Asian Renaissance Ideas and Its Relevance

To know a politician, listen to what he says. To know a leader, read what he writes and observe what he does. A leader leads, it is that simple. To know a man, listen to his soul and the rumblings of his heart. That is more complex.

Anwar Ibrahim--Asia's Renaissance Man

Anwar Ibrahim--Asia's Renaissance Man

Anwar Ibrahim, whose name is inextricably linked to Asian Renaissance, is indeed a complex man, a humanist, politician, and a leader. We know him by his many roles in Malaysia and abroad. Abroad, he is respected as one of the most outstanding leaders from our region. He is a challenge to his political opponents and critics.

In his own country, he is also our prisoner of conscience for having stood up for his ideals and principles. He paid a heavy price for it. He spent six years in solitary confinement in Sungei Buloh Prison. He was released in 2004 and is now the de facto leader of Parti KeADILan Rakyat (Peoples’ Justice Party).

In a speech in Istanbul, Turkey (April, 2006), Anwar Ibrahim said:

“At this pivotal moment in history, when East and West are growing increasingly alienated from one another over issues of freedom and justice, I am reminded of our upbringing in multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia. It was this upbringing that infused the Malaysian psyche with what Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has described as ‘a plurality of identities’. Sen, Identity and Violence (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

By nature we Malaysians are inquisitive people, interested in other faiths and cultures. We studied the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad at the same time that we devoured the works of Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. For me there has never been any doubt that our world and the West are compatible, and that this spirit of inclusiveness and pluralism will continue to be a source of inspiration in bridging the gaps between cultures and civilizations”.

He goes on to state that:

“…we see fundamental liberties being trampled upon and abused, fuelling discord among nations and civilizations. My own struggle against those who seek to keep humanity shrouded in tyranny led to my incarceration for six years, a time during which I realized with blinding clarity that freedom is the very essence of being which unlocks the full potential of the human spirit”.

Recently in a private conversation (with this writer), Anwar Ibrahim said,

“I know what is to be free and what freedom means. It is priceless and must be protected and preserved for all times”.

Asian Renaissance and Anwarian Philosophy

Let us now proceed with some excerpts from The Asian Renaissance (Kuala Lumpur: Times International, 1996) and then we can decide whether his ideas which were first articulated in 1996 still have relevance in the 21st century.

He defines Asian Renaissance as

“…. the revival of the arts and the sciences under the influence of classical models based on strong moral and religious foundations; a cultural resurgence dominated by a re-flowering of art and literature, architecture and music and advancements in science and technology.” (p.18)

Our renaissance, he states, is different from that Europe in that it has its foundations in Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, among others. Ours is of renewed Age of Faith, which the West has abandoned in favour of Cartesian dichotomy (the clear separation of body and mind). So Anwar says

“…Asia, despite centuries of change and transformation, retains its essential religious character. The Asian Man at heart is persona religiosus.” (p. 18-19)

His conception of renaissance of Asia is, and I quote:

“…growth, development and flowering of Asian societies based on a certain vision of perfection; societies imbued with truth and the love of learning, justice and compassion, mutual respect and forbearance, and freedom with responsibility. Faith and religious practice is not confined to the individual, it permeates the life of the community.” (p.19).

Anwar Ibrahim draws his inspiration from great Asians of a bygone era, men like Chuang Tze, Ibn Arabi, Muhammad Iqbal, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who is the author of An Idealist View of Life, Jose Rizal, Rabindranath Tagore, Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, Nishida Kitaro, and others to reaffirm his basic belief that “Nations can actually grow and prosper by accepting the fact of cultural diversity, strengthening themselves by learning about their differences as well as by reinforcing the values they share in common”.. (p.24).

Asian Renaissance is thus holistic, inclusive and all embracing. It is about accepting our cultural diversity and celebrating the dignity of difference, cultural re-awakening, economic empowerment, and good governance.

Asia must renew its commitment to universal values of justice for all, virtue and compassion. Our task is by no means easy, but there is hope yet if we prepared to deal with these with creativity, imagination and courage.

