Ambassadors Archive 1

Malaysia: Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir


By Dr. Nancy E. Snow 

"Ideologies which are forced on people invariably end in rebellion and rejection; this is as true of economic systems as it is of political systems and cultural values," said Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, physician turned Prime Minister of Malaysia, at the last meeting of the Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC) in Washington, DC.

"There is a sincere belief among many in the West that their values and beliefs are universal-universally valued and believed in by all civilized and civil men and women everywhere," said Mahathir, an outspoken advocate for "unity in diversity" when it comes to the universal values debate.

While he acknowledges "a large common ground" in values, he also strongly emphasizes natural differences in those values. For instance, values vary as greatly within countries (rural vs. urban) as they do from one country to the next. Big cities on every continent share a common culture, much as do the starving and the very wealthy in all societies.

Dr. Mahathir noted that in an era of rapid expansion of Western industrialized values, Asian values are often considered second-rate. "Why must we change ourselves to suit the West and their values? Why are so many in the West insisting that we become just like them. This the strong among us will not do. The weak, unfortunately, have little choice." What then are Asian values, and how do they compare with U.S. values? Acknowledging that exceptions can be found for every generalization, Mahathir pointed to a 1994 survey comparing East Asian and American values conducted by the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Information Agency. A group of Americans and East Asians, (Japanese, Thais, Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indonesians, and Filipinos), were asked to rank six "societal values" and five "personal values" which they regarded as core and critical. The revealing results were presented in a publication entitled, Asian Values and the United States: How Much Conflict?

The six societal values most valued by East Asians were: first, "having an orderly society;" second, "societal harmony;" third, "ensuring the accountability of public officials;" fourth, "being open to new ideas;" fifth, "freedom of expression;" and sixth, "respect for authority." In contrast, the six most important societal values for those Americans surveyed were: first, "freedom of expression;" second, "personal freedom;" third, "the rights of the individual;" fourth, "open debate;" fifth, "thinking for oneself;" and sixth, "the accountability of public officials."

Fundamental differences were discovered with regard to personal values as well: Americans stressed "self-reliance, personal achievement, hard work, achieving success in life, and helping others," while the East Asians polled stressed "hard work, respect for learning and education, honesty, self-reliance, and self-discipline."

Whereas 59 percent of the Americans surveyed stressed "achieving success in life," half as many East Asians did; only one-third of East Asians stressed "personal achievement" as a personal value while slightly under two-thirds of Americans did. Nearly 70 percent of East Asians in the study emphasized "respect for learning," compared with only 15 percent of Americans. Half as many Americans stressed "self-discipline" as did East Asians.

What conclusions can one reach from such a study? According to Mahathir, the study lends support to the preeminence of cultural difference in how societies organize. Many of the East Asian values reflect a group orientation (i.e. "having an orderly society, societal harmony") while the American values stress more the individual's role (i.e. "freedom of expression, personal freedom, thinking for oneself.") Some Asian values, acknowledges Mahathir, "are obviously a function of our stage of development and will be challengedand discarded, to our gain or to our loss, as we move forward."

Mahathir's aim is not to elevate one set of cultural values over another but rather to seek a balanced perspective and "mutual respect" between Western and Asian values.

"I believe in community building. There is much in the West that commands respect, but at the same time, it is right and it is time that Asia, too, is accorded the regard and the respect that it is due."

He cautions against those who would, however, promote atrocities while hiding behind the cloak of cultural relativism. Atrocities, he instructs, are universal and have no fixed address.

"Let us all admit that no one has a monopoly of wisdom. Let us deliberately prepare for, and enthusiastically partake of, a feast of civilizations, where we take the best that all of us have to offer-and together build, for the first time, a single global civilization such as the world has never seen."