East Asia Today News

The Changing Faces of Asian Values

By Tanishqua Kanetkar

In a conversation with a fellow student, I asked, “Do you consider the Israel-Palestine issue to be an Asian issue?” He frowned and said, “They are not even part of Asia.” The term Asia was first deployed to define anything “non-western”. However, that narrow definition soon became an umbrella term to define the many values within the continent of Asia. As the above incident suggests, there are multiple ideas of what constitutes Asia. While some such as my friend would just include South and East Asia as part of Asia, others such as Samuel Huntington, who in his book The Clash of Civilizations1 holds Japan to be external to Asia, might think differently. Against such a backdrop, it is integral to define Asia, since the definition one adheres to changes the context in which the discussion would take place. This is important given the newfound interest in Asia as a result of its growing economic and strategic proficiency; also referred to by some as the ‘New Global Disorder’.2 The usage of the term ‘Global Asia’ is a testament to the recognition of Asia as a political, economic, and strategic power in the world domain. Consequently, the important question is whether this perspective is homogenous to all of Asia, or whether it just defines some parts of Asia. 

Asia as a terminology originated in ancient Greece and referred to the land to the east of Greece. In the contemporary world, however, Asia is used to define the economic, socio-cultural, and political ideals of the entire landmass of Asia (however one defines it) as one. The tendency of human beings towards simple generalizations has led the discourse on Asia to be seen as an alternative to “western values”. According to the United Nations, 48 countries constitute Asia in the 21st century. All these countries advocate different ideologies, religious beliefs, and standards of living. No single definition of the region can encompass the various factors that shape Asian politics today. However, given the common use of heuristics, the attempt is not towards ‘What is Asia?’ but towards ‘What Asia isn’t?’, in comparison to the western ideals. The Asian debate is highly influenced by cognitive bias. The media’s focus on a few countries and their popular narratives unconsciously helps create a perception that might not necessarily be based on facts. For example, the discourse around the Asian Values debate has come to represent all of Asia when in actuality it is largely perpetuated within some ASEAN member states such as Singapore.3 In contrast, Japan and Indonesia have a different political consciousness as a result of western occupation and influence respectively which set their political environment around the western ideas such as universal values of human rights, democracy and freedom. As a result of the cognitive bias, there is widespread acceptance of the idea of Asia being on the path of international prominence. However, while factually correct for some countries such as China, South Korea, and Singapore, this is not representative of all of Asia such as Nepal, Cambodia to name just a few. Hence,  trends that suggest ‘Asianization’ or state that the“The Future is Asian”4 may be considered more applicable to East Asia and not the entirety of Asia. 

The identity of Asia thus created as different from the western world has led to the formation of a ‘Global International Relations’.5 The concept was first introduced by A. Acharya who suggested that there is a need for universalism and pluralism in the study of international relations. According to him, Global IR will enable people to “reduce cognitive bias, broaden perspectives and connect new dots.” (Acharya 2014) Hence, attempts were made to identify the key characteristics that define Asia. One such study defines “three core characteristics of Asia to be duality, hybridity and contingency.”6 For instance, China’s focus on economic growth and regional stability interferes with its global role in climate change and nuclear negotiations with North Korea and Iran.7  To varying degrees, Japan’s and South Korea’s considerations of domestic and regional priorities often shape the character and effectiveness of their involvement in global governance. Taken independently, none of these characteristics are exclusive to Asia. No culture is devoid of dualism or hybridity. Therefore, the idea that such characteristics are exclusive to Asia, misguides thinkers into looking for societies where duality and hybridity does not exist, which is a futile exercise and hence derails the study of Asia.8 

Having established this, it does not mean that Asia is not distinct at all and is entirely congruent to the western world. The ‘Asian Values’ debate is a case in point. Lee Kaun Yew establishes cultural relativism as the premise for the Asian Value debate. He sees consensus, harmony, unity, and community as the hallmarks of Asia. According to him, the idea of hierarchy and paternalism which are sacred in the Asian world are the contextual factors that lead to the widespread acceptance of state centrism in Asia. Another feature is the importance given to the family. Family is the institution that creates a philosophical justification of the superior state since the ideas of paternalism are similar in the family as well as the state. Thus, a parallel is created between the two. Similarly, many such cultural differences of Asia justify its current institutional framework. The ‘Asian Values’ debate advocates for the rights of the state, community, and the family over the individual. Though such features are not exclusive to Asia, this school of thought argues that they are of higher significance in the region as compared to the rest of the world. 

