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SacredCows: A Study of Asian Values -  marxks.com asiaval.com

Preface

The present book collects a number of articles I wrote on social topics over 12 years, now linked together by a common theme, that Asia need to fill the spiritual void left by the breakdown of Marxism as a valid opposition ideology. Without a well founded opposition inspired by coherent ideologies to engage in a sustained dialog with the government establishment, a democratic state cannot fully function. It is the absence of such validation that made it necessary for Asian governments to search for alternative justifications in terms of Asian Values.

Several chapters use my observations of the social system of Singapore, where I lived since mid 1983. This is not only because of greater familiarity, but also due to the greater transparency of its mode of operation. I have significantly profited from my working experience in Singapore, and hope that thoughtful Singaporeans would see the material as a positive contribution to its social discourse rather than sideline carping.

I wish to thank many friends and colleagues who sustained my interest in social and spiritual issues through discussion. Without this, I would not have been inspired to take my thoughts away often enough from my regular profession, which is Computer Science, to bring all the ideas into a coherent whole.

Chung-Kwong Yuen
published Singapore 2001 by Word Press

 

1. People Power and Democracy with Asian Characteristics

In Februrary 1986 the streets of Manila stirred with the call of ``People Power", driving Ferdinand Marcos and his celebrity wife Imelda into exile; after election data entry operators resigned en masse claiming that the vote numbers they entered into the computer were not being reflected in the announced results, and then the military defected to the opposition. Less than fifteen years later, the same call arose against Joseph Estrada, with quicker timing and a lower level of turmoil, again after high level military defections following a senate corruption enquiry which seriously discredited him.

Given the chaotic conditions of her ascension to power, we shall never quite know whether Mrs Aquino did attain an electoral majority, though this is highly likely, or exactly how many votes she received. Nor will we ever know whether, given a genuinely impartial judiciary enquiry, Mr Estrada would have been properly
convicted of impeachable offences. One can be reasonably confident however that both changes of government in the Philippines reflected the will of the people, and so are this sense democratic, though the particular form of the exercise of this popular will is far from the standard West European and North American model.

Similarly, the changes of governments that occurred in South Korea from Roh Teh Woo to Kim Yong Sam and then Kim Dae Jong, in Taiwan from Jiang Jing Kuo to Lee Teng Hui then Chen Shui Bian, and in Indonesia from Suharto to Habibi then Wahid/Megawatti, each followed a process different from the Western model. In fact, the process is much closer to Roman imperial succession in the Antonine age: a reigning emperor would adopt an able lieutenant as his heir, who will upon the death of the predecessor be proclaimed by the senate and the praetorian guard, representing the civilian and military power blocs, as Principes, the first citizen of Rome.

The use of the analogy is by no means a negative one: the Antonine emperors, from the great general Trajan to the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, were all good rulers, and presided over a golden age of peace and prosperity. While they exploited the wealth of the empire, much of which was regarded as the emperor's personal property, they were careful to share their largess widely and in ways positive for posterity. As Augustus says, ``I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble", in much the same way Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew would characterize his own achievements in turning a rundown British colony into a technocratic metropolis.

``Democracy" being one of the sacred cows of our modern age, all governments aspire to be popularly elected, and the immediate promise of every African, South American or Asian coup leader would be ``I will hold election soon". But democracy takes many forms, and permits many kinds of secret or open manipulations. Just as the leaders of China use ``Socialism with Chinese characteristics" to describe their partial adoption of capitalism, ``Asian Values" was the expression used to justify Asia's unwillingness to fully adhere to the Western democratic model. It is not our purpose here to either endorse or decry this, merely to better understand what ``democracy with Asian characteristics" actually means.

 

2 Confucius Says - Hierarchy and Enlightenment

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3 Singapore and Modern Confucianism

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4 Karl Marx and Bubble Economics

Section 0: Ideology

An ideology is a system of ideas concerning how a society functions. Because the functioning of a society involves economics, politics, psychology, historical tradition, etc, an ideological system tends to contain a mixed bag of concepts from various fields, rather than a simple and obviously coherent theory. While individual parts might be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing, an ideology as whole rarely can be scientifically established in theory and in practice, especially as one cannot take a society and experimentally try out ideology X or Y just to see whether they are correct or not, and even if one does try such experiments, the meaning of the outcome would be highly debatable.

An ideology would therefore tend to contain a significant element of faith, meaning that its ideas find some kind of psychological resonance in its audience causing them to take comfort in it. This produces a frequently observed similarity between ideology and religion, especially as many ideologies concern future directions of a society, so that its proponents often acquire a messiahnic and sometimes utopian fervor.

An existing society and its members must by necessity operate on a set of common ideas, but often without explicitly articulating and explaining them. For example, capitalism is an ideology which has been widely ollowed over the world for an extended period of time, but most members of capitalist societies would have a hard time explaining what exactly is capitalist ideology, nor why they follow it. Indeed, many members would deny that they believe in capitalism at all or would claim substantial dissent from parts of it, while functioning within it by the necessity of having been born under the system or joining because of the need to make a living.

In a democratic society, the ideology that most closely approximates the thinking of the majority is adopted, by the elected government formulating various social and economic policies that enforce the ideas nd translate them into routine practice. In recognition of the possibility that a future majority might think differently, a democratic society also leaves room for other ideologies to be maintained and promoted. This however raises the tricky issue of whether anti-democratic ideologies should be permitted, since such ideologies do NOT recognize these needs. This issue is not completely settled. No such argument exists in totalitalian societies that assume the absolute correcness of the current ideology, with the consequence that they are slow to adapt to changing conditions and are more likely to distintegrate than to evolve.

section 1 {Marx in our time}

Given that some would believe that Nostradamus predicted the WTC attack, and the election of George W Bush with "village idiot will be king", it is certainly easy to agree that Marx predicted the Asian economic meltdown and a host of other historical events. While we have our reservation about such claims, it is nevertheless useful to review his relevance to our times.

The starting point of Marxism is philosophy, specifically Hegel's theory of the dynamics of ideas: a thesis is opposed by an antithesis, until a new idea containing both emerges, the synthesis, which then starts a new round of thesis- antithesis- synthesis. Marx replaced ``idea" by ``social force" resulting in a theory of class struggle: the ruling class with an ideology based on economic interest is opposed by the oppressed class, until a new ruling ideology emerges to preside over a different kind of society. Because his theory has its oots in philosophy and logic, Marx considered it scientific and indeed inevitable, hence the name ``scientific socialism", in contrast to the earlier utopian socialism for improving the condition of society. The supposedly scientifically based conviction that history is on their side has always been an inspirational motif for his followers.

As theories go, Marxism is neither good philosophy, nor good economics, nor good political science, nor even the best kind of sociology, but it is far better in providing an analysis of the shortcomings of capitalism: in striving to maximize profit, capitalists constantly invest in better technology and higher productivity, until production exceeds the limits imposed by the resources and needs of society, and has to be cut back resulting in widespread unemployment, which further reduces consumption and causes even more unemployment... Hence, capitalism suffers periodic recessions and depressions. Further, competition between capitalist nations for markets and resources, in order to support their expanding production, leads to conflict, including wars, and economic bankruptcies for the weaker competitors.

The world wars and great depression of the earlier half of the 20th century, and the sudden collapse of the Asian economic miracle near the end of the millennium, show that the analysis still has its potency, and the search for the capitalism antithesis did get somewhere. However, in the ``synthesis" aspect Marx has come up empty. His prediction of a new classless society of unselfish individuals, who will collectively control capital without the profit motive of the capitalists, has been shown to be as utopian as the earlier ideas, indeed much more harmful in its consequences. By breeding an inflexible world view together with a ``scientific" disregard for spiritual values, and hence a ruthless willingness to use all unscrupulous means to achieve heaven on earth, Marxism has produced some of the most destructive political movements of this century, both following it and in opposition to it.

Yet, regardless of its lack of success as a practical political system, Marxism remains one of the most important undercurrents of modern thinking. Like Einstein's relativity, which too has few direct uses but forms an integral part of modern physics and scientific awareness, Marx's way of looking at history and society permeates, like it or not, through the way we see things. Today we automatically link economics with politics, and think of individuals in terms of their class consciousness. Constantly and nervously, the uling class looks over its shoulder to see if some ideas of the lower class need to be ``synthesized" and neutralized before it starts to cause big trouble. Whereas living off one's capital and not having to work used to be the mark of the gentleman, today that would be embarrassing, and even the richest people would make an effort at something and try to be some kind of worker rather than a mere capitalist.

