Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/31085717@N00/7983276207/" target="_blank">Khairul Nizam</a>
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore. CREDIT: Khairul Nizam

The "Singapore School" of Asian Values: Down But Not Out?

Jan 26, 2016

Based on a paper presented to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference, "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West: Philosophical Traditions, Moral Contentions, and the Future of US-Asia Relations." The Conference took place in New York City, October 20-23, 2015.

When the Asian financial crisis of 1997 blunted the so-called "Asian Economic Miracle," critics—many Westerners, but also Asians tired of the tendentious claims of their cultural elites—bid good riddance to the end of "Asian values."1 In January 2012, following the unexpected acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister and current opposition leader, of sodomy charges (the acquittal has since been overturned by Malaysia's highest court), one observer welcomed the news and proclaimed the "slow death" of Asian values.2 Likewise, The Economist summarily concluded that military-run Thailand's "tutelary democracy" is nothing less than a return to Asian values.3 Moreover, with President Xi Jinping's "dream" of a rejuvenated Chinese nation—backed by his brand of an expansive and muscular foreign policy—and call "for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia,"4 there is every sense that Asian values are poised to make a comeback if they have not done so already.

But have they? Or, more accurately, did they disappear altogether or lay dormant, awaiting an opportune moment to make their reappearance? Be that as it may, what was the Asian values debate all about, and what might it—in the instrumental and/or pragmatic sense—have been used for? Daniel Vukovich has gone as far as to say that, "The by now defunct discourse of 'Asian values' was mostly a Singaporean creation; it was also more a sustained media event than a significant cultural marker."5 According to Nathan Glazer, East Asia is the place "that we find together the fullest developed version of a cultural or civilizational ethos that successfully nurtures economic growth, and that in some key respects (or so it is generally believed and widely asserted) contrasts with what we find in 'the West."6 It is in this light that the Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan's suggestion that any knowledge about what post-Cold War Asia "is" cannot really be decoupled from the shaping influence of the Asian values debate. As Kausikan mused, "The notion of Asia that arose in the early 1990s was entangled with and indeed can hardly be distinguished from, the debate over Asian values that not coincidentally, arose at the same time."7 If so, it suggests that the debate, whether or not it was a Singaporean invention, was likely more than the media spectacle Vukovich insisted it was.8

My aim here is to review and assess Singaporean contributions to that debate and to probe the plausible causes and reasons behind its emergence, as well as to trace its more recent expressions. While the Asian values debate was proof positive for many that "end of history" claims were either premature or simply plain wrong, its Singaporean purveyors were nonetheless careful not to define the debate as a "clash of civilizations," certainly not in the way understood and argued by the likes of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.9 On the whole, Singaporean contributions were arguably characterized by a particular ambivalence toward the Western perspective to which they were ostensibly opposed.

What Placed Asian Values on the World Map?

Asian values did not really garner world attention until the early 1990s. One trigger was the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in June 1993 (hereafter called "Vienna Conference"), where there was focused and sustained European criticism of perceived human rights abuses in Asian states. There, European and Southeast Asian governments clashed over the latter's putative emphasis on cultural relativism and their perceptibly weak records in human rights protection and democratization.10 The Asian backlash was also motivated by the perception that the West suffered from envy of Asia's economic success.11 The debate was potentially far-reaching in terms of its ramifications. As an observer has allowed, "The outcome and the very process of the debate affects processes of democratization, the conception of human rights, the parameters of international trade and diplomacy, and the conduct of international agencies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund... and development and humanitarian aid agencies."12 Constrained by what they regarded as Western "ideological imperialism" and their own failure to build a viable consensus among themselves on human rights at the Regional Meeting for Asia for the World Conference on Human Rights—the Asians' own preparatory meeting for the Vienna Conference—held in Bangkok in the spring of 1993, the Southeast Asians found themselves on the receiving end of criticisms that deplored Asian obduracy as the barrier against the "universality" of human rights.

On their part, Asian values advocates contended that Asians fundamentally accepted the proposition that human rights are universal, but also believed that such rights ought to be contextualized against a "dynamic and evolving" backdrop of norms, histories, cultures, religions, and national and regional particularities."13 As one advocate observed, “Western overreaction to this simple description of reality—one that explicitly recognized the reality of universality—was perhaps the single most important reason for the acrimony that characterized debate between the West and Asia at the Vienna Conference."14 As a consequence of this apparent misperception, fissures started to appear within the mostly friendly relationship between the European Community (EC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a consequence of the EC's emphasis on liberal democracy, the respect for human rights, market economy, and disarmament as the cornerstones of its relationships with non-Western countries.15 This led to outright criticisms directed by the EC against the sluggish pace of democratization in and the weak human rights record of Southeast Asian countries, with special attention given to the ASEAN policy of "constructive engagement" towards Myanmar (Burma) as well as ASEAN's relative tolerance toward Indonesia's annexation of East Timor (1975–99).16 Affronted by those accusations, the Southeast Asians reportedly refused to take them lying down. Ali Alatas, Indonesia's foreign minister at the time, also criticized the international media for depicting the Vienna Conference as having been hijacked by "a clash of values" between the developed North and developing South, which he dismissed as both "unwarranted" and "counterproductive."17

Enter the "Singapore School"

