Asian societies need a lesson in tolerance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am


Any general statements about West and East are bound to be little more than cliches and stereotyping. Still, it may not be inaccurate to say tolerance as an ideal and practice is much more cherished and encouraged in Western societies than in Eastern or Asian countries. This does not mean Western countries always practise what they preach. But in most Asian countries such as Japan and China, racial tolerance, for example, is not even a pressing issue. Xenophobia, fuelled by nationalism, is far more common.

It is, perhaps, in this context that the appointment of Fleur Pellerin as France's first Korean-born minister has prompted much soul searching over social values in South Korea. She was adopted by a French couple at the age of six months and grew up in France. The Korean media and the ruling party said her appointment was a testament to French tolerance, from which Korea could learn a lesson. This comes amid growing controversy over discrimination against immigrants and their children in the Asian nation.

South Koreans are not alone. Most Asian societies have problems integrating foreigners to varying degrees. On the mainland, Han Chinese, because of our deeply rooted historical identity, seem especially to have a tough time dealing with other ethnic groups on equal or non-domineering terms. Hong Kong prides itself as a city of tolerance and diversity but scratch below the surface and you will find something quite different. Many of us don't even like our mainland brethren.

Amy Chua, the Yale law professor most famous for rhapsodising about the Chinese 'tiger mum', actually wrote a deep book called Day of Empire in which she argues tolerance has been a great hallmark of all previous greatest empires: Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, the Tang dynasty, the Mongol empire, the Dutch commercial empire of the 17th century, the British Empire and Pax Americana. Chua believes that all these 'hyperpowers' prospered by a strategy of tolerance and inclusion, and declined when they lost sight of it. If she is right, we Chinese need to think about tolerance in the context of the rise of China as the new hyperpower.