A great deal has been made of the World Bank's announcement that the high rates of economic growth in the East Asian miracle economies stem from getting the fundamentals right. While that observation emphasized astute macroeconomics, various commentators have asserted that these fundamentals relate to unique Asian values. Kishore Mahbubani ("The Pacific Way," January/February 1995) implies that a fusion of Western and Asian cultures defines what he terms the "Pacific way."

Despite this presumed fusion, Mahbubani's essay points almost exclusively to the beneficial consequences of these Asian values. Beyond satisfying the self-serving political considerations of apologists for ruling regimes, this one-sided approach reflects an important trait arising out of Asian customs. The values said to promote prosperity stifle self-critical introspection. Wondering aloud about the cultural and political order is too often treated as an unacceptable sign of weakness in leaders. In others, it is an unacceptable heresy.

Commentary not unconditionally full of praise for the Asian political status quo provokes a strong response from the powers that be. Authoritarian East Asian regimes take a variety of steps against ordinary citizens, academics, journalists, opposition politicians, and even outsiders. The treatment might involve a mild rebuke, citation for criminal defamation or libel, and perhaps detention without trial.

In light of severe restrictions on freedom of speech, citizens have few opportunities to communicate with leaders. Similarly, for critics to air their views is difficult. The rules governing civic discourse in East Asia limit discussions of the Pacific way to its promoters and foreign critics. Communication between rulers and ruled tends to be a one-way, top-down procedure. And rather than the glue that holds Asian societies together, Asian values may be an illusion concealing the iron grip of petty despots.

Meanwhile the failures and problems in Europe and other parts of the West are discussed ad nauseam in a remarkably free atmosphere. Little in Mahbubani's observations about Western culture is novel or insightful. By joining the chorus of Western self-criticism, he and other outsiders might imagine that Western institutions involve only a self-destructive cycle. However, civic discourse and communication in the West involve a free-for-all of individual opinions expressed as a matter of constitutional right and cultural conviction.

A paternalist approach to political rule often gives way to authoritarianism, leading many Asian regimes strongly to resent direct criticism. However, while Asian cultures generally rely on an indirect method of dealing with problems, their approach does not work with thin-skinned government officials. Dialogue with Asian regimes has strict limits, and resentment is not limited to outside critics. Criticism from the citizens of Myanmar, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore is no more welcome. Despite remarkable advances under some Asian regimes, the rigid intolerance of these authoritarian capitalist states bears a troubling similarity to fascism.

Singapore's rulers have provided a recent example of intolerance. In a celebrated case, I was tried in the High Court of Singapore for my remarks in the International Herald Tribune. (1) I was responding to Mahbubani's views in the same newspaper, which were similar to his Foreign Affairs article. He suggested that European leaders follow the success stories of East Asia. I responded that certain repressive tactics may have made the model unacceptable for Europe.

Specifically, I said that some East Asian governments relied on a "compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians." While I did not identify a particular country, in attempting to link my remarks to his country, Singapore's prosecutor may have confessed the guilt of his regime. He admitted that members of the ruling People's Action Party of Singapore and its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, had an established track record of suing opposition politicians for defamation. He insisted that "there is no such other country" where this has happened and identified 11 major political opposition figures whom legal actions, initiated by members of the ruling party, had financially ruined. I was found guilty of statements contemptuous of the Singaporean judiciary. The court assessed stiff fines and all court costs to the defendants, and the editor, publisher, printer, and distributor of the Herald Tribune were convicted for publicizing my words.

Meanwhile, the Western media openly air the views of Singaporean officials, who demand a right of unedited reply from publications that circulate in Singapore. For example, when it abbreviated a wordy statement from the Singaporean government, The Economist found its circulation severely curtailed.

Mahbubani relies on a dubious cause-and-effect connection between the material success of Asian economies and the authoritarian repression that may have accompanied that success. His arguments insist that restraints on individual freedom are necessary for economic progress. Meanwhile the West, having lost its moral compass due to an irrepressible fixation on individual rights, suffers low economic performance. This viewpoint implies the unimaginative assumption that material gratification is the only or most worthy goal of humankind. In any event, his arguments overlook how the economic life cycle partly explains the weak growth in the West. That the United States and Europe compare unfavorably with the vibrancy of nascent East Asian economies is unsurprising. Eventually the tiger economies too shall be tamed.

