My Take

Values back in vogue as nations seek to define their own identity

There was a time when universal – mostly Western – values were widely accepted; now, in a fractured world, there’s a push to be different

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 1:07am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 1:07am

When the Asian “tiger economies” were riding high in the 1980s and 1990s, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew postulated that it was “Asian values” that propelled them to national greatness and rejuvenation. For that, he was pummelled and ridiculed, mostly by Western pundits.

Now, interestingly, some Western countries have started talking about their own individual values.

In Canada, Conservative member of parliament Kellie Leitch has recently started a heated national debate about “Canadian values”. Following a series of terrorist attacks and plots, Leitch has floated the idea of screening new immigrants for their attitudes towards tolerance of other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, and their willingness to accept Canadian freedoms.

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While mostly castigated in the liberal press, a poll conducted last month found a high number of Canadians (67 per cent) agreed with Leitch on the need to screen immigrants. Among the most commonly cited Canadian values were equality, which came out on top (27 per cent), followed by patriotism (15 per cent), fairness (12 per cent) and tolerance (11 per cent).

Under the British Conservative government, schools have been instructed to promote “British values”. Among these are: democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Since last year, the British Home Office has made promoting British values part of its counter-extremism strategy.

US presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed “extreme vetting” of immigrants, including an “ideological test” to evaluate whether they share American values, though it’s not clear what these are. The Republican Party has made much of family values and gun rights. More liberal-leaning Americans have a different laundry list.

Hong Kong has its “core values”. Nowadays, it usually means human rights, rule of law, civil liberty and free speech. When I was growing up, they were free enterprise and money-making over politics.

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The tidal wave of Washington-led globalisation in the late 20th century promoted Western practices and values – in government, business and society – as universally applicable. Asian values were inimical to this grand scheme of things.

But after the global financial crisis, international trade and globalisation have come under severe pressure with the rise of nationalism and protectionism.

In a fractured world, is it any wonder more peoples and communities are (re)defining their identities and values as being distinct rather than shared?