"Asian Values", Singapore, and the Third Way: Re-Working Individualism and Collectivism

By Wee, C. J. W. -L. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 1999 | Go to article overview

"Asian Values", Singapore, and the Third Way: Re-Working Individualism and Collectivism


Wee, C. J. W. -L., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


This paper argues that we should not take at face value the differences between "East" and "West" when we interpret the Singapore Government's usage of the "Asian values" discourse. Instead, it would be better to look at the values raised in the discourse, such as freedom, "Individualism", and "Collectivism". We should ask how any state can have a notion of collectivism, given the present configuration of global capitalism, with its emphasis on the free market. U.K. debates over the so-called "Third Way" are an attempt to overcome this impasse. The paper argues that the Singapore Asian values discourse was a similar and earlier attempt at achieving such a "Third Way".

The Asian economic crisis, as we well know, has led to the triumphalist denunciation of the "Asian values" that were supposed to have powered the "East Asian Miracle". These values are supposed to have stood for a non-individualistic modernity, in which the fractious demand for freedom and rights was subordinated to the larger good, and the traditional and the contemporary were not divorced, as was supposed to have occurred in the advanced West.

For many, thinking of the Asian values debate leads them to think of Malaysia and Singapore -- especially the city-state's Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a well-known champion of Confucian values. It is no surprise that when Kathryn Davies of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interviewed Lee in January 1998, her introduction noted:

   The present current difficulties [in East Asia] have thrown up demands for
   for political change -- most notably in Indonesia where President Suharto
   is facing calls for him to step down. So, are governments going to have to
   become more open and accountable to the electorate -- and what does that
   mean for the concept of Asian values? (BBC World Service 1998)

What is notable, regardless of the pro- or contra-Asian values positioning of individual commentators, is the generality of the socio-cultural and also political contexts relating to the idea of "Asia", taken as a cultural entity contrasted to the West. This occurs in both journalistic and more academic analyses -- and even when, clearly, a discerning attitude is exercised. Two Hong Kong University academics, in history and in politics, writing in the Asia Magazine in December 1997, for instance, proceed to question -- rightly -- the distinction between Asian and European values:

   With the onset of independence, the newly-created states of Asia looked to
   their own values for inspiration. Indeed there was much to recommend this
   course of action -- with the explosive growth in parts of Asia, the desire
   to ascribe success to cultural values became too much to resist. (Owen and
   Roberts 1997, p. 23)

They see a post-hoc justification and an instrumentalist logic behind the Asian values discourse.

The problem for the authors is that the idea of Asian values, certainly in its Confucianist incarnation, is a too-geographically-specific concept to apply to a supposedly pan-Asian miracle. And, in any case, they ask, where does Asia end? Also, the Internet and other new communication media mean that the world's values are in the process of change. The West, in any case, has some deep Asian cultural roots -- for example, Middle-Eastern Christianity. Given all of this,

   to say that one set of values is both distinct and superior, owing nothing
   to outside forces, is self-defeating. There is a constant interchange
   between different cultures ... values will be adapted and shaped to the
   needs of each society.

While the authors interrogate the distinctions between East and West, we can note that their own discourse functions on the same large-scale and abstract "civilizational" plane Asian values discourse's proponents and critics alike oftentimes remain on -- and this, despite the authors' smaller-scale and concrete reference to colonialism and its nationalist aftermath, in which "nativist" notions, understandably, if problematically, were used to shore up or indigenize the Western idea of a nation-state. …

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