The Asian Press Forum: Media and Society in Asia, Hong Kong, 2 December 1994
We have now entered a more meaningful stage of engagement between Asia and the West through the current debate on Asian values. Ironically, the debate seems to be more actively pursued in the Western international Press rather than in the Asian national media. Perhaps the latter have been lulled into a state of complacency on account of the so-called "miracle" of East Asian economies. Asian values, by themselves, warrant the critical examination of our society vis-a-vis humanitarian ideals such as freedom, justice and virtue. Yet the growing self-confidence of Asians, the greater assertiveness of their identity, has not yielded a proportionate awareness of the severe limitations and shortcomings of their societies. In much of Asia, signs of moral entropy, corruption and nepotism and other excesses abound which the elite, for reasons best known to themselves, choose to gloss over.
At the same time, from the outside, Asia has certainly awakened from the slumber of centuries, as it were. If only looked upon as a vast market to be exploited, the rush towards Asia will certainly go in greater intensity in decades to come. For a price, of course, North America and also Europe will continue to supply Asia with the much-needed capital and technology. However the new emerging mutual consciousness of each other's presence must extend beyond the realm of market and capital. It must be an encounter between equals, between cherished ideals and values that will serve to challenge our pride and end our prejudices. For although in the domain of trade and economics it would appear that the West fully recognizes Asia's position, there is a discernible reluctance to accord a similar recognition to Asia's cultural and civilizational aspirations.
Even if the debate on Asian values continues at cross purposes this confrontation has its inherent logic. As history has shown, this encounter will inevitably lead to the transformation of both sides, consciously or otherwise. Thus we cannot help but notice the changing perceptions of the West towards Asia, slowly yet radically; a terra incognita in the fifteenth century, as the yellow peril during the Cold War and finally in our times as economic dragons and tigers of the East. There will be Kiplings reincarnated with a new war cry -- with a democratizing rather than a civilizing mission -- and there will be pioneers of new orders. For the last 500 years, the West have been on the forefront of so many discoveries, inventions and innovations that making a new beginning with Asia is not altogether a departure from the Western spirit.
To a very large extent the affairs in the economic domain will be the decisive and even defining factor in Asia's ongoing engagement with the West. Asia, with its seemingly limitless economic potential, its huge markets for industrial products, its mass of hungry consumers of cultural output, its tantalizing contracts for mammoth infrastructural works, will continue to be sought after. We are convinced that Asia will continue to prosper under the regime of free trade and we must accept a gradual process to achieve a level playing field. Nonetheless, we must always guard against the insidious practitioners of double standards, who advocate the opening of international markets while pandering to the protectionist lobby back home. Thus the ideal of partnership among equals has still to be realized.
It would be less complicated if there were nothing but economic issues. Non-economic matters, however, have lately become bones of contention. We do appreciate that the West,apart from its enormous interest in Asia economically, cannot help but have a perception of Asia on matters dear to its civilization, such as the question of individual liberty, freedom of expression which includes press freedom, democratic polity, the rule of law and other humanitarian ideals. The West has often been accused of being hypocritical, for those ideals are more often ignored than lived by. It was George Bernard Shaw who pointed out the irony that the West conquered half the globe, making millions subjects and slaves, all in the name of freedom and democracy. But notwithstanding this, these ideals are very much cherished in the West. No doubt they have to struggle to remove the contradiction among themselves and put an end to their patronizing and condescending posture in their dealings with weaker communities.
If we in Asia want to speak credibly of Asian values, we too must be prepared to champion those ideals which are universal and which belong to humanity as a whole. It is altogether shameful, if ingenious, to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocratic practices and denial of basic rights and civil liberties. To say that freedom is western or unAsian is to offend our own traditions as well as our forefathers who gave their lives in the struggle against tyranny and injustices. It is true that Asians lay great emphasis on order and societal stability. But it is certainly wrong to regard society as a kind of false god upon whose altar the individual must constantly be sacrificed. No Asian tradition can be cited to support the proposition that in Asia the individual must melt into a faceless community. If Confucianism is cited as an exception, Professor Tu Wei-ming, a contemporary Confucian scholar and thinker, would certainly resent that. He asserted the primacy of the self, the individual and the community as a necessary vehicle for human flourishing. According to him: " The Confucian insistence on learning for the sake of the self is predicated on the conviction that self-cultivation is an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Although we are obligated to assume social responsibility and participate in political affairs, it is self-cultivation, as the root, securely ground us in our lifeworld that enable us to participate in society and politics as independent moral agents rather than pawns in a game of power relationship." We can equally cite other Asian thinkers, Muslims, Hindus or others, expressing a similar position.
It has been argued that like oil from water, economic issues must be kept apart from non-economic ones. Neither politics nor morality must disrupt the peaceful clamour of the marketplace. This argument is again another gross mispresentation of what Asian traditions have always stood for. The major Asian traditions stand for a holistic vision of life and society encompassing economic, social and political dimensions as opposed to partialistic and fragmentary approaches to development. If we want to lay claim to a unique Asian way, such a way is none other than articulation of that vision in unequivocal terms. Central to this vision is the philosophy that economic development must proceed coterminously with cultural enrichment. The pursuit of prosperity must not be at the expense of environmental degradation. The quest for growth must always be balanced by a profound concern for social justice and equity.
One of the greatest challenges facing Asia is to nurture the growth of civil society. In all honesty, we must admit that we are still struggling to eradicate the vestiges of the so-called "Oriental despotism." They will remain unless we vigorously develop and fortify the institutions of civil society, enhance the workings of truly representative participatory governments, promote the rule of laws rather than of men, and foster the cultivation of a free and responsible Press.
Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that the propositions we have outlined earlier cannot be brought to fruition without the pivotal role of the media. Historically, Asian journals and newspapers have been catalysts that lit the sparks which ignited the flames of anti-colonialism, leading to emancipation for millions across the continent. In the post-independence era, they have been preoccupied with the all-encompassing task of nation-building. By and large, they have succeeded. However, in facing the new realities of our time, the media in Asian societies have to redefine their role. In so doing they will, I am sure, comprehend the complexities inherent in the social and cultural environment in which they operate. I believe the Press of Asia have to find a middle ground between the Western paradigm of unconstrained freedom, including the freedom to incite hatred, and carrying developmental journalism to its extreme, so much so that even mild criticism of the ruling elite and a critical attitude is viewed with fear, suspicion and sometimes contempt.
In conclusion, Asia will continue to modernize, even at an accelerated pace, but it does not necessarily mean that she will have to compromise her values and forsake her ideals. However, she needs to be able to give a better account of herself. This discourse might just be the starting point. As in Hamlet, we say to our friends: "Sit down awhile, and let us once again assail your ears, that are so fortified against our story."