Asian Values and an Asian Community

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Asian Values and an Asian Community

Asia''s Role in a Globalized World Depends on Its Ability to Forge an Economic Community

President Kim Dae-jung and Singapore''s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have several elements in common, at least outwardly. They are almost contemporaries and both are charismatic and authoritative leaders. By coincidence, they both studied at the University of Cambridge. They are also more knowledgeable than the average politicians. In short, their words carry weight in Asia.

In contrast with their similarities, there is a subtle sense of rivalry between them.

In an interview carried in the 1994 March issue of "Foreign Affairs," Mr. Lee asserted that culture is like one''s destiny and therefore cannot be changed. He also argued that western values of democracy and human rights are not applicable to East Asia, an idea that other Asian leaders, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, also espouse.

Mr. Kim, then chairman of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation contributed his own article, entitled "The Myth of Asia''s Anti-Democratic Values," to the same journal eight months later, in November 1994. In his article, Mr. Kim refuted Mr. Lee''s assertion of unique Asian values and pointed out that Mr. Lee''s view of Asian culture was self-seeking and mainly served to justify his own rejection of democracy. Citing specific examples, Mr. Kim maintained that Asia has a rich heritage of democratically oriented philosophies and traditions. For instance, Chinese Confucian sage Meng Tzu championed an idea similar to democracy by stating that sovereignty rests with the people. A native religion of Korea, Donghak, advocated that man is heaven and that one must serve man as one does heaven. Mr. Kim argued that resistance by authoritative leaders was slowing down the development of democracy in Asia, even though Asia has democratic philosophies as profound as those of the West.

While in office, Mr. Lee pursued a policy similar to that of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, which was essentially based on delaying political democracy for the sake of economic development. In Mr. Lee''s view, the Chinese economy would be much more backward today if students'' demands for democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been met. Mr. Kim, on the other hand, believes it is possible to pursue a market economy while guaranteeing the basic rights of a political democracy. As president of Korea, he is pursuing a market economy and democracy simultaneously, although the outcome of his quest is still debatable.

There is a reason why Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee have such different outlooks, despite sharing the same Asian traditions. Mr. Lee represented the reality of Singapore as its head of state, whereas Mr. Kim, as a dissident and democracy fighter before he became president in February 1998, represented the ideals of liberal democracy that he championed. It is counterproductive to discuss the relative merits of reality and ideals.

If we trace the roots of the two leaders'' ideas on Asian values and traditions, we see that their differences echo the differences between Meng Tzu''s Confucianism, which Mr. Kim is fond of quoting, and Han Fei-tzu''s legalism, which Mr. Lee appears to have recycled to build Singapore. Compared to Confucianism, which was nostalgic for the Chou Dynasty, legalism was a pragmatic ideology that advocated strong state control and absolute obedience to authority.

Shi Huangdi, emperor of the Ch''in Dynasty and creator of the first unified Chinese empire, enabled Ch''in to develop into a strong bureaucratic government with a powerful military based on the totalitarian state philosophy of legalism. The emperor unified measurements, currency and the calligraphic style of Chinese characters for the first time in Chinese history. He even burned all the empire''s existing Confucian books except those which dealt with the practical application of knowledge, such as farming, medicine and astrology. Mr. Lee''s authoritative rule did not permit freedom of the press and political pluralism and looked like, in fact, a modern version of the Chinese emperor''s totalitarian state philosophy.

Mr. Kim recently met Mr. Lee when he visited Singapore to attend the ASEAN Plus Three summit. They appeared to have reconciled their past differences, thus giving a positive signal for cooperation among Asian nations. They had earlier met in Seoul in October 1999 and held in-depth discussions on Northeast Asia, China and Korean Peninsula issues. They may meet again in Seoul next month.

The two men appear to have reached an understanding based on a recognition of the differences in their political philosophies. Thanks to their reconciliation, Southeast Asian leaders are expected to ease their suspicions of Mr. Kim''s background as a pro-democracy fighter, which would help Korea broaden the scope of its ASEAN diplomacy.

In some ways, 21st century economic globalization is a variation of the19th-century colonialism practiced by western imperial powers. Asia will not be able to play a leading role in globalization if it does not become one of the central axes of world economy, together with North America and Europe. To play that role, Asia has to establish an economic community.

We hope that the handshake between Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee becomes the symbolic cornerstone for a future Asian community.

The writer is a senior columnist of the Joongang Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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