In East-West debate, opposing ideas are necessary for creativity

Andrew Sheng says the East-West debate on a global political order can't ignore holistic thinking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:44am

In the early 1990s, a fierce East-West debate arose about whether the economic success of Asia was due to Asian values of hard work, fealty and paternalistic government, largely attributable to Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism and other Asian cultures. The debate faded when the Asian financial crisis cut back the hubris on both sides, and especially since the triumphalism of the West was shattered by the recession of 2007-2009.

There was a subtle shift in 2011 when Francis Fukuyama published a new book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he looked more carefully into whether the Western liberal democratic model was necessarily the default model of future global social evolution.

As Asian economies powered ahead after 2007, a new strand of voices began to be heard. The debate shifted towards questioning whether Western values are truly universal. Prominent among the Indian critique is a book by Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different, which argues that India differs significantly from the West, specifically US culture. This is because its dharma tradition (incorporating Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) offers a diversity of beliefs that differs radically from the Judeo-Christian origins of Western culture.

The Chinese response, as expounded by Fudan University professor Zhang Weiwei, is that within China, there are two views on China's development. One is that to be modern, China must adopt universal values; the other is that China must find its own path based on its own cultural traditions.

In his book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, Zhang argued that China is the only country which "amalgamated the world's longest continuous civilisation with a huge modern state". He debated with Fukuyama on whether the rise of the middle class in China would give rise to universal values shared by the middle class elsewhere. Fukuyama felt there would be universal values; Zhang thought otherwise.

Recent research by Nanyang Technological University professor Chiu Chi-Yue on cultural mixing suggests Zhang may be right. He studied why the Chinese consumer public objected to putting a Starbucks outlet, a symbol of the modern middle class, in the Forbidden City. He found that people tended to sort values into three categories: business, social and sacred. Most were pretty relaxed over business activities, but they could get offended if social behaviour intruded into personal space. Moreover, over things they considered sacred, the reaction could be very strong, even to the point of violence.

Each culture has icons, institutions or things considered sacred, which may require sacrifice to defend. While people do not mind cultural mixing in the business and social spheres, when they sense foreign contamination in what they hold as sacred, they will resist.

Professor Chiu's work suggests that if different cultures hold different things sacred, there can be no homogeneity in values. But this does not mean that genes, beliefs and ideas do not mix and become hybrids. Society adapts to cultural and genetic mixing. Too much inbreeding creates genetic and social fragility and ultimately decay, whereas openness to new ideas and innovation, however strange, create rejuvenation.

To claim that one faction is superior to another takes only one side of a contradiction of life - that competitiveness is simultaneously creative and destructive. Eastern philosophy realises that to be sustainable, opposites must coexist.

In contrast, Western thinking, originating from Judaic and Christian beliefs, starts with one God and one ideal unity. For every problem, there is a single unique solution. Its scientific approach is to break the whole down into parts for more detailed and specialised examination, knowing more and more about less and less.

But life is all about interconnections and interdependencies that form an ever-changing whole.

The recent failure of neoclassical economic models is the best example of how crises cannot be explained by models based on "rational behaviour". Eastern holistic thinking is fuzzy, contradictory, often non-logical and non-linear - but it is founded on long human experience, pragmatism and is adaptive to change. On the other hand, any theory, however elegant, is based on limited information and experience, and is incomplete and flawed.

History and civilisation must consider the different disciplines of geography, sociology, economics, politics, physics and biology and, today, climate change. Our natural environment has been drastically changed by excess consumption, and we either adapt, cooperate or fail.

Hence, the common factor that unifies East and West, North and South is that technology and climate change are affecting us all at internet speed. As Keynes brutally recognised, in the long run we are all dead, but those who live must try to avoid mutual destruction. Change is the only constant.

Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at the Fung Global Institute