Are “Asian Values” Really Unique?

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Asian values have been extolled for their contribution to the "miracle" of Asian economic development and censured for their role in Asia's financial meltdown. But whether praised or blamed, Asian values are assumed to be pervasively shared among the dozen countries and 2.7 billion people in the Asian region (including India) and to be distinct from Western values.

The reality, strongly supported by recent evidence, is quite different. The values cherished by Asia's heterogeneous peoples, nations, and cultures are very diverse, and much, indeed most, of what is valued highly in Asia is markedly similar to what is highly valued in the West.

Those who laud Asian values cross familiar ideological and policy lines. For example, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Ministry of Finance official Eisuke Sakakibara in Japan, and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia typically stress the Confucian precepts of work, frugality, and hierarchy. These dimensions of Asian values, they contend, underlie the dramatic economic growth achieved in East Asia by Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, the four "tigers" (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) in the 1980s and mid-1990s, and the three aspiring tigers (Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia) until the middle of 1997.

Critics, such as Paul Krugman at MIT, point to other dimensions of Asian values as major contributors to Asia's financial meltdown, which began in mid-'97 and lasted through 1998. According to this view, the origins of Asia's financial crisis can be traced to such values as excessive loyalty to family, clan, or otherwise favored "in-groups," leading to nepotism, cronyism, and corruption.

Now that economic recovery is well under way in some parts of the region—notably, in South Korea and Thailand—extollers of Asian values will probably be heard from once again. In any event, whether Asian values are offered as explanations for positive or negative economic performance, their use in such arguments lacks credibility. A recent survey by Japan's Dentsu Institute for Human Studies provides convincing evidence for separating the mythology about Asian values from the reality. The Dentsu survey, conducted in 1998, sampled households in the capitals of Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and Bombay. A year earlier, the institute surveyed the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United States (New York City).

Respondents were asked to evaluate the relative importance of nine attributes: "financial wealth"; "acquiring high-quality goods"; "family relationships"; "success in work"; "mental relaxation"; "leisure activity"; "living for the present"; "striving to achieve personal goals"; and "having good relationships with others."

I compared Asian responses with Western ones to test whether there are significant differences between the average responses of the two groups and whether there are significant differences between the groups in the spread of their responses. On only two of the nine dimensions of value did Asians significantly differ from Westerners. Asian respondents, on average, place somewhat greater importance on relationships with family, while Westerners accord somewhat greater importance to leisure activity. Moreover, variance within the Asian and Western groups' responses was quite similar, with two exceptions. Asian respondents vary more widely among themselves in the importance they assign to good relations with "others," as distinct from families, and in the importance they assign to leisure activity than did their Western counterparts.

The conclusions that can be drawn from the Dentsu survey are clear. First, Asian values are decidedly more similar to Western values than is usually presumed, and, second, for some dimensions of values, Asians diverge more from one another than they do from Americans and Western Europeans.

How, then, does the rhetoric about Asian values relate to Asia's varied economic performance: solid and rising until 1997, sharply reversing that year and next, and recovering generally this past year in those countries hardest hit by the '97 crisis? Asian values provide little if any explanation for this volatile record. Instead, the answers lie in the macroeconomic monetary and fiscal policies pursued by various Asian countries; in their foreign-debt policies; in their use of nonmarket-based rather than market-based modes of resource allocation; and in the impediments they place in the way of entrepreneurial activity, domestic and foreign.

The range of values in Asia allows ample room for good as well as bad policies, for those promoting economic growth as well as those impeding it. One does not have to look for deeper cultural or other explanations to understand how and why certain Asian countries have come so far and why they have made serious missteps along the way.