Asian Values

Asad-Ul Iqbal Latif. Between Rising Powers: China, Singapore and India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.

Singapore’s intensely political engagement of China, apparent in the previous chapters, went into higher gear during the Asian values debate of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Singapore’s international advocacy of Asian cultural exceptionalism, reflecting a conservative approach to democracy and human rights deemed to be beneficial to economic growth, paralleled its defence of Chinese political exceptionalism. Combined with an emphasis that emerged earlier on Confucian values, transmitted through Mandarin, as constituting a cultural ballast for Singapore’s Chinese majority, the Asian values initiative provided an expansive ideological framework for Singapore’s evolving relations with China. There, Confucianism had emerged as one of the strands of the new nationalism, which itself had arisen as a response to the Chinese Communist Party’s experience of crises of faith in Marxism and Maoism since the 1980s; the need to protect China from disintegration brought on by economic decentralization; the need to reverse the worship of Western culture; and a sense of pride in a great tradition that had allowed the country to reform itself without breaking up, unlike the Soviet Union. At the national level, Confucianism could be a panacea for the familiar anomie of individuals in the industrialized West that now was seeping into post-communist China. At the international level, a pragmatic or mainstream Confucian-nationalism, contrasted with the conservative and irrational strains of Confucian fundamentalism that once had made the Chinese backward-looking, would help China to find its place in the world. The non-antagonistic premises of Confucianism were preferable to the social Darwinism on which Western civilization rested; moreover, the fact that Confucianism did not possess a strong sense of salvation gave the civilization an advantage in a world where “relations between different religions are competitive because there is only one God”.

It is possible to detect in the Confucian revival in China a change in philosophical direction among members of the intelligentsia even as the state sought a new source of legitimacy in the rediscovery of a national past relevant to a post-communist future driven by the market. It would be questionable to claim that Singapore espoused Confucian or Asian values to advance its relations with rising China. However, the debate over values, in which Singapore participated eagerly, reflected the geopolitical contours of an era in which Asia’s economic growth and expectations, fueled in no small measure by China, made it possible for many Asian governments to advance their version of the possible. They did so against models that claimed to be universal but were rooted in the West’s historical experience and were transmitted globally through its dominance of the economic and ideological landscape.

That Western dominance was being attacked by events and trends, from the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system and the oil price hikes of the 1970s to America’s retreat from Vietnam and the American overstretch required to maintain U.S. preponderance in the post-Cold War world. Paul Kennedy’s scholarly work on the rise and fall of the great powers became a popular bestseller in the 1980s by resonating with the anxious mood of the times in America. What caught the reading public’s attention was his assessment of the interaction between economics and strategy, of how the steady alteration of a great power’s position in peacetime is as important as how it fights in wartime.

Grappling with the insecurities of decline, Americans and others in the West looked for the lessons that Kennedy had gleaned from half a millennium of history. Reassurance arrived when Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy—victorious over the successively rival ideologies of hereditary monarchy, fascism and communism—might embody the end of human ideological evolution and constitute the final form of human government, heralding thereby the “end of history”. However, Fukuyama’s triumphalism was dealt a sobering blow by Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the West, far from enjoying victory at the end of history, faced a challenge to its very identity from a clash of civilizations. Huntington’s formulation encouraged interpretations of global trends focusing on cultural distinctiveness, particularly the distinctiveness associated with geographical regions. Asia, being transformed by the rising power of China, became a candidate in the civilizational struggle. East Asia had been transformed dramatically since Gunnar Myrdal’s apocalyptic view of Asia in 1968 as a continent of teeming masses and low technology. What fomented change was the appearance of Asian “alliance capitalism”. “Until the mid 1990s Asian alliance capitalism generated the highest sustained economic growth rate for any region in world history.” East Asia changed into a “flying-geese” formation of countries to which development spread from the dynamism of the Japanese economy. The strong state in Asia, relatively free of domestic pressure groups, intervened in the economy to act as patron and pick industrial winners, providing them capital through state-managed banks. The strong state produced not only growth but equity, comparable to levels in the OECD countries even without the presence of Western welfare systems. Asia was home to the idea that “developing countries require government to take on a more central and powerful role than many Western countries imagine… Rather than distrusting and limiting it as the United States and liberal theorists do, the strong state is largely trusted in Asia”.

The strong state also tended to emphasize development over political freedom; indeed, it made a causal connection between the two options. Unlike claims to tradition that enjoyed little international credibility—such as those made by sub-Saharan African dictators in the 1970s to rationalize their rule—Asian rulers “won the attention of Western elites primarily because they were making cultural claims for authoritarianism that were matched by impressive economic results”. In an extensive essay studying the debate as an experiment in soft power, Alan Chong writes: “Singapore’s discourse on Asian Values is a form of discursive power premised upon the ability of an SMD (Singapore Model of Development), culturally-derived and uniquely synthesized, to deliver material and spiritual goods from an exceptionalist standpoint which is labelled non-Western in origin and ‘shocking’ in its selective non-conformity towards the presumptively liberal norms of post-Cold War international order.” The debate was precipitated by a set of factors, including the advent of the William Clinton presidency in 1993 in which the primacy of democratization and human rights “proselytizing” became a centerpiece of a New World Order, with European states not lagging far behind. The searchlight fell on issues such as Tiananmen, Hong Kong, East Timor, North Korea, the Middle East and Cuba. Singapore was concerned deeply over the possible repercussions for China’s stability of democratic enlargement targeting the country’s economic transition. Responding to perceived Western “sermonizing”, Singapore sought “normatively to assert Asian countries’ political equality with the West after the divisions of the Cold War”. “A soft threat was to be met by soft power.”

