When universal values meet sacred truths

opinion May 28, 2014 00:00

By Andrew Sheng
Special to The N

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In the early 1990s, a fierce East-West debate arose over whether the economic success of Asia was due to "traditional" Asian values of hard work, fielty and paternalistic government. The debate faded when the Asian financial crisis cut back the hubris on

There was a subtle shift when Francis Fukuyama published “The Origins of Political Order” (2011) in which he began to look more carefully at whether the Western liberal democratic model was necessarily the default for future global social evolution. Fukuyama had gained fame with his earlier book “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992), which trumpets the triumph 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 opinion began to be heard. The debate shifted towards the question of whether Western values are truly universal and how different cultures or civilisations can co-exist within the dominant Western model.  
Prominent among India’s critics of universalism is Rajiv Malhotra, whose book “Being Different” (2011) argues that India differs significantly from the West, specifically American culture. This is because the subcontinent’s tradition of dharma (incorporating Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) offers a diversity of culture and beliefs that differs radically from the Judaeo-Christian origins of Western culture.   
On the other hand, the Chinese response, as expounded by Fudan University Professor Zhang Weiwei, comprises two different views. One is that to be modern, China must adopt universal (ie, Western) 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 Civilizational State”, Professor Zhang argues that China is unique in having “amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilisation with a huge modern state”. 
In chapter six of his book he and Fukuyama debate whether the rise of the middle class in China would create universal values. Fukuyama believes universal values would be established, whereas Professor Zhang thinks otherwise.    
A brilliant piece of recent research by Nanyang Technological University Professor Chiu Chi Yue on cultural mixing suggests that Zhang may be right. He studied why the Chinese public objected to an outlet of Starbucks – a symbol of the modern middle class – being placed in the Forbidden City. He realised that individuals tend to categorise values under three headings – business, social and sacred. Most people tend to be pretty relaxed over business values, but they can get offended by violations of social values. However, over things they consider sacred, violations can bring severe reactions or rejection, even to the point of violence.   
Each and every culture contains icons, institutions or things considered sacred – defined as something timeless and supremely meaningful which may require sacrifice from individuals, including the ultimate sacrifice of giving their lives.  
Basically, people do not mind “cultural mixing” in business and social spheres, but when they sense foreign contamination in what they hold as sacred, they will resist, expel or combat such contamination. 
Professor Chiu’s work suggests 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 inbreeding creates genetic and social fragility and, ultimately, 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 that there is only one number one. On the other hand, Eastern thought recognises that to be sustainable, opposites (such as “good” and “evil”) must co-exist. 
In contrast, the Western tradition is rooted in Judaeo-Christian beliefs of 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 extreme, it creates micro-specialists who cannot relate the parts to the whole.   
But life is all about interconnections and interdependencies that form an ever-changing whole.  
The recent failure of neoclassical economic models is a per 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 geographer Ferndinand Braudel, Chinese-American historian Ray Huang and others, the mixing of civilisation moves in different time scales. History and civilisation are carved by a combination of factors, including geography, sociology, economics, politics, physics, biology and, today, climate change. Our natural environment has seen drastic change under the pressure of humanity’s excess consumption, and now we either adapt, cooperate or fail.   
Hence, the common factor that unifies East and West is that technology and climate change is affecting us all at Internet speed.   As Keynes recognised, the brutal fact is that in the long run we all die, but while we live we must ensure the species’ continued survival and avoid mutual destruction. Change is the only constant.  
Andrew Sheng is a Distinguished Fellow at the Fung Global Institute.