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Asian Values: Traditional versus Modern

by: Renante M. Avergonzado

This paper seeks to develop an understanding to the premise traditional

versus modern Asian Values. As a point of departure, the paper started with
enumerating list of Asian Traditional Values claimed in the 1990’s discourse on
the Universality of Human Rights. It was in this discourse that Asian Values were
significantly differentiated from the West. This leads to a question: Is Asian
Modern Values a Product of the West? The answers to the question are the
analysis on the persistence and dynamism of Asian Values.


There are as many Asian values as there are different types of Asians. There
are Hindu values, Muslim values, Buddhist values and Confucianist values.
Even among Confucianists, there are differences, though they form one
coherent group. Those values are not going to change fundamentally.
I’m not trying to defend Asian values…I’m saying that you’re not going to
have culture change overnight. These are deep-seated habits, embedded in
the subconscious of a people.
(Lee Kuan Yew, Asiaweek, 21 May 1999)

This strong statement of the late Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of
Singapore, expresses the difficulty of identifying common values among Asian nations.
Yet, the premise of this report paper is the “traditional versus modern Asian Values”,
which would signify that there is indeed an existing traditional and modern Asian Values.
The first task then is to create a common understanding of Asian Values. “Asian values”
carry the suggestion that there is a set of values that is intrinsic and specific to the whole
of Asia (Barr, 2002: 4). In this paper, Asian Values as a definition is parallel to the 1990’s
Asian values in the global human rights debate. The discourse on Asian values concept
was highlighted and expounded to create a common perspective in which human rights
be universally recognized. From this debate, understanding values and cultural
differences among Asian nations played a crucial role either in solidifying Asian values
claimed or the skepticism over it.
Both Asians and western thinkers expressed their doubts on an existing Asian
values. Avonius and Kingsbury (2008;1) viewed that human rights debate, in particular
civil and political right, were culturally specific and could not be applied universally.
Moreover, they added that an Asian value is a cultural construct, invented by authoritarian

leaders in Asia to legitimate their authoritarian rule (2008; 83). Furthermore, in the book
Restoring East Asia’s Dynamism (Masuyama et al., 2000: 305), conveyed the same
problem that defining Asian Values turns out to be non-trivial task because of location,
temporal and compositional problem. Given these situations, it is really close to
impossibility to have specific Asian Values. However, in the book Political Cultures in Asia
and Europe: Citizen, State and Societal Values (2006; 25), has proposed that Asian
values are simply those values that many people in Asia would endorse and that could
guide them in their search for a political morality. From this standpoint, it opens for a
possibility to claim common elements that characterized Asian values.
In this report paper, it accepts the claimed truth that Asian values are characterized
by the following elements: priority of society over the individual, importance of emotional
bonds based on reciprocal obligation as in the family, and power ideally legitimated by
virtue (Masuyama et al., 2000; 305). These values are traditional to Asian nations and it
is challenged by modernity brought by the West: European nations and that of United
States of America. In view, Asian values claimed are considered as a warning against
heedlessly embracing “Western” democracy and its culture. Asian values became the
polar opposite to everything that was wrong with the West (Rosker, 2016: 159).