In short, we are all Marxists.

section 2 {Living without Marx}

In any society, attitude towards inequality forms the great divide between the opposing ideologies. Generally, conservatives (usually representing the upper classes who want to ``conserve" what they ave) believe that inequality is inevitable and to some extent desirable: it provides incentive for people to work and invest, while liberals consider it to be a social defect caused by selfishness and inefficient distribution, which must be countered by government intervention. Somewhat paradoxically, on moral issues, conservatives usually want greater government intervention to maintain standards, while liberals want less, but this is for another essay.

Both points of view are valid, and actual government policies, regardless of which group is in power, are compromises between the two. In other words, inequality is not necessarily unfair; the point is how much. It is the co-existence of both ideas that makes possible a two party system with groups of equal legitimacy which alternate in government, as is common in the western democracies. This model has so far not succeeded in planting itself in Asia: Asian governments tend to consider themselves to embody the best of each country, and opposition parties are almost automatically considered second class and even unpatriotic. But this too is for another essay.

In the normal course of events, there is always a tendency for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, because the former have the resources to take advantage of investment opportunities, and are better able to cope with temporary setbacks like sickness, bad harvest or economic recession. A deliberate effort by governments, elected by the majority who are more likely to be poor than rich, to redistribute wealth and curb the economic freedom of the rich, is the natural result. The tricky question is how far to go, without seriously hurting economic incentive and national competitiveness.

Economic development almost always increases inequality, at least in the earlier stages: resources previously not in economic use and so freely available to everyone, such as beaches, forests and vacant and, came to be used by the restricted few, and cease to be free. Prices of land and food rise as golf courses replace fruit trees people used to freely harvest, while farmers and fishermen become waiters. Girls who used to marry early and take care of their husbands now go and work in restaurants, or brothels. Beaches veryone used to be able to go to get enclosed as part of hotels, and house prices soar, putting accommodation beyond the reach of the poor. While those who are directly involved in the new economic ctivities might benefit, those who for various reasons are excluded from them, very often are worse off. Much resentment about the perceived unfairness can built up, as China discovered in 1989 and Indonesia in 1998. Efforts to make a better distribution of the benefits are almost always too late and come about in a disruptive way.

Technology changes are also almost always likely to increase inequality, since the already well off are more able to adapt through their better access to education and their ability to invest in new ventures. Fear of new technology is therefore not merely a matter of ignorance, but has sound social justifications. Again the question is how far to take it without condemning a country to stagnation and backwardness.

Here lie the roots of Marxism's failure as a governing ideology: placing so much emphasis on inequality as a social evil inevitably led to economic and technological stagnation, and the need to cover up the continuing existence of considerable inequality between those with and those without power using a facade of egalitarianism engenders a high level of hypocrisy. Though there is a little Marxism in all of us, we cannot follow it as a way of life; those who live by Marxism can only expect to die by it.

section 3 {Marxism's Asian hangover}

Asia is where Marxism achieved its greatest successes. Not only did the Chinese revolution add 600 million people to the communist camp in 1949, it was communist North Vietnam that took on France and then USA in a nationalistic war extending over 30 years, and won. The deep social cleavage in almost every Asian nation of the mid 20th century was a conservative establishment of landowners and compradors that successively collaborated with various colonial governments, versus left wing insurgents, usually rural followers led by middle class leaders, with Marxism as their motivating ideology. To cater for the deviation of his movement's composition from the urban proletariat prescribed in orthodox Marxism, Chairman Mao had to invent a new ``city versus country" theory of class division, incorporating the idea of lowtech guerrilla warfare against hightech imperialists.

Such was the dominance of Marxism as the default opposition ideology of Asia that once it collapsed, there was nothing to take its place. While the conservative establishment in each country had no problem adopting the Confucian approach of trying to co-opt all the elite power blocs through some form of meritocratic selection of promising talent, it has been more difficult to find coherent ideas to coalesce the opposition forces. From time to time slogans are invented against authoritarianism, crony capitalism and militarism, but rarely do these slogans have the holding power to maintain movements and inspire them to build up as powerful social forces.

Yet, Asia is where the Marxist critique of capitalist economic development was being proved many times over. Following its astounding economic successes over three decades, cumulating in the great stock market and real estate bubble of the late 1980s, Japan went into a deflationary recession in the early 1990s and has ot recovered more than 10 years later. A similar bust after boom cycle has played out in South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia, with lesser crises occurring in Hongkong, Singapore and later Taiwan. In each, capital inflows led to overinvestment and production in excess of export opportunities, followed by capital outflows, credit crunches, business closures, tumbling exchange rates and share markets, rapidly rising unemployment, and varying levels of social unrest.

In each case, foresight and appropriate social policies might have mitigated the crises. Japan's was a powerhouse for producing mass market products that reliably meet consumer needs, and hightech gizmos that satisfy the latest fashionable crazes, but its economy has limited means to absorb the foreign exchange earnings: its distribution system is not equipped to bring massive imports for enjoyment by its hardworking but low consuming population, who prefer, whether by personal or social choice, to pay high prices to eat Japanese rice produced by suburban farmers working tiny plots for a highly protected market, rather than cheap imports from California. Using the surpluses for further industrial investment to produce even more exports even more efficiently, makes no sense if the markets are already fully met by existing Japanese gizmos, while offering the goods cheaply to Japanese consumers could only provide a limited solution: fearful of hard times and saving instead of consuming, the people made the task of what to do with financial surpluses even greater. Forays by Japanese corporations into the US real estate market, such as Mitsubishi's purchase of Rockefeller Center, did not turn out successfully, nor did company takeovers
like Bridgestone's purchase of Firestone. By lending generously to Southeast Asia, Japanese banks merely transferred the bubble from Tokyo to the rest of Asia, with bad loans eroding credit standings and disrupting regular financial processes.

Instead of identifying real long term interests for their nations as a whole and ensuring a fair distribution of the benefits of economic development with careful mitigation of its negative side effects, the political and business elites of the new developing countries, in varying degrees, saw rampant opportunities for clique profiteering. For example, during the Estrada corruption trial, evidence was presented that he granted his crony control over the allocation of frequency bands for cellular phones, to extract large bribes, a share of hich went into Estrada's secret bank accounts. Similar scams involving road toll collection, airline license, banking permit and car import concession were discovered relating to companies in which the children of Suharto had shares. The elite members grasped for riches as if there was no tomorrow, which, in their case, turned out to be all too correct.

This is not just a matter of individual failures, but reflects a deeper problem, an Asian spiritual deficiency, on the part of both the upper and lower classes. Like it or not, Asia need to re-learn its Marxist lessons, and re-formulate an opposition ideology that would allow the disadvantaged classes an appropriate voice, both to monitor government performances and control abuses of power, and to bring in policies that ensure more balanced economic and social developments, just as each government need to formulate sustainable ocial contracts that would motivate the lower classes to go along rather than be left out, so that in both bad times and good, it would have sufficient support to make hard decisions. Instead of both sides seeing opposition merely opposing with little positive ideas to offer, given a better understanding of ideological differences, it becomes far more likely that the two sides can have positive and sustainable dialogs within a democratic framework, to encourage Confucian moderation and self criticism on the part of power holders


 

5 Crises of Faith - From Taiji to Fa Lun Gong

section{The failure of Taiji}

Tiananmen Square used to be known for two things: the morning crowds doing their Taiji shadow boxing, and mass rallies for the latest political campaigns. The slow, carefully regulated movements of the body prescribed by Taiji (which means literally ``universal supreme") are supposed to give the practitioner enhanced control over both body and mind, and conceptually relate to the art of soft defense philosophically embodied in Taoism and physically used in Judo. ``Playing Taiji" is also used to denote bureaucratic buckpassing and subtle ways of saying no.

Tiananmen Square used to be a place where people go to exercise Taiji in the morning, but on the night of 4 June 1989 the square rang with the rumble of tanks and machinegun shots: after a monthlong occupation of the square by students protesting against authoritarianism and corruption, and after all peaceful means to clear the square failed, the army moved in. After the bloodshed, many commentators have written about the bankrupcy of communist ideology. Without wanting to defend communism, I would suggest that the behaviour of the ruling Chinese regime actually has little to do with communism itself, but is merely the continuation of traditional feudalistic practices in a modern form.

