Smoke over parts of Asia obscures
some profound concerns
BY Christopher Lingle. International Herald Tribune. Oct 7, 1994.
THERE are views from East Asia that are decidedly different from those of Kishore Mahbubani in his comment, You may not like it, Europe, but this Asian medicine could help (Opinion, Oct 1, 1994).
First, his metaphor of a "ring of fire" defined by political flashpoints along Europe's edges is figurative. Here in Southeast Asia, such a description is a literal reality, revealing much about the "Asian model" that he supports.
For the past month, much of Malaysian and parts of Indonesia have been choking under a thick cloud of smoke from Indonesian forest fires raging out of control. It is unthinkable that such a catastrophe in Europe would meet with such resounding reticence among government officials of the affected countries.
Despite registered pollution levels in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that often surpass or hover just below the unhealthy level, the public is belatedly informed that a ministerial meeting to address this crisis will not be held until the end of October. One has to wonder what Europeans might learn from this Asian remedy.
Such inaction and refusal to comment on the internal affairs of neighbors is a defining characteristic of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations. These Asian states seem more interested in allowing fellow governments to save face than in saving lives of their citizens or preserving the environment.
The remark that "more lives are lost daily on the periphery of Europe than in the entire Asia-Pacific region" is remarkably disingenuous. This assertion is probably not true. However, there are no means for independent corroboration for what goes on in most of Asia. News that flows freely and is distributed widely in Europe results in active introspection about its consequences.
In many Asian states, the media are subject to numerous restrictions and forms of censorship, some blatant, some subtle. As a consequence, Asia's citizens can receive diluted or filtered information or remain uninformed except for announcements of self-serving government announcements. This control of information allows governments to release news on their own terms, basking in their own glory while concealing their failings.
In the particular case comparing the loss of life in Europe's conflicts, there is no solid information on how many Asians lost their lives in the political struggles in East Timor, Burma or in Tibet.
The indifference of the regimes in this region to such outrages and crises strongly supports the perception that human life is worth little in Asia. Such a response must be seen in the context of governments based upon patriarchal, collectivist ideals where society is placed above self. There is no tradition for promoting individual liberty or protecting individual rights.
Mr Mahbubani's reference to the tragic carnage in Europe may be correct. However, he conveniently overlooks the fact that considerable numbers of peoples' lives are ruined in Asia for participating in political opposition.
Intolerant regimes in the region reveal considerable ingenuity in their methods of suppressing dissent. Some techniques lack finesse: crushing unarmed students with tanks, or imprisoning dissidents. Others are more subtle: relying upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians, or buying out enough the opposition to take control "democratically." Trade unionists in Europe seldom face such pressures.
Mr Mahbubani's claims are strongest when he is not comparing Europe's flawed institutions to Asia's allegedly superior ones. For example, it is hard to disagree with his advice for ending Europe's agricultural subsidies. Although consistency demands that Korean and Japanese governments muster the political will to face down their farmers on this issue, he conspicuously refrains from offering such advice to his Asian neighbors.
One is also heartened by Mr Mahbubani's encouragement of increased global rather than regional integration. Nonetheless, his remarks do not seem to square with the initiatives for an ASEAN free-trade area or an East Asian Economic Caucus. Certainly it is wrong for Turkey to be excluded from the European Union. Meanwhile India is kept at arm's length by ASEAN.
After being called to account for regional myopia, Europeans are blamed for overlooking the three big forces on its doorstep: Russia, Africa and Islam. Mr. Mahbubani deftly side-steps the lack of mutual response among Asians to three big forces that threaten their stability: China, over-population and a rapidly decaying environment.
Meanwhile, articulate delivery masks the shrill refrain that is increasingly commonplace among apologists of authoritarian regimes in Asia.
During the Cold War, the ASEAN states used the image of a Communist menace to great effect. They developed a coherent front that provided legitimacy for their often repressive methods. It served an end that was applauded by the West. As a reward, developed economies provided these Asian regimes with national security guarantees and generally open markets while turning a blind eye to the boot kept at the throat of their political oppositions.
With the disappearance of communism as a palpable threat, some Asian regimes deflect interest from their rigid authoritarian control by pointing to the corrosive effect upon their communities from the decadent influences of the West. Yet the only certain threat associated with the introduction of liberal democracy is its weakening effect upon the choke hold of one-party political dominance.