Can Asians Think?

June 1, 1998 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusinessCold War

Can Asians Think?

Mini Teaser: Realistically, can the rest of the world continue to ride on the shoulders of the West? If Asians double in population in the next fifty years, will they be able to carry their fair share of this burden?

by Author(s): Kishore Mahbubani

Fifth and finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the key question
remains whether Asian minds will be able to develop the right blend
of values that will both preserve some of the traditional strengths
of Asian values (e.g., attachment to the family as an institution,
deference to societal interests, thrift, conservatism in social
mores, respect for authority) and absorb the strength of Western
values (the emphasis on individual achievement, political and
economic freedom, respect for the rule of law as well as for key
national institutions). This will be a complex challenge.

One of the early (and perhaps inevitable) reactions by some Western
commentators to the 1997-98 financial crisis was to suggest that it
fundamentally reflected the failure of Asian values. If nothing else,
this quick reaction suggested that the "Asian values" debate of the
early 1990s had touched on some sensitive nerves in the Western mind
and soul. The desire to bury Asian values revealed the real pain that
had been inflicted during that debate.

The true test of the viability and validity of values is not shown in
theory but in practice. Those who try to draw a direct causal link
between adherence to Asian values and financial disaster have a tough
empirical case to make, given the varied reactions of East Asian
societies to the financial crisis. South Korea and Thailand, two of
the three countries that were most deeply affected by the crisis
(i.e., those who had to turn to the IMF for assistance), had been
given the highest marks by the West for their moves toward
democratization. The three open economies least affected by the
financial crisis, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have very
different political systems. In short, there was no clear correlation
between political systems and financial vulnerability.

The only correlation that is clear so far is that between good governance and resilience in the financial crisis. Good governance is not associated with any single political system or ideology. It is associated with the willingness and ability of the government to develop economic, social, and administrative systems that are resilient enough to handle the challenges brought about in the new economic era into which we are moving. China provides a good living example of this. Its leaders are not looking for the perfect political system in theory. They are searching daily for pragmatic solutions to keep their society moving forward. The population supports this pragmatism, for they too feel that it is time for China to catch up. Traditionally, the Chinese have looked for good government, not minimal government. They can recognize good governance when they experience it. The fact that Japan which is in Western eyes the most liberal and democratic East Asian society - has had great difficulties adapting to the new economic environment demonstrates that political openness is not the key variable to look at.

It is vital for Western minds to understand that the efforts by Asians to rediscover Asian values are not only or even primarily a search for political values. Instead, they represent a complex set of motives and aspirations in Asian minds: a desire to reconnect with their historical past after this connection had been ruptured both by colonial rule and the subsequent domination of the globe by a Western Weltanschauung; an effort to find the right balance in bringing up their young so that they are open to the new technologically interconnected global universe and yet rooted in and conscious of the cultures of their ancestors; an effort to define their own personal, social, and national identities in a way that enhances their sense of self-esteem in a world in which their immediate ancestors had subconsciously accepted the fact that they were lesser beings in a Western universe. In short, the reassertion of Asian values in the 1990s represents a complex process of regeneration and rediscovery that is an inevitable aspect of the rebirth of societies.

Here again, it is far too early to tell whether Asian societies can successfully both integrate themselves into the modern world and reconnect with their past. Both are mammoth challenges. Western minds have a clear advantage over Asian minds, as they are convinced that their successful leap into modernity was to a large extent a result of the compatibility of their value systems with the modern universe. Indeed, many Western minds believe (consciously or subconsciously) that without Western value systems no society can truly enter the modern universe.

Only time will tell whether Asian societies can enter that universe as Asian societies rather than Western replicas. Since it is far too early to pass judgment on whether they will succeed in this effort, it is perhaps fair to suggest that this too is another argument in favor of the "Maybe" answer to the question "Can Asians think?"

Clearly, the twenty-first century and the next millennium will prove to be very challenging for Asian societies. For most of the past five hundred years, they have fallen behind European societies in many different ways. There is a strong desire to catch up. The real answer to our question will be provided if and when they do so. Until then, Asians should constantly remind themselves why this question remains a valid one for them to ponder. Only they can answer it. No one else can.

Kishore Mahbubani is permanent secretary (policy) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore. These are his personal views.

Essay Types: Essay