- “Asian-Values” Discourse and the Resurrection of the Social*
The so-called Asian-values discourse emerged into global attention out of the rise of capitalism in East and Southeast Asia, particularly in the 1980s, the current economic crisis in the region notwithstanding. However, it should be noted that the concern with the interaction between Asian values and modernization in different locations in Asia has a longer history. Attempts by academicians in Europe and the United States to explain the rapid rise of capitalism in these regions led them to “discover” and promote Confucian values as the moral equivalent to the Protestant spirit in the Weberian thesis of the rise of capitalism in the West. The Confucian values include hard work, emphasis on education, pragmatism, self-discipline, familial orientation, and “collectivism.” 1 Supposedly, all but one of these values can be translated into Western virtues, either present or lost but recoverable. Thrift and self-help are good Victorian values, and pragmatism can [End Page 573] be interpreted as activism and rational innovation. Given the “translatability,” Peter Berger asserts, “the East Asian experience supports the hypothesis that certain components of bourgeois culture—notably activism, rational innovativeness and self-discipline—are necessary for successful capitalist development.” 2 Thus, Asia is absorbed once again and is merely reproducing, two centuries later, the Western bourgeois culture, which is by the same token universalized. The only Confucian value that is difficult to translate conveniently into Western bourgeois values is collectivism, which arguably inhabits the core of Confucianism. This residual concept will be taken as the core of the Asian-values discourse in this essay.
Berger’s analysis exemplifies the conventional, empiricist, and essentialist reading of the Asian-values discourse, a reading that seeks to establish whether the values are, indeed, actually held by and exclusive to Asians. Alternatively, this essay attempts to show how discursive emphasis of the collective provides the space for, first, the possible deletion of the Asia/Asian reference from the discourse and, second, the resurrection of the idea of the social in different geographic-cultural locations against any excess of liberal individualism in global capitalism.
An Ideologically Interested Formulation of Asian Values
To begin, the referenced Asia is geographically or cartographically over-generalized and misleadingly monolithic. Instead, the politically interested explicit formulation of Asian values by the leaders and sympathetic intellectuals of the long-governing, single-party dominant state in Singapore will serve as the specific reference for this occasion. This is a strategic choice because it is in Singapore that the idea of Asian values still has the most credibility. Under the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in power since 1959, there is an absence of the financial corruption that is endemic in the other countries in Asia. There is an extensive network of social welfare provisions, notably in the high standard of public housing, in education, and in health care, and there is deep penetration of state sponsorship in community organizations that provide opportunities for civic participation and community self-help activities. These features have arguably played an important role in saving Singapore from the ravages of the current [End Page 574] economic crisis in Asia; its economic problems are results of contagion rather than of diseases within. 3 The result is that Singapore has been left out of much of the denigrating criticism of Asian nations and individuals—South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia and their respective political leaders—in the present economic crisis.
The relative position of economic strength in a region of disasters has enabled the most vocal champion of the Asian-values discourse, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for more than thirty years (1959–1991) and now senior minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office, to face trenchant critiques with vehement defense of the Asian values. Drawing on the Singapore situation and, obviously, on his own role in shaping it, Lee argues that in view of the prevailing crisis, the downside to the Asian values that had promoted Asia’s development,
has been a debasement of what I would call Confucianist value; I mean duty to friends and family. You’re supposed to look after...