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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Economic Success Based on Various Factors

A century ago, German sociologist Max Weber posited that Western-style economic development could not occur in Asia because of Asians' adherence to Confucianism, an ancient Chinese ethical and philosophical system propounded by Kung (Master) Fu Tzu, 551 B.C.-479 B.C., who preached, among other things, individual morality and ethics, as well as how rulers should exercise political power properly.

Wikipedia defines Confucianism as a "complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical and quasi-religious thought." This thought influences the cultures of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, in North and East Asia; in Singapore and Vietnam in Southeast Asia; and in the territories with large Chinese settlements, until the present day.

Although generally considered "Asian" values, Confucian values do not form the cultures of all peoples and governments in Asia. But Confucius' social ethics and moral teachings have co-existed and blended with Taoism and Buddhism; and Confucian values and other Asian values have become complementary as they co-exist peacefully.
Like many different species of trees that form the same forest, Asia, as a continent of great social, cultural, ethnic, linguistics, religious and political heterogeneity, nevertheless finds its commonalities. Hence, the perception of "Asian" values: the importance of the community over the individual; order and harmony over personal freedom and individual rights; saving and wise management over laissez-faire; hard work and respect for government; and family and loyalty.

Of interest, one of Confucius' principles, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others," brings to mind the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," displayed, among other places, on Norman Rockwell's mosaic at the United Nations Headquarters in New York today.

Thus, in the 1990s when governments and countries that adhere to Confucianism produced what was known as East Asia's "economic miracles," Max Weber's century-old assertion was stood on its head, and Confucian values were cited as contributing to the region's extraordinary economic development.

But it was Southeast Asia's Confucian, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, and predominantly Muslim Malaysia's Mohamad Mahathir who emerged as the two most vocal proponents of "Asian" values contributing to the region's economic miracles. The success of these authoritarian rulers has been used by other autocratic Asian leaders to justify their authoritarian regimes in the face of liberal Asian opponents, such as Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim or Cambodia's Sam Rainsy, and of Western critics.

For a long time, Eastern philosophies had insisted that while human rights and individual freedom espoused by the West are an admirable goal, they are meaningless and cannot exist in societies riddled with chaos and insecurity; only in an environment of order, stability and security can they survive and thrive.

While culture matters very much, there are other factors -- people, education, health, morale, effective management, administrative efficiency -- that help contribute to economic development.

When non-Confucian Malaysians copied Confucian Lee Kuan Yew's ways of governing and building the nation-state, Malaysia rose as an economic power-house at the heels of the four Confucian "Asian dragons" of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

A former Singaporean diplomat and scholar, Kishore Mahbubani, argued that Asians battled to promote Asian values as Western values and the Western-led globalization reached Asians' doorsteps, and Asians felt the need to promote self-esteem through the search for personal, social and national identities in a Western-dominated world.

According to Anthony Milner of the Faculty of Asian Studies, it was the consciousness of Asian, Confucian or Islamic identity that reinforced "resistance" to a universal, global community and has a Western flavor.

In a 1996 publication of the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy, Xiaorong Li contended that Asian values actually advocate picking and choosing from other cultures to suit their political interests, as with the idea of free expression. Li, who dismissed autocratic leaders' argument that economic development goals override political and civil rights, argued that because starving and illiterate masses choose a "full belly" does not mean that deprivation will cease.

I wrote last week about Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who warns, "food, shelter and clothing" don't transform people in need from being "only half human," because they need something else to sustain their "deeper nature: the precious air of liberty."

Perhaps it was Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria who summed it up best when he wrote that in the final analysis, while culture does matter as a contributing factor to a society's economic development, for Singapore's development it was neither culture nor Confucius but Lee Kuan Yew's effective way of running a clean and competent government that brought the island republic, once infested with malaria, into what it is today.

That government, built on Confucius' teaching of meritocracy, not only has effective institutions, but has acquired mass identification and support from Singapore's diversified peoples of different ethnicities who see themselves, first and foremost, as nationals of Singapore. All of these factors influence one another and altogether contribute to the island's impressive economic development. Singapore is on an equal footing with First World societies.

The people and leaders on Guam may find something they are able to learn from the discussion above to improve and build the island.

We can be "cynical" -- a word used by a former student of mine from the University of Guam, now a law student in the West Coast -- about what can be done on Guam, but things will not happen the way we would like unless individual initiatives are undertaken by people of strong will.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.

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