Communism includes many strands of ideas, and out of these, three may be singled out for attention: 1. The element of Marxist Political Economy: Marx hypothesized that the political processes of a society are determined by its underlying economic processes. Technological developments produce changes in the economic structure, and consequently lead to changes in the political and social structures. History is therefore driven by technology and economics.

Though Marx's own study of history, economics and politics had many critics, there seems no reason to doubt that a close connection does exist between economics and politics, and even the most ardent capitalists are in some ways good followers of Marx. For example, any comment along the line "the recent events in China show that economic liberalization must be followed by political liberalization" is merely repeating a Marxist truism. In contrast, in attempting to achieve a capitalist style economy without significant political reforms, Deng Xiaoping was acting contrary to basic Marxist theory. Mao, who believed that a cultural revolution was needed before China could be modernized, was a closer follower of Marx.

2. The element of Marxist Social Utopia: Marx forecasted that in due course, the proletariat would rise up to implement a new social structure in which the private ownership of capital would be abolished, and eventually there will be a utopian society of plenty in which everyone will, without coercion, work to his best abilities and take only according his needs. Marx was, unfortunately, rather vague about how to make this happen and how long it would take, and his own organizational efforts were generally political as well as financial failures, but this has not stopped old and new communists from continuing to profess belief in this utopian prospect. Liberal capitalists are usually not utopian: if they believe in utopia, usually they do not wish to impose their choice on other people, while most right wing capitalists would leave paradise in the hands of God. On the other hand, the pro-democracy protesters of China displayed a highly utopian attitude, and were, in this sense, better Marxists than Deng Xiaoping, the great pragmatist.

3. The element of Leninist Party Organization: It was Lenin who invented the practical organizational tactics that allowed a group of Marxists to successfully take over a nation. In this scheme, a tighly knit and highly disciplined party structure is first estalished, to which members are required to devote their total loyalty - personal loyalties and loyalties to common humanity are not only secondary, but indeed suspect and dangerous. The party organization is superimposed onto the government bureaucracy, military command, legislative bodies, trade unions and other community organizations, so that those in control of the party achieve control of all aspects of society.

Because the party controls the economy, it can then claim to have abolished private ownership of capital and therefore begun to implement a communist society; and because the party controls the important elements of the whole society, it can indeed make an attempt to change all aspects of the society towards its version of utopia. We thus have the curious phenomenon that academic theory and utopian idealism have, in time and with excellent logic, led to totalitarianism.

But whereas in the Soviet Union, the Party developed into a privileged elite that manages to incorporate, besides bureaucrats and officials, engineers, scientists, agriculture specialists, academicians and other higher elements of society, in China the party discipline is frequently undercut and superseded by a network of personal loyalties established during the days of the revolutionary army. Thus, although Deng Xiaoping was never Party Chairman, President or Prime Minister of China, for ten years he has effectively wielded supreme power because he has placed into senior positions of the Party and Government, a large number of his former subordinates in the Fourth Field Army, of which he was Political Commisar during the Civil War, and other loyal followers acquired from his work as Secretary General. When the 38th Army showed reluctance to crack down on the demonstrators, Yang Shangkun was able to bypass the Defence Ministry and the General Staff and directly call up the 27th Army, commanded by generals personally loyal to him, to move into Peking. Going back a little into the past, during the Cultural Revolution a small clique around Chen Buoda and Jiang Qin, without any top Party or Government positions, was able to launch a movement that nearly destroyed both the Party and the Government, merely by issuing edicts in the name of the semi-retired Mao. During his thirty years of rule, Chiang Kai Shek was given numerous different titles and positions, but his control had always been effected through his network of military officers and other officials established when he was the Principal of Wampoa Military Academy. Of course China is not the only country where such personal loyalties rule supreme over loyalties to organization, ideology or principles. The politics, civil service, commercial companies and even the universities of Japan are permeated with such oyabun-kobun (roughly, patron-client) relations, in which the oyabun provides patronage and career assistance to the kobun in return for the latter's loyal support. The faction-ridden Liberal Democratic Party system provides a well known manifestation of this system and any observer of the Recruit scandal would have noticed many examples where loyalty to the superior easily overrode party discipline or national interest.

In short, what holds forth in China and much of Asia is a deeply entrenched practice, developed from the age of feudalism, of loyalty to a person rather than to more abstract entities. In traditional feudalism the king divides his territory to be ruled by various lords, who consequently owe him allegiance and will support him with their own followers when called to do so in a war; the lords in turn install knights and petty noblemen, who would then lease out their shares of the land to yeoman farmers or have serfs to cultivate it. The relation of master to servant (or lord to samurai) is both economic and military. In its modern form the network of loyalties is maintained but separately from the ownership of land. Whereas in Japan, the oyabun-kobun relations are established largely in the civilian sphere, the fact that the current rulers of China got in through successful wars meant that the most important relations reflect previous military command chains, which made the Chinese system nearer to traditional feudalism.

Once we start looking at the situation in this light, it becomes much easier to understand many aspects of China. For example, every government in China, regardless of its initial ideology, tended to become corrupt very quickly. For, under feudalistic thinking an official appointed to govern a territory would regard it virtually as his personal property, and would see nothing particularly wrong in lining his own pockets with wealth extracted from his office. A good official is not necessarily the honest Confucian who upholds justice and rejects bribery, or the hermit Taoist who stays away from the palace and refuses appointments in order to remain clean and honest, however much admiration such figures may receive in the literature; but someone who deploys such wealth beneficially, by sharing it with his subordinates and his superiors, and making sure that his territory is well maintained and prosperous. For example, a good official would use his personal wealth to purchase grain in times of poor harvest to feed his people, or spend it for public works. But it must follow that in good times he is entitled to build up his wealth using his office, provided of course that he does not become too greedy or too seriously pervert the course of justice.

Given a strong and competent central government, the behaviour of these local officials may be closely monitored and unsatisfactory ones may be replaced. When the central government becomes weak through neglect, incompetence, external wars, or natural disasters, local administration tends to become very chaotic and corrupt, and an ambitious official, especially one that has control over both military and financial affairs of a region, can easily build up a private kingdom. The history of China is replete with such warlord periods interpersing with periods of unity.

Commentators have often complained that China has not achieved rule of law. In fact, under feudalistic thinking this is impossible, since it requires a subordinate to disobey if a superior gives an order that is contrary to the law; in other words, he needs to have a higher loyalty to an abstract principle than to a person. To the Chinese people, laws are made by men, and can be unmade by them. While some lip service is paid to such abstract concepts as "an emperor must rule with the mandate of heaven", it is seldom implemented in practice, but only used as a last resort to justify rebellion when things become really desperate.

It is also not possible to achieve democracy when people think feudalistically, since a democratic system separates official positions from the persons holding them, and seeks to fill the positions with persons that meet popular approval. Such a concept is obviously contrary to the feudalistic view of office being a personal property given to an official by his superior. Indeed, most Chinese find it curious that no American President that lost an election would ever call in the army to arrest the winner and hence retain office. The idea that the generals and soldiers would disobey any such commands because of their belief in democratic principles is not really comprehended.

One should point out however that it is equally wrong for Americans to believe that, because the 38th Army refused to crush the demonstrators, its soldiers must support democracy. A simpler and more personal explanation is that, most of the officers and men of this army are from the Peking region, and they were unwilling to shoot their friends and relatives in the Tiananmen Square. The soldiers are simply following their usual Chinese way of thinking, namely to be loyal to those with whom there is a personal connection.

To show how deeply entrenched feudalistic thinking is in the Chinese culture, one can point out a number of curious behaviours of Hong Kong and overseas Chinese and the demonstrators themselves. First, following the crackdown, it was widely rumoured that Deng was already dead and Yang had usurped his power in order to bring in the army. This was nothing more than the syndrome of "the emperor is wise and divine, but his ministers are evil." In so readily accepting such rumours, the Hong Kong and overseas Chinese have shown their own true colours. Similarly, those people who believed that the 38th Army would move in to crush the 27th were merely praying for victory of the good warlord over the bad.

