), chapter 1; and Mazakazu Yamazaki, 'Asia, a Civilization in the Making', Foreign Affairs , 75, 4 July/August 1996, 106-118. For a discussion of how Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis may actually promote cultural and political assertiveness in Asia, see Wang Gungwu, 'A Machiavelli for Our Times', The National Interest , 46, Winter 1996/1997.

[56] For some preliminary comments on this challenge, see A.C. Milner and T. Morris-Suzuki, 'The Challenge of Asia' in Knowing Ourselves and others. The Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century , Volume 3 (Canberra; Australian Research Council, 1998), 113-128.

[57] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments. Colonial and Post-colonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), xi.

[58] John Bousfield, 'Islamic philosophy in Southeast Asia', in M.B. Hooker (ed), Islam in Southeast Asia (London: Brill, 1988), 128.

[59] Prospero R. Covar, 'Unburdening Philippine Society of colonialism', in N.M.R. Santillan and M.B.P. Conde (eds), Kasaysayan at Kamalayan (Quezon City; Limbagang Pangkusaysayan, 1998). See also Ferdinand C. Llanes, 'New National Perspective in Filipino historiography' in Putu Davies (ed), Constructing a National Past (B.S. Begawan: Universiti Brunei Darussalam, 1996), 314-327; Z.A. Salazar The Malayan Connection (Quezon: Palimbagan ng Lahi, 1998). For discussion of the global/local interaction in Thailand over recent years, See Craig J. Reynolds, 'Globalization and Cultural Nationalism in Modern Thailand', in Joel S. Kahn (ed), Southeast Asian Identities (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998), 115-145; Craig J. Reynolds, 'Self-cultivation and self-determination in Post-coloinial Southeast Asia', in Craig J. Reynolds and Ruth McVey, Southeast Asian Studies Reorientations (Ithaca: Cornell Unviersity Southeast Asia Progam, 1998), 7-36.

[60] Kishore Mahbubani, 'The Pacific Way', Foreign Affairs , January/February 1995, 103.

[61] Kishore Mahbubani, Can Asian Think ? (Singapore: Times, 1998), p12.



This page was authorised by the Faculty of Asian Studies Executive Officer.
It was last changed on 10 Jan 2002.
Copyright 2002 Australian National University [CRICOS #00120C].