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Effects of modernity

Asia is today the fastest growing region in the world and the region is driven by a sense of optimism, vigour and hope which are the hallmarks of a rising civilization. With the rising increase of globalization, Asia is more vulnerable to the after effects of globalization and modernity: universal values. This is a sensitive subject that haunts most Asian political leaders of the 20th century; the so-called 'Asian values' embedded in their people shall be lost forever as they adapt to the Western ways and rules of life and embrace their values while turning their backs on their own.

The question is: Does modernity bring universal values from the West and what of the consequence of developing Asian countries? This essay shall discuss just that. This essay shall examine the effects of modernity and analyse whether it is possible for any nation or ethnic group to not only free itself from the influence of Western power but also adapt to its influences and live within their own respective values and cultures as well.

The main universal value that the United States put forward in what it euphemistically called "regime change" was "democracy." Democracy, for the United States clearly means "liberal democracy," a particular hybrid of liberalism and democracy. Political scientist Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War will not bring peace and the worldwide acceptance of liberal democracy. Instead, ideological conflict will be replaced by conflicts among those with different religions, values, ethnicities, and historical memories—the cultural factors that define civilizations.

Nations will increasingly form alliances based on common civilization rather than common ideology; and wars will tend to occur along the fault lines between major civilizations. Since each of these civilizations has its own unique cluster of values, the West should "abandon the illusion of universality" and do what is necessary to promote its own interests and unique values. "The principle responsibility of Western leaders is not to attempt to reshape other civilizations in the image of the West...but to preserve and renew the unique qualities of Western civilization." (Huntington:1996)

Huntington's claim about the uniqueness of Western values echoes corresponding claims in both Asia and the Islamic world. What has been called the "Asian values argument" claims that Confucian values are incompatible with the values of democracy and, therefore, that democracy is inappropriate for Asian societies. A similar problem is said to exist within Islamic societies. Islam, it is claimed, can recognize only the sovereignty of Allah. Therefore, it cannot accept the sovereignty of the demos, since that is merely human sovereignty. The upshot of these claims is that democracy is a value specific to Western civilization and incompatible with Asian and Islamic societies. Thus, it can be said that democracy as a value has no universal validity.

I shall begin with the 'Asian values' argument. The term 'Asian values' carries the suggestion that there is a set of values that is fundamental and specific to the whole of Asia, though its meaning cannot be expressed in any form of verbal or written communication. Various writers have conveyed their personal opinion on its meaning and from where the term originated from. Some say it is a generic term for a set of political arguments that rest on cultural or pseudo-cultural premises of varying veracity; others say that it is a defence against a culturally Western modernity and others theorise that it used to cover up or defend the Asian economical crisis back in 1997. Whatever values we can identify as Asian can also be identified in other traditions and therefore they are not exclusively Asian, one line of argument has it. How can we suggest, this argument continues, a commonality across Asia, implied in the term 'Asian values', when Asia itself is so diverse?

Asian values have an obviously political dimension but they are not just about politics. They have an obviously anti-Western tinge in the sense that they are often defined in contrast with the West, but that is not really what drives them either. They are much to do with an internal Asian debate about the nature of good life, regional community, about the dynamics of modernisation, about whether modernisation means Westernisation, and about the reconciliation of indigenous traditions with new cosmopolitan dynamics (Sheridan:2002).

According to Barr (2002, p. 3), Lee Kuan Yew is the undisputed architect of the 'Asian values' argument. In the 1970's during his political reign, he attributed Singapore's success to the fact that "we were an Asian-Oriental type society, hardworking, thrifty and disciplined; a people with Asian values, strong family ties and responsibility for the extended family which is a common feature of Asian cultures, whether Chinese, Malay or Indian". In the 1980's he urged parents to teach their children Asian values, warning them not to forget that Singapore's success is largely due to the strong spirit of diligence among Asians and to the importance of the strong family relationships and parents-children obligation in Asian societies.

Lee argues that while there is no Asian model as such, Asian societies - he makes it clear that he is referring specifically to East Asian societies - are significantly different than other societies. Specifically, he argues that, as Confucian cultures, they de-emphasize the idea of individual rights and democracy in favour of community and social stability. Which brings me to my next question: what ideals of Confucianism are incompatible with the ideals of democracy?

