Saturday, November 1, 2014

Myth of Asian values

Lao-Tsé (Image - widodo, Wikimedia Commons)
Lao-Tsé (Image – widodo, Wikimedia Commons)
By Bryan Cheang

In the past, Singaporean political leaders have perpetuated this idea that since we are an Asian society, Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are inapplicable to us. According to this “Asian Values” argument, since we are a Chinese society, we adopt a Confucian social ethic, which is fundamentally different and opposed to those Western liberal ideas.

Lee Kuan Yew famously made this statement: “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries…What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.” He did so in a speech entitled ‘Democracy, Human Rights and the Realities’, in Tokyo, Nov 10, 1992.

To some extent this has influenced the outlook of many Singaporeans, who may approach liberal ideas with caution and believe that they cannot (or should not) take root here. However, I insist that such an outlook is mistaken. I have many arguments against this “Asian Values discourse’, which includes how this may be a convenient excuse to justify authoritarianism.

However, in this article, I seek to show that liberal values of freedom are not exclusively Western, but are actually present universally in many cultures and histories. Since many people think that Chinese philosophy is necessarily anti-liberal or at least not conducive to it, I will use examples from Chinese history to show why there is no good reason for Asian societies to be against liberalism also.

John Locke (image - Wikimedia Commons)
John Locke (image – Wikimedia Commons)
Let me first clarify what I mean by liberalism. By this I refer to the body of thought that places a premium on human freedom and individualism. In short, liberals believe that an individual person is sovereign, and deserves equal freedom with everyone else in society. John Locke, considered as the father of classical liberalism, said that individuals are born with natural rights to life, liberty and property.

The government’s job is thus to protect these rights, nothing more. Liberalism implies restrictions on the power of government because it fears the concentration of political power. Power corrupts; so liberals want to limit government and simultaneously protect an individual’s private sphere of action, which the government should not be invading. In such a society, an individual can pursue his own plans, his own goals, his own dreams and ideas of the good life, so long he remains peaceful and not violate the equal rights of other people. Any action that is peaceful will be legal and allowed.

The word ‘liberal’ can mean many things; in fact I do not refer to the use of the word ‘liberal’ in America. A ‘liberal’ in the US is a left wing social democrat who believes in economic redistribution and progressive taxation. I am using the word liberal in the original sense; it is classical liberalism, not modern social liberalism. Classical liberals are also called libertarians, so as to make this distinction.

Lao Tzu and Daoism

In Chinese philosophy, there are many schools of thought. Though Confucianism is a dominant one, it is by no means definitive. Daoism was also a major ideology in ancient china. Lao Tzu was one of its foremost proponents. An analysis of this will reveal that in many ways, Lao Tzu and his concepts were an early exposition of libertarian ideas!

Lao Tzu worked out the view that the individual and his happiness was the key unit of society. (This is individualism). If social institutions hampered the individual’s flowering and his happiness, then those institutions should be reduced or abolished altogether. To the individualist Lao Tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers.”
Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum; “inaction” became the watchword for Lao Tzu, since only inaction of government can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. This stems from the famous principle of “wu wei”, understood roughly as “non-action” or “non-intervention”. Any intervention by government, he declared, would be counterproductive, and would lead to confusion and turmoil.
Confucius, Tang Dynasty (image - Wikimedia Commons)
Confucius, Tang Dynasty (image – Wikimedia Commons)
The first political economist to discern the systemic effects of government intervention, Lao Tzu, after referring to the common experience of mankind, came to his penetrating conclusion: “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished — The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

The worst of government interventions, according to Lao Tzu, was heavy taxation and war. “The people hunger because theft superiors consume an excess in taxation” and, “where armies have been stationed, thorns and brambles grow. After a great war, harsh years of famine are sure to follow.” The wisest course is to keep the government simple and inactive, for then the world “stabilizes itself.”

As Lao Tzu put it: “Therefore, the Sage says: I take no action yet the people transform themselves, I favor quiescence and the people right themselves, I take no action and the people enrich themselves.”

Therefore, we should realise, even if we’re surprised, that there are libertarian currents of thought even in Ancient China.

In Murray Rothbard’s History of Economic Thought, it is said that:
“Taoist thought flourished for several centuries, culminating in the most determinedly anarchistic thinker, Pao Ching-yen, who lived in the early fourth century AD, and about whose life nothing is known. Elaborating on Chuang-Tzu, Pao contrasted the idyllic ways of ancient times that had had no rulers and no government with the misery inflicted by the rulers of the current age. In the earliest days, wrote Pao, “there were no rulers and no officials. [People] dug wells and drank, tilled fields and ate. When the sun rose, they went to work; and when it set, they rested. Placidly going their ways with no encumbrances, they grandly achieved their own fulfilment.” In the stateless age, there was no warfare and no disorder:
Where knights and hosts could not be assembled there was no warfare afield — Ideas of using power for advantage had not yet burgeoned. Disaster and disorder did not occur. Shields and spears were not used; city walls and moats were not built — People munched their food and disported themselves; they were carefree and contented.””
How about Confucianism then? Well, it is erroneous to see it through authoritarian lens. Roderick Long here in his excellent piece demonstrates how Confucianism is anti-authoritarian and non-coercive, and actually favours voluntarism and liberty.


In every civilization and culture, there are really two narratives: one of freedom and liberty, the other of coercion, domination and oppression. In Western societies and states there have been serious regressions to totalitarianism and illegitimate coercion of people, and even in non-western societies, there have been developments and acceptances of individual liberty and constitutionally limited government. Did you know that the first ever recorded word for “freedom” is “ama-gi”, an early Sumerian word?

How about Islamic culture and theology then? Surely Islam is incompatible with liberalism, given all the authoritarianism we see concentrated in Muslim countries? Once again there is nothing within Islam that should forbid the peaceful pursuit of individual ends (which is what liberalism espouses).
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, has written numerous books which include “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”. In an article on Huffpost, his views were further explained and communicated; those interested should read him carefully. What this shows me is that religion need not (and should not) divide us, all religions can come together and affirm the principle of liberty, which will in turn allow the peaceful pursuit of various religious ends.
It is thus highly misleading to see one civilisation as having a “monopoly on the ideas or the practice of liberty”. There is nothing intrinsically Western or European of the philosophy of freedom and individual liberty. The principle of individual liberty and its restrictions on state power and promotion of civil liberties have always been found in the histories of different civilisations. They were gradually developed over time in different places – through the perennial clash between tyranny and freedom – and came to greatest fruition in the Enlightenment; that they first flourished most in the West doesn’t make it an intrinsically Western notion.

So yes, as Singaporeans, there is no reason why we’re so Chinese and Eastern (or whatever) that we can’t accept the common-sensical liberal tenets of peace, voluntarism and freedom.