Which country represents the East Asian culture

Human rights

Sonja Ernst

To person

Sonja Ernst is a freelance journalist and editor. The political scientist works with a focus on urbanism and Asia.

Review and balance sheet

In the 1990s, western countries and parts of Asia exchanged blows over so-called "Asian values": a debate about individual rights versus community rights and about economic and social development.

Mass wedding in South Korea (& copy AP)

The concept of "Asian values" was mainly postulated by China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The political elites emphasized diligence, thrift, and the recognition of authority and community as essential ethical features of their societies. The importance of family and education was underlined; likewise the striving for harmony and consensus as well as the rejection of confrontation and conflict. The right of the individual vis-à-vis the state was not in the foreground, as it is laid down in the Western understanding of democracy. Rather, the individual was seen as part of a larger community. The rights and interests of this community were placed above those of the individual. And the state should define and represent the interests of the community and the nation: This paternalistic understanding of the state was an important element in the concept of "Asian values". At the same time, authoritarian governments also used this concept for their own interests - as legitimation for state repression, the ban on free trade unions, the restriction of freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and expression, freedom of religion and other human rights.

The debate about "Asian values" has taken place on various levels. On the one hand, the universality of human rights has been questioned by individual Asian governments such as China or Singapore: Human rights should therefore apply depending on cultural characteristics. On the other hand, it was about the relationship between development and democracy.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the countries of East and Southeast Asia had written an unprecedented economic success story. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan as well as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were considered "East Asian miracles". Individual governments interpreted the specifically Confucian, Asian culture as a prerequisite for the economic rise of the region. The economic success gave rise to a self-confident political elite that demanded from the West the right to its own development policy and challenged the supremacy of the old industrialized countries of Europe and North America.

"Western" versus "Asian values"?

"Is there only one form of democracy or only one high priest who interprets it - the West?" Said Mahathir Mohamad in an interview in August 1995. [1] The then Prime Minister of Malaysia was the central spokesman for the debate alongside the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Mahathir spoke about the young people in his country: "We want to make it clear to them that the decline of the West is due to the decline in values. That the rights of the individual do not take precedence over those of the community, but vice versa," said Mahathir. He saw the decline in values ​​in the West primarily in the decline of families, drug consumption, and increasing violence and crime.

According to this view, the "Asian values" should help to put a stop to the tutelage of the West. "By striving to emphasize your own Asian identity, you certainly wanted to set yourself apart from Western politics, which in these countries had often been colonial policy and forbid any outside interference," says Dr. Wolfgang S. Heinz, research assistant at the Institute for Human Rights in Berlin and member of the expert committee of the UN Human Rights Council. [2]

Instrumentalization of "Asian values"?

However, the debate about "Asian values" did not only have a foreign policy dimension. Domestically, too, it served its purpose. "The concept of Asian values ​​also had the function of justifying and legitimizing one's own authoritarian form of government, which officially focused on successful economic development as its main goal," said Heinz. Authoritarian governments such as Singapore or Malaysia saw economic success as the justification that there was no need for a civil society - that active political participation of the population was, as it were, superfluous as long as the state brilliantly regulates the country's economic fortunes.

However, the concept of "Asian values" has been problematic in many places. With the economic boom, the societies of East and Southeast Asia changed: the phase of industrialization, sometimes rapid urbanization and ongoing migration movements led to processes of individualization here too. In many urban households in Asia, the extended family gave way to the small family. Such a change in values ​​was not foreseen in the concept of "Asian values" - it was based on supposedly stable, eternal values. At the same time, the insistence on a fixed canon of values ​​served the authoritarian-conservative governments to cement the social status quo and their own power.