Characteristics of Asian Values

Priority of Society over the Individual. This characteristic of Asian values

demonstrated that Asians are communitarian which is opposite to Western individualism.
Asian values put great emphasis on communitarian ideals such as family bondage,
communal peace, social harmony, sacrifices for the community and patriotism’ (Blondel
Inoguch, 2006: 28). Moreover, Han Sung-Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister,
has argued: for the first time in human history, Western civilization stressing pre-
eminence of the individual is encountered by a civilization that emphasizes social
harmony (Sheridan 2000: 8).
The claim above is supported by the study of David Hitchkok, a survey asked East
Asians and Americans to choose six societal values. The East Asians have chose, in
order: an orderly society, social harmony, accountability of public officials, openness to
new ideas and respect for authority. While the American respondents have chosen
freedom of expression, the rights of the individual, personal freedom, open debate,
thinking for oneself and the accountability of public officials (Ibid., 10). Moreover, in the
West, the community has given way to the individual and his desires.
Importance of emotional bonds based on reciprocal obligation as in the
family. In the 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew attributed Singapore’s success to the fact that
Singaporeans were Asian-Oriental-type society, hardworking, thrifty and disciplined.
Among others, Asian values include strong family ties and responsibility for the extended
family which is a common feature of Asian cultures. . In the 1980s, Yew urged parents to
transmit Asian values to their children, warning them not to forget that Singapore’s
success is largely due to the strong spirit of diligence among Asians and to the importance
attached to family relationships and parents–children obligations in Asian societies (Barr,
2002: 6). Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family.

Thus, individual is not pristine and separate from the family. The family is part of the
extended family, and then friends and the wider society (2002: 8)
Power Legimated by Virtue. Asian values in this regards is connected with virtues
associated with Asian religions. It considers religions as identifiable sources of values
that intersect with local cultures. Asian old religions provides understanding on the
continuities and differences between Asian and Western values; and seek within religions
the resources to build a fruitful dialogue on human dignity and rights (Barr, 2002: 79)
Lee Kuan Yew, considers that the teachings of Confucianism is influential in
framing Asian values (Sheridan, 2009: 9). For example, Lee viewed that the conservative
conception of family in Confucian tradition, in which a wise and benevolent father rules
over a respectful wife and children, is both a social ideal and a metaphor on the
relationship of the state and its citizen.

Philippines in Asian Values

In 1992, Lee Kuan Yew, upset Filipinos by telling them that Filipinos had too much
democracy and too little discipline (Sheridan, 2000:19). There is more or less truthfulness
of these words of Lee Kuan Yew, though hurtful, the words are not a direct assault to the
Filipino people themselves but to the Americanized culture that dominated the country. In
fact, the country was considered, at the very least, an odd man out in Asia, that its mental
universe was focused on the United States. Moreover, the country was even considered
as psychologically an extension of southern California displaced a couple of thousand
kilometers into the Pacific (Ibid., 18). Furthermore, Benigno Aquino was quoted saying
“The Filipinos were an Asian people not Asian in the eyes of their fellow Asians, not
Western in the eyes of the West”, expresses the identity crisis of Filipinos as Asian. Those
general truths mentioned are the conscious doubt about the contribution of the Philippines
to the Asian Values discourse.
However, Asian values do mean something to the Philippines in different ways.
Filipinos become a lot more sensitive to being part of Asia as an active member of
ASEAN. The present administration is setting its root deep on Asian ground by embracing
self-determination rather than agreeableness from the West. On the other hand, it shall
be noted that the country also do uphold some values which are considered Asian such
as respect for elders, close family ties, and communitarian spirit portrayed in bayanihan
system. Lastly, the Philippines with its close imagery of the West

plays a vital role in Asian values as the country itself is the arena where East met West.
The core challenge of the country in the Asian values discourse is to reestablish values
that are truly Filipino-Asian.

Is Asian Modern Values a Product of the West?

It is noticeable that the Asian Values debate is a form of ideology and

conscientiousness on Asia’s rapid social change. Asian values claimed were defiance
against the West. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed argued that Asian
values provided the best foundation for official rule and criticism to Western countries for

