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  • Singapore and the “Asian Values” Debate
  • Donald K. Emmerson (bio)

In the middle of a long night some years ago I found myself in Singapore, tired after a trans-Pacific flight, riding a taxi down the multilane straightaway from Changi Airport into town. The highway at that hour was nearly empty and the police were nowhere in sight. Whenever the driver exceeded the speed limit, a mellifluous chime sounded from underneath his dashboard, ceasing only when he slowed down. The chime was then and still is required on all cabs in Singapore.

As the chime went on and off, I asked my driver jokingly whether, at traffic-free times like this, he had ever thought of disconnecting it. He was not amused. If he unhooked his chime, he told me, other cabs would follow suit. Soon everyone would speed. Accidents would break out all over the city, paralyzing traffic. He pictured Singapore sinking into lawless anarchy.

I begin with this anecdote because it reminds us that, in any society, some individuals are likely to value order and fear disorder more than others do. It follows that such order-valuing, disorder-fearing people may constitute a higher proportion of the citizenry of one society compared with another. If that is so, implementing representative democracy in these two societies could have different implications for human rights. An electorate that values individual rights, is accustomed to social order, and sees little or no contradiction between them could democratically enlarge personal freedom. But an electorate less confident of the capacity of its social order to withstand the conflicts that greater personal freedoms might entrain could, just as democratically, curtail them. [End Page 95]

In my experience, an appreciation of social order is neither uniformly nor uniquely Asian. Nor do those Asians who place a high value on social order all behave the same way. My taxi driver’s endorsement of the use of speed governors to keep other drivers from breaking the law was triggered by his having broken it himself—by speeding.

Yet even if there are no quintessentially Asian values, the debate about them must be taken seriously by students of “democracy” because it challenges us to consider what we mean by that term. For if differing societies may democratically implement differing views of the relative importance of social order versus individual rights, it follows that alongside rights-tilted or liberal democracies there could be nonliberal—or at any rate less liberal—variants of democracy that are, compared to their liberal counterparts, more order-inclined.

From Salamis to Singapore

The “Asian values” debate is not a formally organized oral disputation between two sides advancing contrary answers to the same question. It is a large, diverse, and ongoing array of written and oral pronouncements and exchanges that share some relevance to a set of questions about “Asian values”—their existence, their contents, and the implications of the answers to these first two questions for policy and behavior.

Answers to these core questions have been offered since the time of the ancient Greeks, when the word “Asia” first entered the vocabulary of a people resident in “Europe.” From their initial contacts with the Persians in the mid-sixth century B.C., the Greeks began characterizing these “Asians.” Thus originated a “Western” tradition of representing “Asia” that has been decried as “Orientalism.” 1

Images of democracy and dictatorship were central to this first stereotyping of Asia. In The Persians, first performed in 472 B.C. within a flourishing and self-confident Athenian democracy, the playwright Aeschylus contrasted the opulent tyranny of the Persians with the personal freedom of his fellow Greeks. 2 In retrospect, this imputation of authoritarianism to Asia may be taken as the first recorded salvo in a “debate” that has been intermittently underway for almost 2,500 years.

Read through the admittedly distorting lens of late-twentieth-century concerns, Aeschylus’s drama seems to prefigure current exchanges. The play takes place in the aftermath of the Athenians’ bloody rout of the Persians at the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. Just as the vanquishing of communism by democracy in the Cold War made possible a triumphalist championing of Western liberal values...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 95-105
Launched on MUSE
1995-10-01
Open Access
No
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