‘Asian Values’ Concept Crumbles With Economies


Just a year ago, billboards in Malaysia proclaimed “The Future Is Now,” and Britain’s respected Economist magazine reported that 1 billion--yes, 1 billion--previously poor Asians were entering the middle class.

With boom times seemingly destined to roll on, academics and financial experts cast about to find common denominators to explain Asia’s extraordinary growth and enhanced living standards--Malaysia’s per capita income, for example, jumped from $350 in 1957 to almost $5,000 in 1997.

Some reasons were obvious: a lofty rate of personal savings; the highest literacy in the developing world; an obsession with education, political stability and strong leadership; an industrious work force that would toil from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.

But another factor kept cropping up, especially as advocated by Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: It was “Asian values,” and it held that Asia’s success was partly a product of inherent differences--especially as to how business is done, lives are lived and priorities set.


Proponents asserted that across Southeast Asia, conflict is avoided for the sake of harmony; politeness is valued over directness; individual rights are held in lower regard than societal responsibility.

“So-called human rights,” as Lee termed them, were deemed less important than deference to authority. Democracy, the reasoning went, impedes development because the well-being of the community counts for more than the fulfillment of the individual.

But no one has spoken of Asian values since the region’s economies crashed over the past year.

Indeed, the economic crisis in Asia has shattered, among others, the notion that Asians had succeeded financially because of a gene or a cultural trait. And some critics contend that “Asian values” was really just a cover phrase for authoritarianism.


“What’s the big deal about Asian values?” asked Wilfrido Vallacorta, a political scientist at De La Salle University in the Philippines, which, along with Thailand, is Southeast Asia’s most democratic country. “Values are the same everywhere. It’s just a matter of emphasis. The idea of Asia having special values was emphasized to justify a deviation from Western-style democratic ideals such as freedom of expression, human and civil rights. These rights are basic. They may have started in the West, but they are now part of the human legacy.”

But Vallacorta concedes that Westerners trying to right Asia’s sickly economies often overlook key cultural differences between East and West.

The call by the International Monetary Fund, for example, for economic transactions to be clear and easy to understand--for them to have “transparency,” as it is termed here--ignores traditions in a culture where deals are made between friends behind closed doors, and connections to the seats of power are essential for getting ahead. It is a modus operandi that allowed “crony capitalism” to become an important part of the region’s economy.

In 1994, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies polled 100 businesspeople from eight Asian countries and a group of Americans to determine what priority their fellow citizens gave various societal values.


The Americans’ top priorities, in order, were: free expression, personal freedom, individual rights, open debate and thinking for oneself. None of these were among the top responses from Asians, who listed, instead, an orderly society, group harmony and respect for authority.

To many Asians, challenging authority is disrespectful and economic “transparency” is little more than a fuzzy Western concept.

In countries such as Vietnam, creativity and “thinking for oneself” are openly discouraged as a threat to authority.

Vietnamese university students furiously scribble notes for each lecture they attend. But they would never consider raising a single question. Those who mimic professors’ comments score well on exams.


Everywhere but Thailand and the Philippines, the lack of debate, combined with government-controlled or government-influenced media, also partly explains why “Asian values” have helped extend the careers of authoritarian leaders.

Had Indonesia’s media, for example, been free to play a watchdog role, former President Suharto would not have had a prayer of staying in power for 32 years.

Another myth that died in the past year, along with the idea that Southeast Asia built its economic miracle on “Asian values,” is the notion that Asians accepted authoritarianism as the price of communal advancement.

Many might have been content to accept the status quo in society and make money while the economy boomed across the region, but, at the first sign of a downturn, there was a clamor for democratic reforms.


Suharto was brought down by a popular uprising that started as a protest against economic hardship. Thailand’s disliked government resigned last year after peaceful public protests. Former President Fidel V. Ramos abandoned attempts to amend the Philippine Constitution so he could run for another term when a “people power” movement took to the streets.

Everywhere in Southeast Asia, except Myanmar, the military is in retreat as a political force.

What appears clear, political analysts say, is that in the wake of economic turmoil, more democratization is taking root in Southeast Asia. But neither the turmoil nor the miracle was created by “Asian values,” even though Asians long believed--and the West bought into--the myth that Asia was propelled by an innate regional quality.