Asian Values Are Human Values; Attacks by Western Pundits Are Based on Ignorance, Arrogance and Envy

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), April 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Asian Values Are Human Values; Attacks by Western Pundits Are Based on Ignorance, Arrogance and Envy


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


Much ridicule has been heaped recently on the notion of Asian values. One would expect it from the jingoists at the Sun. But when Jonathan Mirsky (New Statesman, 3 April) suggests that the whole concept is "paltry", or that Asian values may not even exist, one gets the feeling that chauvinism is having it all its own way.

It should be incontestable that Asians, like the rest of humanity, have a right to exercise their consciences and call their beliefs their own. The Asian values debate is about the meaning of these beliefs in these postmodern times.

All of the world's great religious traditions, the source of all of humanity's most cherished values, originated and are extant in Asia: Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Asia has the greatest number of practising members of these various religions. And Asia has never lost its spiritual impulse, which is exactly why so many anomic refugees from western angst trek east, seeking insight.

Concepts of law, society, probity, tolerance, justice, equity, the good citizen and the good life, as well as attitudes to our fellow creatures and our environment, were formulated in Asia centuries before the west assumed its arrogant mission to civilise non-western societies. The emphasis of Confucius, for example, on building a civic society by concentrating on social relationships and social harmony, and his insistence on righteous behaviour in politics, could teach volumes to new Labour and latter-day communitarians. Mencius' suggestion that ordinary people have more awareness of love, justice and fairness, and are more important than kings and princes (or their elected representatives), is just as valid today as it ever was. The prominence given to tolerance and respect for others in Buddhism and social justice in the Koran apply as much in Asia as anywhere else.

Of course, not everyone sees these values as important. And intellectuals, thinkers and ordinary people throughout Asia are themselves debating the significance of these values for contemporary times. Is conformism innate to Asian values? Are there common features shared by such different traditions as Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism that permit a meaningful single rubric of Asian values? How are they different from western values? How can they be translated into policy? Are they being bandied about by political opportunists?

That last question is of particular relevance. Western commentators have focused on how the Asian values debate has been manipulated by dictators such as President Suharto of Indonesia. Despots, military generals and authoritarian rulers have always used whatever they can to camouflage their nefarious activities. But this does not make what they hijack totally meaningless. Has colonialism written off the Christian ideals of love and equality? Did the Holocaust finish off the precious values of liberalism? On the contrary: inhumanity only reinforces the importance of humane values.

Indeed, the loudest voices against the use of Asian values as an excuse for oppression and injustice have come from Asia itself. Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia, a highly regarded intellectual and a major player in the debate, has repeatedly denounced the "shameful" and "ingenious" use of Asian values "as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic human rights and civil liberties". …

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