However, the Asian Values debate is often criticized for political instrumentality, invalidating it as ideologically motivated rhetoric to legitimize oppressive power. Some argue that the ‘Asian Value debate’ seems to exercise reverse orientalism like the West by treating the differences between the West and Asia as stereotypes, existing in absolute dichotomy. One example is the opposition of China and Singapore to the World Conference of Human Rights with the argument that universal values of human rights violates cultural and collectivistic traditions of Asia.9 Moreover, many of the Asian ethics such as frugality, dedication to work and competitiveness that are claimed to have brought economic success are not ‘Asian’ but universal values. For example, in the USA, the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates during the 1996 election campaign engaged with the values ascribed to the core components of Asian values, especially the importance of family values and the need for more effective law and order. The Asian Value debate has also been opposed by some of the Asian leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Amartya Sen, Dalai Lama, Lee Teng Hui, and Abdurrahman Wahid due to its anti-democratic elements, cultural essentialism (selectivity within culture leads to a narrow understanding i.e., what we want it to be rather than what it is)  and genetic fallacy (the false belief that a conceptual/cultural achievement always has to remain the sole property of its locus of origin) which further suggests the lack of homogeneity of ideas in Asia.10

One can see a general trend in the above arguments. For every thesis on the collective identity of Asia, there is an anti-thesis that bases its argument on the social, economic, cultural, and ideological differences within Asia. Asia is complicated enough to define in geographical terms, let alone cultural. Common points of convergence such as diligence or discipline are not representative of the sum of values that exist in Asia. Hence, the definition of Asia should be context-specific and conceptually fluid. The concepts of hybridity and duality which are considered exclusive to Asia should not be seen as conclusions but as a departure in search for deeper nuances to understand the region.

1 Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22–49. https://doi.org/10.2307/20045621. 
2 Lavery, Scott, and Davide Schmid. “European Integration and the New Global Disorder.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies (2021).
3 Barr, Michael D. “Lee Kuan Yew and the “Asian values” debate.” Asian Studies Review 24, no. 3 (2000): 309-334.
4 Khanna, Parag. The future is Asian: Global order in the twenty-first century. Hachette UK, 2019.
5 Acharya, Amitav. “Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds: A New Agenda for International Studies.” International studies quarterly 58, no. 4 (2014): 647-659.
6 Foot, Rosemary, and Evelyn Goh. “The International Relations of East Asia: A New Research Prospectus.” International Studies Review 21, no. 3 (2019): 398-423. 
7 Cho, I. H. (2013). Dual identity and issue localization: East Asia in global governance. Global Governance, 19, 545.
8 Welzel, Christian. “The Asian values thesis revisited: Evidence from the world values surveys.” Japanese Journal of Political Science 12, no. 1 (2011): 1-31.
9 Barr, Michael D. “Lee Kuan Yew and the “Asian values” debate.” Asian Studies Review 24, no. 3 (2000): 309-334.
10 Hoon, Chang Yau. “Revisiting the Asian values argument used by Asian political leaders and its validity.” Indonesian Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2004): 154.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CEAS.

2 comments on “The Changing Faces of Asian Values

  1. Samuel Pablo Pareira

    Very good article and nuanced observation on multi-faceted Asian values. I love how the writer stresses the debate on “universalism vs cultural relativism” on the notions of human rights and democracy. This is something very important to observe and it’s usually a point-of-departure of many Western academics who try to simplify Asian values as “non-democratic” or “don’t uphold human rights”, while what they imply is the biased preservation of Western liberal democracy and strict universalism of human rights. This is an important line to draw.


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