Tan: The rise of negation

When I was speaking to Chris Patten, the ex-governor of Hong Kong, in 2008, I asked about Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis: did he foresee an ideological clash between China and the West?

Lord Patten replied that China posed no ideological threat to the West because (given the waning fervor for Chinese communism) there’s no such thing as a Chinese ideology. Western commentators generally agree: although Asia competes with the West economically, the only ideological threat to Western freedom and democracy comes from Islam.

Recent events have thrown a wrench in this. The mass revolts in the Middle East give us cause to reconsider whether Islam really is inimical to freedom and democracy. Despite claims of Facebook and Twitter revolutions, it wasn’t Facebook that stood in front of water canons and it wasn’t Twitter that braved bullets in Tahrir Square, it was Muslim men and women, people who were supposedly not interested in democracy. At the very least, Westerners and Muslims are on similar normative wavelengths: both are passionate about their principles, even if those principles may differ widely. At most, these principles are more similar than previously assumed.

The greater ideological threat to freedom and democracy comes from so-called Asian values. This concept claims that the peculiarities of Asians make authoritarian rule appropriate; it’s used by leaders in China, Singapore and Malaysia to justify their regimes.

I dislike this use of the term “Asian values.” It stresses the negative side of Asian culture when there are so many positive aspects. I personally find it insulting that these rulers seem to deem Asians too immature to handle free expression. It also assumes culture is fixed, rather than something to be actively shaped by people.

But I can’t deny that elements of these “Asian values” — a tendency to passivity, risk-aversion and excessive obedience — are rooted in Asian culture. Nor can I deny the Asian penchant for Tiger Mom parenting and rote memorization over critical thinking. These factors promote political apathy. We see this with Chinese students who reflexively avoid politics, with Malaysian students who claim that nothing will ever change, with parents who tell children to keep their heads down and concentrate on making money. This is an ideology promoted by Asian governments, and which permeates society; it’s an ideology of negation, a set of values against holding any values, a paradox I sometimes call “Singapore Syndrome.”

I have mixed feelings towards Singapore. As a Malaysian, “that place across the bridge” has always been attractive. The city is vibrant, the people are nice and the girls are cute; I’ve spent many happy summers there. Singaporeans and Malaysians are very similar, and to me, Singapore feels like a home away from home. And yet, it’s in Singapore that this ideology of negation is most pronounced. It’s still subtle; it’s not so much in what is present, than in what is absent. You see it in the lack of backbone in the media and the courts; you see it in the general reluctance of Singaporeans to discuss politics or rights, partly out of paranoia, but mostly out of genuine disinterest. You see it in the neglect of critical reflection in the rush for the “five Cs” of Singapore (Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium, Country club). Whenever I cross the border, I can’t shake the feeling of entering a gilded cage.

This ideology of negation is a far greater rival than Islam. It’s much more appealing to educated Westerners. Last November, Cora Lewis’ article in the News, “‘Rally’ for ‘Something We Care About’” (Nov. 5, 2010), described the Rally to Restore Sanity as the antithesis to values. 215,000 people dissatisfied with the status quo assembled in Washington. But instead of voicing their displeasure earnestly, they resorted to halfhearted slogans and jaded nihilism. Their reaction to unprincipled politicians was to conclude that there are no principles. Their reaction to irresponsible officials was collective irresponsibility. This apathy was also seen in the midterm primaries, when only 17.8 percent of eligible voters voted. Apathy is growing in the West, and it’s growing in tandem with a rising Asia. It’s natural to imitate the powerful.

The main threat is not Islamic fervor, but indifference. Hannah Arendt said that the greatest danger to freedom and democracy is not a set of opposing values, but an inability to hold any values. I think she’s right; and I think that there is Good and Evil, even though people are often so mistaken about the forms of Evil. It’s not big and Mephistophelian, but small and petty; its purest incarnation isn’t the rage of a fanatic, but the apathy of the person who professes that there is nothing worth standing for.

There’s been lots of talk about the proposed Yale-NUS College. I agree with President Levin and Professor Charles Bailyn, the dean of Yale-NUS, that the college would provide Yale with “exciting new opportunities,” though not for the reasons they suggest. To the many Yalies who will be spending semesters there if this project comes to fruition, I’d say that you have the unique opportunity to study this ideology of negation first-hand, to stare into the face of an abyss.

Let me know if it winks back.

Shaun Tan is a first-year graduate student in international relations.