The Asian values debate that occurred in the closing years of the 20th century was, therefore, as much about the relativities of power as it was about the normative force of arguments. The endeavour to promote instrumentalist values conducive to economic success, in which Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad played a vital role along with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, lost its momentum following the economic crisis that hit the region in 1997 and destroyed culturally particularistic explanations of Asia’s economic success. Also, the argument for Asian values itself was not accepted by everyone in Singapore. Chua Beng-Huat, for example, criticized the fact that “cultural elements are constantly invoked as the so-called Asian values that are needed to combat the penetration of “‘undesirable’ Western values that may come as the ideological baggage of the borrowed technologies and administrative strategies”. But while it lasted, Singapore’s public diplomacy on behalf of Asian values reflected a period of regional ascendancy contoured by the rise of China. It represented also the culmination of the Republic’s ideological engagement of Beijing.

Confucius At Home

Singapore’s espousal of Asian values was the external manifestation of a domestic political culture in which the PAP promoted Confucianism as part of its policies of social engineering. The PAP’s controversial turn to cultural tradition, after its initial disparagement of Confucianism as an impediment to China’s progress for 2,000 years, has been read variously. Some scholars have seen in the rise of politically-conservative Confucianism an attempt by the party to prevent the growth of opposition politics that drew sustenance from Western frameworks of democracy. That apart, the Confucian thesis provides a restrospective mode of justification for a paternalistic and interventionist state. “The language of Confucian philosophy becomes a conceptual foil to reinterpret the now established practices of the state. What was simply practical and good government becomes retrospectively Confucianist in character.” Others contend, less persuasively, that the adoption of cultural tradition as state policy was an effort to establish a new, ambiguous basis of political legitimacy following the government’s declining ability to provide social welfare. Yet others argue that Singapore’s dominant ideology essentially is not Confucianism but Western conservatism, with aspects of Confucianism being used “only when they serve the dominant ideology. Life in Singapore is being shaped by the demands of international capitalism, not by Asian traditions”. Others contend, however, that from “the perspectives of classical Chinese political philosophy, Singapore is more Legalist than Confucian”. Confucianism emphasizes moderation and self-restraint on the part of rulers, who would set good examples for subjects who would be ruled with the “minimal application of legal sanctions”; Legalism emphasizes the use of generous rewards and severe penalties to make people obey the law. The government, on its part, justified the new programme as a means of protecting Singapore’s cultural authenticity, which touched on its economic vitality as well. The argument privileging Confucianist values as the source of growth sought to reverse Weber’s castigation of Oriental culture as an impediment to growth along Western capitalist lines, but in doing so, the Asian argument drew attention to the Weberian othering of the Orient.

All in all, however, the “Asianising of Singapore” was a significant project. A key element of the promotion of Confucianism was the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which Lee launched in 1979 to unify Chinese dialect-groups through a common language. The creation of a Mandarin-speaking environment was seen as being conducive to the implementation of the bilingual education programme in which English as the medium of instruction was combined with the study of the mother-tongue, Mandarin, for Chinese Singaporeans. From 1979 to 1981, the campaign’s target audience was Chinese Singaporeans in general. Beginning in 1982, it targeted specific groups, for example, hawkers, public transport workers, white-collar workers and senior executives. The primary message to Chinese Singaporeans was an invitation to speak Mandarin in place of dialects so that they would better understand and appreciate their culture and heritage. But when research showed that Mandarin was losing ground among English-educated Chinese Singaporeans, the campaign began targeting this group from 1991. In 1994, it focused on English-educated business professionals and working adults. Behind the campaign’s riverine turns lay a desire to reverse the Westernization of consciousness in the city-state, a felt need that would characterize its defence of Asian values as well. Mandarin, which was believed to be the most effective way of transmitting Confucian values, became a marker of Chineseness, which itself was portrayed as a traditional culture in which were embedded discipline, respect for authority and a sense of commitment to the community.

The publication of two government reports around the time that the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched provided further impetus to the use of education to promote beneficial values. The first, the Report of the Education Study Team led by Goh Keng Swee (the Goh Report) dealt with bilingualism and multiculturalism in schools; and the second, the Report on Moral Education (the Ong Teng Cheong Report) delved into the need for moral education. Bilingualism was seen as a way of inoculating the young against the decadent influences of Westernization, and this goal of inoculation “provided the starting point for the policy of bilingualism and the later search for Asian values; thereafter the process developed into a search for an ideology to legitimize social discipline and an exploration of substitutes for the Protestant work ethic”. In 1980, the government initiated the elite Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools project as part of an “overall objective to Asianise Singapore and restore the Chineseness of the Chinese”. In spite of the fact that these schools would prepare students to be equally proficient in English and Mandarin, their linguistic and cultural ambience was essentially Chinese. Thus, their products, among those youth groomed for national leadership, could be expected to help set the tone for Singapore’s cultural identity. Then, in 1983, the government sponsored the foundation of the Institute of East Asian Philosophies (IEAP), whose initial purpose was to help reinterpret and adapt Confucian philosophy to answer contemporary concerns. About the same time, Singapore introduced a course on religious knowledge and Confucian ethics as part of the secondary school curriculum, the texts for the course being commissioned especially by the Ministry of Education. The IEAP ultimately was unsuccessful in promoting any genuine Confucianization of Singapore, and it no longer exists in its original form; the Confucian ethics course in schools also was abandoned (as was the religious knowledge programme itself). Nevertheless, the use of Confucianism “was carried out quite explicitly against the West in general, and Western notions of democratic politics in particular”.

