23 Dec 2005

Peel off those divisive labels

Nothing ideologically united about the 'West', nor does 'Asian' mean anti-freedom
Friday • December 23, 2005
Letter from Jolene Tan
London, United Kingdom, Published on TODAY

I refer to Mr Wong Hoong Hooi's letter, "A sense of self" (Dec 21), in which he discusses the Asian values movement as a struggle for identity. I believe this is animated by the values of pluralism and independence of mind, and the search for alternative ways to imagine and create our future. All of this should be applauded.

But it would be a mistake to regard the Asian values debate as a step in the positive direction, as far as achieving these aims are concerned.

The debate and Mr Wong's letter — in which he speaks of East and West, and the Western and non-Western world — are problematic in that they regard a central divide between world cultures as that between the West and "the rest".

This vocabulary reflects a mentality that thinker Edward Said called Orientalism: The attempt of some Western thinkers to paint the West as responsible for the historical and modern spirit of democracy.

To change the statement, "The West is democratic and free, and thus better than the East" to "The East rejects democracy and freedom, and is thus better than the West" reproduces a condescending dichotomy between the West and "the Other".

It is self-Orientalism: Defining ourselves by reference to our opposition to another.

It ignores the internal dissent and potential both within what Mr Wong calls the West and within Asia. To take a simple example, he suggests "the West" would like to see a world dominated by a universal language in the form of English.

One can only wonder what he makes of the European Union's strenuous commitment to a diversity of working languages or of the notorious disdain of the French for things Anglo-American.

Still less can I imagine what he thinks of the intense political controversies raging in the United Kingdom over detention without trial or in the United States over the role of religion in public life.

People who live in the West are not automatically ideologically united. Similarly, the non-Western world is extremely diverse. Within Asia itself, there is much variation.

Liberal Singaporeans — those who believe in the need for greater freedom of speech, greater political participation and a greater tolerance of diversity — are not in any way less Asian than their more conservative counterparts.

To suggest that scepticism towards political freedoms and democracy is innately Asian is to basically demand that people pledge allegiance to certain ideals for no better reason than race and geography.

I agree with Mr Wong that we need to search for a sense of self. But the search should not be laden with sweeping generalisations about "the East" and "the West".

These labels are unhelpful and presuppose a commitment of many people to positions that they do not hold.

It would be far better to recognise the points of disagreement at home and consider them on their own grounds — without worrying about whether a point of view is foreign or domestic.

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