Asian values

Asian values was a political ideology of the 1990s, which defined elements of society, culture and history common to the nations of Southeast and East Asia. It aimed to use commonalities – for example, the principle of collectivism – to unify people for their economic and social good. This contrasted with perceived European ideals of the universal rights of man. The concept was advocated by Mahathir Mohamad (Prime Minister of Malaysia, 1981–2003, 2018–2020) and by Lee Kuan Yew (Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959–1990), as well as other Asian leaders. It has been often used by nondemocratic leaders to justify repression of political opponents, which has been described as violating their human rights, through the justification that "human rights are not part of Asian values".[1]

The popularity of the concept waned after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when it became evident that Asia lacked any coherent regional institutional mechanism to deal with the crisis.[2]


Various definitions of Asian values have been put forth. Generally, the phrase alludes to influences by Confucianism[3]:10 – in particular, filial piety or loyalty towards the family, corporation, and nation; the forgoing of personal freedom for the sake of society's stability and prosperity; the pursuit of academic and technological excellence; and, a strong work ethic together with thrift.

Proponents of so-called "Asian values", who tend to support Chinese-style authoritarian governments,[3]:13 claim these values are more appropriate for the region than Western democracy with its emphasis on individual freedoms.[4]

"Asian values" were codified and promoted in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, which re-emphasized the principles of sovereignty, self-determination, and non-interference in civil and political rights. They included:


Historically, there has been no shared "Asian" identity, and the concept of unified geographical regional identity at the time of its popularity in the 20th century was not strictly limited to Asia.[3]:2 Asian values gained popularity in the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan, under Kuomintang), Malaysia (under Mahathir Mohamad), Singapore (under Lee Kuan Yew), Indonesia, South Korea and in Japan (perhaps as early as the pre World War II era).[5] In the West, the study of Asian values was seen as a way to understand Asia and foster a closer relationship with the region.[6]

Proponents in Malaysia and Singapore claim the concept helped reconcile Islam, Confucianism and Hinduism and was unifying because it was different to the philosophy of the West.[7] Lee maintained that, more than economics or politics, a nation's culture would determine its fate.[8]

In Japan, a concept of "Ideals of the East" was embraced in some nationalist circles because it challenged the West and also because it offered the possibility of Japanese leadership in a new Asia.[9] Some attribute the economic success of East and Southeast Asian nations in the 1960s to 1980s to "Asian values"; a third-way, Asian political model that was an alternative to totalitarianism and liberal democracy. Japan's economic miracle under the 1955 System, where the Liberal Democratic Party has been the dominant Japanese party nearly continuously in power since 1955, is used as an example of the success of this political model.

"Asian values" was also evident in the planning of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.[10]

The popularity of the concept did not persist. Some speculate it might have contributed to the religious, social, cultural and economic changes occurring in Asia in that time; for example, the Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia may have been successfully counteracted by liberal democracy.[11][12][13]

In 2006, Jusuf Kalla, the vice-president of Indonesia, linked Asian values with the proposed East Asian Free Trade Agreement and the East Asian Community arising from the East Asia Summit. He partly defended Asian values by placing emphasis on co-operation over competition.[14]

"Asian values" continues to be discussed in academe with reference to the question of the universality of human rights (as opposed to a position of cultural relativism).[15]

The authors of a study published in 2015 claimed that rice versus wheat agriculture explain differences in analytic thinking, "implicit individualism" and innovation between various Chinese provinces.[16] Compared to wheat farming, rice farming is a labor-intensive practice that requires cooperation among many people.[17] However, the results of the study are controversial due to very small sample sizes for some units of analysis (some samples were as small as fewer than ten individuals), questionable measurement instruments and model misspecification. Using an improved measure of individualism-collectivism, the authors of a replication study found that the conclusion of the 2015 article claiming to show evidence for the relationship between wheat versus rice farming was the result of faulty methodology.[18]

In East Timor, the idea of "Asian values", or "Timorese values", that diverged from the internationally understood idea of democracy emerged following the 2012 East Timorese presidential election. This election saw the incumbent José Ramos-Horta, a member of what was seen as an older generation linked to the introduction of democracy, eliminated in the first round.[19] Ramos-Horta would, however, go on to win the presidency again a decade later, following a campaign aimed at addressing global issues affecting East Timor.[20]


A number of criticisms of Asian values have been made.[21] Kim Dae-jung (President of South Korea, 1998–2003), Amartya Kumar Sen (an Indian economist, philosopher, and Nobel laureate) and Yu Ying-shih (a Chinese-born American historian and sinologist) have argued that "Asian values" and the protection thereof by cultural relativism is doublespeak for suppressing freedom of speech and human rights, which may be portrayed as "Western values" inapplicable to Asian society.[22] [23][24][25] Randall Peerenboom noted that many scholars "are in general agreement that some Asian governments use the rhetoric of Asian values for self-serving ends."[26] Amartya Sen argues these so-called Asian values cannot operate because of the overriding cultural diversity found in Asia.[27][28]

