Whatever Happened to "Asian Values"?
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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 154-165



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Whatever Happened to "Asian Values"?

Mark R. Thompson


The discourse contrasting the defects of "Western" individualism and democracy with the virtues of "Asian" communitarianism and good governance, which blossomed during East and Southeast Asia's economic boom, has withered since the financial bust of 1997-98. Economic crisis seems to be a particularly effective form of ideological critique. "Asian values," adieu?

The most prominent contributions to the discussion of"Asian values" were made by East and Southeast Asian government officials and their critics in journals such as Foreign Affairs,Foreign Policy, and the Journal of Democracy. 1 This debate received international attention because the assertion that Asian cultural particularity justified the rejection of liberal democracy was matched by impressive economic results. Countries in other regions had earlier employed similar particularistic cultural arguments, but without much success. For example, several sub-Saharan African dictators in the 1970s asserted that their rule accorded with "African traditions," but obvious economic failings undercut their claims. In East and Southeast Asia, by contrast, three decades as the world's fastest-growing region made the "Asian challenge" much more interesting than anti-Western positions of the past. "Asian authoritarians," the Economist wrote in 1992, "argue from a position of economic and social success." 2

The recent financial crisis in the region, however, has undermined the international prestige of "Asian values." Having been forced onto the defensive, senior Singaporean government official Tommy Koh no longer attempted to convince an international audience of the merits of [End Page 154] "Asian values"; he merely tried to convince readers that they were not to blame for the recent economic downturn. 3

Academics, conservative politicians, and businesspeople in the West who had sympathized with "Asian values" were also embarrassed. Economists who had claimed that a Confucian ethos promoted capitalist growth in Asia as the Protestant ethic had done in the West (an inversion of Max Weber's thesis that Confucianism was an obstacle to economic development) found themselves without an Asian economic miracle to explain.

Cultural relativists had suggested that liberal democratic universalism was an arrogant and naive attempt to impose the ways of "the West" on "the East." Yet opposition activists from Indonesia to Malaysia blamed authoritarianism for their countries' economic ills and looked to democ-racy as a cure. Samuel P. Huntington saw the region's economic growth and the West's relative decline as an "Asian affirmation," which, along with the "Islamic resurgence," posed the major threat in the "clash of civilizations." 4 This "danger," however, seemed to recede as the region's economies declined. British Tories and other conservatives preferred not to recall their previous admiration of some aspects of the now-wayward "Asian way." 5 Several foreign investors and fund managers who had praised strict labor laws and the developmental emphasis of authoritarian Asian governments were subsequently bankrupted by holdings in crony companies.

Critics of "Asian values" could hardly suppress their Schadenfreude. While their earlier attacks had been parried by the obvious "evidence" that Asian authoritarians had promoted economic development by limiting personal liberties, critics could now argue, following Camus, that those denied freedom may one day find themselves without bread as well.

Although thoroughly discredited internationally, "Asian values" face a more complex fate at the domestic level. "Asian" critiques of liberal democracy had been invoked not only in the name of good governance needed to achieve rapid economic growth in poor countries but also in defense of a paternalistic state after high living standards had been attained. Where "Asian values" had been defended from a developmental perspective (above all in Indonesia), the economic crisis was devastating. But in countries that were already economically advanced, such as Singapore and Malaysia, claims about distinctive "Asian values" are likely to continue in the postcrisis period.

Development and Co-optation

"Asian values" as a doctrine of developmentalism can be understood as the claim that, until prosperity is achieved, democracy remains an unaffordable luxury. This "Protestant ethic" form of "Asian values" [End Page 155] attributes high growth rates to certain cultural traits. These characteristics include...