East and West Clash on Values but Share Economic Interests

Article excerpt

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew are leading a stinging attack on Western values. They especially are targeting human rights and press freedoms, claiming that Asian values emphasize the duty of citizens to society rather than individual freedom.

Bolstering Mahathir's pride, Malaysia's state-owned oil company has just built the world's tallest building in Kuala Lumpur. At 1,482.6 feet, it tops the Sears Tower in Chicago. But as Asia becomes richer, leaders such as Mahathir worry that Eastern cities will emulate Western ones in less-positive ways -- with increases in crime and higher divorce and illegitimacy rates.

Indeed, the debate about Asian values is becoming bitter as China's booming economy propels it into a leadership role in the East. China has adopted some elements of free-market capitalism but has unleashed its tanks to squash political freedom. This summer, officials executed hundreds of convicted criminals in an effort to quash a rising crime rate.

Lee, Singapore's prime minister from 1959 to 1990, recently ridiculed the often-chaotic democracies of India, Taiwan and the Philippines and defended the military regime of Myanmar in its refusal to yield power to a pro-democracy movement. When the West criticized Myanmar for killing an estimated 3,000 democracy protesters in 1988 and annulling the opposition's election victory, Rangoon's Asian neighbors resented the interference. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations refused to impose sanctions on Myanmar, calling instead for a more Asian solution of "constructive engagement."

Western nations also condemned Singapore for caning an American teenager accused of vandalism in 1994 and for suing the International Herald Tribune for publishing charges of nepotism and government control of the judiciary. Singapore earlier had restricted distribution of the Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review because the publications refused to print in full government rebuttals.

After World War II, US. troops under Gen. Douglas MacArthur forcibly imposed democracy on Japan, writing a constitution that recreated Anglo-American political institutions. Nevertheless, Japan retained some traditional Asian values that often shock Americans, including reverence for bureaucratic authority.

Taiwan and Korea have evolved since 1960 toward more open democracy. …