When Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano recently said that “we should have an Asian mindset, Asian way of solving problems,” he was tapping into the tradition of various regional leaders invoking the idea of an “Asian way” or “Asian values.”
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was an early exponent of this ideology, arguing that Western values are not relevant to the region, and citing its different cultural and socioeconomic context. Instead, he emphasized Asian (or what he called “Confucian”) values: harmony, stability, discipline, the primacy of family and community over the individual.
Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad was an equally fervent adherent. In 1982, his “Look East” campaign advocated for a return to “Malay-Islamic culture.” In 1993 he said pointedly that human rights were “a tool Western governments use to subvert Asian countries.”
Now it cannot be denied that there are cultural differences between “East” and “West.” Asians generally tend to place greater value on family both as a source of identity and authority. Also, for Asians used to subtle and nonverbal forms of communication, Westerners can sound too blunt, and to Westerners, Asians can sound too roundabout.
The invocation of “Asian values” as a way of rebuffing foreign interference also has historic touchstones. Held against the backdrop of colonialism and various forms of imperialism, there is a ring of truth when leaders like President Duterte call out Western governments for hypocrisy.
The validity of these narratives notwithstanding, Asian leaders have all too easily (mis)appropriated them for their own political ends. This is because when they speak of “Asian values,” they usually refer to the way their governments are running their countries.
Lee Kuan Yew’s philosophy, for instance, was in part a response to critics of his project of “illiberal democracy,” which until today curtails freedom of expression in Singapore. Mahathir’s collectivist view of human rights was in defense of his authoritarian ways, which included stifling political dissent through warrantless arrests. Doubtless, Cayetano’s own remarks were an attempt to rebut international outcry over the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippine war on drugs.
What we see from their statements, then, is the (mis)use of “Asian values” to destabilize the idea of a universal concept of human rights: a cultural relativism that taps into people’s sentiments of nationalism and postcolonialism. Alongside the corollary value of “noninterference,” it undermines attempts to hold governments to account for their repressive policies and practices.
It is true that most societies in the region were hierarchical for many centuries, and I suppose one can say that Asians were “used” to such “undemocratic” systems.
But the same can be said of the rest of the world and cannot be used to justify their perpetuation. Moreover, while these reimagined pasts may be utopian for their elites, the same cannot be said for members of the lower classes who never had the chance to opine about whether their society was truly “harmonious.”
We see this happening today, with draconian policies mostly targeting the marginalized of the region. In Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, it is the poor who are killed in the war on drugs; in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, it is the stateless Rohingya who bear the brunt of violence in the name of “stability.” To call this state of affairs the “Asian way” is to normalize oppression and inequality; to glorify them as part of the region’s “culture” is to perpetuate systems that have privileged some and excluded others.
Of course, this is not to say that we should completely reject the idea that there may be styles of governance that are better suited for the region, or, conversely, embrace certain policies simply because they have worked so well in Europe or America. But the problem is that we are presented with a false dichotomy between Western values and Asian (read: authoritarian) ones.
Amid the resurgence of this rhetoric, the challenge for the region is to find a middle way — one that respects cultural differences, but not at the expense of human rights and democracy.
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