Second, the demonstrators centered their most vociferous attacks on Premier Li Peng. Yet, it is known to everyone that Li is no more than the frontman of hardline elders, and could not be described as the main culprit for the undemocratic practices. He is personally not corrupt, though perhaps not all that capable either. It made little sense to single him out for attack, and in doing this, the demonstrators were merely following the very old trick of attacking the boss indirectly through his underlings - the emperor is not to be criticised, only his courtiers. It is also necessary to point out that the same trick was used frequently in the past: for example, before Liu Shaoqi fell, Peng Chen was used as the target. Thus, the demonstrators showed that they were, after all, good students of the same school.

Third, the erection of the Goddess of Liberty very much reminds one of the old practice of putting up a statue of ill defined significance and worshipping it, in the hope of achieving peace and prosperity, just as outside every Chinese home there is a shrine to the God of the Earth which needs to be regularly worshipped, even though no one can ever say what the god looks like and what its powers are. Indeed, the statue put up by the students was highly reminiscent of the goddess Kuan Yin, originally a female reincarnation of Buddha but generally regarded in China as a separate deity, namely the patron of women and giver of mercy. Obviously, few of the demonstrators realized that the original Statue of Liberty in New York carries a message of welcome to refugees and poverty striken immigrants, and has no direct relation with democracy itself.

In short, whereas the current rulers of China have shown themselves to be less than perfect communists, the protesters have not shown themselves to be very good democrats either, and have been rather muddled in their ideological thinking. Those who ask for freedom frequently want the limitation of certain freedoms, such as excessive profit making by enterprising individuals. Those who ask for democracy seem to have little idea of whom they want to elect and what kind of policies they want the elected officials to implement. They extoll Hu Yaobang, who in his life was neither particularly democratic or liberal, could boast of virtually no significant achievements, and impressed the world only with such pronouncements as "Chinese people should eat less rice and more bread." Like the Goddess, he was only being used as a cult figure of ill defined but anti-establishment significance. Thus, the main features of the conflict do not seem to be those of communism versus democracy; instead, both sides are steeped more or less in the far older culture of feudalism.

Because 80% of the Chinese people are peasants and most of the soliders are from the countryside, while the pro-democracy movement is mainly one of the cities, the ruling regime, by virtue of its feudalistic control over the rural areas and the Army, has prevailed. Further, the very old modes of thinking its opponents themselves displayed do not give one confidence that there is sufficient understanding of democracy, freedom and capitalism for reform to succeed. For China, democratic enlightenment is yet to be.

section{Fa Lun Gong}

Ten years later, China had n become the new home of the Asian economic miracle. Its trade surplus with USA is not far behind that of Japan, and Made in China goods flood world markets, affordable even to struggling East Europeans and South Asians. All the major cities are booming. The exiled leaders of the June 4 movement, who escaped earlier in the evening while encouraging their followers to stay and die, were all but discredited. Hongkong was successfully returned under the One China Two Systems policy.

But a new protest movement had arisen, gaining sudden prominence when several thousand followers of Fa Lun Gong (Law Wheel Power), a form of Qi Gong (Air Power) or breathing exercise, suddenly appeared one day outside the Zhong Nan Hai compound, the residence complex of the top leaders. Before long, the organization was denounced as an evil cult and a nation wide ban was declared on its activities. Many were arrested, and in January 2001 five of the cult followers tried to commit suicide in Tiananmen Square by setting themselves on fire. Supposedly a movement for good health, Fa Lung Gong has become highly hazardous to one's physical well being.

What is Qi Gong? It is believed that by taking a particular posture and doing a carefully regulated regime of breathing, a person can cause some form of energy movement inside the body, thus increasing health and strength. Many practitioners claim that the exercise made them feel more relaxed and happier, which sounds realistic in today's fast paced, highly stressed environment. This could also have some carry-on effects on their physical well being, but claims beyond the level are made, and this is where problems
arise.

These additional claims relate to two other long standing practices: the meditation exercises of Zen monks, and the more recent Gongfu stories that talk about numerous forms of ``inner power" (Nei Gong). In both, the meditative posture and inner efforts are supposed to bring on some communion with the force of nature, to promote enlightenment in one, and develop fighting power in the other. Fusing these two into one, there is much folklore about the legendary fighting power of Shaolin monks, and the celebrated ``One Finger Zen" story:``A great Zen master answered all questions about enlightenment by raising a finger. One of his disciples began to imitate him. When the master saw it, he chopped off the disciple's finger. As the disciple ran away bleeding, he looked back at the master, who raised a finger; at that moment he was enlightened" was confused with the Gongfu claim of being able to disable a person by poking a finger at his critical points.

This then got fused with another Chinese tradition: Tao priests claim that by drawing talisman figures and incantation, they could move spirits and invoke natural forces, whether to bring rain during a drought, shift mountains to build roads or canals, etc. If Qi Gong can invoke the forces of nature to strengthen one's body, it should also go the other way, allowing one's body to control nature. With that kind of thinking, the claim that Fa Lun Gong would build a Law Wheel inside your body, which you can turn to do all kinds of wonderful things, would not seem to be far fetched.

So we can understand Fa Lun Gong being adopted by poorly educated people unfamiliar with modern scientific ideas; we can even understand that some of them are easily incited by local leaders of Fa Lun Gong practice groups into sit-in protests against critics of the groups and then against officials who try to restore order and enforce laws against trespassing and illegal assembly. What is more puzzling is why so many educated people, in particular students and faculty in US and other overseas universities, would suspend their disbelief and use the world wide web to propagate the claims, even endorsing them as scientific. In fact, without such overseas endorsements, it is unlikely that the claims would have enjoyed the widespread acceptance in China among the politically conscious groups.

It is said that the economic liberalization of China has destroyed the ideological system, leaving a vacuum for something new. While that might explain what happened to some party members, does anyone seriously believe that Fujian peasants and Chinese students in Stanford used to find comfort in Marxist sociology and Mao's theory of revolution, and once these are abandoned by the Chinese establishment, have to turn to superstition? The peasants have probably believed in one kind of superstition or another all along, and something that promises not only surviving doomsday and afterlife in an oriental heaven (in parallel with the Christian heaven for caucasians), but also good health without medical bills in this life, must be quite appealing to them. The intriguing question is about the Chinese living in the west.

The vacuum they face is not so much in ideology, as in culture as a whole. What part of Chinese culture can an overseas Chinese hold onto in a meaningful way? The answer is: curiously little.

Take the example of Confucianism. For it to have survived that long, and to be able to continue its well entrenched status in East Asian political systems, it must possess some real strengthes. Yet, almost all connotations of Confucianism are negative in some way: authoritarian, morally conservative, resistant to change, obscure, comical... Lu Xun is generally acknowledged as the greatest modern Chinese writer, but while his contribution in exposing the dark side of traditional Chinese society is undeniable, it is far harder to see what constructive ideas about organizing the modern Chinese world he could be credited with. Now if a Chinese cannot explain to a westerner what is so great about Confucius or Lu Xun, what can he say to get across the grandeur of Chinese culture? How does a parent convince a child that their cultural roots are worthy of an effort to retain?

New migrants frequently suffer from discrimination and exploitation, and for them, psychological comfort lies in the twin thoughts (a) I make sacrifice for the next generation; and (b) one day I will go home and it would all be worthwhile. But if one feels that the next generation would be culturally unrecognizable, and home has nothing attractive to return to, then the pain becomes hard to bear. It is in this light one must view the incomprehensible willingness of well educated academics to believe that breathing with half closed eyes would not only keep them healthy without medicine, but also survive the total destruction of world war three. The very outlandishness convinces a believer that a Chinese invention can be superior to anything anyone else has to offer.

Yet, the commentaors are after all correct: with China adopting capitalism and economic incentive as official doctrines and state enterprises dying away, some opposition ideology emphasizing equality and concern for the down trodden will need to emerge. One cannot but be impressed at how quickly health consciousness and mystical beliefs got mixed up with economic discontent and civil protest, which rapidly escalated, cumulating into the large scale, supposedly peaceful but nevertheless menacing demonstration in Beijing. While the Chinese leaders might encourage free enterprise, accept the disintegration of the state economic sector, and allow some artistic expressions, well organized movements that seek to be alternative power centres claiming the right to direct the life and ideas of their followers, are quite another matter. No crises of faith can be allowed to become crises of control, which they threaten to be in the absence of a system of orderly establishment-opposition dialogs. As before, when Taiji fails, the iron fist.

section{Religious Asia}

Asia is where all the great surviving religions of the world arose, but paradoxically, religion has a far weaker role in society than what Christianity achieved in Europe and North America. Tapping into people's aversion to guilt and sin, Christianity promises salvation and cleansing granted by God's grace through the sacrifice of his son Jesus on the cross, while the idea of virgin birth appeals to people's approval of purity and motherhood. Combining the use of architecture, art, music, social community and village welfare, churches successfully get worshipers together weekly to share and reinforce their faith, singing emotional hymns affirming their beliefs and listening to uplifting messages. The Protestant ethic played no small part in the rise of capitalism, as the analysis of Weber points out so insightfully, and the Ten Commandments still draw at least respectful lip service in the life of even today's population.