How does Anwar Ibrahim translate his philosophy and vision into a system of governance?

Governing Human Affairs

In the process of reconstituting itself, Asia must first secure its social and political order. This order must be founded on the idea of the dignity of man. Uppermost in his mind is his acceptance of democracy, despite its imperfections, as still the best way, but democratisation must also involve the creation and preservation of social order.

He says,

“In a truly democratic regime, such an order is to be achieved through the exercise of authority with accountability…Democracy should not be an end onto itself, but merely the means by which we can ensure humane governance: the restoring of the dignity of the human person and the satisfying the hunger for justice. There can be no dignity in poverty, sickness, deprivation, illiteracy and ignorance. Nor can there be dignity when women continue to be denied equal status, opportunities and remuneration. There can be no justice when the individual is oppressed and fundamental rights are denied him…Our ultimate goal must be nothing less than the establishment of a just and equitable society” (p.50).

Cynics will say that democracy is not possible in our part of the world. Asians lack sophistication. They are traditionalists, and respond only to authoritarian leaders. It is true that regular elections are held regularly but elections do not make for a truly functioning democracy. We need a free and independent media, an active and caring civil society, and other instruments of governance such an independent and impartial Judiciary which upholds the Rule of Law, and incorruptible civil service.

Look at Malaysia, the media is far from free and civil society is just emerging. Even our elections are rigged and fraudulent. The political elite is said to be corrupt, and in recent years, corruption is on the rise. The Judiciary’s impartiality and integrity have been called to question as result of the Lingam video clip. Public administration is punching below its weight to the point of being completely dysfunctional.

Anwar’s response is that we must change and improve, get better and be more competitive. In response to cynicism, he is fond of quoting Dr. Sun Yat-sen who reportedly said,

“Alas! This is like telling a child that he cannot go to school because he is illiterate”. We must seek answers. In his view, the answer lies “in treading the middle path between anarchy and absolutism.” (p.53).

Humane Economy

I find the Anwarian conception of a humane economy most intriguing. It is based on a “philosophy of development which is holistic, guided by ethical and social concerns and founded upon the principles of justice and virtue” (p.85). It offers hope for the region and Malaysia. For far too long, we have ignored the consequences of seeking material wealth to the exclusion of other social and cultural considerations.

He says that:

“In a humane economy….there is optimum utilization of scarce resources, discipline in fiscal management, promotion of a clear social agenda, and a profound respect for the environment. The prudent use of resources entails the protection and conservation of the environment for the benefit of future generations.”

The Malaysian Economic Agenda

With the 12th national elections looming, Anwar Ibrahim has crafted his Economic Agenda for Malaysia. This agenda incorporates ideas that relate to his conceptualization of the humane economy. His plan includes strategies for achieving strong and sustainable rates of economic growth through productivity gains and enhancement of national competitiveness. It includes the creation of a conducive business environment for domestic and foreign investment, and promoting good governance.

Programmes for public investment in quality education and human resources, healthcare, and social security including minimum wage are critical to achieving the goal of justice for all. Poverty eradicating schemes will be founded on needs, not race or class. The emphasis is on economic growth with distributive justice based on an expanding economic cake.

The Anwarian economic agenda forms part of his overall philosophy of human development which seeks to balance the material with the spiritual development, a potent blend of market economics and benign state interventionism. We need efficiency and we also need compassion for those among us who are less endowed or less fortunate.


An Asian reawakening awaits us. We need to rise above the clouds of despair to see a new dawn which men of intellect of Asia in the last century had envisioned.

Tagore is right when he said that:

The night has ended.
Put out the light of the lamp of thine own narrow corner smudged
with smoke.
The great morning which is for all appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other who walk on the same path
of pilgrimage.

That is my wish for Malaysia. Let us take the pilgrimage in search of a humane economy where we can rediscover our dignity from the ravages of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement of our scarce resources.. Let us earn our pride of place in the community of nations of Asia.

