Asian Leaders Tout Superior Social Norms: Economic Success Spurs Slams at West

By Barber, Ben | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 21, 1996 | Go to article overview

Asian Leaders Tout Superior Social Norms: Economic Success Spurs Slams at West


Barber, Ben, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Emboldened by rising wealth, some Asian leaders from Tokyo to Singapore are telling their followers that Asian values are better than the values of the West, which they say is sliding into decadence, individualism, crime and sloth.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew are leading a stinging attack on Western values - especially Western-style human rights and press freedoms - in their defense of Asian values.

They say Asian values emphasize the duty of citizens toward society rather than the Western stress on individual freedom.

And these critics say that Asia, with its double-digit economic growth rates, has little reason to emulate the United States with its crime-ridden inner cities and high divorce and illegitimacy rates.

Bolstering Mr. 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 takes the title away from the Sears Tower in Chicago in an apparent building war in which the East appears as a rival to the West. No apparent clash of values there.

The debate over Asian values is becoming increasingly bitter and significant as China's booming economy propels it into a leadership role that likely will dominate the future of East Asia.

MIND YOUR BUSINESS

China has adopted some elements of free-market capitalism but unleashed its tanks to squash political freedom, jailing dissidents and controlling the press.

When the United States and other Western democracies condemned China's repression, Beijing said the United States should mind its own business and deal with its racism, murders, child abuse and other problems.

Mr. Lee, Singapore's prime minister from 1959 to 1990, said recently that Western-style democracy practiced in Taiwan or India "may make for an enjoyable [election] campaign, but I am not sure we need that in Singapore."

He ridiculed the often-chaotic democracies of India, Taiwan and the Philippines and defended the military regime of Burma in its refusal to yield power to a pro-democracy movement.

But critics such as Hong Kong Gov. Christopher Patten say the defenders of Asian values are really justifying authoritarian practices of muzzling the press and limiting democracy by calling the strict controls Asian traditions.

"The debate about Asian values is draped like a fire blanket to smother serious public debate about the real challenges confronting Asia," said Mr. Patten in a November speech.

"What is the Asian way?" asked Mr. Patten.

"Is it represented by the junta in Burma or by the democratically elected government in Manila? By Indian democracy or Chinese authoritarianism? By the lack of corruption in Singapore or by the prevalence of it in other parts of this region?

"It is not enough to look at the future in Asia through the prism of exponentially rising GDP [gross domestic product] statistics and to talk glibly of a coming Asian century."

REJECTS WESTERN INPUT

When the West criticized Burma for killing an estimated 3,000 democracy protesters in 1988 and anulling the opposition's election victory, Rangoon's Asian neighbors in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore rejected the Western interference.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations refused to impose sanctions on Burma, calling instead for a more "Asian" solution of "constructive engagement," hoping that through economic ties Burma would ease its repression. …

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