In Asia, not only is the part of religion in life much smaller, many of the ideas about religion are not well understood, even to the most religious, including the common place ideas of religious freedom and morality.

Like ``democracy", ``religious freedom" is one of the sacred cows of modern society. Forcing people to have a particular religion is considered medieval, while forcing people not to have religion is totalitarian; yet, political interference with religion is frequent, because religion is usually associated with morals and social control, with organization, and with national morale

Take the example of Tibet: by choosing a baby god as the next leader supposedly based on reincarnation, the traditional Tibetan society was inherently undemocratic; the lukewarm support Dalai lama received from western governments, who are willing to socialize with him and praise him, but provided no money, weapons or political recognition, has a lot to do with this, and a recent decision by Dalai Lama to separate religious and political leadership selections reflects an awareness of this situation.

Though religion is based on a personal choice of faith, it is almost always organizational, because people must get together to share and reinforce each other's faith, unlike science in which practitioners share a common logical system that does not require emotional and environmental reaffirmation: you do not become a more fervent scientist by sitting in a dark church and singing emotional songs about your beliefs.

The moral system of a religion, giving organization leaders the power to tell followers what to do or not to do, means that religious organizations inevitably compete with governments at some level; when mobs of Fa Lun Gong followers try to close down newspapers that print articles criticizing their medical and spiritual claims, conflict with police and party becomes the logical result.

When a particular tribe or race practises a unique worship system, it is difficult to separate personal beliefs, tribal culture, religious doctrine, and political identity. A government might tolerate personal beliefs and doctrine, but disapprove the tribal culture and political identity as unpatriotic; it might therefore be allowing and limiting religious freedom at the same time. Similarly, it might exercise control over the organizational aspects of a religion (like, only patriotic people are allowed to be bishops), while claiming to
allow freedom to believe.

``Is there religious freedom in country X?" Depends on what you look at doesnt it? What is reassuring is however that no government would say ``we want everyone to believe in religion Y; we dont allow freedom to choose". At least this is progress.

Turning now to the issue of morality, contrary to general impressions, morality is usually a matter of pragmatics rather than principle. Take the example of urinating in the street (which is important enough to be given a special euphemistic legal term ``obeying the call of nature"): why is it ``wrong"? It is unhygienic, but this is a pragmatic matter; it is socially disapproved, but this too is a matter of pragmatics which varies between cultures - it is for example more or less acceptable in Japan; it costs the municipal government money to clean up the urine; so there are usually laws against it, but this is again a matter of pragmatics.

The wrongness of the act is also related to the prohibition against exposing one's private parts in public, but that too is a matter of pragmatics, of community disapproval, of violating a law, and of the possibility of inciting disgust or illicit passion in others. Indeed, the fact that disgust and passion contradict each other shows that it would be very difficult to work out any logical principle about the wrongness of public urination/exposing organs. In effect, because of the confusing mix of various ideas relating to it, communities simply decreed that the act is wrong, creating a moral principle, because a principle is needed from the circumstance and pragmatics.Religion, however, comes to the rescue of morality. Faith provides something that satisfies the psychological needs of a person; in other words, it allows him/her to believe something he/she wants to believe. The same process supplies moral principles where principles are needed.

Most religions adopt some ideas of the afterlife, because humans fear death and want to believe that something continues of themselves. Further, they need to believe that afterlife can remedy deficiencies of current life; it then becomes logical to believe that good afterlife is based on morality. Further, because faith needs regular reinforcement through sharing with fellow believers, religions naturally produce organizations, which then become instruments to enforce morality.

In comparison, economics has been far less instrumental in creating systems of morality, despite past sociological theories like Weber's Protestant Ethics and Capitalism: moral values to underpin orderly business practices are simply too obviously pragmatic, and not satisfyingly principle like. Humans need something bigger than themselves to provide uplifting aspirations, and religions and moral principles do that.

Are religious people more moral than non-believers? We can only be sure that they subscribe to the moral systems associated with their particular religions, but have no idea how good the systems are and how closely the persons adhere to them. Further, ``God is on my side" is a belief that can provide a person with a ready excuse for any act, which a person without such a belief might hesitate to do. Overall, it is best to know a person well as a person, rather than just a member of a religious group, in order to predict what he/she would or would not do.

In parallel with their ideological weaknesses, the Asian majority have not thought out about why they believe (as against the simpler, rote learning task of what the beliefs are). Far from indicating a new move towards greater spirituality, the rise of movements like Fa Lun Gong, and the success of some religions in winning new converts, indicate the spiritual vulnerability of Asians. They remind us of the speed with which Marxism spread in an earlier era and the vehemence Asian intellectuals once showed in rejecting all religions, suspecting them of being detrimental to modernization and scientific thinking, as well as the current trend towards Muslim fundamentalism and other extremest views. In ideology as in religion, Asia remains in the grip of a crisis of faith.

While religions can provide some spiritual comfort to their followers as well as inspiration to action, both good and bad, the multitude of different beliefs espoused by the various organizations do not provide a basis for a unified opposition ideology able to maintain a dialog with a government establishment. By themselves, they provide no solution to the social spiritual deficiency prevailing in Asia.


 

6 education

 

Science, Proof and Faith

1. Modern times

There used to be a time when ideas about the material and the spiritual worlds were not clearly divided. Isaac Newton was considered to be both the greatest scientist and the greatest theologian of his time, and Euler was employed at the Russian court to debate against atheist philosophers using his mathematical research. Universities used to give the same training to people to become either lawyers or priests, and cardinals found nothing incongruous working as the chief ministers of kings. The Pope himself used to have his own state like an earthly prince, and the great church-state conflicts arose not because of any material versus spiritual separation, but because the two were not separated: the Investiture Dispute was caused by both the Emperor and the Pope wishing to have the power to appoint prince-bishops that ruled parts of the Holy Roman Empire. In China, ancester worship, state ceremonies, agricultural seasons and domestic life sed to be so closely linked that Confucius and his students were government officials, temple priests and academic scholars combined. The Dalai Lama is traditionally both the spiritual and political leader of
Tibet.

Copernicus is usually credited as the scientist who started the process of definitive separation of material and spiritual ideas, by proposing a model of the solar system incompatible with church teachings. To remain a good son of the church, Galileo had to publicly renounce the theory, despite contrary inner convictions based on his own research. Living in a Protestant country, Newton had an easier time, but even he had to struggle to maintain his orthodox reputation on the Continent. Since then, materialistic ideas have become so dominant that religions are usually relegated to being regarded as old fashioned superstitions unable to stand up against science, and in a form of rearguard defence, religious and other spiritually oriented people deliberately want to establish a border between the two worlds, so that spiritual ideas would not be subject to scientific analysis and proof. The need to form sanctuary enclaves only serves to underline the extent of the retreat.

But even this does not guarantee permanent security, because ideas come into collision in rather unexpected ways. Take the following three examples:

(a) Reincarnation: Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of
souls, nor whether a current living animal has the same soul that
previously existed in a now dead animal. But this does not make the idea
of reincarnation immune to scientific progress. Consider evolution and
dinosaurs. If you believe that dinosaurs once existed, and also believe in
reincarnation, then logically you must believe that some of today's humans
are reincarnated dinosaurs. No doubt some would find the idea quite
acceptable, but others might find it ridiculous. In the latter case, does one
reject reincarnation, dinosaurs, or simply reject the logical connection, by
dismissing the whole issue as a silly joke from an eccentric professor?

(b) Conception: This used to be viewed in an agricultural analogy - the
man plants his "seeds" in the woman to produce a fetus in her womb that
will grow like a plant in soil. From this analogy, an easy identification
of woman with earth arises producing various versions in mythology and
literature, and sex and human fertility get linked to agricultural
productivity in various cultures. Today we know that the fetus in fact
derives half its genes from the egg contributed by the woman, and half
from the man's sperm, so that the man does not provide the whole "seed"
and the woman does not play a purely passive, soil like role. How has this
affected our view of man-woman relations?

