"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.(1)
A "civilizational" discourse almost erases the more immediate colonial and post-colonial history and intellectual genealogy that should come to mind when thinking of a former British colony like Singapore, and of the issues that are connected with the Asian values discourse, such as freedom, "Individualism" and "Collectivism".(2) These matters are not new: they were crucial to the history of English nation-building and British state formation from the Victorian to recent periods -- and have not as yet disappeared. What we now have is an ongoing debate as to what national values the state should espouse in the face of late capitalism's overarching importance. Late-Victorian and Edwardian liberalism had to jostle not only with Toryism but also with the newer socialism in the questioning of what "freedom" meant, and the place of collectivism when capitalism did not seem to cater to the public good.
The "Asian values" related with the People's Action Party (PAP) government (in power in Singapore since 1959) are not unrelated to its colonial heritage, especially in the context of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. Such contexts indicate less esoteric concerns than those enshrined in larger civilizational discourses. Certainly, one pressing concern -- and not only for Singapore, but also as found in discussions of the Blairite "Third Way" -- is the ability to have any notion of collectivism in the face of apparently triumphant free-market and transnational capitalist forces. (My purpose here, then, is to try to show, in the case of Singapore, the lead-up to what becomes the "Asian values" debate. This debate is more appropriately seen as an Asian modernity discourse [see Wee 1996] examining the concept of freedom so important to British liberalism. It is also about the conflict between individualism and collectivism, as it emerges from the issue of laissez-faire and state intervention in Britain.) In this respect, the question of collectivism's possibilities links both contemporary and tiny Singapore to its former colonial master.
Democratic Socialism, Individualism, and Collectivism
The question of "Asian values", perhaps counter-intuitively, has something to do with the question of what "social democracy" is Western Europe) What is the relationship between the transformation of society and the compromises necessary for this transformation, given present economic "realism"? To understand this, one need only think of the complex history of mid-Victorian liberalism as it threads its tortured way into the twentieth century. By the time it reaches Mrs Thatcher, liberalism's economistic free-market aspects are absorbed into something called the "New Right" of the Tory Party, becoming an odd admixture of authoritarianism, nostalgic nationalistic imperial adventurism, privatization, and the support for the free market.
Mrs Thatcher got on very well with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had a Fabian background and, like other first-generation PAP leaders, a commitment to democratic socialism. By the mid-1970s, however, the British left had started to vilify the PAP and its betrayal of the best of Labour traditions. But what, one may start by asking, has happened to those very traditions? Have they been scrambled the way Tory traditionalism has been? The answers to that will lead us into an understanding of how the PAP -- after ditching "Asian values"-- has become one of the chief supporters of economic reform for affected East and Southeast Asian countries in the wake of the Asian economic crisis that developed after the Thai baht was de-linked from the U.S. dollar in July 1997, even while struggling to retain some notion of the "social"-- and thus of collectivism -- in the process.
As we now know all too well, while the collapse of the right in Western Europe should have seen the re-emergence of social democratic parties and policies that might have countered the economic neoliberalism of previous regimes, this did not happen. Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder's victories instead have become a "Third Way" and a Neue Mitre (New Centre), which are -- in Blair's own words at the Labour Party's Blackpool conference -- "pro-business and pro-enterprise" (International Herald Tribune, 28 September 1998).
The intellectual doyen of the Third Way is sociologist Anthony Giddens, with his book of the same title (1998). Some remnant of collectivism and an interest in social justice and freedom remain in his thought; certainly, as Giddens says:
The term "centre-left" isn't an innocent label. A renewed social democracy has to be left-of-centre, because social justice and emancipatory politics remain at its core. But the "centre" shouldn't be regarded as empty of content. (p. 45)
The concession connected to that word "centre" is that global capitalism has won, for "no one any longer has any alternative to capitalism" (p. 43). What is now left …
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Publication information: Article title: "Asian Values", Singapore, and the Third Way: Re-Working Individualism and Collectivism. Contributors: Wee, C. J. W. -L. - Author. Journal title: SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. Volume: 14. Issue: 2 Publication date: October 1999. Page number: 332. © 1999 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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