4 thoughts on “Asian Renaissance Ideas and Its Relevance

  1. shahidan writes:

    A sophisticated presentation on Anwar Ibrahim has been made in this piece by Din Merican. Clearly no mealy-mouthed Anwar apologist, but a committed one indeed.

    If only Anwar could be convincingly re-packaged in his unconventional political activism garb when his political idealism at least had the quality of predictability. Unfortunately, his politicisation as a conventional politician in a system prone to turning politicians into chameleons has turned him into a leader who has been stripped of his predictable qualities and is now all things to all men, the only consideration being whether it enhances Anwar’s image or diminishes it.

    He asserts, “My own struggle against those who seek to keep humanity shrouded in tyranny led to my incarceration for six years…” An assertion raising many questions. Had Anwar been incarcerated for fighting tyranny or those seeking to keep humanity shrouded in tyranny, he would surely have been busted out of prison and put into a deserved position of power by the people.

    His incaceration cannot be so easily glorified even by a sophisticated presentation as Din attempts to. He was detained as a consequence of a power struggle, pure and simple. The final crunch was the financial crisis of 1997, which highlighted two different and distinct approaches to the handling of that crisis.

    On the one hand, there was the IMF prescribed solution demanding market forces to play the dominant role consistent with the ‘structural adjustment’ paradigm. Anwar and his cohorts, probably reprersenting a sizeable number of UMNO’s leadership, had opted for the IMF solution. Had this option been adopted, it is not inconceivable that Malaysia would have been well and truly hitched to the US political bandwagon ala the Philioppines following social upheaval against the lifting of fuel and food subsidies hitting the the lower income groups hardest. In an environement prone to translating all problems from a racial perspective, it is also not inconceivable that the potential for upheaval would have been thus coloured.

    As against this, the alternative route chosen by Mahathir was to ensure no concessions were made to the IMF proposal being then peddled by his Finance Minister at the behest of his IMF sponsors and personal ambitions. There can be little doubt that this alternative path meant innovating new solutions and treading in uncharted waters. Though the Mahathir route resulted in the saving of sizeable sections of bureaucratic capital and cronies from total ruin, it nevertheless had the merit of asserting national sovereignty against the onslaught of IMF-inspired free market prescriptions and in saving much of the productive sectors of the economy from being sold off at basement bargain prices to US and European predator capitalists.

    The politically discerning will recall that the attacks against the Mahathir prescription to solving the crisis was attacked by West as bailouts of corporations and industries which should have been disciplined by market forces, bankruptcies being part and parcel of that hallowed market discipline. In the current upheavel in the US housing market, why does the Bushites not implement the policies they are so fond of prescribing to the rest of the world against bailouts?

    Anwar’s ouster was not in the name of some anti-tyranny high principle. It had to do with an attempted power grab from the hand that fed him and had nurtured his path unimpeded from obscurity to the second most powerful position in government.

    His supporters were very quick to jump ship as it became clear that the opportunist move was on the way to derailment. In most post-colonial countries, such a power struggle would have ended in an accident or disappearance of the challenger. We should preserve the political conflict resolution methods that have been the feature of our political landscape since independence, though Anwar’s ouster was itself too harsh and inhumane by any civilised standards.

    If the Anwarian economic agenda is truly to be based on state intervention policies, how does he square this with his publicly delivered speech in the US when he espoused neo-liberal economics? To implement the following surely flies in the face of free-market economics: “Programmes for public investment in quality education and human resources, healthcare, and social security including minimum wage are critical to achieving the goal of justice for all. Poverty eradicating schemes will be founded on needs, not race or class.” And in any case, poverty eradication programmes that are based on need and not race are by definition based on class. Is this error or inability in distinguishing the race/class dimension the result of wanting to appear all things to all men?

    Din Merican says Anwar: “Abroad, he is respected as one of the most outstanding leaders from our region.” Actually, with US blessing, he is marketed as a high profile leader in the region. Anwar should untangle himself from the US embrace and be his own man. In the eyes of many, endorsement from the US is a kiss of death.