It needs to be emphasized that the PAP took pains to reiterate that Singapore was a multiracial and multicultural country that owed its success to the value systems of its different communities, a message conveyed by the White Paper on Shared Values issued in 1991. Within this shared-values-driven framework for a national ideology, however, Confucianism retained a special place in nation-building and was so justified in the pronouncements of Singapore leaders long after the initiation of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. “The English-educated Chinese community is the dominant community in Singapore. Unless they are taught and instilled with core Chinese values, cultural individualism will force out Confucian dynamism as Singapore’s value system,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who took over from Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, declared in 1991. “I want to do what I can to promote the use of Mandarin, to preserve Chinese customs and traditions, to uphold those Confucian values which contribute to Singapore’s progress,” he said. He had an economic rationale in mind. “My view is that if Chinese Singaporeans lose their core values, it will be a disaster for Singapore. Cultural values of a country do affect its economic performance, and for Singapore more than any other country, if our economy is shaky, Singapore cannot survive.”

In 1992, then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yong-Boon Yeo linked cultural developments in Singapore to the possibilities of an emerging Pacific Century: “What we are witnessing is an economic and cultural renaissance of a scale never before experienced in human history. Like the renaissance in Europe a few centuries ago, this East Asian renaissance will change the way man looks at himself…” The implications of the Pacific Century resonated in another speech that he made that year. The cultural influence of an economically ascendant East Asia would reach Australia and New Zealand, and the west coast of Canada and the United States, and Chinese culture would play a major role in the East Asian renaissance, he declared. The Chinese language would grow in importance because the stronger an economy is, the more influential its language grows. “During the Roman Empire, Latin was used throughout Europe. When the Arab empire was at its peak, the Arabic language was used all the way from Spain to Central and Southeast Asia. In the last 200 years, English has become an international language because of the power of the British Empire and the strength of the American economy. Changes in the structure of economic power must lead to changes in the pattern of language use.” Singapore had to be a part of this upswing in regional fortunes. “Singapore is geographically, economically and culturally part of East Asia. There is no reason why we should not be part of the East Asian renaissance. However, nothing is inevitable in human history. If we want to be part of the East Asian renaissance we must work towards it.” Hence, a conscious effort was necessary to promote Singapore’s Asian cultures. The right linguistic choices were critical. It would be “a great tragedy” if the Chinese language were to be neglected. Every effort should be made to keep Chinese language and culture alive and well in Singapore. “We will succeed if we make the effort because the external factors are conducive.” Singapore’s cultural and linguistic policies were necessary, therefore.

Confucius Abroad

The reference to external factors indicates a nexus between the domestic promotion of Confucianism through the use of Mandarin and Singapore’s advocacy of Asian values in the context of China’s entry into the contemporary world system. Confucianism had been important to the domestic policies of Singapore’s leaders, but China’s entry transformed the international possibilities for Singapore and other Asian nations that sought to give Asia a stronger voice on the international stage. At stake in the nexus were two controversial variables: the avowed effects of culture on economic performance; and the place of human rights in international relations in the aftermath of the Cold War.

As for the first variable, its importance in the thinking of Singapore’s leaders was dramatized in a widely-quoted interview that Lee Kuan Yew gave to Fareed Zakaria in 1994. “The dominant theme throughout our conversation was culture. Lee returned again and again to his views on the importance of culture and the differences between Confucianism and Western values,” Zakaria wrote. Zakaria asked Lee for his views on a recent World Bank report on East Asia, which had feted the region’s governments for creating the conditions for national success by getting right fundamentals such as promoting savings and investment, keeping inflation low and providing quality education. These factors served to explain those countries’ extraordinary economic growth more than industrial policies and so on, Zakaria suggested. Lee thought differently, noting of the report that “there are cultural factors which have been lightly touched over, which deserved more weightage. This would have made it a more complex study and of less universal application, but it would have been more accurate, explaining the differences, for example, between the Philippines and Taiwan”. The report “makes the hopeful assumption that all men are equal, that people all over the world are the same. They are not”, Lee declared. Instead, the truth was that groups of people “develop different characteristics when they have evolved for thousands of years separately. Genetics and history interact”, he remarked, citing differences in neurological development and cultural values between Native Americans and East Asian Mongoloids, although both are of the same genetic stock. Culture made the difference; in the words of the article’s headline, culture was destiny. But what were the Asian cultural values necessary for economic growth? A checklist of the values that Singapore considered Asian was provided by one of its leading diplomats, Tommy Koh. He enunciated the following East Asian values: (i) the absence of the “extreme form of individualism practiced in the West”; and striking a balance between individual and social interests; (ii) belief in strong families; (iii) reverence for education; (iv) belief in saving and frugality, in contrast to the “Western addiction to consumption”; (v) belief in hard work; (vi) cooperative, not adversarial, relations among social groups; partnership among the government, business and employees; and an ability to forge a national consensus; (vii) an “Asian version of a social contract” between citizens and the state in which the government maintains law and order and provides citizens with basic needs, and citizens reciprocally are expected to be “law-abiding, respect those in authority, work hard, save, and motivate their children to learn and be self-reliant”; also, the state avoids “the Western disease of welfarism”; (viii) an attempt to build communitarian societies by making citizens stakeholders in the country; (ix) the presence of a morally wholesome environment; and (x) a free press that is desired but is not considered an absolute right, with the press acting responsibly. Koh argued that, taken together, these ten values provided an enabling framework for economic prosperity, progress, harmonious relations between citizens, and law and order in East Asia.

The argument for such values came not only from Asian elites: several Western scholars, too, sought to give them intellectual legitimacy. Michael Hill cites three influential books appearing in 1979 that transformed Western discussions of Asian values: Herman Kahn’s and Thomas Pepper’s The Japanese Challenge: The Success and Failure of Economic Success; Herman Kahn’s World Economic Development: 1979 and Beyond, produced under the auspices of the Hudson Institute; and Ezra F. Vogel’s Japan As Number One: Lessons for America. Kahn argued that “the modern Confucian ethic is superbly designed to create and foster loyalty, dedication, responsibility, and commitment and to intensify identification with the organization and one’s role in the organization. All this makes the economy and society operate much more smoothly than one whose principles of identification and association tend to lead to egalitarianism, to disunity, to confrontation, and to excessive compensation or repression”.