(c) Plato's theory of forms: Plato thought every object of a type, say a
horse, captures part of an abstract entity that exists in nature, such as
"horseness", that determines the features of the type. All horses share
"horseness" and therefore are similar, and good people have captured
more goodness than bad people. Today we know that "horseness" lies in
the DNA molecules that exist within every cell of every horse, and by
passing just one copy of its DNA to the offspring, the parent horse ensures
that the offspring would be a horse. It is unknown whether a goodness
gene exists, but at least we know now there is no goodness in nature for
us to capture.

In each of the three cases, a previously accepted spiritual idea has come into collision with scientific knowledge, resulting in some obvious or subtle shift in our thinking.

However, the proposition that scientific ideas are better accepted than spiritual ideas because they can be "proved" is highly dubious. We believe in atoms and dinosaurs, but has it really been "proved" to us that atoms exist and dinosaurs existed? None of us have ever seen an atom or a dinosaur, nor ever will. There are some very large skeletons that are on display in museums, but how do we know these came from animals that lived millions of years ago? Some of us use electricity generated from nuclear reactors, but in what way does this prove the existence of atoms? The connection may be clear to a nuclear scientist, but not to the human majority.

For most of us, such beliefs are merely based on faith: there are these books from the libraries that show pictures of atoms and dinosaurs, and there are these wise looking men who tell us that such things exist(ed); we accept their words because they command authority. Is this so very different from believing in the bible and the priests? Even scientists themselves have to base much of their beliefs upon faith once they move ut of their own specialized domain into areas in which they are not expert.

In short, despite scientific progress, faith is still required as the basis of beliefs. What has changed is merely the way faith is established and reaffirmed.

2. Scientific logic

Like the existence of atoms and dinosaurs, most scientific beliefs are not verified by direct observations, but are deduced from hypotheses using a set of agreed rules. Some of these deductions that produce observable
propositions are then verified experimentally. This allows the hypotheses and their deduced results to be tentatively accepted as the current theory. A theory may be rejected later if additional deductions for previously untested situations turn out to contradict experimental observations. Both relativity and quantum mechanics came to be developed when the deductions of classical physics for previously untested situations (one involving high speed movement, and the other atomic particles) failed to match observations. Science is always subject to doubts like "Other hypotheses could be just as good or even better" "Why these rules of deduction and not some other" "If we do the same experiments tomorrow he results could be different", but generally both scientists and the non- scientific community agree that these are not useful arguments to make, if you want to have science at all.

Nevertheless, the proposition that scientific ideas are believed because they are logical is also a dubious one. Most of us are not able to follow the chain of reasoning linking electricity generation to the existence of atoms, nor see that the dinosaur bones dug up in Mongolia show that the specis later became birds, because such logical deductions require considerable knowledge and methodological training to carry out correctly, and because the reasoning process involves numerous experimental observations which we cannot make ourselves. In both methodology and facts, we accept the words of authoritative figures certifying them to be correct; in other words, by faith.

For the layman, even simple hypothesis and deductions involve ready pitfalls. Consider:

hypothesis: Pigs can fly.

deduction: There will be things with wings that are good to eat.

observation: Pigeons, which are things with wings good to eat.

conclusion: Deduction has been verified by observation so...

For this one, it is relatively easy to see that many other deductions from the same hypothesis would be incorrect and the "theory" is not acceptable, but most of us would not be able to figure out what is wrong with the above argument itself. Other wrong theories may be much harder to reject, and right and wrong arguments hard to distinguish, e.g.


(a) Socrates is a human; a human can be male or female; Socrates can be
male or female.

(b) Socrates is a human; a human can be born male or female; Socrates
can be born male or female.

The first is correct, since if we know nothing about Socrates, then we could be talking about a male or a female; the second is incorrect, because the first clause refers to an already existing human, while the second refers to a possibly unborn human, so that the two clauses cannot be combined to produce the third clause as conclusion.

Even the idea "Science is consistent" is not a simple one. Earlier this century, the Czech mathematician Godel proved that no mathematical theory can be both complete and consistent. To take a simple example: suppose we have words that describe things; to be complete, things should include words; words can be selfdescribing ("short" is a short word) or nonselfdescribing ("long" is not a long word); is "nonselfdescribing" a nonselfdescribing word? If so, it describes itself and so is a selfdescribing word; but if "nonselfdescribing" is selfdescribing, it does not describe itself, and so must be nonselfdescribing... This is in fact the same as the paradox of king and prisoners: "A cruel king ordered all prisoners to be brought before the court to utter one sentence; if it is true, the prisoner will be hanged; if it is false, he would be beheaded; so one prisoner said 'I am going to be beheaded'..." which shows how easy it is for paradoxes to arise, since the same underlying logic can appear in many alternative disguises. (Another version of the same parafox: can the almighty God commit suicide? if not, then...)

Yet, even though we have not made any scientific experiments ourselves and do not follow the logical deductions, we believe in science. What accounts for our faith?


3. Living faith

Beliefs that are adopted by faith must in some way meet a psychological need. For example, most humans are afraid of death, and the idea of having a soul is psychologically comforting, by allowing us to think that we do not simply disappear at death, but would live on in another way. For Christians, the prospect of salvation is "truth" because they "feel it". It is part of their "experience", even though it is something that cannot be verified or disproved by empirical observation.

Science meets a human need to summarize our experience. 1+1=2 applies to the situation when we place (+) an apple (1) next to another (1), and find two apples side by side, also when we put a potato into a bag that already has a potato, also... The formula has captured something in nature, an objective truth, that appears in different forms, independently of the cultural context in which the experience was gathered and expressed; that is, whether a society has apples and potatoes or not, and what notation its people use to express 1+1=2, are independent of the truth of 1+1=2 itself.

A belief based on summarized experience is regularly confirmed, like we see examples of 1+1=2 every day; hence, our belief is strengthened on a daily basis. Faith in science is regularly affirmed by contact with products of science - switch on the air conditioner and the room cools down, and logging into the computer we email to our friends in New York. Science delivers. What makes modern times different from the age of Newton is the prevalent presence of science and the almost constant affirmation of our scientific beliefs.

This however does not explain why we believe in atoms and dinosaurs, which have only a tenuous connection to airconditioning and computers. We could say that quantum mechanics explains the movement of electrons in semiconductors, which are used in both airconditioner circuits and computer processors; it also explains the structure of atoms and molecules, which are related to DNA and genes, which are related to heredity and natural selection, which are related to dinosaurs. But almost none of us understand all these subject areas together with the links between them. The question is still why we do not hesitate in accepting all of them by faith.

The answer has to be socialization: the electronic engineers, computer scientists, atomic physicists, molecular biologists and evolution zoologists are part of the same scientific community. We have the same basic education, and our individual fields share much of the scientific methodology and tools. We have faith in each other, and ackowledge the authority of specialists of other areas which we ourselves do not understand. This collective faith is passed on to the community at large, who are impressed by science's ability to deliver. Ultimately, this is not so very different from the socialization process that supports religious faith: worshipers, who get together on sundays in a dark hall with high ceilings and stain glass windows to sing emotional hymns accompanied by a grand organ, have their faith strengthened by expressing their common views together, and leaders of a community professing a faith would usually carry their people along.

This is why people who have not been socialized in the same way can respond to the wonders of technology quite differently. The hill tribes of New Guinea watching aeroplanes landing to deliver wonderful things to white men, who pay for them with cheques and credit cards, were convinced that goods being sent to themselves by their heavenly ancesters had been intercepted by European witchcraft. Instead of starting to learn aerodynamics and electronic commerce so that they could participate in this high tech world culture, they built wood aeroplanes on hilltops and waited for their ancesters to descend and bring them cargo...

In short, while objective truths like 1+1=2 do exist in nature and determine both experimental observations and feasible applications of science, our faith in science is a cultural phenomenon, as is our particular expression of it. By demolishing certain old beliefs and co-existing with others, and forming its own cultural expressions that are used and affirmed daily, science is an integral, indeed the driving, part of the spiritual world of the modern man.