See also


  1. Kent, Ann (2008), Avonius, Leena; Kingsbury, Damien (eds.), "Chinese Values and Human Rights", Human Rights in Asia: A Reassessment of the Asian Values Debate, New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, pp. 83–97, doi:10.1057/9780230615496_5, ISBN 978-0-230-61549-6, retrieved 18 June 2021
  2. Thompson, Mark R (2001). "Whatever Happened to "Asian Values"?". Journal of Democracy. 12 (4): 154–165. doi:10.1353/jod.2001.0083. ISSN 1086-3214.
  3. De Bary W. "Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective." Harvard University Press, 1998 ISBN 0674049551, 9780674049550.
  4. Mark R Thompson, "Pacific Asia after 'Asian values'", Third World Quarterly, 2004.
  5. Bar M. "Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War." Routledge, 2004 ISBN 0415338263, 9780415338264.
  6. Cauquelin J. et al. "Asian Values: Encounter with Diversity." Routledge, 2014 ISBN 1136841253, 9781136841255.
  7. Nishida K Nishida Kitaro Zenshu (Complete Works of Nishida Kitaro in 19 volumes), 4th ed., Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo 1989.
  8. Zakaria F "A Conversation with Lee Kwan Yu" Foreign Affairs, Journal of the Council on Foreign Affairs, a non-partisan organisation, Florida, US. March – April 1994.
  9. Okakura K The Ideals of the East, Tuttle Publishing, North Clarenton 1904, 2002.
  10. Beatty B. "Democracy, Asian Values, and Hong Kong: Evaluating Political Elite Beliefs." Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003 p14 ISBN 0275976882, 9780275976880.
  11. Milner A. "What's Happened to Asian Values?" Faculty of Asian Studies, ANU, 1999.
  12. Krugman P. "Latin America's Swan Song" An MIT web page article, unsourced and date not stated. Accessed 21 May 2014.
  13. Francis Fukuyama F. "The End of History and the Last Man". Free Press 1992. ISBN 0-02-910975-2.
  14. "Indonesia calls for countries to bear Asian values." People's Daily Online, an English language Chinese online news website. Accessed 21 May 2014.
  15. "The Asian values debate and its relevance to international humanitarian law." Archived 6 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine ICRC.
  16. T. Talhelm; et al. (2014). "Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture". Science. 344 (6184): 603–608. Bibcode:2014Sci...344..603T. doi:10.1126/science.1246850. PMID 24812395.
  17. Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
  18. Ruan, Jianqing; Xie, Zhuan; Zhang, Xiaobo (1 October 2015). "Does rice farming shape individualism and innovation?". Food Policy. 56: 51–58. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2015.07.010. ISSN 0306-9192.
  19. Feijó, Rui Graça (17 September 2015). "Challenges to the Consolidation of Democracy". In Ingram, Sue; Kent, Lia; McWilliam, Andrew (eds.). A New Era?: Timor-Leste after the UN. ANU Press. pp. 61–62. ISBN 9781925022513.
  20. "Ramos-Horta declares victory in East Timor presidential election". Reuters. 21 April 2022. Archived from the original on 21 April 2022. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  21. Bruun O. and Jacobsen M. " Routledge, 2003. ISBN 1135796262, 9781135796266.
  22. Human Rights and Asian Values: What Lee Kuan Yew and Le Peng don't understand about Asia
  23. Kim D. "Is Culture Destiny? The Myths of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values." Foreign Affairs, Florida, US, November 1994.
  24. Amartya Kumar Sen (2003). Human Rights and Asian Values. Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. ISBN 978-0-87641-049-3.
  25. Yu, Ying-shih (2005). "Confucianism and China's encounter with the west in historical perspective". Dao. 4 (2): 203–216. doi:10.1007/BF02856724.
  26. Peerenboom, R. P. (1 September 2000). "Human Rights and Asian Values: The Limits of Universalism". China Review International. 7 (2): 295–320. doi:10.1353/cri.2000.0096. ISSN 1527-9367.
  27. Hendry J. Heung W. (ed.) Dismantling the East-West Dichotomy: Essays in Honour of Jan van Bremen, New York: Routledge, 2006, ISBN 0-415-39738-3
  28. Amartya, S (1999). "Democracy as a Universal Value". Journal of Democracy. 10 (3): 3–17.


  • Loh Kok Wah F. and Khoo B. T. "Democracy in Malaysia: Discourses and Practices" Curzon Press, Richmond Surrey, 2002.
  • Subramaniam S. "The Asian Values Debate: Implications for the Spread of Liberal Democracy" Asian Affairs. March 2000.
  • Ankerl G. "Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western" INUPRESS, Geneva, 2002 ISBN 978-2881550041
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