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Traditional asian values June 5, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion, Society.
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In my previous post, I mentioned how Singapore’s government and conservative Singaporeans often use the term “traditional asian values” (TAVs) to resist social change and defend various forms of intolerance and discrimination against homosexuals and other liberal evils. What exactly are these “traditional asian values” and why do so many people seek to preserve them? 

To the Singaporean Chinese at least, “traditional asian values” are somewhat based on Confucian values. This includes goodies such as meritocracy and filial piety, but other pretty nasty ones as well: the maintenance and justification of a hierarchical social order, the perpetuation of social inequalities, and the strict roles imposed based on gender or social standing. 

It is because of this association with Confucianism that many often hold TAVs in high regard – it’s more than just a value system; it’s a tradition and a symbol of Chinese culture. They hold the flawed belief that TAVs are automatically good, desirable, and should be preserved, and anything that conflicts with these values are evil agents of western liberalism. But if we look closer, we’ll see that TAVs can be used to defend some archaic and undesirable practices.

 TAVs have long been used to keep women “in their place”. This may include confining women to the domestic sphere, or out of politics, or limiting them to more “appropriate” jobs and courses of study, or expecting women to behave in a certain way, or keeping them quiet and subordinate to their husbands.  A traditional value system seeks to preserve the status quo, and that means maintaining a patriarchal social structure, constraining men and women into fixed and well defined gender roles.

 TAVs can also be used to justify social inequalities. When we rely too much on the idealistic notion of meritocracy, we can easily dismiss the plight of the poor and uneducated. It’s so easy to say, “The poor/uneducated/underprivileged/unemployed deserve what they get. It serves them right for not working hard in school to get a degree.” It lets us conveniently overlook the unfair and even discriminatory obstacles which hinder some people from achieving success, no matter how hard they work. Moreover, it blinds us to the fact that many of those successful people whom we aspire our children to grow up to become, got there by more than mere hard work. Money, class, power and social standing definitely didn’t hurt. Worst of all, TAVs state that we should accept our place in society’s hierarchy. Whether we are referring to women, or a racial or religious minority, TAVs say that we should be obedient and contributing members of society, and resign to the fact that our interests and opinions are secondary to that of those in power.

 TAVs also aim to maintain social harmony. While that in itself is not a bad thing, it means that the silencing of any form of dissent or displeasure with the current system can be justified. It also ignores the fact that a transition period of social disharmony or conflict may sometimes be necessary to bring about positive social change. Recall the African American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s: only through actions of mass mobilization and civil disobedience were the blacks able to bring about the overruling of the oppressive and prejudiced Jim Crow laws. If our right to voice our discontent about the prevailing social order were to be dismissed under the guise of maintaining social harmony, society would remain stagnant with its reinforced social inequalities, and never progress towards a more tolerant and egalitarian society.

 But perhaps most worryingly, there is a more insidious side to the use of the term “traditional asian values”. This term has been repeatedly used as a secular (and hence politically correct) mask for the right-wing religious agenda. The Thios have been shrewd in their wordplay: by portraying certain moral values as the traditional values of a conservative asian society, they are able to “market” religiously rooted intentions to our secular tastes. In this way, any fundamentalist religious message can be made to sound secular, or even “Chinese”, thus legitimizing the perpetuation of religiously fueled intolerance and discrimination in our secular public sphere.

 As such, it is imperative for us to be wary of arguments backed up by TAVs, because these TAVs are not always positive for society or its people. In fact, the term itself can be so easily utilized by any group to lend credibility to any archaic practice, regardless of its actual merits. Instead of polarizing people and their values with labels such as “traditional asian” and “liberal western”, we should learn to look at such values critically in order to discern which would help make our society more open and inclusive, and which would further perpetuate social inequalities and justify discrimination.



1. yeff - August 18, 2011

i thought this article was awesome. i had to do research for a sociology paper and i needed help in defining ‘traditional asian values’.

all i was looking for were those actual little values but i was glad i stumbled upon your blog. i agree with most of what you said, and you’re a pretty good writer.

high five bud.

laïcité - August 18, 2011

Thanks for your kind words! :)

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