    Note: The above is extracted from, where my essay appeared as a feature article. To shahidan, I say “thank you” for a thoughtful rebuttal. Before I respond to it, I hope other readers can share their views on the issues raised by him.

  2. Shahidan,

    Anwar’s answer in 1998. I will have my comments later. Din

    The Asian Crisis: Economic and Political Implications
    Speaker: Anwar Ibrahim

    April 15, 1998
    Foreign Affairs

    Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

    More than 50 years ago, Joseph Schumpeter gave vivid expression to a fundamental insight into the law of progress in the market economy. He called it Creative Destruction. This is, in his words, “the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

    The Asian crisis should be seen in this light. We must attempt to recreate as best we can the positive conditions which brought about the so-called East Asian Miracle. In the course of this turmoil, much of the good has been destroyed along with the bad and the ugly. But we should not try to restore the status quo ante. Not only would it be an exercise in futility but it would also constitute an act of denial. To be sure, this is a crisis of nightmarish proportions, but it is no phantasmagoria. The consequences are severe, its effects are hard hitting, and the toll heavy. But the sooner we come to terms with it by trying to understand its real causes and deriving lessons from it, the sooner we will be on the road to recovery. Indeed, we must seize the moment to put into place the much needed reforms which can purge our system of its excesses and abuses.

    The gale which has swept through Asia is indeed an agent of creative destruction. No doubt, to many people, be they victims or simply bystanders, the creative part of the storm is hard to perceive. Rather than be enlightened, they are more likely to be confounded and mystified by its ferocity, as if all this while we have been living in a fool’s paradise. Wealth accumulated over years of robust economic growth has simply vanished overnight. To borrow from Shakespeare, “what seemed corporal melted as breath into the wind.”

    There are some who dismiss Asia’s economic success as nothing more than a mirage. They need to be reminded of the real and tangible achievements of East Asian economies over the last three decades. For instance, in a feat that has no precedent, hundreds of millions were freed from the shackles of abject poverty directly as a result of years of sustained growth. On the other hand, those who laboured under the delusion of Asia’s economic invincibility must now wake up to its failings and shortcomings.

    The effect of the convulsion has been profound and far reaching, raising questions about many of our commonly held notions and cherished beliefs. Increasingly, the basic assumptions about development, the market economy, the international economic order and the role of multilateral institutions are all being challenged. The crisis has also spurred demands for good governance and the development of civil society.

    For decades, Asian governments adopted an interventionist approach towards economic development. While policies were generally market-friendly, the state played the principal role in the allocation of resources. This was considered not only to be legitimate but essential to correct social and economic imbalances which could plunge whole nations into chaos. Surely, Americans, at least, can understand our concerns, given their experience of the New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression. We are therefore under no illusion that the market, left entirely to its own devices, will cure all our ills.

    Nonetheless, we do recognize that state intervention in the economy, no matter how well intentioned and carefully conceived, is fraught with risks. What are meant to be mere crutches often become permanent appendages, spawning a dependency mentality and rendering the public purse a rich feeding ground for all kinds of parasites. Legitimate affirmative action policies can also degenerate into perverse patronage, creating a breeding ground for the rent-seeking activities of leeches which suck the life blood of the economy. These moral hazards thrive under a system which is more responsive to the demands of vested interests than market signals.

    The truth is that no less than five years ago, even when hordes of global fund managers were stampeding Asia, it was already evident that the economies of the region were growing too fast, and that the growth rates could not be sustained. Voices of caution were drowned by the sounds of triumphalism. Success had bred arrogance and over-confidence, which lulled many in Asia into complacency. This culture of contentment as well as the convergence of accumulated rigidities in the economic, social and political spheres caused the stresses to develop into a large scale systemic crisis.

