Asia's search for cultural-intellectual rejuvenation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 08, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:36 AM, April 08, 2017

Asia's search for cultural-intellectual rejuvenation

Last month, Professor Michael Heng argued in Singapore that in order to achieve the Asian Century, there is a need for Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation.

Heng's lecture was in the tradition of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Dean Kishore Mahbubani's 1998 challenge -'Can Asians think?'.

This search for intellectual rejuvenation is made more urgent by the rise of Trumpism, which has over-turned the American neo-liberal world order to spread free markets, democracy and technology to the rest of the world. Chinese President Xi's defense of globalisation at Davos this year was a dramatic contrast to the protectionist and inward-looking tone of Trump.

Professor Heng categorised the issues as three challenges - how to rejuvenate Asian cultures, learning from non-Asians and learning from each other. These are serious challenges that deserve serious thinking. How the questions are framed often affect their answers.

Whilst we can identify at least five Asian cultures and intellectual traditions (Islam, Hindu, Chinese, Shinto and South-East Asian), it is no longer possible to delineate precisely where these traditions have affected each other, Western culture and traditions and how they are evolving.

Cultures, like languages, are living and not fixed in time, borrowing, learning, forgetting and adapting to a changing environment, including changing the environment itself. Whereas in the 17th century, cultures were segregated by geography, the advances in transport and communications technology are such that almost no culture can be an island - they are invaded by foreign technology to such an extent that the lines have become blurred.

But cultures survive because they are preserved and reborn. Even as Syrian culture and society is shattered by its devastating civil war, Syrian music is being spread throughout the world through the Internet, preserved by Syrian migrant and expatriate musicians and artists.

Thus, the issue of cultural-intellectual rejuvenation is a perennial search for identity in a rapidly changing world, bombarded by politics, economics, technology, climate change, religion and human migration and conflicts.

The search for identity was construed by English philosopher Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009) as the two paths to Post-Modernity - one forward looking in facing the future, and the other nostalgic and backing into old ideas of religious purity and nationalism.

The American lurch towards protectionism is part of the Republican nostalgia for right wing values - mostly defined in White Christian terms. This is not unlike the search for religious and ethnic sacred values within Asia in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto or other native beliefs. 

Modern human and informational migration is such that we are all today genetic or ideological hybrids, simultaneously local, global, liberal and fundamentalist in different aspects of our lives.

Even though billions have been lifted out of poverty and illiteracy, inequality remains rife and keenly felt, creating resentment, insecurity and conflict. Each Asian culture is being melded profoundly in a potpourri that is becoming inseparable from daily contact with technology, foreigners and social media. Small wonder that such insecurity has fed the populist drive for purity and identity, seeking to protect identities from foreign or others' “contaminations”.

Such daily disruption is being forced on all of us, from the poorest to the most privileged. How else can we explain President Trump's inaugural address when he promised to address 'American carnage', meaning the perceived destruction of American jobs and the decline of the white middle class worker in terms of income and power? 

Every nation-state and religion is being pulled in the two Toulmin directions, one to move forward with open modernity or to return to a glorious past of pure values that exist only in someone's imagination. We cannot categorise the trials and tribulations of every local community's struggle with globalisation in simple terms - they are the product of complex, complicated and convulsive forces that interact with each other in non-quantifiable and qualitative terms.

Current social science cannot quantify nor predict, let alone control these conflicts of values that directly threaten social stability. We are witnessing terrorism and cataclysmic civil wars that ensue from the toxic mixture of geo-politics, religion and ethnicity, natural disasters from drought or famine and incompetent governance.

No all-encompassing philosophy, religion or culture can restore the broken families and societies, destroyed by terrorism and civil war.

Asia's current strength arises from the fact that the region remains the fastest growing region, with leadership that has so far been open-minded to globalisation, trade and technology as solutions to domestic poverty and under-development.

Whether one likes it or not, the resources for dealing with social inequities, climate change and security can only come from growth. Asians have learnt from war and devastating conflict that without political and social stability, growth cannot be achieved, creating a vicious cycle of declining resources and growing social fragmentation and ultimately crises.

Each society, irrespective of those in Asia or elsewhere, must find its own solution or rationale for being, because globalisation is irreversible. National economies and local cultures are inter-connected through social media and migration to such an extent that for better or worse, there is no returning to any glorious past.

Despite the fact that Asia is itself a concept of geography and a mosaic of cultures, success appears in clustered neighbourhoods. Thus, if Asian economies, especially cities, do not begin the search for modernity and moderate values and beliefs in earnest, they will be overwhelmed by the forces of extremism, domestic or imported. 

To do so, Asians need both the secular and the sacred - an openness to science and globalisation with a simultaneous openness to understanding and respect for what is sacred to each and everyone of us. 

Asean was able to break out of poverty despite diversity of development and cultures, because of a pragmatic approach to consensus-building. We cannot find common values if we are each stuck in our own mental silos, compartmentalised and fragmented in gated communities, ghettos or sects. 

The Asian story is not a belief but a process, in which all of us have a stake - to succeed or fail. 

The writer, a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia Global Institute of the University of Hong Kong, writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region. 

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