Asian Values, Filipino Values, Superior Values?


In one of my earlier articles, “Is the solution to Filipino Dysfunction being more ‘UnFilipino,’” the discussion shifted to Asian Values and whether I was saying Filipino values were inferior – which was not my point. Perhaps I have not written the earlier article well enough and need to clarify my stance, with more references to support my claims.

Asian Values

The term “Asian Values” was coined in the 1990s by then-Singaporean prime minister Lee Kwan Yew and supported by Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. They trumpeted that the success of their countries at the time was due to particular indigenous values held by Asians. They implied that Asian Values are superior to western values.


Though Lee and Mahathir may be considered good leaders for their times, this parroting of Asian Values may actually be one of their “Oops” moments. There is evidence to show that Asian Values had been debunked since then, and it was nothing more than propaganda. It actually seems similar to our own Pinoy Pride, because it implied a sentiment of ethnic superiority. May critics and commentators went against it, and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis is considered to have hammered the final nail into the coffin of the vaunted concept of Asian Values.

Many now say Asian Values was only a justification for authoritarian rule and undermining of human rights. But one another score, some the “values” used by Lee and Mahathir were not really Asian. Lee was thought to have looked in western countries, such as Germany and Israel, for ideas on governance. The parliamentary form of government they use is from the west. Use of foreign investment and the origin of investors themselves: from the west. Good governance and anti-corruption measures work the same basic way in both east and west. There is actually little to support “Asian Values” as a special success ingredient.

The term however now seems to be used for another thing, namely the values of Asians and Asian-American success in the United States.

Asian Values in America

A recent report, discussed by a commenter in the “UnFilipino” article, and highlighted in mass media, talks about Asians and Asian-Americans relatively doing better than White-dominated America. This had been the observation for many years already, that more Asians tend to be notably affluent and “more successful,” giving rise to the “model minority” myth. The usual claim is that the Asians’ own indigenous values are to be credited for it, and this again gives the notion that their culture is superior.

The Brown University study actually surveys certain Asian groups, and lists affluence levels per group. But nowhere does it attribute such affluence to “Asian values.” It just mentions a possibility that segregation as opposed to assimilation into mainstream American culture may have been a factor in this relative affluence. But it says nothing about Asian Values.

Another report by the PEW Research group, in its fifth chapter, surveyed Asian-Americans on their most commonly held values. This includes being a good parent, having a successful marriage, owning a home, helping others in need, and being successful in a high-paying career. This is can be identified as the closest one can get to “Asian values,” a preference set by a certain ethnic group. But are these Asian values? They are values even Americans hold. The study says that a bigger percentage of Asians embrace these values compared to white people, and may constitute a possible factor for their success. Certainly, they are doing something right. But can that be credited to Asian cultural values? The study does not say that.

The Asian Nation website describes the realities of some ethnic Asian groups. While Vietnamese according to the PEW study are among the highest to value owning a home, they have the highest poverty rates among the ethnic Asian groups according to Asian Nation. Another is that Southeast Asians in America tend to have the highest high school dropout rates, which would dispel the “Asians are superior” notion. Asian Nation warns against attributing relative success to being Asian. Asian Values does not even seem to be recognized by the Asian Nation website, because there is seemingly no mention of the term at all. This can more likely be explained by relatively more individual cases embracing and practicing the values that even Americans hold dear. Thus, Asian Values is not what you call it. It may be called Asians living the American Dream.

So what Values are they?

This is what I meant by saying the right values that work can be “UnFilipino.” This is because they may even be un-American, un-Asian or un-put-in-your-nationality-or-region. The only thing that it cannot be is un-human. You cannot attach nationality or ethinic origin to real working values because, ultimately, they are universal.

How would right values work? For example, pakikisama on something that you know is wrong is itself wrong. For example, if a group of drunkards insist that you get drunk with them, you should refuse (because, universally, drunkenness is recognized to be harmful). Another is when someone through utang-ng-loob asks you to do something that you feel is wrong. You are not obliged to comply, but you should refuse. Also, if you are a personnel officer in a company, and one of the bosses tells you to bump off a qualified applicant in favor of their relative who is comparatively unfit, it would be better to stick to principles and go for the qualified one. I use Filipino terms for these situations, but I believe they can be encountered in any culture.

A picture lampooning the controversial tiger mom image (courtesy Pedro De Bruyckere)
A picture lampooning the controversial tiger mom image (courtesy Pedro De Bruyckere)

When a nation or culture puts its name to a set of values, as Lee Kwan Yew and Mahathir did, the apparent purpose is propaganda (and misplaced pride). Perhaps the same can be said of controversial Amy Chua, whose ‘Tiger Mom’ ideal has itself been debunked (having a chapter title like “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” can smack of misplaced pride). If values are universal, no culture or region can own them. This includes concepts like Filipino values, Asian values, American values, etc. The PEW study identifies preference sets, and perhaps we can study these, they certainly seem effective and we need good examples to learn from. But nowhere does it say an ethnic group can claim it as exclusively their values.

In the end, it may be the best policy to drop any attachment of name or culture to values. No values are unique to any ethnicity or culture, because it seems every culture is actually practicing them. If values are universal, then we Filipinos should look for those that work in any culture, not in any particular one. We may discuss our own cultural values with our children for historical and informational purposes, but ultimately, we may have to depart from them sometime and look for the universal perspective that works better.


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About ChinoF

I stick with this blog because I believe, as my cohorts here do, that many things Filipinos embrace as part of their culture, the "Filipino Way," are pulling them down. And I blog freely to show that in a truly decent society, with true freedom of speech, even nobodies have a voice.