    The panic is over and we must now face the consequences of slower economic growth or even contraction. The rich has become poor and the poor poorer still. The pain is indeed real, and will be compounded by the absence of a social safety net. Since “adversity is the best teacher,” learning from adversity is precisely what we have been doing. Corrective measures and reforms are being instituted to cleanse the economy and social system from elements that can derail growth. An important outcome of the crisis is the consensus for regional surveillance to facilitate coordination in macroeconomic policies. Each country is sovereign and entitled to formulate its own fiscal and monetary policies. However, it is in everybody’s interest to maintain economic stability and confidence in the region as a whole. With the regional economy being increasingly integrated it would be foolish for any country to pursue unsustainable and incongruent policies putting its neighbours in danger of imminent failure.

    We will continue with the reforms, not to placate the West, but in response to the moral imperative to do what is right. The pressure has been building up in recent months in the region itself and we are aware that unless we reform the system from within, changes will be imposed from without. But all our efforts can come to naught if deficiencies in the international architecture of capital and trade are not redressed. The growing volatility of short-term capital flows, coupled with the systemic fragility of the international monetary system, threatens the very foundations of the global economy. So is the lack of transparency in currency trading.

    It was Lenin who asserted that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to undermine the value of money. This assertion found support from an unlikely quarter. John Maynard Keynes himself agreed when he wrote that “there is no subtler nor surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.” It would seem that little has changed since the end of the First World War, when Keynes wrote his best-selling book, “The Economic Consequences of Peace.” The frequency and increasing scale of financial crises with global systemic implications accentuates the weaknesses within the international monetary framework. There is a pressing need to improve the governance of international financial transactions to ensure justice and transparency and to avoid policies which can have far-reaching adverse regional or global repercussions. For this purpose, a balanced and effective monitoring and surveillance regime is required. Such a regime should be capable of regulating the activities of lenders as well as disciplining the borrowers. To penalize only the borrowers while allowing the lenders to escape unscathed is inherently unjust. It is crucial that the international community work towards constructing a system that would actively promote order and prevent future economic convulsions and financial crises.

    The policies and actions of the United States are crucial to advancing this agenda. We welcome U.S. support in lending its considerable clout to addressing our concerns over the skewered direction in which globalization is apparently headed. Already, there are complaints from the impoverished parts of the world that funds are being diverted to Asia by both multilateral institutions and the market, although they are more needed elsewhere.

    Let me reaffirm our own commitment to liberalization, to integrating our capital market and financial institutions with the global marketplace. Globalization is unstoppable and irreversible. While we must all remain vigilant in guarding our respective national interests, in the context of a globalized economy, there is no room for the rancid rhetoric of misplaced nationalistic sentiments and protectionists. However, their claims will gain legitimacy if the global community does not commit itself unequivocally to reforming the international financial regime in tandem with the changes being demanded upon nation states.

    The financial crisis in Asia has indeed called for much reflection and soul searching. We have had to grapple with fundamental issues and make difficult decisions. The pendulum has swung from the irrational exuberance of much of this past decade to the undue pessimism of the last nine months. Before this, Asian governments could do no wrong. Now it appears that they can do no right. When Americans faced a similar situation in the 1980s, the prophets of doom claimed that the United States had lost its competitive edge, that its education system was mired in mediocrity and that it was losing the technological race to Japan. They confidently predicted the dawn of an Asian Century as the new millennium approached. Obviously, the reports of America’s decline were greatly exaggerated. The U.S. economy has since rebounded, and now it is Japan and East Asia which find themselves on the ropes.

    However, the process of creative destruction is already working its way through our economies. In truth, this process is not confined solely to the market economy. As vigorously argued by Karl Popper, science and society advance by destabilizing old notions and conceptions, debunking hypotheses and refuting theories. Let no one therefore entertain any doubt about Asia’s ability to reform and recover. We will emerge stronger for having undergone this pain. The fat will be squeezed out, but the muscle will remain. Asia has demonstrated its resilience in the past, and I am confident it will do so again.

  3. Shahidan,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You can no longer use the lens of 1990s to judge Anwar Ibrahim’s politics and I would urge you to consider the context that we are in today and the pressing need in Malaysia for visionary political leadership.