 

section{Creativity and entrepreneurship}

When American parents drop off their children at grade school, the parting words are usually ``have fun" rather than ``work hard", and until the internet boom created teenage millionaires out of weird nerds, the most admired students in high schools are the football captains and cheerleaders. When a high school senior chooses which colleges to apply to, he/she often asks about the party scene rather than academic standards. The Ivy League colleges would admit sportsmen, movie starlets and children of politicians with mediocre transcripts and SAT scores, in order to add ``diversity" to its student population. One President of Yale University resigned to become the US Baseball Commissioner.

This does not mean that American society does not care about work, money, and merit in the sense of earning power, merely that it has different experiences about what gets one ahead. American leaders and entrepreneurs show their sparks in ways different from the rise of a salaryman in a Japanese corporation or a returned scholar in the Singapore public sector.

Yet, despite the differences in educational philosophies, Asia has been setting its higher education agenda according to American rules. Top professors are expected to have Stanford and MIT degrees, and be promoted according to American criteria and procedures. Publishing at American conferences and journals is more likely to be valued, and even just getting a visitor from Stanford/MIT to come over, regardless of what he/she might do during the visit, is alone considered an achievement.

Largely, this is because the top American universities are thought to be good at linking education and research with business. Professors earn high consultancy fees, sit on company boards, and start their own businesses with students. It is rarely attached significance that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison etc never completed their college education, and Jerry Yang dropped out of his Stanford PhD programme in order to run Yahoo full time, after developing his web search engine on Stanford machines. In the same way, Bill Gates used Harvard computers to write his hardware emulator/Basic language compiler, which Paul Allen, his classmate, marketed to microcomputer companies in Arizona and California; when business began to flow in, they both dropped out of Harvard. In short, college education and business are related, but in a more subtle way than just A leading to B.

The successful Singapore entrepreneur Sim Wong Hoo was also not a college graduate, completing only a polytechnic diploma course, and his company Cubic Computer enjoyed little initial success developing Chinese language personal computers. However, after spending much time exploring market opportunities in Silicon Valley, he realized that no one was producing a good PC output device for generating sound from disk files, and set about to develop his Soundblaster card under the company label Creative Technology. Having become the dominant player in the niche, Creative suffered a period of low inventiveness, but recently found a second niche of manufacturing portable MP3 music players. So again, college education and business are not simply related.

American professors are indeed encouraged to be enterprising; they fight for research grants from government agencies and commercial enterprises to help pay for the university running costs and their own
summer salaries, and to support teams of graduate students on their projects. American students are encouraged to do their own thing like Bill Gates and Jerry Yang, rather than memorize sample answers for possible examination questions.

But starting a new business like Amazon is not just a matter of turning knowledge and technology into money. It also depends on the availability of many other things: book buyers already had access to networked computers in universities, and to a lesser extent in the early days, at home; they wanted difficult to find (and difficult to sell) books which Bezos collected cheaply in his garage; they have credit cards to pay for the books electronically; companies like UPS will deliver the books to their homes; there were venture capitalists with the foresight to back Bezos to expand his business by building warehouses and fast responding, easy to use websites. The need is to have an environment where the new technological possibilities are understood, as in places like the Stanford Computer Science Department, and to put this next to the environment where the business resources can be marshalled.

In their virtual reality of paper qualifications, assessment by simple rules, rote learning and sample answers, Asian professors and students are far away from the American style creativity and entrepreneurship. With their limited access to hightech resources, it is also difficult to see that the Bill Gates/Jerry Yang experimentation for future commercial opportunities would be officially encouraged in the Harvards and Stanfords of Asia. Deep and disruptive changes will have to occur before they can even come close to their
American role models.

 

section{Culture preservation}

The expression ``Asian values" goes well with ``preserving our culture", because only if the cultures are good and worthy of preservation, would it follow that the culture requires things to be done differently from the West. When obviously non-meritocratic policies like racial quota have to be applied, it becomes all the more important to have the maintenance of the dominant race's culture as justification. Cultural preservation is however fraught with difficulties, and policies never quite do what they intend to do. The Chinese language policy of Singapore provides a case in point.Since the early days of independent Singapore, a two-languages education policy has been in force: all school children are required to study English and the mother tongue, and the second language proficiency, as shown by examination performance, is part of the requirement for entering the local universities. For the Chinese, there has also been an annual Speak Mandarin campaign to urge the use of the common speech in place of dialects. The policy has been
justified by its assumed benefit in preserving community cohesion and traditional culture, and has been maintained largely intact despite criticisms and various minor modifications.

For, almost as soon as the policy was introduced, there have been complaints that the Chinese language requirements are too hard and very stressful for the students to cope with. In reply, the officials have always pointed out that it is not particularly hard to reach the minimum proficiency standards, and in fact failure rates for English and Mathematics are usually higher. This defense has, however, largely missed the point, since for the majority of parents and students the concern is not merely to attain a minimum pass, but to obtain a good aggregate result in the highly competitive education system. Being an essential component of this aggregate result, performance in Chinese language examinations materially affects the prospect of a child. Further, a number of features of the Singapore society have combined to make this apparently commonplace matter one of the major social issues. Like other East Asian societies based on
hierarchical mandarinism, Singapore uses examinations to channel youngsters into different ``streams" starting from primary school or even before. The top students attend top primary and secondary schools, and those with the best A level results are given government scholarships to study in elite overseas universities and are then placed in fast track administrative careers in various parts of the public sector, with some using this as the platform to high posts in private companies or political careers. Operating in a world market, the top managerial levels, including government ministers, offer salaries comparable to those in Europe and North America, while the importation of foreign workers pegged lower class salaries near the level of the local region.

Consequently, there is a wide gap between the two ends, providing strong incentives to achieve upward mobility through education. A good examination aggregate result thus attains a far greater importance, as compared to say SAT scores for American students, and the need not to be held back by a poor Chinese language grade looms large in everyone's thinking. Even for good students who can pick up the language easily, the stress is no less: good students are simply channelled into tougher classes teaching Chinese at a higher level. Since a good result in Higher Chinese counts more in competitive assignment to top schools/streams, the need to try hard remains, both to perform well enough to go into the higher stream,
and to perform well within it.

But the need to get high marks applies to all the subjects; yet, there seems to be some factor that makes Chinese much more of a problem. Despite the success rates in terms of passing examinations, the common reaction from students has been that they hate the subject, and want to forget about it as soon as they have obtained the grade of result they need for their particular purpose. Further, passing the examination, at even the Higher Chinese level, seems to be not a good indictor of actual command of the language, since few Singaporean students can use the language at the level on which a high school graduate in China, Taiwan or even Hong Kong is able to function. The average Singaporean high school graduate has little interest in or understanding of Chinese culture, and would quickly forget the language lessons that have cost so much effort to learn. What is the problem?

The Chinese language curriculum in Singapore schools is closer to that used in China, rather than Taiwan or Hong Kong. Among other things, it uses simplified characters, though this is a minor point. More significant is its concentration on the current Chinese language, rather than studying the modern language at lower levels followed by modern and classical literature subsequently. Its objective is to teach Chinese as a living language, for people who will use it actively, rather than as a cultural entity for a foreign or colonial audience, which is what the Hong Kong system is more oriented towards (though with the reversion to China, Hong Kong is trying to move away from this.)

With a curriculum on modern Chinese spanning over 10 years, the standard required at the end of the cycle is fairly advanced. On paper, a student passing the O level Chinese examination, especially if it is at Higher Chinese level, ought to be very proficient. Indeed, a perusal of the textbooks used in school would show a good standard of modern literary Chinese. Unfortunately, in the current Singapore society, where virtually all business transactions and daily activities outside private homes are conducted in English, people do not have opportunities to actually use the highly literate Chinese they learn at school. Without such practice, the proficiency they actually acquire is not so much language proficiency, but just proficiency at passing language examinations.

In other words, the curriculum is meant for active Chinese users, who live their daily lives and conduct serious, perhaps intellectual, discussions in Chinese, and learn other school lessons in that language, not people who merely do in Mandarin what they used to do in dialect: they might greet each other in Chinese, talk about simple things like what food to eat for lunch and the price of houses in Chinese, and then switch to English for anything to be talked about in depth. The tendency of people breaking out into Hokkien when having a quarrel, or to tease each other in Cantonese, shows that many have not even attained the dialect level proficiency in Mandarin. Without such daily practice, one cannot be proficient, and it becomes even harder to learn the highly literary Chinese taught at the senior secondary levels since such language learners would get the practice they need only by frequent exposure to higher level literature, something that might be commonplace in China (at least in large cities) but definitely not in Singapore.

