IN earnestness and quirkiness, President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs mirrors Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s campaign for “Asian values” vs Western values that became an intense polemic between Singaporeans and Americans.
Those who thought that the Asian values debate died with Lee Kuan Yew should think again. The old debate is coming back in a different form courtesy of DU30’s drug war and the wide-ranging quarrel over “human rights” that it has provoked.
It’s apposite to recall the Asian values debate, because the distinguishing marks are remarkably similar. Both Asian values and the drug war were triggered by a popular Asian head of state who had the full backing of his government and his colleagues. Both got the attention and spirited criticism of Western governments and the international media. Both led to grandiose challenges to debates, which promised to feature top officials and luminaries as debat ers and then failed to happen. Both made “human rights” a collateral issue for contention, threatening scary consequences on governments.
I personally hope and expect that the drug war polemic will be resolved in the same way as the Asian values debaters—by the sheer exhaustion of the contending sides, with no one made the wiser by all the humbug.
Drug war in Asean
When Duterte brought the drug war to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cambodia, and put forward his argument that Asean should implement a region-wide drug war, he took a turn that could prove difficult to manage.
He called on businessmen and leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to take a stand against the scourge of drugs much as the Philippines has done. He highlighted the need to dismantle what he called the “illegal drugs trade apparatus” that threatens Asean’s young workers.
“The Asean youth are among the best and most creative, intelligent and innovative in the world. We must empower them to be the best version of themselves,” Duterte said. “We cannot turn a blind eye on the scourge of illegal drugs that threatens our youth and the future of our societies. We need to take a committed stand to dismantle and destroy the illegal drugs trade apparatus. We must reaffirm our commitment to realize a drug-free Asean community.”
Duterte then declared that investing in human capital should be a priority, considering that Asean is turning into an economic powerhouse with its young population.
Duterte was in Cambodia to attend the Davos-sponsored forum which focuses on Asean as an emerging key economic grouping.
As chairman of the Asean this year, Duterte has pushed for initiatives that would promote economic integration
to narrow the gap among the region’s citizens. He spoke of the “Asean Way.”
He said: “We will continue to seize opportunities with our economic partners within and outside of the region. But make no mistake: in our pursuit of integration, it is the distinctively Asean Way that will guide us.”
Remarkably, just as he did in launching the drug war in the Philippines, the President made no case for the declaration of a war on drugs in Asean.
He did not discuss in any detail the drug situation in the region or in individual Asean countries. He just assumed that there is a drug menace that requires a policy of killing.
In the Philippines, DU30 proclaimed war against illegal drugs with only a generalization that the country has four million drug addicts, and by just waving alleged lists of men in uniform and Philippine officials who were allegedly coddling the drug lords. He talked of a campaign of killing, but none of his figures have been validated by the country’s drug agencies, which oddly had different figures.
Remarkably also, as Duterte drew a swarm of critics for his brutal campaign, the critics, domestic and international, were too lazy to produce a solid body of facts to assail DU30. Neither the human rights groups nor the Western media have bothered to seriously investigate the real drug situation in the country.
This is why I call the drug war “dopey”, because neither President Duterte nor his dedicated critics and opponents want to deal with facts.
Asian values debate
In a fine article on the Asian values debate for the Journal on Democracy, Donald K. Emmerson traces the course of the debate from beginning to end.
The debate was conducted largely between by Singaporeans and Americans. It began in 1993 when in the journal, Foreign Policy, Mr. Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean foreign ministry official, and Mr. Aryeh Neier, head of Human Rights Watch, criticized and defended, respectively, “the Western approach to human rights” in East Asia.
Singaporean professor Kishore Mahbubani asserted in 1994 that Asians valued tough punishment for criminals, while the US favored leniency, thereby allowing wrongdoers to go unpunished and leaving America in constant fear of crime.
In October 1994, a visiting American scholar in the National University of Singapore, Christopher Dingle, accused East Asian governments of concealing the death toll from repression in Burma, East Timor and Tibet. He accused the region’s judiciaries of complicity in the repression. And then he discussed practice in Singapore, where the government has a policy of bankrupting opposition politicians by filing costly court suits against them.
As the cases drew wide coverage, Lee Kuan Yew and other Singapore officials felt pressed to debate the subject of Asian values.
When Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong accepted an invitation to receive an honorary degree from Williams College in Massachusetts, local faculty members with objections to Singapore’s record on human rights sought to arrange a debate between Goh and two critics of Singapore.
In a New York Times column backing the debate, William Safire made his view scathingly clear: “Despite oleaginous pretensions about a new Asian culture that transcends human rights,” he wrote, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister Goh, and “the dauphin”—Lee’s son and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong— “represent old-fashioned European totalitarianism.”
Goh replied to this by inviting Safire to debate him in Singapore. Safire rejected the idea of going to Singapore to appear before “a hometown crowd” as “a setup for a local racist triumph.” He offered instead to argue the universality of democratic values with Lee Kuan Yew in Switzerland before an “unintimidated press.” The debate did not materialize.
Meanwhile, in a separate controversy, Goh and both Lees asked a Singapore court to compel the International Herald Tribune to pay them $930,000 in damages for an article by British journalist Philip Bowring that criticized the notion of Asian values. In that article, Bowring accused Singapore of “dynastic politics, implying that the son owed his position to his father’s influence.
In 1977, Singapore’s then foreign minister confessed to having “serious doubts as to whether such a thing as Asian values really exists.”
“It may exist as an image, but it has no reality,” he said.
The fact is other Asians are not convinced either that there is such a thing as Asian values that Asia can hold up to Western culture and values.
Debate on drug war
To return to the drug war polemic, DU30 may be deceived into pursuing debating as a strategy to win the polemic, because he has as his new foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, who is always ready to talk about anything, no matter how poorly informed he is.
I remember Cayetano defending then senator Manny Villar against criticism for diverting public funds to the construction of circuitous roads in his lands in Cavite. The fool’s errand was a disaster.
Better to fix the war on drugs and stop the drug killings. No one is clever enough to debate successfully a policy of killing his fellow citizens.