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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2000

Asia takes capitalism on its own terms

Staff writer
ASIAN VALUES, WESTERN DREAMS: Understanding the New Asia, by Greg Sheridan. Allen & Unwin, 1999, 326 pp., 14.99 British pounds (paper).

A lot of people thought -- hoped, really -- that the Asian economic crisis would end all that nonsense about "Asian values." The region's stumbles were supposed to have proven once and for all that the supposedly "unique" features of Asian capitalism were the cause of the sickening lurch in 1997. Suitably chastened and a whole lot poorer, Asian leaders would turn their backs on the idea that there are distinctive forms of capitalism and that culture has any real role to play in economic development. (Funny, but when you put it like that, the notion of "Asian values" doesn't sound quite so absurd.)

Much to the distress of the cheerleaders for the Anglo-Saxon version of the market economy and all its cultural baggage, the "Asian values" corpse refuses to stay dead.

Unrepentant leaders in Asia cling to the idea that they can have capitalism on their own terms. They dare to claim that their economies and politics should conform to their own histories and societies. The nerve.

Don't expect them to give up anytime soon. The "Asian values" debate will continue. It will endure because Asia will emerge in the next century as a locus of economic power on a par with Europe and the Americas. It will endure because Asian nations are compressing a process that took the Western world hundreds of years to complete.

They will feel the strains of modernization more acutely because it is hitting them harder and faster than it did the West.

Anyone wanting to understand this debate must read "Asian Values, Western Dreams." The author, Greg Sheridan, is a longtime journalist and student of Asia. He joined The Australian in 1984 and has been its foreign editor since 1992. During that time, he has published two other books on Asia. Readers will be hard pressed to find a better guide to the region. "Asian values" supporters are unlikely to find a more sympathetic listener.

Sheridan takes the region country by country, which makes the journey a lot easier and allows him to take snapshots that yield an entire album.

There are also interviews with key players, the product of a lengthy career in the business. This plays to journalistic strengths -- but also to its attendant weaknesses. The personal element can warp judgments. Some readers will take issue with Sheridan's characterizations of power broker Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Ministers Morihiro Hosokawa, Ryutaro Hashimoto and the late Keizo Obuchi. Every now and then a factual error creeps in. For example, he says Kabukicho "used to be called 'Soapland' after the endless massage parlors." That's news to me.

Still, it is hard to dispute his conclusions, and that is why readers who might quibble with a detail or two will still appreciate the book and most likely line up behind him.

Sheridan explains that "Asian values" represent "the attempt by societies which are rapidly modernizing and experiencing fast social change to hold on to something of their traditional cultures, their traditional patterns of thought and behavior -- in particular, to find a future which is wholly modern but which does not lead to inner-city decay, drug use, high rates of illegitimacy, unemployment, welfare dependency or the other social pathologies associated with the downside of contemporary Western societies.

"It's not that Asian societies have stopped admiring the achievements of the West, but that they want to learn from the West's mistakes as well as its achievements."

Defining the debate as Asia vs. the West or arguing whether values are Western or universal is pointless. Most Westerners would agree with Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew that family, education, thrift and respect for seniors are important. After all, as he once explained when listing those components, they are the values "that made America great."

Moreover, creating that artificial dichotomy discredits home-grown democrats and supporters of human rights. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has always claimed that democracy is part of the Confucian tradition, as have some Chinese dissidents. And there are other, less well-known advocates throughout the region who can look to their own national history and cultural and social traditions for support in their fight against tyrants and authoritarians.

Sheridan spends a lot of time on the question of democracy. That is only natural since it seems to be the red-button issue in the whole "Asian values" discussion. He acknowledges the civic compacts that have been developed in East Asia, which he characterizes like this: Citizens are free to do anything they like, except for the things that are banned, chief among which is serious political opposition to the government. Most anything goes, as long as you don't attack the government. In return, the government provides physical security and an environment that fosters economic growth.

Realism is the coin of this realm. In an era of globalized information, economic growth does expand political space. But, Sheridan cautions, "that is not to say that economic growth necessarily leads to democracy, though it often does. . . . The reforms in China over the last 20 years have massively increased the amount of freedom that Chinese people enjoy. But just as obviously, the reforms have not led to the creation of a democracy. Nor are they likely to . . ."

At least not in China. But take Singapore, the chief antagonist in the debate (or the No. 2, depending on your view of Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir). Former Prime Minister Lee is the most outspoken defender of Asian values and makes a good bogeyman. But his country has most scrupulously honored the social compact. Its leaders have delivered on the promise of improving the lives of their citizens. They have done a fine job of forging a nation under pretty adverse circumstances. And the political space is expanding: There is more debate, there are new media outlets and and a recognition that the Net changes the rules. There is still a way to go, but there are good reasons to believe that Singapore represents a workable model for development.

Each country will strike its own balance. The Philippines will lean more heavily toward the individual to accommodate the robust civic society that has emerged there. The Indonesian model will embrace Islam, but it will be diluted by the diversity that is found throughout that vast archipelago.

Sheridan believes that the United States will play an important role in the evolution of these national models. Its involvement in the region is a given. No matter what the isolationists say, it is difficult to imagine circumstances that would trigger an American withdrawal.

But, he argues, the U.S. must also accept the limits of its influence. It is a benign hegemon, but it still has the capacity to shoot itself in the foot. Allowing Asian democracy to take its own shape is in America's best interests; the U.S. will never see its own face reflected back when it looks at the region. That is not bad; it is a fact.

If Washington wants to shape Asian development so that it best serves U.S. interests, it should set a good example. Respect the region's diversity, the integrity of its people and their desire to create a society that reflects their own aspirations and needs. That, according to Sheridan, is the meaning of "Asian values." And, once again, when you put it like that, it makes a whole lot of sense.

Send feedback to Brad Glosserman by e-mail at brad@japantimes.co.jp

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