On Thursday, July 5, 2012, well-known urbanist and architect Marco Kusumawijaya and I went along to the Japan Foundation, Jakarta to join a conversation entitled 'So, Are You Still Asian Enough? Latest Perspectives on Tolerance, Governance and Identity' held between Fellows from the Asia Leadership Fellowship Program (ALFP), created by the Japan Foundation and International House of Japan to encourage debate on longstanding and emerging issues in Asia.
The Fellows from five countries included Marco (ALFP Fellow 2009); journalist and editor Kunda Dixit (from Nepal, ALFP Fellow 2006); publisher and poet Karina Africa Bolasco (from the Philippines, ALFP Fellow 2004), and myself, a writer (from Malaysia, ALFP Fellow 2001). Professor Lee Jong Won (from Korea who has been working in Japan for over 30 years) has been an ALFP Advisor since the program was set up in 1996. Unfortunately, Goenawan Mohamad (ALFP Fellow 1997) could not attend due to unforeseen circumstances.
However, also present were two Indonesian filmmakers Stella Lim, producer of Anak Srikandi, and Paul Agusta, director of Parts of the Heart who provided perspectives from a younger generation. Their thought-provoking films feature young Indonesians whose lives are shaped by gender and sexuality but also endangered by those who claim these are 'Western' issues. In both films, it is clear that if homosexuality is an English (or Western) word, there are many original words in Bahasa Indonesia that are gender- and sexuality-related, and can hardly be described as 'not Asian.'
But 'Asian' itself was the subject for discussion and as the first speaker, Professor Lee made many pertinent points including that even the notion of 'Asia' itself shifts. 'Central Asia' may be commonly located in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan but this would be a surprise for many Southeast Asians. Interestingly enough, according to a 2009 survey of national and Asian identity, citizens of smaller countries like Malaysia and Taiwan considered themselves 'Malaysians' and 'Taiwanese' as well as Asians. Whereas citizens polled in Japan, China and India considered themselves 'Japanese', 'Chinese' and 'Indian' but not necessarily also Asian.
As for the Asian values once promoted by Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew such as 'family' and community over individual rights, and 'hard work' over labor rights they are not dead even though Asian economies faced recession. Instead, I argue, 'the ghosts of Asian values' are alive. To put it simply for example, the Irish, Italians and Latinos are also famous for their family focus. But this does not stop many Asians from believing that 'family' is uniquely Asian.
Among comments from the audience, the Ambassador of Mexico, HE Melba Pria, also a sociologist, pointed out that 'tolerance' was a rather negative concept coming from a position of power, and should perhaps be more usefully replaced by 'acceptance' since it is more genuinely inclusive.
Kunda Dixit from Nepal gave an update about governance within the seven countries of South Asia, and agreed with Professor Lee's point that there is an ongoing debate about 'democracy after democratization.' Many have called for 'Democracy 2.0' meaning that no one democracy has all the answers, and indeed democracy needs to 'work better' to improve the lot of peoples. But in the face of reverting back to monarchies or authoritarian governments, Kunda recalled the famous quote by statesman Winston Churchill that 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest'. Karina Balesco highlighted that any democracy is dynamic. For example in the Philippines, a number of the Marcos family have 're-invented' themselves as senators and governors in support of democracy, despite the former President Marcos's infamous imposition of martial law for many years.
The idea of governance was extended in ecological terms by Marco who highlighted that more people in Asia live in urban than in rural areas. Natural resources are being so depleted by cities that it can be said that more 'mining' happens in cities and towns through collection and recycling of minerals from consumer goods like iPhones than in open mining or pits, far away from residential areas.
In terms of identity, Indonesia and Malaysia, India and Pakistan, among others, have 'identity contests' in cultural, geographical, and political terms. In general, there was consensus that identity is always multilayered. It is a double-edged sword that can be used for good purposes (solidarity) or abused (violence or even war against others). Identity is an expression of the 'freedom to associate with', and people should be allowed to enter and exit any identity. Indeed whether preferred or not, identity is always in the making, consisting of both inherited elements and new, chosen elements.
Although the title of the conversation was somewhat 'tongue in cheek,' and it was agreed that 'Asian' is a shifting concept, the notion of an 'Asian identity' remains useful in terms of what we can collectively do to face and solve future problems in the region, especially ecological. Kunda, also an environmental scientist, went so far as to summarize that in fact, 'the future of the planet depends on which way Asia goes' in terms of its use and abuse of natural resources in the name of economic development, and working with other parts of the world.
*Writer, editor, director, lecturer, and co-founder of Kuali Works theatre, television and publishing.
By Ann Lee*
No. 46/12, July 10, 2012