BOOKS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
CULTURAL POLITICS AND ASIAN VALUES: The tepid war, by Michael D. Barr
, August 13, 2005
Return of the "Asian values" debateCULTURAL POLITICS AND ASIAN VALUES: The tepid war
by Michael D. Barr
London: RoutledgeCurzon / Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan
Paperback RRP: $49.95In 1977, then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, began to use the term "Asian values" to explain Singapore's emergence from being a poor nation with no natural resources in the 1950s into a powerhouse of East Asia.
The people of Singapore, he said, "were an Asian-Oriental-type society, hard working, thrifty and disciplined, a people with Asian values, strong family ties and responsibility for the extended family which is a common feature of Asian cultures, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian."
Common values, he argued, provided the necessary foundation for the social stability of countries which were characterised by a complex interaction of cultures, faiths and histories.Culture
He and others argued that Asia's development depended on the retention of cultural values which had been abandoned in the West, following the 1960s "cultural revolution".
Later, his argument was expanded to explain the Asian economic miracle of the 1980s, which saw explosive economic growth for a number of countries, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
In the 1990s, "Asian values" became a justification for authoritarian governments which operate within a democratic constitution, but without the systems of checks and balances which exist within Western democracies. The latter are characterised by a separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary; changes of government through free and fair elections; and the free operation of the media, the "fourth estate".
The argument was that there was an Asian path different from the path pursued by the United States, Australia and Western Europe.
The term "Asian values" has therefore come to mean different things.
However, the whole idea seemed to come crashing to the ground with the Asian economic collapse of 1998, which seemed to be the result of the very lack of transparency in their financial systems which characterised their political systems. Even Mr Lee walked away from the term "Asian values".
The recovery of the East Asian economies, and the subsequent explosive economic development of China and India - now seen as engines of global economic growth - will ensure that these issues once again become part of political discourse.
In this informative book, Michael Barr, who previously has written a study into Lee Kuan Yew's ideas, revisits the "Asian values" debate, and concludes that the countries of East Asia are distinctive, despite the cultural, religious and economic differences which exist within and between these countries.
He points out, however, that China remains an authoritarian, nominally Marxist-Leninist state, characterised by an Orwellian façade of democracy and human rights, to hide the denial of these very principles.
Of particular interest is how Dr Barr sees that the complex religious traditions of Asian societies - with the contributions from Buddhism, Islam and Confucianism, and the influence of Western democratic ideas and Christianity - have played a central role in the emergence of these countries, and will play a vital role in the years ahead.