LONDON: A quarter of a century ago, an 18-year-old American student living in Singapore was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for writing graffiti on cars and stealing road signs. The United States protested the sentence's severity, arguing Michael Fay’s punishment was too harsh for a teenage prank with no violent crime committed.
Fay’s case became the focus of a debate initiated by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, on how values in Asia differed from western values of democracy, freedom of expression and individual rights. Lee argued that in a developing country, in order to build fair and strong institutions, the rights of the community must supersede the rights of the individual. Hence, Fay needed tough punishment so that all teenagers, western or Asian, would be warned off vandalizing cars in Singapore.
Asia now finds itself caught in growing rivalry between the United States and China, each representing a bookend of these two value systems. It may be useful, therefore, to reexamine Lee’s concept, not as a justification against western criticism but to explore whether there is enough common ground among the cultures and aspirations of Asia’s 4.5 billion people and 48 governments to be amalgamated into an understanding of shared purpose. And, if so, what would this shared purpose be.
This is a heady goal. But, if Asia cannot define its values, it risks a replay of the Cold War, where it suffered in confrontation between superpowers with deeply opposing ideologies.
In the 1990s, Lee, together with his Malaysian counterpart, Mahathir Mohamad, led the global debate, peeling away a black-and-white western perception of authoritarianism and spelling out in what they called Asian values, the many shades between dictatorship and democracy. Despite routine condemnation from the West, their case was bolstered by improved living standards of their citizens over the years.
Now, Lee’s son, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Mahathir, recently returned to office at the age of 93, are updating their argument. With an eye on growing Sino-US tensions, their aim is to stop the region returning to the polarization of the Cold War, when Asia suffered brutal conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere. Reflecting views held by many Asians, Lee and Mahathir object both to China’s heavy-handed, money-laden push for control and America’s attempt to set up a strategic alliance of pro-western governments to counter it. “We do not want to end up with rival blocs forming or countries having to take one side or another,” warns Lee, while Mahathir, trying to unravel a raft of debt created by his predecessor, says bluntly: “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries.”
During the last century, Asian governments were too vulnerable to superpower divide-and-rule tactics to prevent the stream of wars. That continuing weakness allowed Beijing to militarize the South China Sea which, in turn, opened the door to current tensions.
If Asia is to avoid a repeat of historical pitfalls, it must forge regional cohesion and speak with a louder and more united voice. Europe is a useful model when, after the Second World War, a handful of adjoining countries, riddled with enmity, began to codify a shared vision to keep people secure, make them more prosperous and stop conflict, a project that eventually became the European Union.
The EU charter, particularly its emphasis on human rights and democracy, would not work in Asia where dictatorships, military regimes and elected governments rub together. The inability of ASEAN countries to stop ethnic cleansing by member country Myanmar offers a vivid example of this contradiction. On the other hand, a charter on Asian values, for want of a better phrase, would go a long way to argue in clear language the case for an alternative system in the developing world distinct from the blueprint routinely laid down by the West.
Lee’s argument comprised pithy lines that for years were anathema to democracy and human rights activists. “You need a certain standard of literacy, moral and ethical values, to be able to run a one man, one vote system,” he said. “Freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore.” And, “The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” The phrases echo what has unfolded in Europe in recent years. Led by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a number of east and central European governments embrace his concept of “illiberal democracy,” which could be mirrored in Asia by the phrase “liberal dictatorship.”
As questions arise on the future of democracy and the Sino-Russian-led rise of authoritarianism, many governments adopt a view that neither of the two absolutes are right for them, and they search for something in between.
The driving point of the Asian values argument is development, quality of life and living standards. Proponents challenge, if the democratic system is so good, why is a newborn Indian baby more than three times likely to die in the first year of life than one born in authoritarian China? Why does no Asian democracy have a vision that captures the public imagination with the power of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative?
Formally adopting an Asian concept would be fraught. There would inevitably be a redefining of what constitutes a human right or what constitutes the values under discussion. Is China’s political repression, including incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Xinjiang Muslims, more of a human rights violation than India’s condemnation of millions to live as bonded slave laborers?
Under western eyes, China has routinely stood accused of human rights abuses, while India, brandishing its democratic credentials, got off lightly. An Asian values charter would be a useful mechanism to persuade both governments to put their houses in order. Such a charter would also strike down global hypocrisy swirling around the democratic mission because once Cold War superpower rivalry took hold, human rights were swept under the carpet and ideological slogans became meaningless. It was as risky for the average citizen to oppose pro-western dictators like Suharto in Indonesia or Pinochet in Chile as communist autocrats like Castro in Cuba or murderous Pol Pot in Cambodia.
All this experience could go into the mix of an Asian values charter that would serve two immediate purposes.
The first is that, far from threatening to contain China’s rise, Asian countries would seek to accommodate and recognize the country on their terms, not Beijing’s or Washington’s. There would be no question of having to choose between superpowers.
The second would be creation of a regional sense of purpose, currently lacking, one that could encourage detente between Asia’s big beasts of China, India and Japan with the aim of resolving their longstanding acrimony and taking a lead. Early signs of this are already unfolding with bilateral meetings between Xi Jinping and his Japanese and Chinese counterparts – easing tension with India on the Doklam Plateau in the Himalayas and, with Japan, around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Asia, a region brimming with ideas, has no reason to lack the confidence and cohesion required to forge its own path. According to the Asian values argument, a charter would balance the needs of the whole community against the individual ambitions of the United States and China.
Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent. His latest book, Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion, is published by Duckworth-Overlook.