Asian values was a political ideology of the 1990s, which defined elements of society, culture and history common to the nations of Southeast and East Asia. It aimed to use commonalities – for example, the principle of collectivism – to unify people for their economic and social good and to create a pan-Asian identity. This contrasted with perceived European ideals of the universal rights of man. The concept was advocated by Mahathir Mohamad (Prime Minister of Malaysia, 1981–2003, 2018–present) and by Lee Kuan Yew (Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959–1990), as well as other Asian leaders. The popularity of the concept waned after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when it became evident that Asia lacked any coherent regional institutional mechanism to deal with the crisis.
Various definitions of Asian values have been put forth. Generally, the phrase alludes to influences by Confucianism(p10) – in particular, filial piety or loyalty towards the family, corporation, and nation; the forgoing of personal freedom for the sake of society's stability and prosperity; the pursuit of academic and technological excellence; and, a strong work ethic together with thrift.
Proponents of so-called "Asian values", who tend to support Asian-style authoritarian governments,(p13) claim these values are more appropriate for the region than Western democracy with its emphasis on individual freedoms.
"Asian values" were codified and promoted in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, which re-emphasized the principles of sovereignty, self-determination, and non-interference in civil and political rights. They included:
- Preference for social harmony;
- Concern with socio-economic prosperity and the collective well-being of the community;
- Loyalty and respect towards figures of authority;
- Preference for collectivism and communitarianism.
Historically, there has been no shared "Asian" identity, and the concept of unified geographical regional identity at the time of its popularity in the 20th century was not strictly limited to Asia.(p2) Asian values gained popularity in the People's Republic of China, Malaysia (under Mahathir Mohamad), Singapore (under Lee Kuan Yew), Indonesia and in Japan (perhaps as early as the pre World War II era). In the West, the study of Asian values was seen as a way to understand Asia and foster a closer relationship with the region.
Proponents in Malaysia and Singapore claim the concept helped reconcile Islam, Confucianism and Hinduism and was unifying because it was different to the philosophy of the West. Lee maintained that, more than economics or politics, a nation's culture would determine its fate. In Japan, a concept of "Ideals of the East" was embraced in some nationalist circles because it challenged the West and also because it offered the possibility of Japanese leadership in a new Asia. Some attribute the economic success of East and Southeast Asian nations in the 1960s to 1980s to "Asian values"; a third-way, Asian political model that was an alternative to totalitarianism and liberal democracy.[who?]
The popularity of the concept did not persist. Some speculate it might have contributed to the religious, social, cultural and economic changes occurring in Asia in that time; for example, the Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia may have been successfully counteracted by liberal democracy.
In 2006, Jusuf Kalla, the vice-president of Indonesia, linked Asian values with the proposed East Asian Free Trade Agreement and the East Asian Community arising from the East Asia Summit. He partly defended Asian values by placing emphasis on co-operation over competition.
Studies of rice farming have indicated how large-scale agriculture affected the collectivist mindset of East Asians. Compared to wheat farming, rice farming is a labor-intensive practice that requires cooperation among many people.
A number of criticisms of Asian values have been made. Amartya Sen argues these so-called Asian values cannot operate because of the overriding cultural diversity found in Asia. Lung Ying-tai, a Taiwanese social and political critic, supported by Kim Dae Jung (former President of South Korea) and Lee Teng-hui (former President of Taiwan), argues that "Asian values" is doublespeak for suppressing universal values such as freedom of speech and human rights. A common criticism of the concept of Asian values is the perceived success of many Asian democratic societies such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan.
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