    The allegation that he is an American stooge is not an accurate description of his career and part of a myth that has been propagated extensively by the UMNO/BN propaganda machine.

    As far as actual facts go, he frequently cites Shakespeare, Adam Smith, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire – who are not Americans.

    He does draw from the works of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, he studied the Federalist Papers and the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and is in touch with Republicans and Democrats. He taught at John Hopkins and Georgetown University (Washington D.C).

    He is also influenced by Tagore, Rizal, Iqbal, Mencius, Lao Tze and Confucius – all Asians. He is quite at home in Indonesia and travels extensively throughout the region – recently speaking at an ASEAN forum in Bangkok, a UN forum in Jakarta, a conference on Islamophobia in Istanbul, democracy forum in Delhi, a journalism forum in Manila, and several times recently in Hong Kong to address bankers and financiers.

    He has great friends and contacts in Europe and Turkey. His network extends to the Middle East, China, Japan and South Korea. He is among the few, and perhaps the only Muslim leader who can engage with hardliners on both sides of the East-West divide and offer a reasoned voice calling for debate and engagement. He is respected in Australia and India. If we go by your argument, he is everybody’s stooge.

    In truth, he is a Malay, a Malaysian, and a Muslim. Like you and I, he is loyal to our country. And he is also a statesman and global leader of a stature well beyond any other current Malaysian leader.

    Regarding your assessment of economic policy during the 1998 East Asian Crisis, he probably took a more market-oriented approach, but I doubt he would have gone to the extent of causing serious social hardships to Malaysians.

    The reality is that our stock exchange was riding high a few months before the Thai baht came under pressure in July, 1998. There were already signs of overvaluation of stock values in relation to fundamentals.

    Speculators attacked both the stock market and the Ringgit causing both to slide dramatically, and that caused capital flight – although the extent of those attacks is debatable. The spectre of George Soros churning foreign currencies in the background, a myth propagated by Tun Dr. Mahathir himself, was rendered moot last winter when then two met and Mahathir issued a formal statement absolving Soros of any nefarious role in the Malaysian context.

    What Tun Dr. Mahathir did was to peg the Ringgit to RM 3.80 to the US dollar; he stopped offshore Ringgit trading and introduced selective capital controls. By making that move, Bank Negara was spared the need to defend the Ringgit in the foreign exchange markets by selling its reserves. The strategy worked, but it could have gone the other way, and that we will never know. But since we already had a strong reserve position, Malaysia, unlike her neighbours, did not have to go to the IMF for assistance. The allegation that this was Anwar’s strategy is spurious and part of the propaganda to which I alluded above.

    Dato Seri Anwar’s Malaysian Economic Agenda is intended to stimulate economic growth so that we can have distributive justice. He believes that for Malaysia to succeed, we need to grow the size of the economic cake through job creation and business expansion as a first step. With new income and greater profits come higher tax revenues and a strong fiscal position, enabling the government to spend on healthcare, education and infrastructure and poverty eradication programmes. His programmes are based on the principle that incentives matter. The emphasis will be on empowerment of the poor, rather than feeding the poor. As CK Prahalad observed – poor people can in fact be an engine of economic growth so long as they are empowered with the right tools and safeguards and access to basic services to thrive.
    State intervention in the economy has its shortfalls and disadvantages and policies mean to be temporary crutches can lead to a sense of dependency. More and more money will be poured into programs as the cycle grows increasingly perverted. This much we know from the outcomes of the NEP today.

    There is a careful balance that must be achieved – one that Malaysia must soon identify if she is to be regain her competitiveness in a globalised economy. The key issue is governance and accountability. So long as safeguards are in place to arrest corruption, apprehend those who steal from public funds, and regular assessment of government performance (internally, by the media, and by the performance of politicians in free elections) will ensure a system that, while not perfect, is prone to reform and progress.

  4. Pingback: Renaissance Asia Anwar : Idea Kebebasan dan Pluralisme « AIDC TRANSLATE

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