Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation in Asia

Heng Siam-Heng
Opinion Asia
20 Aug 2007

The rise of China and India as new economic powers is affecting the balance of economic power globally. However, the rise of Asia is likely to exert even more profound influence in the world and even human civilisation if it is accompanied by a cultural and intellectual rejuvenation.

Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. An example is Japan which has amazed the world with its sterling economic performance for decades, but without equally remarkable cultural and intellectual achievements. Bearing this in mind, the rise of Asia is seen an opportunity for an Asian Renaissance and Enlightenment, which may or may not happen. A lot of it would depend on what the Asians want to create out of the opportunity.

From a historical perspective, the most recent experience of intellectual rejuvenation and reinvigoration associated with social and economic transformation was that of European Renaissance and Enlightenment. In the process, the latter produced giants in a range of fields – philosophy, science and mathematics, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. Their contributions have significantly shaped the character of modern European civilisation.

Harking back to earlier times, one could cite other cases such as the Ancient Greece, Ancient China during the Spring-Autumn and Warring period, the Islamic golden age, the Mughal period of India, and the Tang-Song period of China as mirroring a similar transformation.

It is pretty safe to say that we can learn from history. Great cultural and intellectual achievements tend to occur during periods of profound social, economic and political change. These transformations provided the historical stage for profound thinkers to make their contributions by throwing up many serious issues. In their efforts to understand and solve these issues, the great thinkers were able to inherit their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesize them to produce schools of original thoughts. For example, Florence, commonly understood as the birth place of the Renaissance, happened to be at an important meeting point of diverse cultures and intellectual traditions – the Greco-Roman, the Islamic, the Judeo-Christian and the Indian.

While the physical landscape in many Asian cities indicate evidence of economic modernisation, one very often comes across a dysfunctional culture in the people who hold and determine the levers of power. Business contracts or government infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent. Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of step with the demands of a modern economy. Even in societies where there are modern economic institutions in the formal sense, they fail to work properly due to a pre-modern mindset.

In his book Ideas Won’t Keep – the Struggle for China’s Future, Professor Wang Gungwu of National University of Singapore refers to a deep concern of the Chinese people: “their civilisational heritage, a fresh system of law, the search for a new system of ethics for the modern world and, not least, the dangers of a spiritual vacuum among the young.” Seen differently, the history of China since its post-1978 encounter with Western powers may be seen as a continuous national project to modernise with a Chinese character. And in this endevour, the issue of morality, culture, ethics and values has featured prominently. The same may be said of India and other countries in Asia.

Asian intellectuals face two major tasks at this juncture of their history. The first is to critically and rationally examine the ideas and institutions that have evolved from the Western experience. Such ideas and institutions come in plural forms and there are serious debates among Western intellectuals of their efficacy. Asians are glad to read that European Renaissance and Enlightenment drank from the wells of Eastern achievements. In the same way, they ought to be satisfied to learn from the West in the modernisation of Asia. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernisation, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing and learning from the West. Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions. What is critical here is meticulous and rational learning, adapting them to suite local conditions and drawing upon cultural resources to absorb them.

The second challenge facing Asian intellectuals is to draw on their own cultural and intellectuals in the process of dealing with new problems. Old ideas have a tendency to take on new meanings and interpretations when they are studies in the context of new social problems. In re-working old ideas from one’s culture, one is free (or indeed encouraged) to consult ideas from other cultures. This is especially so when a society is confronted with problems where there is no effective solution.

At a very intrinsic level, Asian modernisation cannot follow certain western experiences. One obvious experience is the history of colonisation and the slave trade. Another is the high level of material consumption currently obtaining in the West. In fact, it would be a wrong policy for either China or India to try to become a second USA or to become a hegemonic superpower. Asian countries need to chart modern ways of life where there is adequate material wealth combined with spiritual health. This is something that none of the Western countries has succeeded in at a societal level. Perhaps it is an honour, if not a challenge, for Asia to show the world that this is indeed possible. To do so would require a great cultural and intellectual rejuvenation.

Skeptics point out that most of Asia’s public intellectuals are unlikely to rise to the call. There are formidable obstacles to the development of world-class and original ideas among Asian intellectuals. There is lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Second, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other. Third, there is no broad unifying theme like Enlightenment rationality to guide Asian intellectuals. Fourth, there is unlikely to be a powerful social group waiting to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people. Ironically, one cannot even speak of an Asian dialogue because they know so little of each other’s intellectual and cultural traditions – with language presenting a formidable barrier.

While freedom to articulate fresh ideas may be curbed in some Asian countries, this is not true for all Asian countries. Moreover, given the freedom afforded by the cyberspace, the problem is not as grave as before. The core issue is whether Asian intellectuals and other social actors wish to take on the task – even if means framing this future schema in a distinctly European terminology – of an Asian “Renaissance and Enlightenment”.

Heng Siam-Heng is a Senior Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore