Asian Values and Authoritarianism Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Asian values refer to a concept developed in the in the second half of the 20th century, as way of justifying authoritarian regimes in Asia (Clammer 1992). It is based on the existence of beliefs and an extraordinary set of institutions, and political ideologies that are a reflection of the region’s rich culture and history. This concept has a more political inclination than a traditional affiliation as many would think (Clammer 1992). There is no single definition for this term owing to the varied backgrounds of its proponents. However, there are notable principles governing this concept. In particular, the concept concentrates on humanism, and family, national and corporation loyalty (Vittachi 1996). In other words, it is seen to put the society’s stability and prosperity as a priority over personal freedom. In addition, the concept encourages academic and technological excellence as well as work ethics and disciplined spending habits.

The concept discourages pluralism but encourages single party rule. The concept also works towards establishing social harmony and consensus and discourages dissent and confrontations (Vittachi 1996). In addition, the concept demands that people should prioritize the welfare of the community and not their individual rights. Individuals are supposed to show loyalty to the authorities like the government, teachers and parents (Clammer 1992). This concept tends to favor authoritarianism. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes are characterized by highly concentrated and centralized power safeguarded by political repression and deterrence of potential challengers. It employs arbitrary law as opposed to the rule of law (Othman et al. 2008). This form of governance is a characterization of informal and unregulated political power or leadership that is self proclaimed. This paper endeavors to critically analyze Mahathir Mohmad’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s debate on Asian values in their support of authoritarianism‘s suitability to Southeast Asia tradition.

A Brief History of the Political Significance Asian Values

The concepts of Asian values had gained popularity in the political circles of China, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia (Quah 19900. In Indonesia and Malaysia, this concept gained support from the natives because it brought harmony between various ethnic and religious groups in the two countries. Most importantly, this concept enhanced religious tolerance amongst the ethic communities in the two countries. Islam, the dominant Malaysian religion, Hinduism and humanism of the ethnic Chinese gained a tremendous interrelation as a result of Asian values. In addition, Asian values represented an original concept developed by the Asian communities and not borrowed from the West (Quah 1990).

The concept also gained solid popularity in some nationalist circles of Japan because it proved the maturity of Asian leadership. Throughout the 1960s and 1980s, tremendous growth was realized in the Southeast Asia owing to the embracement of the Asian values. Mahathir Mohmad was the prime minister of Malaysia during the economic renaissance period. On the other hand, Lee Kuan Yew was the prime minister of Singapore at that moment. These two leaders played a significant role in marketing Asian values. Lee argued that as much as the economic and political maturity influence a country’s growth, so does culture 9Quah 1990). Lee indicated culture plays an important role in enhancing a country’s growth when compared to economic and political maturity. It is regrettable that the concept of Asian values lost value following the financial crisis that threatened many Asian economies in the final years of the 20th century.

Singapore was a key British trading center. After its independence, Singapore joined the Malaysian federation in 1963. This union did not last for a long time because tensions arose between Singapore’s Peoples action Party and Malaysian ruling alliance party. Following its departure from the Malaysian federation, Singapore aimed to strengthen its sovereignty. Thus, it joined the United Nations and the commonwealth and started establishing diplomatic relationships with other nations. At the same time, Yew’s government began to establish internal legitimacy. Thus, in order to reduce ethnic tensions, a constitutional commission was established. The success of these strategies was boosted by the constant reminder by Lee to the people of Singapore and Southeast Asia at large to embrace the concept of Asian values. Lee explains that the Western and Eastern cultures are totally different and that what works in the East might to necessarily work in the West.

Lee suggests that Asian values are unique and they regard an individual not as a separate entity but as part of a family which is then part of the society. Lee notes that mere cultural prescriptions alone cannot capture the cultural role in encouraging economic growth. Lew cautions that cultures that do not focus on scholarship, thrift and hard work might encounter difficulties in cultivating economic growth. Lee further explains that Asian values encompass scholarship, thrift and hard work. He notes that Asian values have created a new route to economic prosperity that is inconsistent with democracy. The Asian values concept indicates that values like hard work and discipline are social structures that can be transferred to political structure. In real sense, Lee argues that Asian values concept is a rejection of modernization. Studies have shown that careful balancing of despotic and infrastructural capacity blocks modernization. The case of Singapore proves that maintaining non democracy in an advanced economy calls for a skillfully engineered control.

