In the early 1990s, a fierce East-West debate arose whether the economic success of Asia was due to Asian values of hard work, fielty and paternalistic government, attributable to Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism and other Asian cultures

Updated: Saturday May 24, 2014 MYT 7:48:42 AM

Sacredness and universal values


IN the early 1990s, a fierce East-West debate arose whether the economic success of Asia was due to Asian values of hard work, fielty and paternalistic government, largely attributable to Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism and other Asian cultures.

The debate faded when the Asian financial crisis cut back the hubris on both sides, especially since the triumphalism of the West was shattered by the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

There was a subtle shift when Francis Fukuyama published a new book called The Origins of Political Order (2011) in which he began to look more carefully whether the Western liberal democratic model was necessarily the default model of future global social evolution. Fukuyama was of course famed for his earlier book, the End of History (1992) which trumpeted the triumphalism of the Western liberal democratic model after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

However, as the Asian economies powered ahead after 2007, a new strand of voices began to be heard. The debate shifted towards questioning whether Western values are truly universal and how different cultures or civilisations co-exist within the dominant Western model.

Prominent among the Indian critique is an important book by Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different (2011) which argues that India differs significantly from the West, specifically Amercian culture. This is because her Dharma tradition (incorporating Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) offers a diversity of culture and beliefs that differs radically from the Judaic-Christian origins of Western culture.

On the other hand, the Chinese response, as expounded by Fudan University ProfZhang Weiwei, is that within China, there are two views on China’s development. One is that to be modern, China must adopt universal values. The other is that China must find its own path based on its own cultural traditions. In his book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, Zhang argued that China is the only country which “amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilisation with a huge modern state”.

He debated with Fukuyama (Chapter 6 of his book), whether the rise of the middle class in China would give rise to universal values shared by middle class elsewhere. Fukuyama felt there would be universal values, whereas Zhang thought otherwise.

A brilliant piece of recent research by Nanyang Technological University Prof Chiu Chi Yue on cultural mixing suggested that Zhang may be right. He studied why the Chinese consumer public objected to putting a Starbucks coffeehouse, a symbol of modern middle class, in the Forbidden City. He realised that individuals tend to categorise values into three pockets – business, social and sacred. Most people tend to be pretty relaxed over business activities, but they can get offended if social behaviour intrudes into personal space. However, over things they consider sacred, the reaction or rejection can be very high, even to the point of violence.

Within each culture, there are icons, institutions or things considered sacred, defined as something timeless and supremely meaningful, which may require sacrifice of individuals, if necessary in terms of life.

Basically, people do not mind cultural mixing in business and social elements, but when they sense there is foreign contamination in what they hold as sacred, they will resist, expel or combat such contamination.

Chiu’s work suggest that if different cultures hold different things sacred, there can be no homogeneity in values. There are some universal values, but not all values are universal – diversity is the spice of life. But this does not mean that genes, beliefs and ideas do not mix, become hybrids and form new cultures. Society and civilisation adapt to cultural and genetic mixing. Too much inbreed creates genetic and social fragility and ultimate decay, whereas openness to new ideas and innovation, however strange, create rejuvenation.

To claim that one faction is superior to another takes only one side of life’s many contradictions – the competitiveness side that is simultaneously creative and destructive. Competition suggests there is only one number one. On the other hand, Eastern philosophy realises that to be sustainable, both good and evil and opposites co-exist.

In contrast, Western thinking originating from the Judaeic and Christian beliefs starts with one God and one ideal unity. For every problem, there is a single unique solution. Its scientific approach is to break the whole down into parts for more detailed and specialised examination, knowing more and more about less and less. At its most extreme, it creates a micro-specialist who cannot relate the parts to the whole.

But life is all about interconnections and interdependencies on each other to form an ever-changing whole.

The recent failure of neoclassical economic models is the best example of how crises cannot be explained by models based simplistically on “rational behaviour”. Eastern holistic thinking is fuzzy, contradictory, often non-logical and non-linear – but it is founded on long human experience, pragmatism and is adaptive to change. On the other hand, any theory, however elegant, is based on limited information and experience, and is by definition incomplete and flawed.

From the perspective of macro-history, first elaborated by French geographerFernand Braudel, Chinese-American historian Ray Huang and others, the mixing of civilisation moves in different time scales. History and civilisation must factor into consideration different disciplines of geography, sociology, economics, politics, physics and biology and today’s climate change. Our natural environment has been drastically changed by human excess consumption, and we either adapt, cooperate or fail.

Hence, the common factor that unifies East and West, North and South is that technology and climate change is affecting us all at Internet speed. As John Maynard Keynes brutally recognised, in the long run we are all dead, but those who live, must survive and avoid mutual destruction. Change is the only constant.

In the next article, I shall examine the issue of cultural mixing.

Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow at the Fung Global Institute.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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