Sunday, January 4, 2004


Off the shelf
Seeking Asian paradigms
V.N. Datta

Rethinking Existing Paradigms: Public Intellectuals in Action
International House of Japan & Japan Foundation Asia Centre, Tokyo. Pages 158.

With the collapse of Soviet Union and the Eastern block in 1990s, the balance of power in the world has been greatly disturbed. Consequently, the United States has emerged potentially the strongest and most influential power in the world. Despite the eruption of violence in different parts of the world, and the pillage and slaughter in the Afghan and Iraq wars, the redeeming feature is that there are still some fiercely independent individuals who evolve, profess and prepare schemes for the building of the foundations of durable peace, security and economic welfare for humankind.

The report, published in 2002 is significant and timely. It focuses on the crucial problems facing Asian countries and suggests remedial measures to stem the situation from deteriorating further. The report is a compilation of seven important presentations made by scholars, leaders of public opinion and journalists in the seminars and workshops held in International House, Tokyo.

In the introduction, Beyond Borders, Dr Huang Ping, Chairman of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, makes it clear that the object before the participants in the seminars was not to force a radical transformation of the existing structure of society in Asian countries but to suggest some concrete steps to explore and ensure the security of social order and to enhance the quality of life by satisfying the social and economic needs of people.

The paper maintains that the existing paradigms like capitalism, socialism, and the forms of democracy, as practiced in Asia, have failed to serve as a panacea for ills of society. So there is a need for alternative thinking while keeping in view the existing social imperatives of traditional societies. Dr Huang Ping argues that globalisation, unless sustained and nourished by Asian countries with sound safeguards, would become a serious challenge to the nation states by submerging their distinct separate identities. Ping warns that the current process of globalisation will not balance the gap between the rich and the poor, but widen it, leading to civil conflicts. Hence, it is suggested that international organisations and the markets in Asian countries must be grounded in civil society.

Mahendra P Lama, Professor of South Asian Economics, JNU, maintains that India is economically marginalised, and the crucial question for mitigating the menace of poverty is not so much the process of economic growth but basically its kind, quality and tempo. The main difficulty lies in the delivery of goods at appropriate times. Lama assails particularly the working of Indian bureaucracy which wields immense authority without accountability, and uses its power indiscriminately and denies justice to the meritorious on political grounds. The remedy suggested is the decentralisation of authority and resources at local levels.

David Celdran, Director of Current Affairs division ABS-CNB News Channel, the Philippines, emphasises that for the under-developed countries the role of journalism is crucial not simply for providing important information on national questions but for giving a voice to the disadvantaged like migrant workers and foreign residents whose voices are generally unheeded by the authoritarian regimes. He cites instances to show how "political language" is used to make "lies truthful and murder respectable". For instance, the expression "transfer of power" is used by journalists for millions of people who are forced to trudge along the roads with more than they can carry.

It has been argued at length by the participants that in Asian countries the concept of "other worldiness" is lauded, and its virtues extolled. Such a temper of mind is injurious to creativity and the health of society. From the angle of social and material advancement of civilisation, it is not a worthy act to emulate the ideal of renunciation by remaining silent or passive like a yogi. Active participation in world affairs is absolutely incumbent on humankind to keep the world going in the right direction. But the application of a single monolithic standard of authority to Asian societies is dangerous. A single standard cannot possibly comprehend the multifarious values. Wisdom lies in accepting the notion that Asian societies are basically pluralistic. Imbibing tolerance and harmony is the only way to maintain equilibrium in the society and to inspire goodwill among people.

There is a very illuminating discussion on the role of an intellectual in society. Historically, the intellectual has played a decisive role as the harbinger and herald in the progressive advancement of society. The intellectual is expected to act and apply ideas to actuality, and to use Socrates' image, be a "gadfly buzzing in everybody's ears". He is also supposed to generate a voice of dissent and protest against ruling authorities. According to the participants in the seminar, the gap between the intellectuals and people is wide, and nothing is more unworthy for an intellectual than to be a tool in the hands of a ruling authority for the gratification of personal interests.

In this work, the attack on the World Trade Centre is seen not as an isolated act by a group of terrorists but a strong reaction of the poor and disadvantaged against the 20 per cent rich minority living in developed and stronger countries. The way to fight the menace of terrorism is to develop healthy globalisation not based on power but on love for humankind with the united cooperation of the nations.

This work offers valuable insights for understanding the Asian problems in a truly constructive and detached spirit of candid and highly well informed observers of contemporary history.