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

January 26, 2016

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore. CREDIT: Khairul Nizam

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, (2012).
3 "Thailand's Asian Values: Looking Inward," The Economist, August 19, 2014,
4 Quoted in Elizabeth C. Economy, "China's Imperial President: Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip," Foreign Affairs 93 (November/December 2014), (2014).
5 Daniel Vukovich, "Postcolonialism, Globalization, and the 'Asia Question'," in Graham Huggan, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 587–606, on p. 588.
6 Nathan Glazer, "Two Cheers for 'Asian Values'," The National Interest 57 (Fall 1999), pp. 27–34, on p. 27.
7 Bilahiari Kausikan, "1990s 'Asian values' advocate Bilahari explains the real reason behind the 'Asian values' debate," (November 4, 2014).
8 Vukovich, "Postcolonialism, Globalization, and the 'Asia Question.'"
9 Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," The Atlantic, September 1, 1990, (1990); and Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993), pp. 22–49.
10 Daniel A. Bell, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); Michael Posner, "Reflections on the Vienna Conference on Human Rights," Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) 91 (1997), pp, 317–21; and Hsien-Li Tan, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights: Institutionalizing Human Rights in Southeast Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
11 Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance (Singapore and Kuala Lumpur: Times Books International, 1996), pp. 30–1.
12 Barr, Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War, p. 4.
13 See Article 8 of the "Final Declaration of the Regional Meeting for Asia of the World Conference on Human Rights," Bangkok, March 29 to April 2, 1993.
14 Bilahari Kim Hee P. S. Kausikan, "An East Asian Approach to Human Rights," Buffalo Journal of International Law 2 (1995–96), pp. 263–83, on p. 267.
15 Jürgen Rüland and Cornelia Storz, "Inter-regionalism and Interregional Cooperation: The Case of Asia-Europe Relations," in Jürgen Rüland, ed., Asian-European Relations: Building Blocks for Global Governance? (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 3–32.
16 ASEAN-EC ties continued to stall until the EC's decision to backtrack to a more pragmatic stance at the Eleventh ASEAN-EC ministerial meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany, in September 1994. Ibid, pp. 7–8.
17 Quoted in Tan, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, p. 2.
18 Non-Singaporean voices included: Kim Dae Jung, "Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values," Foreign Affairs 73 (1994), pp. 189–94; Mahathir Mohamad and Shintaro Ishihara, The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996); and Amartya Sen, "Human Rights and Asian Values," The New Republic, July 14–21, 1997, (1997)
19 Eric Jones, "Asia's Fate," The National Interest 35 (Spring 1994), pp. 18–28. For Singaporean contributions, examples include: Bilahari Kausikan, "Asia's Different Standard," Foreign Policy 92 (1993), pp. 24–41; Bilahari Kausikan, "Governance that Works," Journal of Democracy 8 (April 1997), pp. 24–34; Tommy Koh, "Differences in Asian and European Values," Report of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and  Humanitarian Law 30 (1999), pp. 5–9; Lee, Kuan Yew, "The East Asian Way: Interview with Lee Kuan Yew," New Perspectives Quarterly 9 (1992), pp. 4–13; and Kishore Mahbubani, "The West and the Rest," The National Interest 28 (1992), pp. 3–13.
20 Taking credit (on Singapore's behalf, needless to say) for indirectly calming Sino-U.S. ties once cooler heads in Beijing and Washington prevailed, Kausikan claimed that at that point, the participation of Singapore diplomacy in the debate effectively ended, even as the debate got fueled by inputs from the worlds of academia and punditry: "Once common sense reasserted itself, we—and most other countries—ceased to play an active role in the debate which was then of interest primarily to the chattering and scribbling classes who did not really understand what the debate was really about in the first place." Kausikan, "1990s 'Asian values' advocate Bilahari explains the real reason behind the 'Asian values' debate."
21 Michael Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability (London: Routledge, 2000); and Michael Intal Magcamit, "Trading in Paranoia: Exploring Singapore's Security-Trade Linkages in the Twenty-first Century," Asian Journal of Political Science 23 (2015), pp. 184–206.
22 C.J.W.-L. Wee, The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).
23 "Revitalizing the Singapore soul 50 years on," The Straits Times, January 13, 2014, (2014).
24 Wee, The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore, pp. 9–10.
25 According to The World Wealth Report 2012 by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank. Surekha A Yadav, "Singapore tops the GDP charts," Forbes, August 14, 2012, (2012).
26 As Chua has proposed, Asian values in the Singaporean context could be seen as having a potentially positive effect on "limiting the excesses of rapacious capitalism" through its insistence on the use of the notion of the "collective" or "social" well-being as both a moral critique and moral alternative to the entrenchment of self-interests in capitalist society. Chua Beng Huat, "Asian Values: Restraining the Logic of Capitalism?" Social Semiotics 2/3 (1998), pp. 215–26, on p. 215.
27 The oft-cited words first used by George Brown, Britain's former foreign secretary, to describe Lee. "Lee Kuan Yew," The Economist, March 22, 2015, (2015).
28 Fareed Zakaria, 'Culture is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew', Foreign Affairs 73 (March/April 1994), pp. 109–26, on p. 126.
29 Tommy Koh, "Four Years After the Asian Crisis: Is Confucianism Dead?" (2013), pp. 2–3.
30 Quoted in Barr, Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War, p. 3.
31 Kishore Mahbubani, New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), p. 4.
32 Kishore Mahbubani, The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World (New York: Public Affairs, 2013).
33 See the Preamble to the Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Jakarta: The ASEAN Secretariat, December 2007), p. 2.
34 Kausikan, "An East Asian Approach to Human Rights," p. 279.
35 According to Kausikan, "However, we are now in the midst of a renewed debate over the idea of Asia in a different and I think more complex form. It is no longer a relatively simple debate over values, but a more nuanced debate over the architecture that will define East Asia. Again the geopolitical driver is U.S.-China relations. Washington and Beijing are currently groping towards a new equilibrium, a new modus vivendi, in their relationship with each other and with other countries in East Asia." Kausikan, "1990s 'Asian values' advocate Bilahari explains the real reason behind the 'Asian values' debate."
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