The formulations of scholars such as Vogel appealed to Singaporean leaders who were concerned with upholding social values that gave Singapore and other Asian societies their competitive edge on the global marketplace. The appeal was magnified by the times. The downfall of the Soviet bloc had destroyed one contender for global supremacy. In its ideological wake remained two major contenders within the global capitalist system: a West which was viewed as being under siege within from individualism, consumerism, libertinism, welfarism and other economically sapping ailments; and an Asian, or at any rate East Asian, model that was invigorated by the values of communitarianism, hard work and delayed gratification, moral probity, and reliance on oneself and the family and not the state. Asian values, which had helped Japan modernize after World War II, had been deployed by the Newly-Industrializing Economies, and were spreading to post-communist China. That all these countries and territories—Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China—lay within the Confucian sphere was not a coincidence: It was the values inherent in those societies that made it possible to read them as constituting together a model whose dynamism and success made Asia a convincing claimant for ideological supremacy in the post-Cold War world of the 1990s. This was how the region looked to those who believed in the distinctive economic properties of Asian values.

That said, there lay a crucial obstacle to realizing the economic potential of an Asia driven by congenial values. This was the question of human rights, the second variable that was at stake as the liberal-democratic West sought to reorder global affairs following the removal of the Soviet threat to its physical, economic and ideological supremacy.

As human rights were elevated to an aspect of Western state policy in dealings with Asia, many Asian governments saw rights as an underhand weapon used by a region on the wane against one on the rise. Singapore and Malaysia led the Asian counter-charge, with China joining in eagerly. What has come to be known as the Singapore School made several forays into the conceptual debate on the value of values. In an influential essay published in 1993, senior Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan averred that the “economic success of East and Southeast Asia is the central strategic fact of the 1990s”. He recalled the Western promotion of human rights during the Cold War, when the West had deployed it as an ideological instrument in the East-West struggle. Following the end of that war, the West might use human rights as an instrument of economic competition. “As American and European apprehensions about their competitiveness rise, the West is emphasizing values like openness and equal opportunity and relating them to broader issues of freedom and democracy.” Taking a stand against such attempts, he suggested that Asia did not have to fall in with Western demands. East and Southeast Asian countries tended to find the key to their economic success in “their own distinctive traditions and institutions”. Thus, Asian countries were dismayed by the propensity of Westerners to place more emphasis on civil and political rights than on economic, social and cultural rights. The Asian experience upheld the need to view order and stability as “preconditions for economic growth, and growth as the necessary foundation of any political order that claims to advance human dignity”. Kausikan did not frame his comments on the basis of Asian exceptionalism to which human rights were inimical, but he implied the converse: that the Western sponsorship of human rights as universal reflected exceptionalism of its own kind, in that these rights had grown out of Western history and culture. Taking his stand between West and Asia, he argued for the need to find an agnostic position between “a pretentious and unrealistic universalism and a paralyzing cultural relativism”. The balance represented by that position would not be achieved if the Western, especially American, media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and rights activists pressed the human rights dialogue “beyond the legitimate insistence on humane standards of behavior by calling for the summary implementation of abstract concepts without regard for a country’s unique cultural, social, economic and political circumstances”. Kausikan’s defence of the Singapore position avoided the Manichean absurdities that found their way into diatribes over values, such as the astonishing Philippic heard in one Asian country that Western-style democracy caused homosexuality, single motherhood and economic slowdown. However, his conclusion—that the needs of economic advance should take precedence over civil and political rights—upheld the essence of the view advanced by several Asian governments.

That was the message of another influential essay as well, written by senior Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in 1992. Warning against ahistorical attempts to put democratic carts before economic horses, he noted that most Western societies had benefited from economic development that had created working and middle classes whose vested interest in stability had insulated them from the centrifugal appeals of “demagogic democratic politicians” making capital out of ethnic and other sectional differences. That path had been taken also by East Asian countries that had made a successful transition to democracy. But, today, the West was promoting democracy before economic development. Mahbubani did not argue that democracy had to impede development; indeed, he acknowledged that authoritarianism could block progress, as it had done in the Philippines. However, it was equally true that some authoritarian governments had been good for development, South Korea and Taiwan in the early years being cases in point. “In the long run, it may be wiser for the West to encourage a more viable process of transition in developing societies, one that puts the horse before the cart—promoting economic development through good government before promoting democracy.” Here, again, was an affirmation of the need to place Asia’s circumstantial evidence for economic advance over claims for civil and political rights, signifying a rejection of Western ideological premises wherein lay the sources of a seemingly absolutist commitment to individual liberties that culminated in a demand for democracy with Western characteristics. The Singapore elite defined the region’s agenda very differently from the agenda created by the Western focus on civil and political liberties.

