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Asian values was a term used in the 1990s to justify the actions of authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defend it from those who advocated the importance of "human rights", which were then codified as being Western values without historical validity in Asia. The advocacy of a concept of Asian values is predicated on the idea that Asian countries have a unique set of institutions and political ideologies that reflect the region's cultures and histories, and that therefore should be prioritized and supported in opposition to contrasting values from other regions. In particular, this idea was strongly advocated by former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia.
The argument is that there are many differences in Eastern and Western ideas, philosophies, and religions, and that there is a proper geographical location for each. For instance, advocates of the concept of Asian values claimed that collectivism—the idea that human beings are an integral part of the universe and people are fundamentally connected—is stronger in Asian society. On the other hand, individualism—the idea that a human being is an independent part of the universe and society—was said to be stronger in Western society.
The main schools of Asian values as defined by advocates of the concept include Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Integral yoga, Islam, and Taoism, along with other philosophies, movements, and religions. Those who argued against this idea of "Asian values" said that there is no single set of "Asian values", but rather there is a very large variety of different cultures and values throughout Asia, many of which are in opposition to others. The term represents a challenge to western ideals of the universal rights of man that were advocated beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing until the present day.
The debate over Asian values, previously a heated topic, gradually declined during 1997 Asian financial crisis, when it became evident that Asia as a whole lacked a regional institutional mechanism—let alone any collective action—to deal with imminent problems, and thus was not able to react collectively to the crisis. During the booming economy, especially in Eastern Asia, the initiators of the debate on "Asian values" wished to create a pan-Asian identity as a counterpart to the identity of "the West". The handover of Hong Kong and Macao may have symbolized the removal of the final colonial remnants in Asia.
Due to the fact that there were many different proponents of the concept, no single definition of what constitutes Asian values exists, but typically "Asian values" encompasses some influences of Confucianism, in particular filial piety or loyalty towards the family, corporation, and nation; the forgoing of personal freedom for the sake of society's stability and prosperity; the pursuit of academic and technological excellence and a strong work ethic along with thrift. Proponents of "Asian values", who tend to support Asian-style authoritarian governments, claim these values are more appropriate for the region than Western democracy with its emphasis on individual freedoms. Asian values were codified and emphasized in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, which reemphasized the principles of sovereignty, self-determination, and noninterference over civil and political rights.
A brief list of such "Asian Values" includes:
- Predisposition towards single-party rule rather than political pluralism
- Preference for social harmony (see Fraternization) and consensus as opposed to confrontation and dissent
- Concern with socio-economic well-being instead of civil liberties and human rights
- Preference for the welfare and collective well-being of the community over individual rights
- Loyalty and respect towards forms of authority including parents, teachers and government
- Collectivism and communitarianism over individualism and liberalism
- Authoritarian governments (which have certain responsibilities as well as privileges) as opposed to liberal democracy.
The concept of "Asian values" is a popular idea in the People's Republic of China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and also in some political circles in Japan. In Malaysia and Singapore, the concept of Asian values has been embraced partly because it reconciled Islam, the religion of the Malays, with the Confucianism of the ethnic Chinese, and Hinduism. This in turn helped to create a sense of common values among different ethnic and religious groups in those countries, as well as forming an ideology that they could call their own which is different from their understanding of the West. In Japan, it was embraced in some nationalist circles because it challenged the West and also offered the possibility of Japanese leadership in a new Asia. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the East and Southeast Asian regions were the only developing regions that grew exponentially in terms of economic wealth; some proponents of Asian Values have credited this success to a distinctive "third-way" Asian political model that was touted as an alternative to both totalitarianism and liberal democracy.
Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew, at that time the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore, respectively, were particularly vocal advocates of Asian values. Lee maintained that more than economics, more than politics, a nation's culture will determine its fate. Fareed Zakaria has written extensively on Asian values, while Amartya Sen has been one of the concept's strongest critics. Some critics of the term argue that no universal "Asian" values system exists, because the cultural diversity of Asia is too great for there to be a single set of common values across the region. The suggestion that a set of 'Asian values' operated throughout the Asian region, or even just in East Asia, contradicts what we know about the presence of long-standing religious (Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist, and Christian) and other divisions in the region, and of the major social and cultural transformations that have been underway, especially in the last decade or so.
The concept of "Asian values" began to lose currency after the Asian financial crisis weakened the economies of many Asian countries, leading to the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Some consider these values to have contributed to the crisis. When the crisis spread worldwide, the blame subsided.
Asian values (as opposed to Western, or universal values) may serve the purpose of forming a robust ideological counter force in Asia, and most particularly in China, to the nations which most clearly aim at the imposition of western ideology on the East. One way or the other, the use of the term is capable in itself of creating a significant Dialogue Among Civilizations between human ideas in all fields. The End of History and the Last Man written by Francis Fukuyama, a strong proponent of Western liberal democracy, presents one of the key examples of an ideological counter force against Asian values. In his book, Fukuyama notes that democracy "conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism and most recently communism", marked by the end of the Cold War. His thesis is that "Liberal democracy may constitute the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form of human government" and as such constituted the end of history."
In 2006 Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, linked the concepts of Asian values with the proposed East Asian Free Trade Agreement and East Asian Community arising from the East Asia Summit. He partly defends Asian values by placing emphasis on co-operation over competition. Even until recently, there have been a number of efforts to promote East Asian regional institutions such as the idea of a single regional free trade agreement, like the East Asia Free Trade Area (EAFTA) among the ASEAN +3 countries — the 10 ASEAN members plus the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan and the Republic of Korea — or a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) among the ASEAN +6 countries — also including Australia, India and New Zealand. These initiatives may be seen as a first step towards the creation of a region-wide economic community. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) study Institutions for Asian Integration: Toward an Asian Economic Community (2010), Asia is supported by a dense web of 40 overlapping regional and sub-regional institutions that promote regional cooperation and integration at the intergovernmental level. The realization of a single Asian community would strengthen the idea of Asian values.
Several Asian political figures have expressed criticism of the idea of Asian values, including former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Lee Teng-hui, and former President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Kim Dae Jung.
Also, in his article "Democracy as a Universal Value", Amartya Sen pointed out that no universal "Asian" value system could possibly exist, because the cultural diversity of Asia is far too great for there to be a single set of common values across the region.
- Golden straitjacket
- Guided democracy
- Liberal democracy
- Traditionalism - The Western equivalent of "Asian Values"
- Europeanism - The modern opposite of "Asian Values"
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