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.