In China’s case, its stance was defined by a historical materialist understanding that saw the rise of human rights in the West two centuries earlier as the work of enlightened bourgeois thinkers challenging the authority and privileges of aristocrats and the clergy. An official treatise written during the early years of the transition from communism summarized the Chinese case on human rights. The struggle against feudal autocracy had been a progressive one. However, that conflict itself had masked the bourgeoisie’s desire to supplant feudal lords and establish its own power through ownership of private property. The right to pursue happiness had become the right to exploit labour, whose rights, as Marx and Engels noted, were considered a privilege. But rights “develop as history develops, and so do human rights”. Hence, economic and social changes, the emergence of new political forces, and development of international struggles had turned the concept of human rights into “something bigger, richer and broader than what was defined by the Western bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries”. Human rights were not “an abstract slogan or an isolated question but are closely related to international politics”, which is why imperialists and the Western bourgeoisie used rights to “attack and slander” China and try to “infiltrate China ideologically”. The international practice of human rights should safeguard the right of Third World countries to develop; using “the slogan of human rights to interfere in other countries’ essentially internal affairs is intolerable” and China would brook no such encroachment on its sovereignty. Anybody free of prejudice could see that rights stipulated in the Chinese Constitution were superior to the Western bourgeoisie’s concept of “individual human rights”, although implementing the constitutional rights fully would take time in a developing socialist country because “the rights enjoyed by the citizens of a state are first subject to its social system and then to its economic, cultural and other objective conditions”.

Essentials of that argument cohered as Beijing joined the international economic order. The premises of the Singapore and Chinese positions were different, not least on the question of whether there could be a degree of convergence between Western and Asian practices of human rights. The Singapore school of thought appeared to leave that possibility open, not quite arguing that there was something inherently destabilizing in civil and political rights of the Western-sponsored variety that made them a threat to economic growth and harmony at any time. No such ambiguities troubled the Chinese thesis, which seemed to rule out convergence since the socialist rights offered in China already were superior to bourgeois human rights—in which case Beijing and Western capitals were journeying on two irreconcilable historical trajectories. Differences between the Singapore and Chinese doctrines notwithstanding, however, there was an interesting degree of overlap between them on the issue of weighing individual rights in the entire basket of rights and in opposing Western attempts to privilege political liberties over economic imperatives.

The focus of the human rights debate, on the consequences of rights for prosperity and order, obscured contradictions in the Western position. Western arguments celebrating universal values, many born of the European Enlightenment, glossed over some of its less advertised features: colonialism, racism and environmental imperialism. The European discovery of the New World had entailed the genocide of a native population that had never declared war on Europe. Nor had Africans, kidnapped for slavery, declared war on America. Nor had Indians, Africans and Australian aborigines declared war on anyone. Yet they became unwilling beneficiaries of universal progress unfolding through expanding worlds of conquest and pacification, objects of a mission civilisatrice undertaken by colonial traders, proconsuls and priests, visionary exemplars of their times. In time arrived two world wars, tied umbilically to Western antagonisms. Fascism and communism made their debut in the West. The Cold War carved out the rest of the world into proxy spheres dying to uphold the contending ambitions of Washington and Moscow.

In an article on the frightening spread of illiberal democracy around the world, Fareed Zakaria notes an ideological benchmark of sorts, that in the 1970s, “Western nations codified standards of behavior for regimes across the globe” based on the Magna Carta, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the American Constitution and the Helsinki Final Act. However, Arundhati Roy reveals discordant truths that lay behind the celebration of universal standards. Drawing attention to the nature of the “peace” achieved after World War II, she notes that, since 1945, the US warred with Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. This list should include Washington’s “covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported”. As the West broke bread with despots in Central American satellites and oil-royals in Middle Eastern rentier states, a Salvador Allende fell here and a Shah rose there. Ronald Reagan’s “democracy enhancement” programmes in Central America reinvigorated an already formidable tradition. Noam Chomsky notes, for example, how Reagan’s covert war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government using a mercenary army left the country the second poorest in the hemisphere. “About 60 per cent of Nicaraguan children under age two are afflicted with anaemia from severe malnutrition—only one grim indication of what is hailed as a victory for democracy.” Asians were more familiar with Indochina. “Indochina provided the lush, tropical backdrop against which the United States played out its fantasies of violence, tested its latest technology, furthered its ideology, examined its conscience, agonized over its moral dilemmas, and dealt with its guilt (or pretended to).”

When many Asians (and sympathetic Westerners, Latin Americans and Africans) thought of universal values and human rights spreading across Asia, they thought of the road to My Lai or the road from Trang Bang, where a superpower convinced a little Vietnamese girl that it was more powerful than she. They thought of the direct hit of napalm that Kim Phuc had taken. They thought of the carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia. They thought a lot. Of course, war is violent, and Asian history—the terrain of Asian values—could lay claim to acts of violence that spectacularly rivalled the West’s. Ashoka’s Kalinga War of 266B.C. or the Mongol Sack of Baghdad in 1258 numbed the senses to numbers. However, Asia did not become the centre of the world system and go on to prescribe the reordering of international affairs. Had it done so, it might have argued for universal values emanating from an Asian Enlightenment rooted in Ashoka’s anguished renunciation of violence after Kalinga, or Akbar’s ecumenical quest for a faith of all faiths in Mughal India. Such universal values would then have been tainted, like their counterparts emerging in the West, by the viciousness of Asian history. In the event, the history of genocide, slavery, colonialism and war accompanying the rise of the West subverted the Western discourse of human rights infused by the universality of values.

If several strands of the championing of Asian values insinuated bad faith on the part of the West, critics of such positions mocked what they saw as special pleading at best and a cover-up at worst. Asia was too diverse culturally and politically to be able to produce a single set of Asian values; and if by Asian values was meant the values of East Asia, even there, Confucianism shared cultural space with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism as sources of belief and action. Indeed, Confucianism was not the only intellectual tradition in China itself; and, indeed, Confucius himself had not been hostile to liberal values, for the great humanist had noted the importance of social justice and political dissent even in the ordering of a disciplined, obedient and hierarchic society. It was Imperial Confucianism that had suppressed radical strands of justice and dissent in order to extol conveniently those words of the Master that prescribed submission to the established authorities. The re-invention of Confucianism in subsequent Chinese society created a confessional politics that all but elevated states to religions in which penitent citizens gathered faithfully. In a more fundamental critique that moves beyond China and the region, Michael Hill shows that Asian values, delineated in contradistinction to the West, had ironical origins. He argues that they lay actually in a “largely Western social scientific artefact which was later adopted by Asian leaders as an ideological component of their nation-building projects”, leading him to say that Singapore exemplifies the case for viewing Asian values as a Western project best labelled reverse Orientalism. “This process entailed the attribution of a set of cultural values to East and Southeast Asian societies by Western social scientists in order to contrast the recent dynamic progress of Asian development with the stagnation and social disorganization of contemporary Western economies and societies… While originating in the conceptual constructions of Western social scientists, these ‘Asian values’ were widely assumed to embody a concrete distinction in the cultures of East and West,” Hill writes.

