The Making of the Global: The Case of Asian Values Debate (1)

In preparing the World Conference on Human Rights in Geneva, June 1993, representatives of Asian countries from Iran to Mongolia met in Bangkok. Despite recognizing that human rights are universal in nature, the Bangkok Declaration boldly insisted that “they must be considered in the context of a dynamic and evolving process of international norm-setting, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.”[1] The Bangkok Declaration was one of many messages Asian leaders sent to mainly the West (a term conveniently means Europe and North America), arguing that there is a unique set of “Asian values” different from presumably “Western values”.

Since then, the “political thesis” of Asian values has triggered a rich academic literature both in the West and the East. One of the most important issues in the discourse of “Asian values” is the very question whether there are really any “Asian values”. The proponent of Asian values typically based their argument on cultural relativism. In this argument, there is no way to judge other values on the basis of one’s own values. The proponents of human rights, on the other hand, argue that human rights are universal in their nature and need no local particularities. Nowadays we hardly hear the debate again. The arguably recent silence of the discourse might be related to the fact that the vocal defenders of the Asian values have left their leadership posts. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the strong defender of Confucian-based Asian values, has retired. Mahathir Mohamad, the little Soekarno of Malaysia, has also turned over his position to the low profile Abdullah Badawi. The economic crisis in 1997 that hit most of East and Southeast Asian countries, resulting among others in toppling the authoritarian regime and allowing the daring democratization in Indonesia, might also have silenced the proponents of Asian values.

Now, the debate is over. As the dust settled, we might be able to offer an “outsider” or “non-partisan” review on both arguments. In this paper, I proposed to read the arguments of the proponents and the opponents to find what did really happen behind the over-discussed substance of Asian values. My hypothesis is that the Asian values debate was a process of making “globalization”. By the “globalization” here, however, I do not mean either an already made a global entity that comes, meets, and conquers locals in the way of domination, or less likely the victory of the West over the rest. I argue instead that in the making of Global there is a process of taking and giving, an exchange, a mutual share of what constitutes the global. To put it differently, globalization is not a matter of conquering a local by the global, but rather a making of the global entity by many locals. I believe the global is an intertwined network among “winning” elements of locals.

To break down my argument, the paper will review firstly the possible origin of Asian values discourse in the history of East-West relationship. I suggest that the “Asianess” was shaped by both colonialism and Orientalism. On the one hand, seen from Edward Said’s criticism, colonialism and Orientalism constitute a long Western political and intellectual domination over the East. But, on the other hand, that the long encounter of colonialism and Orientalism also allows a process of what Mary Louis Pratt calls “transculturation”,[2] the ability of the dominated, colonized, or subjected subjects to determine what they absorb into their own and what use it for.

Next to that historical tracking, I will present the international context of 1990s to make sense how the “Asian values” debate was staged. Some theoretical prophecies, particularly those of Fukuyama and Huntington, are worth discussing to uncover the broader discourse of world system and cultural divide. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in East Europe promised a New Era on which those international politics gurus argue for their respective thesis. Finally, in the section following that broader discursive context, we will look at the Asian values debate trough the transculturation-lens to argue that the globalization is a process of making the Global by many locals, where the ideas and discourses emanated from the dominant culture are contested and selected by locals. The emanating local and the emanated then altogether make the global. With regard to particularly Fukuayama’s thesis, this Global is not the liberal democracy he once theorized.

The Origin of an “Asianess”

The term “Asian values” was actually coined years earlier than many scholars suggested. Even though we do not know exactly when, at least there is an evident of its use in 1970s. In 1976 the Department of Philosophy University of Singapore hosted a seminar whose topic was “Asian Values and Modernisation”. One of the papers presented in the seminar is by Ho Wing Meng, the published version of which is available for this research.[3] When reading this paper, one can find at least two impressions. First, in 1970s the concept of Asian values was discussed in a context of finding a way to “develop” Asian countries – development in the sense of broader discourse of developmentalism ideology in the Third World in 1970s. Second, what was being questioned at that time is whether or not Asian values, if any, was supportive for the modernization of Asia. Third, in answering such a question, Ming himself doubted the existence of so-called Asian values because the very Asia consisted of various cultures not similar one and another. He argues that the term Asian values should denote not to a particular, stereotyped, attitude or belief, but rather the great diversities in Asia.[4]

The genealogy of the discourse even might date further back. The long history of imperialism heavily affected the way Asians see themselves and the colonial powers (most of them were European). Being the victim of the long Western exploitative project of colonialism, most Asians have no hard time to see any Western presence as another form of imperialism. In 1950s and 1960s, anti-imperialism was really a popular rhetoric for Asian leaders to rally support either domestically or internationally.[5] This psychological condition is nowhere else more obvious than in the Asian-African Summit in Bandung. In 1955, when the world were increasingly divided along the two western blocks of Communism and Capitalism, for the first time in the history the newly independent Asian-African nations met in Bandung, Indonesia. In considering the “new imperialism” of the US and Soviet Union, the nations in the conference declared their non-alignment position. The Declaration of Bandung is considerably the first “coalition of willing”, similar to the Bangkok Declaration 38 years later, in challenging the Western political and discursive presences in the East.[6]

Along with the long political imperialism, the root of “Asian values” is the Orientalism, “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.”[7] Even though Orientalism as a discipline, style of thought, and institution was developed in the West and mainly for the Western audience, its influence in staging the world system—supported by the European political colonialism—reached the non-Western mindset and remains influential through the colonial legacy in the East. For example, as Said put it, most universities in Arab world are generally run according to some pattern inherited from, or once directly imposed by, a former colonial power.[8] As they become a satellite of Orientalism, the students of the Orientalist in the East reproduce, mimicry, discourses once produced in the West. The beliefs and conceptions of self distinguished “Asianess” in the arguments of Asian values arguably are sorts of “self-Orientalism”, or “Occidentalism” if you will.

Continued to part 2

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