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Does a Single Set of Thoughts and Values Can Represent East Asian?

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Does a single set of thoughts and values can represent East Asian? Do citizens in the region have unified, or at least similar social and political attitudes and patterns of behavior? The answer to the two questions is complicated. Yes, because Asians have customs and patterns of life (we all use chopsticks) that are different from those of Westerners and that both reflect and strengthen their cultural values and norms. As advocates of Asian values would argue, Asians, like people of any other region (say, Latin Americans), hold their own cultural norms, rituals, and traditions inherited from their histories. In this sense, there is nothing ideological when we say that Asian values are cultural characteristics that differentiate Asians from non-Asians. No, because some Asian values may, in fact, be imaginary, used by some Asian leaders to justify their quasi-democratic rule. Critics of Asian values would insist that the concept of Asian values has served as a pretext for soft authoritarianism predominating in certain parts of the region. For instance, some of the values that Asian political leaders claim to be irreconcilable with Western values include basic human rights, which should be equally binding for Asians. Perhaps the truth may exist between the two extreme positions. As Donald Emmerson mentioned: The extreme understanding of "Asian values" as a unique set of preferences found only in Asia is untenable. But Asians do have some values, and certain Asians (and Westerners) have identified certain values as characteristically Asian. These observations suggest a strategy for shifting constructively from the extremes of the "Asian values" debate toward the center by trying to decide what values Asians do hold and ascribe to one another (Emmerson 1995, 100-101).

While the concept of Asian values dates back much further (Emmerson 1995; Rozman 1991; Thompson 2000), the debate on Asian values was triggered more recently by a series of political issues in the mid1990s, including the caning of an American teenager in Singapore for vandalism and the trial of a foreign scholar criticizing Asian authorities and their judicial systems as undemocratic. What was then at issue was primarily the harsh legal system in Asian countries (especially Singapore) that seemingly led to what Westerners regarded as an outright abuse of human rights. To such criticism, Singaporean officials defended their system as one based on distinct cultural values such as strong morality.

The Asian values debate has since then been drifting between the extremes of cultural relativism and universalism. In the previous perspective, Asian values are the cultural orientations, beliefs, norms, or attitudes unique to the Asian region that form the base of their political, economic, and cultural institutions and processes. In the second perspective, the claim for Asians' own standards with respect to certain norms like individual freedom is vain but an attempt to suppress basic human rights that exceed cultural peculiarities. Furthermore, it is argued, Asia is a huge area with such heterogeneous cultures and religions that no single set of values is able to reasonably characterize the region.

While simple descriptions of the Asian values debate is common in many academic articles or opinion pieces, a fuller account of the debate is still lacking. This is because discussions on the Asian, in fact, occurred at multiple levels that are not necessarily equivalent. At one level of the discourse, the Asian values debate refers to more or less informal exchanges of views about the cultural foundations of Asian politics and economy among high-profile politicians, journalists, and public commentators. Central to this level of the debate is the claim that certain democratic values and institutions, such as civil liberties, political competition, press freedom, and rule of law, are

essentially Western constructed which are alien to Asian societies. Faithful supporters of Asian values, particularly Southeast Asian political leaders, insist on the "Asian way" of politics and development based on a sense of collective destiny, individual sacrifice, and strong work ethic, which they regard as distinctly "Asian." To the critics, however, such a claim has only served to disguise, justify, and preserve semi-democratic regimes prevailing in the region.

The second level of the discourse on Asian values involves a different type of participant, who are philosophers and historians. These scholars trace the historical roots of Asian values and try to describe the range of these values by situating them in ancient Asian philosophies. In so doing, they have extracted essential elements of Asian values, which are often very different from the claims of political advocates of Asian values. Among these studies are philosophical inquiries exposing a unified characterization of Asian cultures as authoritarian and paternalistic. By studying Confucian and other Asian traditional writings, scholars such as William de Bary find a rich and diverse repertory of cultural norms and expectations in Asian countries. These cultural values are not only compatible with Western notions of political rights and individual liberty



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