Inoue Tatsuo notes another irony: the concept of socioeconomic rights that Asia was emphasizing had been developed by Western countries themselves since the late 19th century as part of their attempt to cope with the class struggle. After World War II, these rights had been upheld by a consensus cutting across political parties in the Western welfare states until the onset of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, and even then, the fundamental social security net had not been dismantled completely. Certainly, there might be some cultural resources in Asia for developing those rights, such as the Confucian idea of public ownership of the public realm, but these resources demonstrated merely that socioeconomic rights were not alien to Asian traditions, not that they were peculiar to Asian traditions. “The peculiarity lies in how the Asian values discourse exploits this concept, by resorting to socioeconomic rights as an excuse to restrain political liberties,” Inoue comments. “In the social democratic tradition, these rights support arguments for regulation of the market, not arguments against political participation.” Amartya Sen provides further grounds for rescuing rights from the East-West dichotomy in which they found themselves. He points out the fallacious tendency, present in the West, to extrapolate backwards from the present in making its case for values. “Values that (the) European Enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread cannot really be seen as part of the long-run Western heritage—experienced in the West over millennia,” Sen argues. “What we do find in the writings by particular Western classical authors (for example, Aristotle) is support for selected components of the comprehensive notion that makes up the contemporary idea of political liberty.” But support for such components can be found in Asian traditions as well, for example in Buddhism and in Ashoka’s championing of egalitarian and universal tolerance. Asian thinking and statecraft did value freedom, Sen remarks in a rejoinder both to those who saw the West as the historical bastion of rights and to those who would make Asian history an argument against rights.

Moving beyond conceptual arguments, Errol P. Mendes looks at the realpolitik dimension of the rights issue. He points out that during the Cold War, many Asian governments took advantage of the geopolitical struggle to win Western support for their authoritarian systems by participating in the struggle against communism. That option disappeared with the Soviet Union’s demise and China’s entry into the market system. Many Western countries and international human rights NGOs began to focus more critically now on authoritarian Asian states, Mendes says. What was clear was that much of the vaunted growth of these countries came from a low-cost, export-driven strategy of industrialization that thrived in a political environment that discouraged independent trade unionism and pluralism. Seeking to cover up the real nature of their political economy, Mendes implies, authoritarian governments deflected attention towards a contrived pan-Asian culture and value system that they set about defending from the West’s putative use of human rights to battle Asia’s booming economies. The quixotic battle over values was in reality a war between capitalism anchored in civil and political rights and authoritarian capitalism. These values belonged to the phenomenology of global affairs. Asians, like everyone else, instead led anthropological lives as members of villages, towns, nations and states where the sun rose in daily defiance of any finalities, Asian or otherwise.

The case for human rights—supported not only by Western organizations and segments of the public but, in differing degrees, by opposition parties, dissidents, civil society groups and members of the intelligentsia in Asia as well—was quintessentially that human rights were universal and were threatened by the divisive demand for culturally-specific rights. To the more pugnacious advocates of human rights, it was not only permissible but necessary for Western governments to use their power, including economic sanction, to rectify the behaviour of errant Asian states. These states prospered because their peoples were unfree; they owed their economic successs in no small measure to their access to Western markets; and their competitiveness, bought by withholding from their workers rights and protective regulations familiar in the West, created an uneven playing field on which Western workers suffered because unfree Asian labour produced goods at low costs that free labour could not match. Western governments owed it to their workers to protect them from the politically-skewed economies of the East; and these governments had an international obligation as well to Asian citizens and workers to rein in the authoritarian systems that flourished at the expense of Asians’ own economic and political rights.

Bangkok and Vienna

China, driven by its own compulsions, became an important player in the discursive battle over rights. Responding to international criticism of the Tiananmen killings, Beijing had published a White Paper on human rights in 1991. Its fundamental approach was to place the greatest priority on “the right to subsistence and economic development as a precondition to the full enjoyment of all other human rights”. The White Paper emphasized the stability that made subsistence and development possible. Beijing won an important opportunity to go international with its case—also achieving thereby “a major coup” for Asian values—when, in December 1991, it secured the organizing of regional preparatory conferences ahead of the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. Opposition by the West to the regional conferences, which it saw as unnecessary because human rights were universal, failed, and an “alliance forged by China” managed to articulate Asian values at the March 1993 Asian regional meeting in Thailand. Singapore participated in the meeting, along with more than 30 Asian states. The Bangkok Declaration, which expressed the “aspirations and commitments of the Asian region”, recognized that human rights were universal in nature, but it qualified that observation by adding that “they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds”.

Asian exceptionalism was writ large in that crucial proviso. In the same spirit, the Declaration reaffirmed “the interdependence and indivisibility of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, and the need to give equal emphasis to all categories of human rights”, and reiterated that “all countries, large and small, have the right to determine their political systems, control and freely utilize their resources, and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. The right to development articulated in that call amplified the Asian insistence that civil and political rights should not overshadow economic rights. So as not to leave any doubt about the significance of this point, the Declaration, which upheld state sovereignty in the realm of human rights, made clear Asian opposition to the use of rights as an instrument of political pressure or as conditionality for extending development assistance.

