ISMAIL LAGARDIEN: Asians walk into the future with a sense of pride and achievement
The West has tended to overlook, or ignore, the contributions ‘the East’ has made to the world
I am collating my notes and readings after several months of travelling in Asia. Though I had travelled to the continent and its archipelagos on previous occasions, one of the objectives of the most recent visit was to listen and learn.
Asia is more complex and diverse than Africa, Europe and the Americas, with similar stresses and strains around poverty and inequality, unemployment, political economic instability and geostrategic tensions. It is, in other words, not an outlier in a world going through a multidimensional crisis.
It is difficult, if not completely wrong, to generalise from rather limited exposure, and insufficient to simply say, “I was there”. Nonetheless, as the world’s attention and global historical capitalism turn east — gradually for now — people and public policymakers in most Asian countries in centres of political economic centres march into the future with confidence and clarity of purpose.
During my travels, and over the past decade or so, I looked closely, though not exclusively, at the way dominant beliefs about east, west, north and south were shaped, spread, reproduced and forged into something immutable and eternally valid. Amartya Sen leant into this discussion two decades ago with the observation that our perception of the world around us has been shaped by Western thought and the invidious practice of explaining communities and societies by placing them in contrast with or opposition to the West. In this sense the West is believed to have “exclusive access to the values that lie at the foundation of rationality and reasoning, science and evidence, liberty and tolerance, and of course, rights and justice”.
The future may be Asian, as Parag Khanna, formerly of the Lee Kuan Yew School at the National University of Singapore concluded, but failures and crises will recur. In general, Asians have no reason to doubt their presence, in place and time. And so, as we have looked to the West for all things good and great, from technological innovation to moral argument, we have tended to overlook, or conveniently ignore, the contributions “the East” has made to the world.
Let’s be honest, every “evil empire” or “axis of evil” (or a threatening China) was so defined in Washington. For better or for worse, we can’t seem to lock out of that gaze. We are fixated with liberal internationalism and accept liberalism, presented as a Western concept for its focus on individual liberties and protection of rights, as some kind of final stage of our development. This orthodoxy that has been part of our world for more than seven decades, has concealed the origins of “liberal” thought and its attendant institutions. It drives the fear of an Asian future because they are illiberal and anti-institutionalist (forgetting that the greatest anti-institutionalist of our time arguably is Donald Trump).
However, if we are provided room to peel back the history and thought of Asian societies, at least in those 10-15 Asian countries I have visited, people are less obsessed with imaginaries of return to prelapsarian paradise, and with rolling back modernity than they are with digging deeper into their own histories. The people in these societies are fighting against injustice, not because it is what the West expects or demands.
For instance, Iranian society is going through extreme difficulty, potentially epochal change, at the moment. Answers to the most difficult questions in that country may lie in the thought of Iran’s indigenous leaders of 2,000 years ago — and not in Washington. Cyrus II of Persia (600—530 BCE) was a protoliberal and advocate for social justice.
He declared, centuries before the “common era,” or “Anno Domini,” the Western Christian year zero, that people had the right to choose their own religion, that equality was fundamental, and that all slaves had to be freed. In much of the West, slavery was part of political economic organisation (the process) until the 18th century. The fear that liberalism or social justice would come to an end with the decline of the West seems misplaced. Iran’s problems can be resolved with autochthonous solutions.
Another common concern is that liberal international capitalism established customs, practices and institutions that are unique to the European world. This is just wrong. The Ottoman Empire, which came to an end 100 years ago, established a sophisticated health-care system — notionally more democratic and accessible than anything available in, say, the US — including clinics and hospitals on the back of significant advances in medical science and technology. Even before the common era (CE), and across central and western Asian states, governments and political leaders drew on Indian and Arab contributions in algebra, analytical geometry, mathematics, trigonometry and the decimal system. The concept of “zero”, which is so seminal to the digital age, emanated from India. Everyone who has paid attention would readily acknowledge all of this.
Why then, if Asia has such a wealth of ideas, concepts and methods in its deep past, is it so difficult to imagine an Asian future? It is probably because the power of ideas is often not accepted on the basis of their merit, but because of military strength. I have paraphrased, there, the “great” US thinker and scholar, Samuel Huntington, and an icon of Western liberalism, Thomas Friedman.
• Lagardien, an external examiner at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, has worked in the office of the chief economist of the World Bank as well as the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.
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