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Asia : Are Traditional Values Still Valid?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 22 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The economic earthquake which has swept through South East Asia in recent months has left a heavy trail of damage in terms of bankruptcies, abandoned projects and bad debts. Something less tangible, but possibly more important, may also have been shattered in the fall of the Tigers -- namely "Asian Values".

The so-called Asian values have been the focus of a lively and sometimes acrimonious debate between the West and the Orient in recent years, since Asian leaders began to seek a philosophical framework to explain the spectacular growth their countries' had been able to achieve.

These values, derived from traditional Confucianism, can be summed up as more or less the following: thrift, hard work, savings, respect for authority, love of consensus and most importantly in the context of the present debate, concern for the community before concern for the individual.

By contrast, Western values in the same context can be seen as strongly individualistic, with personal rights and self assertion prized above more generalized community values. A study carried out in 1994 by the American researcher David Hitchcock illustrates the different modes of thinking: 85 per cent of Americans surveyed believed free expression was a key value; only 47 per cent of East Asians did so. But some 71 per cent of East Asians identified an orderly society as a core value; only 11 percent of Americans thought so.

The differences have been highlighted by aggressive statements from regional leaders like Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who has long seen the secret of the region's economic success as lying in Asian values. In a speech in 1995, still at the height of the local boom, he said Western society was morally decayed, and he spoke of Westerners as uprooted and directionless. Since the collapse of the economic miracle Mahathir has raged against the West, suggesting the region's sudden economic troubles could be a result of Western action to undermine a growing rival.

Western analysts for their part have jeered at such talk, saying the downfall of the high-growth Asian countries has exposed both bad management of economic affairs, as well as the myth that Asian values provided any special virtues superior to those of the West. A common Western view is that the concept of Asian values is being used by authoritarian regimes as an excuse to justify the lack of democratization in their societies. This view sees economic growth as inevitably increasing the pressure for more democracy, therefore reducing any specific role for Asian values.

Stepping aside from the heat of the debate, one can set out a number of basics. For one, Asian values can clearly help build successful economies. A population which is orderly, thrifty, hardworking, which values education, which is loyal, has many of the attributes which lead to success. But these values are not a magic prescription for economic progress. They have existed in Asian populations for centuries, but the leap of the East and South East Asian economies out of poverty into world prominence is only very recent.

And certainly in the modern global economy, Asian values don't protect countries from the consequences of mismanagement. The currency crisis which started in Thailand and spread to engulf Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere was the result of factors like huge trade deficits, heavy borrowing, and investment in speculative and ill-founded projects.

In that sense, the crisis has little or nothing to do with Asian values, but rather with the failure of the region's leaders to follow sound economic policies, and to believe they had some special magic aura which protected them from the unforgiving realities of free market forces.

There's every reason to suppose that once a painful period of re-adjustment is endured, the East and South East Asian economies will return to health and at least reasonable growth, based on more realistic premises.

As to Asian values, they are valuable in themselves, and no longer need to be served up to the world by Asian leaders as part of an overall socio-political-economic prescription.