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Should We Choose 'Asian Values' Over Western Dreams?

29/03/2016 11:43 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Lee Kuan Yew, one of the greatest and tallest leaders that Asia produced, postulated and articulated the theme and idea of 'Asian values'. Asian values--broadly speaking, commitment to family and society--were understood in contradistinction to ' Western values', which stood for individualism and the nature of social organization accruing from these. It was held that Asia corresponded and moved to a certain set of values that could present a challenge to dominant and aggressive Western values. While this postulation did not gain much traction, in these times of transition and growing polarization across the world, can the idea of Asian values be revived?

Maybe.

There must be a counter-narrative to the dominant one, if for nothing but to present a robust challenge to power-induced hubris and arrogance.

Reviving Asian values might be a useful contrapuntal to dominant narratives being trotted out especially in the postcolonial world. One major point of departure worth restating about the aggressive pursuit of values is the Second Gulf War--ostensibly waged in the pursuit of Western values like democracy and freedom in the Middle East. We all know where this pursuit led to. There then must be a counter-narrative to the dominant one, if for nothing but to present a robust challenge to power-induced hubris and arrogance.

Once there is a consensus around the idea of Asian values, a political and institutional framework needs to be developed around these values to reify these.

The idea of 'Asian values' was critiqued for being too broad and generic for a place as diverse as this continent, but in retrospect and in placing these values into perspective, this critique does not hold water. Consider the West. The West is not monolithic. Yes, there is a certain value framework that undergirds the West but this part of the world too is defined by diversity--political, economic and, to an extent, cultural. Scandinavia, for instance, or Western Europe, is very different from the United States. So if difference undergirds the West but yet it propounds Western values, why cannot the same hold for Asia?

This is not a rhetorical question. It is real and has practical connotations.

Asian values can be reified and presented coherently.

The question is how?

The answer is multi-pronged and has cultural, ideational and politico-institutional implications.

Asia needs thought leadership. This thought leadership must be provided by the cultural and intellectual elite of Asia to arrive at a consensus on the nature of Asian values. Once there is a consensus around the idea of Asian values, a political and institutional framework needs to be developed around these values to reify these. There are abundant precedents in crystallizing these paradigms into a politico-institutional framework. More importantly, there can be receptivity to these values by the peoples constituting the Asian framework. We, Asians, generally speaking, may have a common outlook towards the world and society at large. Family and family values, for instance, are one common theme that undergirds much of Asia. More importantly, we Asians think with the heart, so to speak. If there is a distillation of my experiences and education till now and if something insightful can be culled from these, it is that a good heart is better than a good mind. This is not to demean or underplay reason but only to emphasize the humanness that emanates from a good heart.

We are a fine people and what defines us is the primacy of the heart over the head, which is not a bad thing.

Asia--derided as a location or perhaps more accurately an abstraction defined by historical rivalries and diversity--needs coherence. It is not difficult to find this coherence. What is needed is political will and imagination. We are a fine people and what defines us is the primacy of the heart over the head, which is not a bad thing. In fact, given the anomie and apathy other systems of thought and social organization lead and have led to, this may be an asset. But what we need to superimpose upon the heart is what I would call 'aggressive reasonableness' in a non-chauvinistic manner. History has not ended. It is very much in the process of being made. Lee Kuan Yew was not only a great leader but also a prescient, sagacious statesman. Let us take recourse to revivalism along the lines adumbrated by the great leader and let us insert Asia into the sinews of history and in the process make history.

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