Some examples can be pointed out that when Confucianism indicates concern for the individual, it focuses on duties not on rights and that, in fact, it has no place for the concept of individual rights (Struhl:2004). Furthermore, Confucianism demands a sense of loyalty which requires that the individual be bound to others, whereas democratic politics require a lack of loyalty to particular elected officials. Such a sense of loyalty is also incompatible with the value of autonomy imbedded in the democratic ideal. Finally, Confucianism sees people as unequal because of their different social roles and puts a high value on unity, whereas democracy is committed to equality and pluralism.

However, Lee was only interested in promoting only a chapter of Confucianism; values such as state and family-centred communitarianism, hard work, thrift and education. Alongside with it, he began to bemoan the lack of tradition in his people and started emphasising the virtues of social traditions. He sought to build a new social consensus based upon the retention of traditional cultures and hoped that the members of each racial community would use their cultural heritage as an anchor, so that each person would be a strong, robust member of society. He had hoped that 'the traditional importance of the Asian family unit' could prevent the excesses that could results from imitating contemporary Western mores (Barr:2002).

He was setting out to build a 'rugged' and 'tightly-knit' society capable of ensuring the country's survival, launching this rhetoric three months after Singapore's independence in 1965. This marked the beginning of a period of rhetorical flourish in which Lee praised communitarian values and idealised the 'rugged society'. When he spoke of a 'rugged society' he meant that the society as an organic whole was to be 'rugged' and resilient (Barr:2002). Lee had also expressed his emerging faith in the virtues of 'social discipline'. Speaking of countries that he had visited recently and on which he had made observations, he stated that where social discipline is less, the progress is slower and if everyone does what he or she likes, without social discipline, that will become the whole momentum of the country.

Another view on 'Asian values' comes from another political leader whose reputation exceeds him as being one of the most outspoken amongst most Asian political leaders against the influences of the West: Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. In so far as the West has a view of Malaysia it tends to be defined by the nation's high-profile of such long standing. Mahathir's caustic lectures to the West and his determination never to be trod on or told what to do by outsiders deserve attention.

Barr (2002, p.39) argues that Mahathir's advocacy of 'Asian values' is based on a mixture of political expediency and long-standing impulses and beliefs. His role in the 'Asian values' debate centres along contributions in four areas: liberal democracy, 'East Asian values' and work ethic, the corrupting influence of Western values (as opposed to Malay and Islamic family values) and the West's continuing exploitation of the developing world.

The development of Mahathir's illiberal approach to democracy has not been completely consistent, and has shifted with the exigencies of political expediency. Like Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir's dispute with 'liberal democracy' is the 'liberal' part. In 1994, he argued that 'The West's interpretation of human rights is that every individual can do what he likes, free from any restraint by governments. It does not matter if the government is elected democratically by the majority of the people. Governments, according to liberal democrats, cannot in any way act against the personal wishes of the individual in society.'

Mahathir's identification of illiberalism with 'East Asian' culture provides a linkage with his approval of 'East Asian' values. His admiration of Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture is a major feature of his career and by 1970, had already developed his thinking into a book, The Malay Dilemma. Critics of the book concentrated on the early chapters where Mahathir set out his theories on heredity and argues that the Malay's are genetically and culturally inferior to the Chinese. This then led to his justification of a 'positive discrimination' in favour of the Malays to help them catch up with the Chinese, a stance that made a fundamental point of difference with Lee Kuan Yew's meritocratic version of 'Asian values' (Barr:2002).

Mahathir has since renounced his theories of Malay inferiority, but he has never abandoned his admiration for the Chinese businessman, which he has expanded into an admiration for 'East Asian' values and work ethics. His is 'Look East' campaign; he upheld Japan, South Korean and Taiwan as model of successful cultures. He was drawn to those countries with strong hegemonic governments and how instrumental they acted in those countries' successes. The role of strong, stable governments obviously counted more for Mahathir that the fact that it was democratic. His 'tagline' for the campaign is layman's terms are basically to look East ... to rid ourselves of the Western values that we have absorbed. Like Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir's concern over the creeping, corrupting effects of 'Western values' seems to be a reaction to the libertarianism and secularism that swept America and most of the West during and after the 1960's (Godement:1999).