The Bangkok Declaration—which reflected China’s human rights doctrine and the “good governance” argument propounded by the Singapore School—marked a diplomatic victory for participating Asian governments by codifying into an international document what had been till then a verbal debate on values carried out at fluctuating levels of sophistication and credibility. It cemented what Denny Roy, speaking broadly of the soft-authoritarian challenge from Singapore and China, terms the “rhetorical alliance” between the two countries emerging from “Singapore’s bold philosophical break from the West”, its defence of China against Western criticism, and “Asia’s interest in soft authoritarianism”. NGOs from Asia and the Pacific, which had gathered in Bangkok before the conference to coordinate their position, opposed attempts by China, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia to promote an Asian concept of human rights. Articulating a vision of rights that differed radically from those of Asian governments, the NGOs “helped redefine priorities for the human rights movement in a way that rendered obsolete the old division of labor among human rights, development, women’s rights and environmental organizations”.

The result was the Bangkok NGO Declaration on Human Rights, which insisted that because human rights were universal, the advocacy of human rights could not be considered to be an encroachment on national sovereignty. While noting the importance of cultural pluralism in the region, the NGOs declared: “Those cultural practices which derogate from universally accepted human rights, including women’s rights, must not be tolerated.” In reaffirming the indivisibility of political and economic rights, they stated: “Violations of civil, political and economic rights frequently result from the emphasis on economic development at the expense of human rights.”

Notwithstanding the intervention by the NGOs at Bangkok, the case for Asian values found its way into discussions at the world human rights conference that brought together delegates from more than 180 countries in Vienna in the summer of 1993. The path lay through claims of cultural and historical relativism and the crucial need for development advanced powerfully by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Huaqiu. He said: “The concept of human rights is a product of historical development. It is closely associated with specific social, political and economic conditions and the specific history, culture, and values of a particular country. Different historical development stages have different human rights requirements.” He declared: “Thus, one should not and cannot think of the human rights standard and model of certain countries as the only proper ones and demand all other countries to comply with them. For the vast number of developing countries, to respect and protect human rights is first and foremost to ensure the full realisation of the rights to subsistence and development…”

The Chinese statement came in response to remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that “we cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression” and that the universality of human rights set a single standard of acceptable behaviour across the world. “We reject any attempt by any state to relegate its citizens to a lesser standard of human dignity. There is no contradiction between the universal principles of the UN Declaration and the cultures that enrich our international community. The real chasm lies between the cynical excuses of oppressive regimes and the sincere aspirations of their people,” Christopher declared. With an eye on the Asian clamour for economic rights, he said that democracy was good for the economy because “nations that are committed to democratic values create conditions in which the private sector is free to thrive and to provide work for their people”. Indeed, the promotion of democracy was the front line of global security because a “world of democracies would be a safer world”. In a nutshell, “democracy is the moral and strategic imperative for the 1990s. Democracy will build safeguards for human rights in every nation. Democracy is the best way to advance lasting peace and prosperity in the world”.

The American challenge to the Asian position was obvious. On the contentious question of linking economic aid to human rights, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas asked the industrialized nations to show greater “flexibility” in their approach to the implementation of rights elsewhere, but his appeal was rejected by the Japanese representative, who said that Tokyo regarded developmental aid as being instrumental to the promotion of human rights.

The two themes—relativism and development—in the Chinese statement resonated in the speech made by Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng. He ruled out repugnant extremes such as murder or torture being rationalized under the rubric of cultural diversity, but he insisted that “the very idea of human rights is historically specific” and that differences in the history, culture and background of different societies could not be ignored. He remarked that the United States, Britain and France had taken 200 years or more to evolve into full democracies. “Can we therefore expect the citizens of the many newly independent countries of this century to acquire the same rights as those enjoyed by the developed nations when they lack the economic, educational and social pre-conditions to exercise such rights fully?” He agreed that the non-derogable rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were among core rights that were truly universal, but he reiterated his belief that development, too, was an inalienable right. “Our experience is that economic growth is the necessary foundation of any system that claims to advance human dignity, and that order and stability are essential for development.” Human rights would not be accepted if they were seen to impede progress, and there was evidence that “at some stage” excessive emphasis on individual rights became counter-productive. Development and good government required a balance to be struck between individual and community rights, with the precise point of the balance varying for different countries at different points of their history. Early into a country’s development, excessive emphasis on individual rights over community rights would retard progress. But as the country developed, new interests had to be accommodated, perhaps leading to a “looser, more complex and more differentiated political system.” However, the assumption that this accommodation must lead to “a ‘democracy’, as some define the term” was not warranted.

Wong’s remarks put on record Singapore’s rejection of Western premises seen as enshrining an absolutist emphasis on civil and political liberties, and underlined the Republic’s disavowal of any corresponding notion of teleological development towards democracy along Western lines. The closeness of that position to China’s stand was clear. However, the Singapore position was rather more complex. It adopted a “strategic fuzzy logic” in “drawing up a median position between Asian value exceptionalism and accommodation to the West on the intellectual level of value and systemic differences. Moreover, it then leaned towards a hardline exceptionalism on the level of normative governing differences, and returned to flexibility on specific policy-political consequences”. This finessing was an attempt to avoid “total alienation of Western stakes in the Asia-Pacific”.

