At the time of writing, explicit talk of ‘Asian values’ has taken on an ethereal quality. Most of the issues and impulses that come under its broad umbrella are still alive, as Tommy Koh makes clear in the passage cited above, but no one talks about ‘Asian values’ per se. Lee Kuan Yew has walked away from the term. Dr Mahathir puts his arguments without using the term. Suharto is a disgraced failure. Taiwan and South Korea are democracies. Even Myanmar – one of the main authoritarian beneficiaries of the conceptual and diplomatic defence provided by ‘Asian values’ – has started talking to its opposition parties and releasing detainees in an effort to normalise relations with the European Union. The manipulation of ‘Asian values’ as an explicit defence of authoritarianism has substantially ended, but the impulse that underpinned the ‘Asian values’ reaction remains and is waiting to be of service the next time Pacific Asian leaders feel a surge of stridency – whether such stridency originates from confidence or insecurity. For this reason alone, the ‘Tepid War’ over ‘Asian values’ is likely to continue to beset international relations, human security issues and the domestic and social politics of Pacific Asian countries. Even aside from manipulative politics, however, there are aspects of ‘Asian values’ that are likely to demand ongoing
attention. With or without a Lee Kuan Yew or a Dr Mahathir, Asian countries, cultures and religions will continue to meet modernity, and will engage it in a dialogue that will affect all parties. Economic changes will prompt further reflexion about the role and nature of local cultures. Democracies will thrive, survive or be overwhelmed by the challenges of governance. Buddhist and Muslim-dominated nation-states in particular will search for ways to accommodate conflicting demands of the secular and the sacred. The outcomes of these adventures are unknown, but there can be little doubt that the journeys themselves will take place, and that the issues canvassed in Parts I and II of this book will continue to live through the fact of change and challenge. With this in mind, there may be some profit in appraising the current state of the overt ‘Asian values’ agenda, item by item.