Saturday, July 5, 2008

'Regime Decay,' Asian Values, and a Malaysian Awakening

During the 1990s, we heard a great deal about the veracity and peculiarity of Asian values. Various politicians, especially those predisposed to authoritarian and dictatorial methods, found in the ‘Asian values’ rhetoric a convenient basis for rationalizing their hold on power, their disregard for human rights and civil liberties, along with their contempt, among other things, for a free and open press. As I recall, Malaysia had an especially vocal dictator who found much refuge and cover in this Asian values rhetoric.

As most who are familiar with the lively conversations and debates of the time surrounding the Asian values issue, you will recall that there are various permutations, versions, and variations of what became known – under the Asian values umbrella label – as a critical basis for distinguishing Asian cultures from non-Asian (mainly Western) as embodying unique traits that render our societies different from non-Asian societies. In a political context, especially crucial was the argument that our cultural heritage and uniqueness made us more inclined to appreciate collective stability over individual rights. Along these lines, Asian values prioritised greater state control and valued more centralised power in place of checks and balances in the political system.

Indeed, in some quarters, espousing civil liberties and human rights were dubbed as ‘luxuries,’ or even worse, non-conducive to achieving the kind of economic progress Asian societies had embarked upon. Of course, the Asian economic crisis was a wake-up call to many about the precariousness – if not the shallowness – of this ideology which dictators across the region, and especially Malaysia’s own, were only too enthusiastic to peddle to the public.

The current events surrounding the Altantuya trial and especially the controversy hovering over the Deputy Prime Minister [see Malaysiakini], the apparent years of abuse of power by the regime – ranging from the serious crisis of confidence in the judiciary and the criminal justice system [see Malaysia-Today ], and even the apparent lack of competence in the Barisan leadership – sure does provide a fascinating prism to revisit this much forgotten ideology of ‘Asian values’ we heard so much about some years back.

Now, I wonder, what exactly are we to make of our apparent unique Asian values that supposedly predispose us to prefer dictators and authoritarian rule, to forgo civil liberties, and suppress human rights? And also, how then would we explain the deep and widespread public sentiment for such, so called, ‘western values’ as greater government accountability and transparency? Oh, and don’t even get me started on the craving that millions of Malaysians seem to have for free speech and a credible press as opposed to the lame, stale, and former Soviet-style controlled news reporting we get daily from the Barisan regime’s print or broadcast mouthpieces.

I hope events of recent weeks – if not recent years - make two things very clear with respect to the Asian values propaganda. There is nothing about our Asian values that would make our so-called ‘leaders’ inherently capable, competent, or even legitimate to lead. That propaganda worked brilliantly for some time to give various dictators the camouflage to concentrate and abuse power. Second, there is nothing about our Asian values that predisposes us to accept the kind of failure, abuse and arrogance of a morally, ethically and, arguably, legally bankrupt regime. On the contrary, if there is anything to be said about Asian values, it is that arrogance and abuse of power is loathsome, abhorrent, and vile; not worthy of respect.

Whether it’s, among other things, the abuse of so-called Asian values, exploiting power, apparently committing crimes, and ultimately destroying the public’s faith in government, the 'regime decay,' to borrow an expression from R. Thakur, in Malaysia is fully evident. The Barisan regime could learn from an old saying often attributed to Abraham Lincoln (pardon the use of a Western reference): ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.’ Interestingly enough, even the arrogant, fumbling, and inarticulate George Bush’s mis-speak and decimation of Lincoln’s quote would apply to this Barisan regime: ‘You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.’

G. Krishnan