The Discourse of Asian Values and its Future

The Discourse of Asian Values and its Future

In this postmodern world, Western notions of civilized society and its universality seem to be challenged by the rest of the world. Fukuyama’s “End of History” seems to be proven obsolete, and on the other hand, the rise of the rest (including alternate forms of political governance) are emerging on the global stage. In this regard, Asia exhibits itself as one of the best representatives of “the other”, challenging Western domination through its increasingly assertive foreign policy and economic power in the world. Some scholars, such as Mahbubani (2008), though may not necessarily adhere to the belief of Asian triumphalism, obviously offer a brand new outlook for forecasting the next stage of global constellation with the Asia-Pacific as its major player.

At the heart of this viewpoint, there is a rough Asian political philosophy taking shape favouring the mixture of free economics and a strong, if not authoritarian, government. It follows a communitarian way of thinking sometimes associated with Confucian philosophy, and its defenders praise it as the engine behind the rapid growth of Asian capitalism, a successful alternative to Anglo-Saxon or Western European capitalism.

To begin with, we often pose this understanding based on the achievement of the so-called “Asian miracles” or “Asian tigers”, referring to the tremendous development of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, which was achieved in a time of political authoritarianism. China’s increasing political and economic power also cited as another example of the Asian way at its best.

However, this depiction is misleading, because it doesn’t take into account other countries in the region such as Myanmar, which suffers from a poor record of development and massive human right abuses, thanks to the economically inefficient and politically incompetent military junta, backed by geopolitical competition in the region.

Thus, the Asian model of bureaucratic authoritarian state combined with market economics does not always work in the same way, depending upon regional political and economic conditions.

Furthermore, Asia’s remarkable economic achievement can also be attributed to increased freedom in social and political aspects. This point is raised by Yasheng Huang, an expert on international political economy from MIT. There exists far more individual freedoms now in terms of social, civil and political rights compared to previous decades, even in places like China. This is Milton turned upside down: more political freedom is good for economic advancement.

Nevertheless, the economic benefits of socio-political freedoms tend to be ignored by the champions of Asian values. Instead, they try to repeatedly propagate their notion despite the fact that the role of state is diminishing in many ways, including in administering political affairs.

Although there are no major reforms or changes both in the context of multilateral relations and domestic politics in Asian countries, the seeds of liberal transformation are visible and embedded in the regional political architecture and national policies of each respective country.

At the regional level, the establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Commission is a case where ASEAN countries were able to rethink about existing norms and regulations as well as willingness to compromise sovereignty for the sake of human rights.

Intense activities of ‘track-two diplomacy’ through the formation of epistemic communities also contributed to the changing face of the regional order, where ASEAN and other regional entities move from an elitist image towards a people-centered approach. This transformation means more participation and deliberative processes at grassroots levels, which will affect the nature of regional interactions and policymaking in the Asia-Pacific.

At the national level, the continuing wave of democratization in Indonesia is another sign of how economic improvement can go hand-in-hand with political reformation. Indeed, the rhetoric of “democracy” and “reform” has been used even by countries like Singapore and Vietnam to criticize the military junta of Myanmar.

Surely the big question of how to balance between economic development and political freedom remains unanswered. However, respective Asian societies will not have to choose between these two things. Rather, they will learn they can have both, and this kind of awareness is slowly redefining the discourse of Asian values.

Posted on September 9, 2010

Iqra Anugrah is a third year student in College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, majoring in political science and international relations. He is a member of the Advisory Board for Strategic Studies Committee for Indonesian Students’ Association in Japan (PPI Jepang). The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the PPI Jepang.

3 thoughts on “The Discourse of Asian Values and its Future

  1. Assessing the way of the world is a devilish tussle. You see fragments of facts and tendencies and patterns of, say, ontological entities, and then you say, “What’s the big picture here?” You shape a little bit of hypotheses here; mold a little bit of axioms there; play with some theories; then you assemble a world of its own.
    The concept of “Asian values,” IMHO, is just such a thing.
    That Western countries are met with economic stalls–along with their consequences, namely declining political dominance and growing skepticism about its values–can simply be just an economic fact. The markets saturate, the populations age, the costs of governing public interests hike, and the exponential growth of technological inventions are to be realized as being only a sweet dream.
    You strike a bull’s eye with your remark, “surely the big question of how to balance between economic development and political freedom remains unanswered.” Perhaps the question is deeper than that. Does political freedom if at all have anything to do with economic prosperity? The history of Western countries, admittedly, corroborate the positive assertion. However, as also explicated in this article, anomalies and peculiarities are as much of a rule as of an exception.
    For some, including myself, the question of political freedom is not a question of scientific validity or philosophical “truth”; it is a question of faith. Political freedom is an imperative, irregardless of its costs.
    Nevertheless, you present a very informative article. Suggestive, and inspiring. Looking forward to your next writing on cultural studies–especially regarding Asian countries. Such a rare undertaking indeed–as far as I can gather. Salam.

  2. Kang Ade,

    I just realized that you dropped a comment on my article. Thanks for your comment, a very enlightening and thought-provoking one indeed.

    Assessing the way of the world, as you said, is surely a life-long struggle. This is why IR alone will never be enough. Attempting to provide a big picture of our realities is not an easy task, and one definitely should take socio-historical dimensions into consideration. Unfortunately, most of the people, including IR scholars and economists, from my perspective, only rely on the “extracted” knowledge of “numbers” and “current facts”, thanks to their positivist epistemology. I despise this approach as a form of “epistemological imperialism”.

    This is why, I tried to give a room for another discourse, try to provide a different narrative behind the overrated “Asian Values” (that’s why I quoted Yasheng Huang). I second your opinion that politics is a matter of personal conviction and how you fight for it. I, as you do, believe that civil and political freedom is inevitable for Asia, and we will eventually get there (of course if we want to work hard to achieve it), even though our civilizational path is not as “linear” as the West, I may say.

    Akhirul kalam, thanks for visiting my blog and looking forward to reading your thoughts as well.


    • I am glad to come to realize that we both are, in a way, children of the 20th century’s (extended, I think, to the present time’s) philosophical Zeitgeist. I have to admit, though, I am one of those who time and again fall “victim” to the charms of—to borrow your terms—”numbers” and “current facts,” narrated in the fluency of economists and scholars coming from the camp of the positivists. But as soon as hit my feet against the pavements in the streets, harsh and intricate, yet beautiful to some extent, realities slap me the face and drag me back to earthly questions again.

      I agree with you. We need one (or maybe more) alternative discourse(s) to define our common path in history.


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