Reflections on the Asian Century
Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s, beginning in Japan, followed by the Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers and now, China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st Century will be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century do they mean?
It could be a period of impressive economic growth but accompanied with environmental degradation, violent crimes, rampant corruption, wide social disparities and acute social conflicts. Or it could be a period that draws on the best of human achievements and advances them. Such achievements would contribute immensely to a new global civilisation characterised by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement and sustainable economic development.
Radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. These transformations generate dislocations and new problems, that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, political order and social institutions. These issues engage the best brains of the time. In their efforts to understand and solve burning societal issues, great thinkers tap their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesise them to produce schools of original thoughts.
Harking back to earlier times, one could cite as examples Ancient Greece, the Spring and Autumn Period and the warring States Period, the Islamic Golden Age, and the Maurya and the Gupta periods of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture and literature. These cultural-intellectual works have shaped the character of modern European civilisation and continue to influence our thoughts and cultures.
The Need for the Historical Project
When Asian countries suffered humiliation and defeat in their encounter with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realised the crucial importance of reform and modernisation. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we see in the case of Japanese imperialist aggression.
While Asian cities show physical evidence of economic modernisation, many societal ills still exist. There are dysfunctional cultures exhibited by the political elites. State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent firms. In societies with modern economic, political and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack independence and integrity.
Even in a modern economy and efficient society, we need something more. Japan is the most modern Asian country. Yet its modernisation is confined to the fields of economics, technology, social and legal institutions and lifestyles. It has not undergone a cultural transition based on critical rationality and humanism. Some have used this point to explain why the Japanese nation has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during the Second World War.
Three Major Challenges
Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history. The first is to draw on their own cultural and intellectual resources. With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. In re-working old ideas from one’s culture, one is free and indeed encouraged to consult ideas from other cultures. This is especially so when a society is confronted with problems where there is no effective solution. In his study of the European Enlightenment, Ernst Cassirer, in his 1951 book, The Philosophy of Enlightenment, observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas. Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”
The second challenge is to learn from countries of other continents. To quote Indian philosopher S. Radhakrishnan from the first volume of the book Indian Philosophy:“Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views.” Since the West has a longer history of modernisation, Asia can benefit much from learning from Western ideas and institutions. Asians should be glad to read that the European Renaissance and Enlightenment drank from the wells of Eastern achievements as argued by Martin Bernal in Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization and John Hobson in The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Likewise, they should be glad to borrow and learn from the West, for it can only increase the range of possible solutions. What is critical here is meticulous and rational learning, adapting them to suit local conditions and drawing upon local cultural resources to absorb them.
The third challenge for Asians is to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements and cultural traditions. Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language, which renders exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude. Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe and America than their Asian neighbours.
A Historical Opportunity
Reinventing socio-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes. It is a part of the societal efforts to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is hoped that Asians can inherit their intellectual heritage, learn from foreign sources, cross-fertilise them and, through creative synthesis, produce schools of original thought. The process touches societies in the most profound sense, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concept of justice, truth and beauty. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a soul of history.
However, economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is lack of freedom and internalised self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other – or, if there is, they can only do so much when subjected to censorship. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.
The rise of Asia may thus be conceived as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity.
The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking. It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global. This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long-term well-being of humanity. If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilisation to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilisation. It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.
MICHAEL S. H. HENG
Michael S. H. Heng is a retired professor who has held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands and at six universities in Asia. He has published five books and has spent most of his working life in teaching and research at universities. He has also worked as a software engineer at a transnational company, as a research scientist at the Dutch research agency TNO, and as an associate editor of a business weekly. His teaching and research interests are in business strategy, electronic business, supply chain, globalisation, Asian modernisation and nation building.