Friday, January 20, 2006

What's Happened to Asian Values?

Anthony Milner
During the years of the 'Asian miracle', of course, there was a sense of exhilaration about the 'Asian values' campaign. Mahbubani wrote of the 'explosion of confidence' that gave East Asians the sense that 'they can do anything as well as, if not better than other cultures' [60]7 . These were indeed heady days for those public intellectuals who, working to some extent in sympathy with the 'Asian values' political leaderships, committed themselves to the task of asserting intellectual as well as political agency on behalf of their region. Today Mahbubani admits a 'genuine hint of regret at having spoken so confidently of the rise of Asia' [61]8 . But I think he is right to see the 'Asian values' debate of the 1990's as only one episode in a much longer process of international, cultural reconfiguration.
Mahbubani is quite mistaken, however, in my view, when he expects that this 1990's debate will be seen in retrospect as the 'initial round' in the long campaign. It actually strengthens his case to situate the debate in its proper place, as occurring well into the long-term process of defending the 'local' in the Asian region against what is seen to be the Western global. To understand the 'Asian values' program within the context of this larger historical realignment, that began in the nineteenth-century, draws attention to the well established forces that will help maintain the momentum for change, even at a time of economic reversal.
While the economic crisis certainly challenges the 'Asian values' proponents and their intellectual allies, the way it is interpreted in the region has to be influenced by the firmly-established 'Asian' campaign of resistance against the liberal, Western ideological program. As we have seen, Mahathir is by no means the only influential figure in the Asian region who resists IMF interpretations and solutions. For many intellectuals and other opinion leaders in Asia the economic downturn has been perceived as a reason for condemning liberal as much, or more than, Asian values. Bitter about the revealed economic vulnerability of their countries and their region, prominent many members of Asian societies feel a renewed distrust of 'The West' and are hardened in their resolve to develop post-colonial visions and meanings for the people of Asia.
The main game in the next months and years will be economic, and the forces of globalisation continue to be formidable in bad as well as good times, as anyone visiting Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Taipei or Manila notices immediately. The power of the United States is such that it is not surprising to hear talk of the triumph of 'Anglo-Saxon market values' and the likelihood of a consolidated American 'hegemon'. In speculating about future directions in Asia, however, it may be dangerous to trivialise 'Asian values'. The real, everyday presence of different and contrasting value systems to be encountered as one crosses the Asian region will continue to influence practical developments in all sorts of fields, including the economic.
We need to be aware also that the category 'Asian', however problematic it might be in cultural terms, is attracting a growing emotional investment. Consciousness of 'Asian', as well as 'Confucian', 'Islamic' or 'Malay' identity - just like the promotion of nationalism within the specific nation states of the region - works to reinforce resistance to the claims of a purportedly universal, global community. For many people, ' the global' has a Western flavour. And the fact that a global economy seems to have failed Asian states makes it possible that the long ideological campaign that seeks to undermine the colonial heritage, and that has underpinned the 'Asian values' proclamations, may gain rather than lose momentum in the next decades. I should like to thank Alison Broinowski, Rey Ileto and Deborah Johnson for their assistance and advice in writing this essay. Professor Anthony Milner is the Dean of the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University. This paper was first published in a volume titled Beyond the Asia Crisis, edited by David Goodman and Gerald Segal Rutledge, 1999.

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