No discussion of pan-Asianism can be complete without acknowledging the “Asian values” discourse that dominated the last decade of the twentieth century.
What were these “Asian values” that required protection from the onslaught of Westernization? Primarily, the term referred to a shared belief in placing the common good above individual interests. At a secondary level, the term implied an Asian model of modernization that departed from the western one of industrialization followed by liberal democracy.
And who among Asia’s leaders took it upon themselves to be the champions of these values? Chiefly, the strongmen of Southeast Asia: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, President Sukarno of Indonesia and the Burmese Junta.
In the case of Indonesia and Burma, both were developing nations and argued that they could not afford the luxury of democracy until their populace had reached a certain standard of living. Within this framework, “Asian values” referred to such Protestant-like values as hard work, thrift and teamwork, which could be undermined by the freedoms brought by democracy.
The case of Singapore and Malaysia was a bit more complex. Both nations had already achieved a high standard of living at the time of the Asian values debate. So why weren’t they transitioning to a more liberal society?
At this point, it is helpful to compare “Asian values” to early pan-Asianism (before it was subverted by Japanese imperialism).
Pan-Asianism, as we have seen, was a reaction against the excesses of a narrow nationalism. It spoke of a greater Asian civilization that ignored national boundaries. And it believed that the values it espoused were universal.
“Asian values” by contrast were particular. They referred to specific, unique cultural practices that had to be protected against the universalism of western liberal values. Also, here there was no rejection of nationalism: quite the opposite, in fact. Individual freedoms had to be sacrificed for the nation.
Second, pan-Asianism offered an alternative to the materialism of Western civilisation that was based in Asian spiritualism. By contrast, “Asian values” had nothing to do with spiritualism and everything to do with materialism—the same materialism that pan-Asian theorists had criticized so harshly in earlier eras.
Third, pan-Asianism was the subject of genuine debate between intellectuals across the region. “Asian values” by contrast were never subject to any debate. Instead, Lee and Mahathir unilaterally defined the values in such a manner as to appeal to and co-opt the rapidly expanding domestic middle classes. “Asian values” were pitted against such “Western values” as drug abuse, homosexuality and divorce.1
The strangest aspect of the “Asian values” discourse was that it originated in contexts that were not particularly traditional. Singapore is the most westernised of Asian nations. In fact, when the government launched a religious knowledge component to the curriculum in 1982, foreign experts in Confucianism had to be flown in.2
Similarly, neither Lee nor Mahathir were custodians of ancient traditions. The Cambridge-educated Lee only began to study Mandarin much later in his life. Mahathir too had little time for traditional practices or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Both men were keen on modernization and engineered much cultural change.
Talk of “Asian values” faded away in Southeast Asia after the Asian economic crisis, only to reappear in amended form in China. China, of course, has long studied the Singaporean model.
Looking for a bulwark against creeping westernization, the Chinese leadership has pursued a revival of Confucianism in Chinese schools and universities, doing a one-eighty from past communist policy that thoroughly discredited Confucian feudalism.
And when the Chinese government first established the International Confucian Association, whom did they elect as honorary chairman? None other than Lee Kuan Yew.