trying to impose an arbitrary version of democracy. He also attacked the West for its
growing decadence and used that argument in order to promote Asian values as the best
alternative to the risks of “Westernization” (Rosker 2016: 157). Furthermore, Asian values
is considered as an attempt by societies which are rapidly modernizing and experiencing
fast social change to hold on to something of their traditional cultures, their traditional
patterns of thought and behavior (Sheridan 2000: 19). These notions lead to the question
whether Asian modernity is really caused by the west?
This part of the paper presented that Asian values, which includes cultural values,
are persistent and dynamic on its own. Therefore, entirely associating the transformation
of traditional values to something modern to the West is erroneous. This conclusion can
be demonstrated through the following theories: Asian resistance from invasion, revised
theory of modernity and collective memory.
Historical causality of modern values. The debate on Asian values is the
reflexive, collective argument that Asian values differ from Western (Jacobsen & Brunn,
2000: 3). The same argument gives a general assumption that any changes on the Asian
values are byproduct of the West. If history is to judge the question above, ‘is Asian
modernity a product of the west?’, history will probably recognize that Oriental modernity
is attributed to the West. During the period of colonization and even at present, Asian
nations were invaded by the west. Calichman (2005: 56) enumerated some forms of
invasion: firstly was conquest, followed by demand s for the opening of markets, and the
transformation of such country that guarantees human rights and freedom of religious
belief, loans, economic assistance, and support for educational and liberation
movements. It is in this movement that the West imposes distinctive characteristics of
modernity: a spirit of advancement that aims at the infinite approach toward greater
perfection; the positivism, empiricism, and idealism (Ibid.,55). From that time on, there is
always a struggle between the west and the east: it is the West as the invader while the
resistance is of the East.
Reflecting on the continuing struggle between the presumed western invasion and
eastern resistance, the following questions must be addressed: Was there really indeed
an invasion? Is this invasion coercive? In the absence of west, will Asian traditional
values be replaced by Asians themselves? Calichman (2005) describe the invasion and
resistance movement of west and east as advance and retreat. As European move
forward the Asian move backward, this resistance is not meeting the invader head to head
but rather going with the flow and its tune. It is in this movement that Europe reestablished
itself and created its identity; while the resistance of the East is responsible of its own
modernity. Regardless of how Europe has interpreted it, Oriental resistance has
continued, and it is through this resistance that the Orient has modernized itself. The
history of resistance is the history of modernization, and there is no modernization that
does not pass through resistance (Calichman, 2005: 57) Resistance in the Orient is the
historical moment at which Europe becomes Europe.
Economic causality of modern values. However, modernity is more than a
period or epoch established in history. Rather, it designates the social, political, cultural,
institutional, and psychological conditions that arise from certain historical processes
(Finlayson, 2005: 63). In this sense, modernity in itself is a mirror of change and process
which is self imposed. The processes of modernity will never be completed if one relies
only on associating changes as a product of external forces rather than accepting the

truth that modernization is internally made. This brings us to the truth that there is a need
to understand changes of traditional values at its root cause.
To go deeper to the core understanding of modernization, there is the necessity to
utilize a certain theory of modernization. In this paper, Inglehart and Welzel’s (2005)
Revised Theory of Modernization was used to solidify the contention that changes in
traditional values is an internal process which is linked with socioeconomic development.
The theory suggested that the convergence and persistence of traditional values in face
of modernity is based from economic condition. The theory claimed that socioeconomic
development does tend to propel various societies in a roughly predictable direction
(Inglehart and Welzel, 2005: 19). This would imply that holding on to traditional Asian
values or accepting newer values are largely dependent from the economic condition of
a particular society. This premise, on the great role of socioeconomic in shaping values,
is simply because socioeconomic development brings rising levels of existential security,
which is its most basic contribution to human development (Ibid.,45). To demonstrate this
claim, some illustrations are attached in the last pages of the reports paper.
The revised Theory of Modernization presented that Asian Values that were
enumerated are largely influenced by economic status. In a study conducted to various
countries, (see figure 2) it establishes that most developing countries hold on to traditional
values compared to highly industrialized countries, implying that a shift from traditional
values to more secular values is conditioned by socio-economic factors. Furthermore, the
same study revealed that there were changes on the acceptance of homosexuality among
countries and it was the rich countries that have the higher acceptance score. Once more,
it is evident that society’s economic standing affects changes in basic values. It shall be
noted that in the Asian Values discourse, the practice of homosexuality was considered
Western than Asian. In the same manner, democracy is attributed to the West while being
paternal and hierarchical is to the East. The study (see figure 4) demonstrated that when
the balance of regime changes, the shift strongly and monotonically in favor of democracy
as income rises.
The study revealed that the ground of values change in the name of modernity is
not merely an external cause but internal. Therefore, it is a sweeping conclusion to
associate the change of Asian traditional values merely from the west, since economic
condition plays a bigger factor. Perhaps, it would be fair to have the simple formula of the
two: invasion and economy equals modernity.