Thus, the curriculum design has ensured that the learning of Chinese in schools is an isolated, scholastic activity detached from the life experience of the students, especially as most of the text they have to read contain moralistic lectures about family values, good citizenships, etc. Valuable as such teachings might be, the simple fact is when young people want to read Chinese writings on their own, they would go for Gongfu novels by Jin Yong and soap operas by Qun Yao. So the content of the texts can only further reinforce the feeling that Chinese lessons are irrelevant to life, like the ancestral gods that one occasionally has to kowtow to, but gets away from as quickly as possible.

So why has the situation been allowed to remain after 30 years of stressful experience? The main factor seems to lie with the Chinese community leaders, mostly business tycoons, who use mandarin and dialects in social bonding with each other, but switch to English when doing business which often requires dealing with government officials and foreigners. They frequently lobby education officials to require schools to spend more time on teaching Chinese and raise standards. Their conscious motivation is undoubtedly the need to maintain Chinese culture in the face of western influence, but there is probably the subconscious motive of political influence ``show more respect for our community". Unfortunately, the leaders as a group have limited contact with both Chinese culture (philosophy, literature, history, arts, etc) and the actual learning experiences of the school children. While the parents of the affected children complain, their concern is with school level issues like teacher performance, testing standards, greater language exposure opportunities through ECA, etc., rarely at the level of curriculum design. When international language teaching experts are consulted, the natural feedback has been that the requirements do not seem unreasonable, which is perfectly valid if one considers the lessons alone, rather than how they function within the real cultural conditions. Thus the cause of the problem remains undiagnosed.

Community cohesion is an important consideration for the Singapore Chinese, who are surrounded regionally by a very large Malay/Indonesian population, and bombarded daily by American culture. Having all Chinese school children learn Mandarin must have a positive impact on the ability of the members of the community to interact with each other. But what is the cost associated with this benefit?

First is the weakening of the dialect based community organizations. While associations of Hokkien, Tewchew and Hainan people continue to exist, they have lost the influence once exerted, and in fact have no meaningful roles to play except for some minor welfare tasks. More significant is the lack of contact across racial boundaries: different schools tend to offer different second languages, and Malay and Indian children generally go to separate schools, or separate classes within the same school, from Chinese children. While some mixing occurs again after secondary schools, the paths have already diverged for too long.

Does learning Chinese help to maintain the ``Chineseness" of the community? It depends on how one defines Chineseness of course. If one wants more than just speaking a common Chinese tongue, but looks at the issue of ``cultural roots", then one can come up with various criteria. Certainly Chinese festivals are celebrated, but this can be done whether one speaks Mandarin or dialects and is little dependent on how many years of Chinese are studied at school. Buddhism is winning some converts as part of a general increase in religious adhesion, but one can question how Chinese that is. In any case, if one looks for a high level of interest in Chinese culture, especially ancient culture, then the result can only be disappointing.

What about moral standards? One could argue about whether traditional Chinese society was more moral, or merely repressive, and how well it lived up to its own lectures on filial duties and prudent behaviour, but this would be merely futile: if Chinese lessons are so intensely disliked, one would hardly expect any moral messages they convey to be taken seriously.

In fact, despite its priggish image, sexual mores in Singapore have been anything but conservative: Divorce rates are as high as those in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and rising. Each year the number of abortions performed average around 15000, and since for every teenage girl that gets pregnant, there must be another 10 who used contraception or were simply lucky, one can readily deduce that premarital sex is widespread. Reports of abandoned new born babies appear regularly in the newspaper. Crime levels are low in Singapore, but it is hard to attribute this to the Chinese lessons; besides various factors like strict law enforcement, compact city state leading to better crime detection, good economy, etc., one might thank liberal abortion policies that minimize the number of unwanted children, who would have much greater tendencies to turn out badly.

So if the objective of ``maintaining cultural roots" means moral conservatism and interest in traditional culture, then the language teaching has failed to produce them. In fact, the stressful Chinese examinations have probably done the reverse: a recent survey says that 20\% of Chinese teenagers wish they were Japanese or Caucasian, whereas the percentage of Indians and Malays with such wishes was small; presumably the idea ``if I were Japanese/American then I dont need to take the lessons" was not far from everyone's mind. More generally, the stressful school experience has engendered in many teenagers  sense of inadequacy: the lessons always seem a bit harder than they are capable of, and this, among other things, might provide an explanation for sexual promiscuity as teenagers with low self-esteem, especially females, frequently seek psychological compensation in such physical ways.

Another consequence has been to foster in students an attitude ``it does not matter whether you know or not; just be able to bluff your way in the examination", which is especially relevant to Chinese examinations, though the rest of the examination system does little to dispel it.

With Hollywood, MTV and McDonald blasting out the message that it is easy and fun to be like the Americans, and top students aspiring to have MIT degrees, culture preservation seems to be a lost cause, but this does not prevent it from being used to justify a variety of policies, merely that the result is often hard to predict. While I have much sympathy with the intent, I wonder how sustainable the effect is going to be.

 

 7 In Search of Asian Values

Until the 1997 Asian economic meltdown, leaders of the successful Asian economies were apt to lecture the West about its shortcomings, such as social decadence, family breakdown, welfare induced indolence, low savings rate, and in the case of one Japanese prime minister, ethnic impurity. Part of this was a genuine feeling of superiority, and part to fend off probable criticisms from western diplomats about democracy and human rights. For several years since then, the boom on Wall Street, induced partly by solid technological and business innovations, and partly by the bubble of investment money transferring itself from Asia to North America, has made Americans impervious to such voices, and we have heard far less of ``Asian values". Now that the Nasdaq bubble has burst and America is on the verge of recession, we should brace ourselves for a revival of the arguments. The hope is however that this time a more serious effort can be made to come up with a genuine Asian synthesis of social experiences and a set of meaningful ideologies to guide future actions, in so far the circumstances post World Trade Center would permit.

``Asian Values" can be real cultural impediments to the application of western political principles, imposing concrete modifications, but they can also be just a convenient excuse for self-serving politicians and businessmen.The important issue is discussion and transparency: by shining light on the ideas and digging down to their bedrock foundations, we can better decide how much credibility to attach to them.

Both East and West have their share of sacred cows, some probably carrying BSE viruses; before a useful debate can take place, a number of these need to be slaughtered so that they would not be there to detract us from the serious thinking at hand. We hope to have done our share of the butchering.

Confucianism in its various versions have served east Asian nations for long, while Marxism also has had its share of successes, but their deficiencies are also apparent. Bringing the right parts of each within a capitalist and democratic framework is the promising route to try. It is perhaps not often realized how close Confucius and Marx are in their tactical ideas: Confucius wants rulers to constantly reflect on their own shortcomings, i.e., find the antithesis, and co-opt the best ideas of the opposing camp, i.e., achieve the synthesis. Their difference is simply due to the 2500 years of scientific and philosophical developments in between.

Undoubtedly, the search for Asian Values will lead us down many meandering byways and blind alleys, which many Asians would not want to undergo in view of more urgent problems. However, divorced from coherent principles, apparent solutions might themselves turn out to be mere mirages. The effort remains to be seriously tried by the thinking people of Asia.

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mr brown - officially endorsed critic of singapore government http Singapore likes to remakes itself often http Election 2006 http Non-Constituency Parliament Members and Senators http Singapore's Elected Presidency http One party government http Press and Blogger Bias in Singapore http Today - singapore's second newspaper http"Catherine Lim, Prospective Politician" http The Implosion of Singapore Democratic Party http I am not a yesman http Singapore's man with a plan http Singapore Immigration http "climate of fear" http Taxation in Singapore / Shares http CLOB and SIAS http Singapore's Foreign Shares Bubble http high value added http singapore elite wees http.man jumps to death at juring MRT station http the Temasek juggernaut http temasek's thai problems http Modern shamanism Democracy with Asian characteristics http Social welfare http the fertility bust http North East Line http The saga of Raffles Town Club http erps http PCCW saga http: COE (Certificate of Entitlement) Prices 1991 - now http Leninism, Asian Culture and Singapore http Political Singlish http Speak Chinese Also Can 讲中文也可以 http Now a Massage from Our Sponsor... http

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