Mahathir Mohmad’s View on Asian Values and Authoritarianism

Mahathir, the former Malaysian Prime minister who sat on the throne from 1981 to 2003, was a key vocalist of the Asian values (Aziz 1990). Mahathir notes that Asian values concept is based on Malay-Islamic culture and it should be guarded to prevent its absorption by Western values. According to Mahathir, Malayness has three basic features namely traditional customs, Islam and feudalism (Aziz 1990). The former Malaysian prime minister stressed his point through his book titled, ‘The Malay Dilemma’. He argued that these features should be accepted as realities and perhaps adapted to current needs. Mahathir was against universalism and the Western liberal view of human rights. Mahathir believed that universalism and the Western view of human rights cannot corrupt Malaysian culture and religious beliefs.

Mahathir later realized that Western values are here to stay and launched a book titledLook East’ in 1982, as a means of blocking the entrenchment of Western values in Malaysia and East Asia at large. During the United Malays national organization general assembly of 1982, Mahathir informed the congregation that they should look to the east and copy the diligence found there and drop Western values that they might have absorbed. Experts have branded the Malaysian view of Asian values as the Mahathir model to delink it from other models of Asian values like the Singaporean model that emphasizes on humanism and the Chinese model that blends Chinese, communist and Nationalist values (Koo 1995). Basically, the Mahathir model is characterized by Malay-Islamic values and as such, Mahathir championed the entrenchment of his model in Malaysia. Mahathir echoed Asian values despite the fact that the Islamic ethos of Malaysia differ significantly from the neo humanism of Singapore and other Sino centered countries in East Asia (Koo 1995). This model is influential in shaping government agendas. Stability and enforced social cohesion in a mixed society has been noted as a key component of Asian values.

Mahathir of Malaysia and Lee of Singapore echoed Asian values in the wake of democratization, flourishing economy and political stability of the early 1990s, before the economic crisis that emerged in 1997 which weakened East Asian economies. Mahathir’s perspective on Asian values is guided by three key features namely strong authority, a family based society and the prioritization of the community over the individual. On the other hand, Mahathir’s view on Asian values has one unique feature. Mahathir’s view tends to extract some lessons from Western values so as to compare the state and the society to modernity. Most importantly, Mahathir’s point of view seems to be as a result of numerous discussions on universalism and cultural relativism. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a model that discourages western imperialism but encourages the principle of strong governance and protection of the community.

It can be noted that Mahathir’s view on Asian values protects authoritarisim. Mahathir model encourages the protection of cultural values from interference by Western cultures. Mahathir indicates that economic growth can be achieved without undergoing modernization. However, modernization can be used to gauge the progress of any given society.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Debate on Asian Values and Authoritarianism

Yew’s explanation of Asian values indicates that cultural inclination which encourages respect for authority and hard work, allows East Asian country’s to pursue liberal economic policies without democracy (Barr, 2002). However, Lee is reluctant to call the experience in Singapore a model because it is not clear whether the development that Singapore experienced can be replicated elsewhere. Other regions like Taiwan and South Korea that had authoritarian regimes eventually embraced democracy. The discussion on whether Yew’s views on Asian values support Authoritarianism can be well understood when viewed in light of the developments that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Putting this in mind, it will be agreed that modernization eventually leads to democratization. Experts argue that the development of any given state is a reflection of the social and economic structure within that particular state. Proponents of modernization theory argue when incomes rise, a middle class develops that changes conditions of the middle class and the politic stratification (Barr, 2002).

Citizens of the middle class tend to associate with a number of competing political affiliations; features that result into cross cutting interests that eventually modernize the competing groups. According to Yew’s view of Asian values, culture is the underlying principle that governs the success of any given state (Lee 1998). Good Cultural practices encourage respect for human values and uphold traditions. East Asia is one of the regions in the world where culture is highly valued. However, as many regions around the globe, cultural values have been replaced by modernization owing to the influence by Western cultures. Although some cultural values are somewhat unnecessary, the overall aim of any given culture is to uphold human dignity and humanism (Lee 1998). Most of the cultures of the world have been significantly influenced by modernization. Modernization from the Western culture often comes along with democratization. However, Yew indicated that modernization can be embraced without necessarily eroding cultural value. Thus, Yew suggested that economic growth could still be realized without democratization that modernization and Western cultures bring (Lee 1998). During his tenure, Singapore realized tremendous economic empowerment. Yew attributed the success to the concept of Asian values. Yew argued that economic success could still be realized under non democratized societies (Quah 1990).

The Perspective of Asian Values in the 1990s

The initial debate on Asian Values in the early 1990s concentrated on the shared core values of the Asian region; collectivism and consensus (Pathmanaathan 1984). Apparently, collectivism and consensus differ from Western values which concentrate on liberalism values like upholding human rights, promotion of the freedom of speech and individuality. In addition, it should be noted that Asia has a huge cultural and religious diversity. However, the core values of the concept of Asian values are three namely consensus, collectivism and shared values (Pathmanaathan 1984). The wide cultural diversity in Asia has led to the emergence of different inflections of the Asian values. This has caused various ethnic and religious groups in the Asian population, to have varied definitions of Asian values.