Collective memory holds values. It was definitely claimed above that values
change occurs in historical and economic circumstances. In this portion of the study, it
presents that the persistence of values is caused by collective memory. One proponent
of collective memory is Maurice Halbwachs (1992), according to him; attachment to
traditional values is a result of the respect given by the present to the past. This respect
is visibly manifested and expressed in language and historical narrative. He stressed that
the perpetuation of traditional values is due to its antiquity and to the evasion of effacing
all that which no longer has present-day utility. This means that any effort of adopting
newer values is close to impossibility without doing it within the framework of the old
notions and under the pretext of traditional ideas (Ibid., 160).
There are implications on this assertion, primarily it entails that the Asian values
debate of 1990’s is an example of collective memory at work. It established a conclusion

that the traditional values claimed in the Asian values discourse is a recollection of the
past. Hence, Asian traditional values claimed in the 90’s are modes of making the past
suitable to the present, specifically on the issue of the universality of human rights. This
conclusion is supported by Buszynski (2004: 8), saying that Asian collectivist cultures
have strong collective memories and mechanisms for disseminating shared beliefs to
ensure conformity. Secondly, collective memory is a storehouse that holds traditional and
cultural values. This means that traditional and cultural values, from clothing to belief
system, are persistent and cohesive since the society tends to cling from it. Since people
opted to remember traditional and cultural values, traditional values were projected in
literatures and engraved in media. For example, the value of family ties among Asians,
media always projected the importance of family relation in television, radio and papers
that the present generation still has a recollection of the old values. In addition, all Asian
countries has a certain commemoration of the past such as the celebration of festivities,
street dances and folkdances, reminding and appreciating the distant past as if it is here
in the present.


The debate over Asian values is politically and economically moved, which
sanctioned to the west any form of dissolutions against modernity experienced by some
Asians. However, it is undeniable that the effort of setting foundation on universally
recognized Asian values is exceptional and enlightening. In asserting cohesive Asian
traditional values, it set a common ground on which policies and laws are anchored with.
From this perspective and on much deeper level, recognition of the existence of common
Asian values is an expression of the communion among Asian nations. The debate on
Asian values was indeed a preparation on how Asian nations must be in perfect
communion in facing today’s globalization. For the Filipinos, Asian traditional values must
be embrace as an identity rather than a mere ideology.
Asian traditional values which are set as ideology are doomed to be forgotten.
However, deeply rooted Asian values that were grounded on Asian identity will soon
expire in the face of economic state of affairs and the continuous transformation brought
by modernization. But still, traditional and cultural values will never fade in the collective
memory of its people. It was demonstrated that there are values that are doomed to
change as it is socio-economically conditioned and is externally influenced. However,
there are also values that are persistent since these values are to realize one’s “esse”,
existence which are engraved in group memory. In the process of modernity, it is either
Asians go with the transformation it brings or to stand as resistance, holding to the old
traditional values.

Barr Michael D. (2002). Cutural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War. New York:
Taylor & Francis e-library.

Blondel, Jean and Inoguchi, Takashi. (2006). Political cultures in Asia and Europe:
Citizens, States and Societal Values. New York: Routledge.

