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Asian Values: Loosening Up?

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In early December 2005, when the Crazy Horse Paris started its shows in Singapore, a topless dance revue, it attracted a lot of criticism in the media. Letter writers and commentators accused the show "of exploiting women, being chauvinistic, archaic, outdated, immoral, sleazy, a threat to marriages and a poor example to children."

"Soft porn has finally landed here...officially," said a Singaporean blogger. Commenting on these reactions, humor writer Neil Humphreys quipped: "I am sure it also contributes to global warming and the hole in the ozone layer."

Questions were being asked: Is Crazy Horse Paris a step forward or a step backwards for Singapore?

At the heart of this controversy is the debate over "Asian values." Since the rise of the Asia's tiger economies (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the "Asian values" debate has been centre-stage. The main thesis of Asian values is the appealing notion that Asians sacrificed individual aspirations for the greater good of society. Historically, the unusual economic growth experienced within East Asian countries pushed the socio-political structures of these countries under the spotlight. The success of these countries as well the economic awakening of giants like China and India, coupled with the friction that has resulted over "trade protectionism, economic conditionality, democracy and human rights" have made the "Asian values" debate political.

"Asian values' is a fundamentally racist term," says Fulbright scholar Ravi Veloo, managing director of Media Campus, Singapore. "Riding on rising Asian economic power the way a parasite rides on a healthy host, infects the Asian mind with a sense of false psychological well-being by looking at the former colonial masters in a negative light, and presenting good values as 'Asian,' ignoring the rest of the world where such values are embraced. I am embarrassed for those who use this term," he adds.

Veloo is referring to the idea of "Asian values" invariably being seen in the context of an East-West dichotomy, where "Asian values" celebrate the community over individualism, the family, frugality, respect for learning, hard work, public duty, teamwork, in contrast to the perceived breakdown of the family, decadence, hedonism, excessive individualism, lack of teamwork, fecklessness, and ill discipline in the West. "One commonly cited example of Asian values is close-knit families," says Veloo. "But what about African and Latin American societies where families are also closely knit. Are they Asian societies?" he asks.

He is also not comfortable with the allegation that the West is inherently morally debased. "Another common derisory example of Western values is the overt sexuality of westerners, as if India did not invent the Kama Sutra," he says. He adds: "We also ignore the fact that large conservative groups of Americans make up the Bible belt who reject the so-called Hollywood values. By the way, no church in the world puts up sexually suggestive figures in places of worship, unlike certain Asian places of worship."

Finally, he asks, "In which part of the world is AIDS, transmitted primarily by sex, the biggest rising problem? How could this even happen in one of the homes of 'Asian values'?"


The debate has taken political ocvertones with leaders such as Mahathir bin Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, exhorting for a renaissance of "Asian values," in concert with their economic rise,, in contrast to the socially and economically deteriorating Western societies.

"The Asian values debate was something Lee Kuan Yew, forced into the public domain in the 1980s," says P.N. Balji, former editor of Today and The New Paper. "He framed the debate with Chinese philosopher Confucius as the pillar. Mr Lee Kuan Yew's main fear was the loss of respect for elders (read the authorities) as the onslaught of Western values through Hollywood movies and American lifestyle gained prominence."

After the Asian financial crisis and the new wave of globalization aided by information technology, says Balji, "the preaching of values disappeared. Today, Singapore is even more plugged into the Western world than ever before. Differentiating between eastern and western values makes no economic sense. Singapore realizes that too, like many other ideological debates here, has been dumped into the dustbin of politics."

Ameerali Abdeali, a bureaucrat and community leader in Singapore, says: "Both Western and Eastern cultures have been influenced by historical events and media exposure. Values are a subset of these cultures. Western and Asian values may differ considerably, for example, values such as filial piety and discipline are associated with Eastern culture and materialism and individualism are largely regarded as Western value. However, it would be misleading to suggest that one set of values is inherently superior to the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. So I am not for the outright rejection of one value system over the other."

Crazy Horse Paris seems to be playing pretty well as Singaporeans loosen up.
Singapore authorities hope the Crazy Horse Paris topless cabaret, which debuted in December, will help shake off the country's staid 

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Arts & Entertainment | Entertainment | Magazine | January 2006

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