Contrary to Mahbubani's claims that Asian values contribute to political stability and deter open aggression, East Asia has just as many unsettled border disputes, outrages against humanity, and conflicting geopolitical claims as Europe. Perceptions to the contrary are an outgrowth of the muted press of East Asia and the openness of the media in most parts of Europe.

While the carnage in Chechnya is televised across the globe, there was little coverage of the Dili massacre in Indonesia and no on-site reporting of human rights outrages in Myanmar. In 1994, the lack of concerted action on or criticism of immense, smoke-spreading forest fires in Indonesia reflected another Asian value. So as not to embarrass the Indonesian authorities, neighboring governments were disinclined to offer aid or criticize the handling of the fires. Saving face was more important than saving lives or protecting the environment.

In contrasting the exclusion of East and Central European nations from the institutions of Western Europe versus the inclusiveness of Asian economic relations, Mahbubani is comparing apples and oranges. While establishing free trade between all countries of Europe is desirable, the EU involves a different set of commitments than, for example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The European Union requires acceptance of shared values, political commitments, and pressure from other members. If fires in the Black Forest were causing regional pollution, France would certainly have assisted Germany or insisted on German action. Moreover, in purely economic matters, members of the EU allow trade with Eastern and Central Europe with few more restrictions than ASEAN members impose on Vietnam or Myanmar.

At present, promoters and antagonists of an Asian model are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf. While much about Asian values should be emulated, much should be challenged. An appropriate method of communication between East and West needs to be discovered, and outlining the differences is a first step.

In collectivist Asian regimes, those wielding political power set rules that the polity must unquestioningly accept. Individualist Western regimes attempt to apply reason to resolve private and social interests. Consequently, cultures based on individualism tend to have an outspoken citizenry, while collectivist cultures rely on reserved understatement.

While the great Western political contribution is democracy, the great contribution of the East is bureaucracy. Whereas liberalism and individual freedom found fertile ground in the West, Asian institutions grew along conservative and collectivist lines. So the West evolved liberal capitalism, and Asia has tilted toward authoritarian capitalism. That the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan are moving toward multiparty politics is encouraging. However, Myanmar, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam practice authoritarian capitalism that keeps ruling parties in power by preserving economic growth. The cynical suggestion that exclusively Asian values explain economic success and politically opportunistic assertions that individual freedom and pluralistic democracy are alien concepts deflect liberalizing institutions that might weaken the authoritarian rulers' grip on power. Those rulers benefit from praising respect for authority as a component of Confucianism or other so-called Asian values.

These individualist and collectivist tendencies also affect business activity. Individualist cultures encourage and reward innovation by free-spirited entrepreneurs who are as likely to challenge the political status quo as to upset market arrangements. Most Asian economies, however, have either attempted autarky or have relied upon imitation, requiring access to open markets of more advanced economies. But the considerable success of many so-called miracle economies may not last. Unless they produce homegrown entrepreneurs and technological change, the technological gap will widen as innovators seek greater political and economic freedom outside the region.

East Asian authoritarian capitalist regimes cannot last forever. Individual choice will sweep aside archaic institutions. Despots, autocrats, and their dynastic heirs are mortal, and modernization stemming from economic prosperity will undermine their authority.

Global economic progress depends on free trade. Similarly, cultural progress requires an open competition among political and cultural institutions. Asian authoritarian regimes are attempting to impose cultural protectionism to isolate their communities from infectious liberalizing Western influences. By restricting information, cultural protectionism deals a double blow to emerging economies. Just as trade protection inhibits economic growth, so cultural protection inhibits cultural progress. But cultural protectionism will also retard the formation of an information-based economy and curtail economic growth. Unless rulers of Asian regimes take note of this process, the notion of the much-heralded Pacific century may be a stillborn myth.

(1) "Smoke over Parts of Asia Obscures Some Profound Concerns," International Herald Tribune, Oct. 7, 1994.

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  • Christopher Lingle, an economist, served as a Senior Fellow in the European Studies Program at the National University of Singapore.
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