Buszynski, Leszek. (2004). Asia Pacific Security: Values and Identity. London:

Calichman. Richard. (2005). What is modernity? : Writings of Takeuchi Yoshimi. New

York: Columbia University Press.

Finlayson, James Gordon. (2005). Habermas: A Very Short Introduction

United States: Oxford University Press.

Inada, K. (1991). Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society: an International

Symposium. New York: Greenwood Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. (1992). On Collective Memory. Chicago:The University of Chicago


Inglehart, Ronanld, & Welzel, Christian. (2005) Modernization, Cultural Change,

and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge: Cambrige
University Press.
Jacobsen, Michael & Brunn, Ole. (2000). Human Rights and Asian Values. London:
Curzon Press.

Rosker, Jana. (2016). Modern Confucianism and the Concept of “Asian Values” Asian
Studies. IV (XX), 1 pp. 153–164

Masuyama, S., Vandenbrink, D., & Yue, C.S. (2000) Restoring East Asia's
Dynamism. Tokyo: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Sheridan, Greg. (1999) Asian Values, Western Dreams: Understanding the New Asia.
Australia: Allen& Unwin.

Yew, Lee Kuan, Asiaweek, 21 May 1999


Figure 1: Asian Values versus the West

Asian Traditional Values Modern Values (West)

Most Asian cultures contain significant European Enlightenment or the French

elements of hierarchy and paternalism. Revolution emphasis on freedom and reason.

Hierarchical and Paternal Democracy is western influence

East has a web-like relational or West is liberal and has atomistic views of
communitarian view of society where society that emphasize the autonomy of
everyone knows his or her place in a social persons.

The rights of each individual are respected Individualistic approach to human rights.
on condition that they are not opposite to
those of the family, village and country.

Most Asians are overtly religious, demanded In contrast, most Western are, to a person,
high standards of personal moral character secular in their approaches, agnostic on
and dogmatic on the nature of the human ethics, and uninquiring on the nature of the
person and the relationship between the person and society.
human person and society.
Stresses on intra-family relationships.
Traditional family ties found in all Asian
Two men living together is a family, two
A family exists when a man and a woman women living together is a family, an
are joined in marriage and have children unmarried woman and her child are a family.

Figure 1 presents the opposing Asian traditional values and Western values. Asian
values demonstrated that Asian nations have their own values which are opposite of that
of the West. Those Asian values enumerated are perceived as commonly accepted
values found among Asian nations. It shall be noted that the formulation of Asian values
conveyed a wish to match economic success with a societal design distinctly different
from the Western model and to counter what was perceived as rampant ‘Westernization’
(Jacobsen & Brunn, 2000:4)

Figure 2: The impact of industrialization on traditional

and secular-rational values (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005)

Figure 2 show that as the proportion of the work force in the industrial sector
exceeds the work force in agriculture, a society’s belief system tends to shift from
traditional to secular-rational values (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005: 58). This would imply
that most developing countries hold on traditional values compared to highly industrialized
countries. It would then be safe to assume that a shift from traditional values to more
secular values is conditioned by socio-economic factors.

Figure 3: The decline in intolerance of homosexuality

in five types of societies (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005)

Figure 3. Shows that homosexuals are a very unpopular outgroup in most

countries. But attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing rapidly in the past two

decades. The percentage saying that homosexuality “is never justifiable” declined. The
changes were most dramatic in rich countries (Ibid.,127). Once more, it is evident that
society’s economic history affects changes in basic values. It shall be noted that in the
Asian Values discourse, the practiceb of homosexuality was considered Western than

Figure 4: The balance of regime changes along rising income

Groups (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005)

. Figure 4 demonstrates that the balance of regime changes shifts strongly and
monotonically in favor of democracy as income rises. In countries with per capita incomes
less than $1,000, changes toward democracy emerge only one tenth as often as changes
toward autocracy. But in countries with per capita incomes greater than $7,000, changes
toward democracy occur twenty-eight times as often as changes toward autocracy