In the early 1990s, the discussion on Asian values was brought into the lime light by the former prime minister of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew. The discussion stemmed from the arguments relating to human right issues in the context of Asia. According to Lee, Asian values differ remarkably from Western values and thus cannot be viewed from a global perspective. Lee noted that the concept of Asian values is guided by consensus, collectivism and shared values. The individuals’ needs come second after others or societal needs. As such, human rights; a phenomenon from the West, cannot be entrenched in the Asian values because it goes against the guiding principles of the Asian values concept. The difference between the Asian values and the Western values was also echoed by Mahathir, the former Prime minister of Malaysia.

Mahathir was extremely vocal in marketing Asian values. Mahathir loudly stated that Asian have their own cultural and ideological practices which are extremely different from those practiced in the West. Mahathir also stated that Asian should conduct their daily activities by observing the three core values of the Asian concept; consensus, collectivism and shared values. Mahathir frequently indicated that these values constitute the eastern work ethics and are the pillar of Asian values. As stated earlier, the debate on Asian values arose in the wake of public discussions on human right issues which were challenged by cultural diversity. Scholars have discovered that concepts of Asian values such as humanism, and Islam tend to enhance the feeling of selflessness over individualism, and they prioritize family and community.

In addition, Lee noted that Confucianism is the guiding principle to Asian prosperity. Lee acknowledged the cultural diversity in Singapore and changed his notion of Confucianism to shared values in order to accommodate every citizen’s wish. Lee believes that the concept of Asian values as derived from Confucianism has represented the social behavior of communities in the Asian content. Chinese-Confucian, Malay-Muslim and Indian-Hindu are the key communities found in this region.

Other scholars point out that Mahathir’s view of Asian values challenges the neo imperialism of Western cultures (Pathmanaathan 1984). Mahathir is said to have believed that Western people are taking for granted their values by letting the market driven society to take charge of their values. In contrast, Mahathir notes that Asian values uphold humanism and put the family and society first. He also notes that modernization which is as a result of Western cultures leads to moral decay in the society. Scholars have noted that Asian values encourage respect, social harmony and consensus. In other words, the collective good of the society at large comes first. Mahathir and Lee have been on the forefront in marketing Asian values and they have unanimously agreed that Asian values are remarkably different from Western values. While Lee looks at Confucianism as the guiding principle for the region’s success, Mahathir echoes eastern working ethics as the defining principle of the region’s economic and political prosperity.

Asian countries recorded huge economic growth in the 1960s a feature that prompted the West to examine key factors that contributed to the economic success. The concepts of Confucianism and symbiosism which are based on family values came out as the guiding principles (Milne & Mauzy 1990). Eventually, the West started to realize that Asian values could not be taken for granted. The Western world came to understand that combined effects of Confucianism which gives priority to the community contributed to the success. This led to the development of the state led development model which puts economic development first. Asian values played a significant role in the formulation of the development model. In this model, the state, paternalism, nationalism and entrepreneurial spirit combine to bring the anticipated economic growth.

This model enabled Southeast Asia states to flourish economically and many scholars thought that the development model can be emulated elsewhere. On the contrary, Mahathir and Lee stated that Asian values are unique to the Southeast region owing to its cultural and religious diversity (Milne & Mauzy 1990). The economical success in the South Asia gave the two leaders the strength to sale the concept of Asian value in the region. The two leaders echoed that economic success can still be realized without embracing Western led modernization. This was a clear indication of their support for authoritarianism since they knew Western ideologies were likely to erase or disable their mode of governance.


This paper has noted that the concept of Asian values has been used by Mahathir and Lee to support authoritarisim in Southeast Asia. Lee and Mahathir have played a significant role in echoing Asian values. The two leaders are the pioneers of the Asian values concept and they worked tirelessly to defend the interests of Asia from potential harm by Western values. Their perspective of Asian values puts the family and community in the forefront. The two leaders tend to agree on one thing that Western values bring modernization. However, they boldly state that Asian region can achieve the desired success without emulating Western values. They indicate that the concept of Asian values is far much better than the so called Western values. Mahathir cautions that modernization that comes along with western values leads to moral decay in the society. The two leaders’ perspective of the Asian values concept tends to encourage authoritarisim. Thus, the two leaders were against the entrenchment of Western values because they did not want Western values to challenge the Authoritarian rule common in Southeast Asia.


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