A second and even earlier trigger was international pressure heaped on China in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989. Some Asian leaders presumably felt duty bound to speak up on behalf of their beleaguered Chinese counterparts even if they did not agree with Beijing's "kinetic" solution in dealing with the protestors. Singaporeans were not the only participants to that debate.18 However, it might be recalled that at the height of that debate in the early to mid-1990s, a number of Singaporean leaders and leading diplomats played a key part in its articulation, which led observers, fairly or otherwise, to identify a so-called "Singapore school" of Asian values.19 According to Kausikan, the foray by Singaporean diplomats into the Asian values fray was driven by pragmatic and strategic considerations, namely, to help China shoulder the burden of international condemnation.20 Thus understood, Singapore's purported initiation of the Asian values debate could well have been motivated by narrow instrumental and pragmatic considerations which, once met and resolved, would see the debate stowed away until further need. Singapore's "survivability"—a characteristic trope tied to the siege mentality and "vulnerability fetish" adopted by its leadership21—depended on its ability to create space for itself in a tough and unforgiving neighborhood crowded with bigger and at times unfriendly countries.22 The emergence of Singapore as a modern developed economy, and subsequently its invocation of Asian values, took place in the 1980s. If worries over the potential consequences of extreme communalism and "chauvinism" in newly independent Singapore led to the deliberate downplaying of culture and calculated stress on socioeconomic modernization—albeit without a commensurate modernism, hence the ubiquitous criticism of Singapore as "without a soul"23—then the advancement of Asian values in the 1980s and 1990s conceivably marked the utilitarian effort by its leaders to "create space"—economic space, in this case, but certainly also political and strategic space—in order for Singapore to thrive.24

But perhaps there was more to it than merely the creation of economic space in order to keep doing well. With the unparalleled economic success modern Singapore enjoyed—the city-state reportedly has the highest GDP per capita in the world today and is projected to maintain its pole position until 205025—came ailments that threatened to unravel the carefully crafted and managed social and communal fabric of the nation's multiracial society.26 Along with that development emerged a palpable sense of inevitable loss (or the threat of such) that arguably motivated Lee Kuan Yew—the "best bloody Englishman east of Suez,"27 who nonetheless fretted over how his nation's phenomenal success was contributing to a growing detachment and alienation from its cultural moorings28—and his colleagues.

Conclusion: Whither Asian Values Today?

Following the 1997 financial crisis, few people publicly affirmed Asian values. In the post-September 11 era, even fewer have done so as Islamism took center stage in the "War on Terror," with Singapore firmly invested in the U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and, more recently, the collective fight against the Islamic State (or ISIL). Among Singaporean backers of Asian values, the diplomat Tommy Koh conceded the need for particular practices like nepotism and corruption to be eliminated and replaced by meritocracy, transparency, integrity, accountability, a good work ethic, "strong families," and a "reverence for education and learning."29 In 1999, Lee Kuan Yew defended his stance by insisting his focus had always been on Confucian rather than Asian values.30 In works published well after the supposed demise of Asian values, the diplomat turned academic don Kishore Mahbubani, in New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (2008), chastised "the leading [Western] minds of the world [for remaining] trapped in the past, reluctant or unable to conceive of the possibility that they may have to change their worldview."31 Subsequently, in The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World (2013), he argued that despite growing cultural diversity in Asia, the world in his view is moving away from Asian values toward global values as a consequence of developments like the global communications revolution and the gradual worldwide shift from rule by law to rule of law.32

Do the aforementioned instances support the notion that Asian values have become passé? Does the fact that ASEAN today boasts a charter that promises to adhere to the principle of "respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,"33 a human rights declaration (adopted in November 2012), and its own commission on human rights mean that the Southeast Asian countries, not least Singapore, are beyond cultural relativism insofar as values are concerned? Unlikely it would seem, so long as perceived political differences persist. Contending that the Asian approach to human rights is more about process than particular outcomes, Bilahari Kausikan, the apparent strategic user of Asian values, has insisted that the West still "seems insensitive to the nuances of different Asian voices and selective in what it chooses to highlight of Asian arguments. It often appears that many in the West are responding not so much to what is actually being said, as to their own worst fears and insecurities."34 If so, Asian values advocates like Kausikan likely see the values debate as part of a broader complex debate over the very idea of Asia and its supporting architecture and conventions—a debate complicated by Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry.35 Short of a modus vivendi arrived at between Beijing and Washington, the likelihood for Singapore, as a country that enjoys strong ties with both China and the United States, is to continually play the simultaneous roles as a bridge to bring both major powers together, on the one hand, and as a buffer between them should the need arise (just as it once did in the early 1990s). Notwithstanding the perceived globalization of values, the "Singapore school" could well experience a revival in the foreseeable future albeit in a different form.

1 Michael D. Barr, Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2002), pp. 3–11. Asian values advocates argue human rights are contextual and emerge differently according to the context of particular social, economic, cultural and political conditions; they see Asian societies as centered on the family not the individual; they rank social and economic rights over individual's political rights; and they assert the right of a nation to self-determination includes a government's domestic jurisdiction over human rights. C. Y. Hoon, "Revisiting the 'Asian Values' Argument Used by Asian Political Leaders and Its Validity," The Indonesian Quarterly 32 (2004), pp. 154–74, on p. 155.
2 Christian Caryl, "The Slow Death of CAsian Values': Why the latest news from Malaysia helps to undermine authoritarianism throughout the region," Foreign Policy, January 18, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/01/18/the-slow-death-of-asian-values/ (2012).
3 "Thailand's Asian Values: Looking Inward," The Economist, August 19, 2014,

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