However, what we see in Asian cultures is a conflict between authoritarian and democratic tendencies. In 1995, Mahathir attacked 'Western hedonism' in terms that leave little doubt about the depth of his emotional revulsion at modern 'Western values': Materialism, sensual gratification and selfishness are rife. The community has given way to the individual and his desires. The inevitable consequence has been the breakdown of established institutions and diminished respect for marriage, family values, elders, and important customs, convention, and traditions. These have been replaced by a new set of values based largely on the rejection of all that relates to spiritual faith and communal life.

However, Mahathir does not criticise all 'Western values' in perpetuity. In fact, he regards 'the old values and systems of the West' as worthy of emulation, these being 'orderliness, discipline and firm social organisation', as well as Western mastery of technology and useful 'secular knowledge'. He complains of the post-war 'transformation of values' and the 'collapse of values', particularly since decolonisation. The fruits of this transformation include, homosexuality, drugs, pornography, obscenity, nudity, promiscuity, civil disobedience, cohabitation without marriage, disrespect towards parents and a decline of religious practice (Sheridan:1999).

Granted this litany, it should come as no surprise to learn that close to the heart of Mahathir's hostility to new 'Western values' is his concern for the family, which he believes 'provides stability and security for the individual'. It is however, immaterial that many in the West would agree with his critique of these 'Western values' and that his reactions are uniquely 'Asian'. More important, is that the fact that his objection to libertarianism is based fundamentally on the detrimental effect that he perceives this has on the family and on friendships as vehicles of social stability and security (Struhl:2004).

Mahathir's version of 'Asian values', like Lee Kuan Yew's, is distinctively his, and can be generalised into the broader 'Asian values' argument only up to a point. According to Barr (2002, p. 45), this limitation highlights a term which can be used: the 'Asian values' argument is not a single proposition, but a collection of reactions and related arguments, some of which are contradictory, but all of which are premised on an instinctive mistrust of the West.

The economic crisis of South East-Asia prompted a gleeful response in the West, which we might describe as "good-bye - and good riddance - to Asian values." Either the presence of those values was an illusion, it is now claimed, or they did not possess the virtues ascribed to them by observers, Western and Eastern, who were blinded by Confucian influences (Glazer:1999). With the stress now on cronyism and corruption, perhaps Asian values were always quite the opposite of what the West had thought they were: crap. It is worth noting that the setback experienced by the region in 1997-98 was of a kind and dimension that had occurred repeatedly in the West in earlier years. But no one then drew the conclusion that Western values were thus proved to be incompatible with, or irrelevant to, the West's economic development, and there seems to be no reason for drawing such a conclusion about Asian values.

From the discussion of the Asian values argument, I conclude that there is no specific impediment to the possibility of democracy as a universal value. However, that there is no necessary impediment does not in itself mean that democracy is such a value. What we need now is an argument in favor of its universality. In fact, we need to ask what it means for something to have a universal value. It cannot be consensus, since there is hardly an existing consensus on any value. Amtrya Sen[1] has offered the following definition: "the claim of a universal value is that people everywhere may have reason to see it as valuable....Understood in this way, any claim that something is a universal value involves some counterfactual analysis -- in particular, whether people might see some value in a claim that they have not yet considered adequately."

Indeed, actions by Mahathir and Lee are subjective to many and though, their theories do contain some tinge of political status, one fact still stands: their attempt to keep Western values out are in some ways, plausible and effective, but the cultures and practices which have already been implemented into the society from before, shall not go anywhere. Tommy Koh, Singaporean Ambassador at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted that Asian values are deeply rooted in many Asian histories and cultures just as there are values which unite the European family derived from the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. He also stressed that Asian values are neither superior nor inferior to Western values, reaffirming that "my simple thesis is that there are good Asian values and good Western values just as there are bad Asian values and bad Western values" (2003).

The entire value system, whether West or East remains a slippery notion. They can be addressed at several distinct levels. Asian authoritarianism and semi-authoritarian regimes have used their value system to counter Western pressures on universal rights and rules. Attempts to uphold Asian values by Asian political leaders are really efforts to mobilize flagging domestic support while attempts by the West to deny the existence is merely self-serving.

I began this essay with the observation that proponents of the invasion of Iraq claimed that they were not trying to impose American or western values but universal ones. What is wrong with this claim should now be clear. Democracy, if it is to be authentic, must reflect the values of the culture within which it arises. To attempt to export of impose a particular form of democracy is, in fact, to deny the universal significance of democracy. To be specific, for the United States to seek to export or to impose its form of democracy on another culture is inherently anti-democratic.