Asian Values Revisited

Talk about "Asian Values" is rarely heard nowadays. Its currency seems to have been devalued along with East Asia's once booming economies. For Asia's financial crisis of a few years back uncovered many excesses that hid behind the rhetoric of Asian values - the cozy relations between governments and elites; rampant corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

But of equal importance in causing this diminishment is the fact that real reformers came to power in some Asian states, such as Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, and brought with them a more universal view of human rights. Good governance - in both the public and private sectors - is the post-crisis mantra. With transitions underway in Thailand and Indonesia, democracy is increasingly what Asians want. Although a return to the old discourse about Asian values is unlikely, some Asians may nevertheless reassert their differences on human rights, democracy and governance as memories of the crisis grow distant.

The worst reason for this will be the oldest reason: some pre-crisis elites retain influence and/or power. Because reform threatens their privileges, it must be resisted. Other former elites may try to link self-protection to anti-Western rhetoric and nationalist sentiment. This holds the potential to be a potent weapon in dealing with outsiders like the IMF, or when foreigners buy (at bargain prices) into banks, public utilities and big companies.

Alongside elite self-interest, the pain of ordinary workers and citizens is a genuine and widespread concern. Displaced by new competition, workers have gone on strike in countries like Korea, where the old "iron bowl" of employment protection has shattered. In Thailand, the rural poor organized against a reform minded Democrat government while its party rivals canvassed on the old politics of patronage and money. If united, entrenched elites and the mass of workers and the poor can create a powerful stumbling block to reform.