The adoption of the Vienna Declaration “concealed intense differences” between Afro-Asian and Arab countries; and Western countries, Japan and the majority of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Also, about 1,500 NGOs that, at Chinese insistence, had been excluded from the drafting of the final declaration, issued a separate statement criticizing the conference for “failing to commit governments to adopt tougher measures to protect human rights”. At both Bangkok and Vienna, countries espousing exceptionalist lines—China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan—adopted a hard approach based on cultural exclusivity. Opposition to them and to the Singapore School came from Western countries, the Philippines’ pro-Western tilt, and Japan’s and Thailand’s “ambivalence”. The hardline argument based on Asian values was supported by an Arab-Islamic bloc consisting of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization, plus Cuba. This “Asian-Islamic opposition coalition” faced a number of ex-Soviet bloc, African and Latin American states that supported universalist and Western positions. In the event, Singapore was not marginalized. “Singapore’s strategic fuzzy logic appears to have benefited its diplomatic image and goals at Vienna.” Indeed, the Singaporeans were asked to be a mediator behind the scenes in the final drafting sessions at Vienna.

The official declaration affirmed the qualified universality and the indivisibility of human rights—much as the Bangkok Declaration had done—and incorporated several manifestations of cultural relativism, such as the contention that the right to development was “as universal and inalienable a right as other fundamental human rights”. In this regard, proponents of Asian values had stood their ground. How well they had done so was clear at the 26th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held in Singapore in July 1993. The joint communiqué released at the end of the meeting exuded quiet satisfaction over the stand taken by Asian countries at Vienna and reiterated its key tenets. Thus, welcoming the “international consensus” achieved at Vienna, ASEAN Foreign Ministers argued that civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights should be promoted “with due regard for specific cultural, social, economic and political circumstances”. They emphasized that the promotion and protection of human rights should not be politicized; insisted that development is an inalienable right; opposed the use of human rights as a conditionality for economic cooperation and development assistance; and emphasized that the international protection and promotion of rights should respect national sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. The ministers “reviewed with satisfaction the considerable and continuing progress of ASEAN in freeing its peoples from fear and want, enabling them to live in dignity”, and they agreed that the grouping should consider the establishment of an appropriate regional mechanism on human rights. The ASEAN meeting upheld the main Asian lines of reasoning at Vienna.

The Asian Crisis

However, change was round the corner. Observers like Mendes had reasoned that, even if Asian economies could deliver increasing incomes to all their people over time, a questionable assertion, “the promise of higher incomes may already be declining in relative utility as compared to rights and participation”. Authoritarian regimes therefore would have to reform their institutions, including delegating power, to retain their legitimacy.

In the event, however, reforms were necessitated, not by middle-class demands for political space generated by economic growth, but by the economic violence that hit the region in 1997. Indonesia’s authoritarian government fell and a deadly leadership struggle in Malaysia led to the sacking of the deputy premier as capital flight battered currencies and stock markets across the region, cutting a swathe of dislocation, shock and pain from Bangkok to Seoul. An estimated 50 million people out of more than 300 million in Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand fell back below the nationally-defined poverty line in the year from mid-1997. The middle-class confidence of many more millions was shattered, the cutting of public expenditure created social deficits that matched economic and financial retrenchments, and nature was pillaged as the calamity drove people to forests, land and sea in desperation.

While some Asian elites blamed international currency speculators for their undeserved misfortune, sarcastic Western observers revelling in Schadenfreude drew attention to corruption, cronyism and a lack of transparency in Asia, traits that they all but labelled silent Asian vices that had accompanied the trumpeted march of Asian values. “Why do you need to be authoritarian to deliver a sensible macroeconomic policy? Which economic-modellers can demonstrate some sort of connection between political repression and GDP growth?” Christopher Patten asked. “Economic growth is surely the result more of business-friendly policies than of people-unfriendly ones, to do more with sensible dependence on markets than with brutal dependence on phone-tappers and armed policemen.”

In a more convincing critique, Robert Wade situates the crisis, not in cultural venality but in the conjunction of material factors that implicated both Asian and Western greed: domestic financial fragility that predated the crash; the growth of excess liquidity in the major industrial nations during the decade that found its way into the hands of money managers seeking high short-term returns; the opening of the capital account by Asian governments in the first half of the decade; and a surge of “momentum-driven private-toprivate capital inflows into Asia that were largely unregulated by governments”. Villains in analyses such as Wade’s include avaricious Wall Street investment banks; the “Washington Consensus” on market liberalization as an almost religious verity that made it possible to elevate Asia into a miraculous continent; conniving Asian policy elites; and the cruelty of the rescue operations mounted by the International Monetary Fund.

Interestingly, the Asian crisis did not hurt China heavily, not least because the non-convertibility of the renminbi insulated the economy. The vigilance of Singapore’s financial regulatory institutions was among the factors that enabled the Republic, too, to escape the worst effects of the crisis. However, the regional mood of confidence that had propelled its push for Asian values came to an abrupt end. In a far cry from articulations of Asian cultural recipes for economic success, proponents of Asian values were “reduced to pleading that they were not to blame for the recent economic downturn”.

Thus ended an era—modest in historical terms, for it had lasted no longer than two decades, but significant in the discursive power that it had exercised over many Asian minds even as it had incensed cultural universalists around the world—in which Asian values had provided an expansive ideological framework for Singapore’s engagement of China. Singapore had sought Beijing’s incorporation into the global economy without the destruction of the domestic Chinese order. That goal had been achieved in spite of the Tiananmen crackdown and the difficulties that it had created for Hong Kong’s return to China. But a bolder attempt to influence the course of Asia’s destiny by articulating a set of culturally-specific values that were friendly to growth floundered on the unsuspected shoals of a crisis in which both Asia and the West were implicated. An entire, geopolitical dimension of Sino-Singapore relations vanished from view almost overnight. The Asian retreat began, charted by magisterial Western prescriptions of the need for “the rule of law, freedom of information, and skepticism towards authority in modern economies”. When Asian countries returned to growth, they did so without citing values. Asian values descended from the discursive peaks of global affairs and disappeared into silence.