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The Unsettling 'Asian Values' Of Singapore's 'Confucius'

The authoritarian views of Lee Kwan Yew went too far when Singapore hung a Filipina maid -- thus undercutting Southeast Asia's cohesion.

The ongoing tussle between Singapore and the Philippines over the hanging of a Filipina maid has exposed deepening rifts in the societal values and political systems of the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). How the Singapore-Philippines row is resolved has real implications for the future unity of ASEAN.

On the surface, the controversy over Flor Contemplacion's execution does not appear extraordinary. Singapore's rigid and austere criminal system is famous for fining gum chewers, caning juvenile delinquents, and putting drug traffickers on death row.

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Hence, the capital punishment handed down by Singaporean authorities for Ms. Contemplacion's murder of a fellow Filipina maid should be no surprise. But the haste and the judicial process by which her death sentence was reached reveals a growing incompatibility between Singapore and its ASEAN neighbors.

An emphasis on order

Led by Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, himself practically the self-appointed reincarnation of Confucius, Singaporeans have become spokesmen for the so-called ''Asian values.''

While chastising American versions of liberal democracy, individual freedom, and human rights, the Singaporeans have emphasized order, stability, consensus, discipline, filial loyalty, and deference to authority as vital ingredients for the economic success of East Asia.

But East Asia is changing. It confronts a host of challenges spawned by economic dynamism. Singapore has refused to permit the forces of change to manifest and jell with the existing order. Instead, it has been fighting back using ''Asian values'' as instruments for regime maintenance.

Singapore's crusade to repel Western culture seepage was easy when directed against the West. But the Contemplacion case pits authoritarian Singapore against a liberal democratic Philippines -- a neighbor and fellow ASEAN member.

Naturally, Filipinos nationwide are outraged by the summary execution of Contemplacion, without a due process of law to consider new evidence. Under the guise of order and discipline, Singaporean officials did not budge one inch to Philippines President Fidel Ramos's plea for a delay in the hanging.

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While such stern authoritarian acts are bound to get Singapore into future scrapes with other local countries, the hanging forebodes future problems for ASEAN. With Vietnam becoming the official seventh member this July, ASEAN will have a widely divergent set of societal values and political systems.

On the one hand, there will be the liberal democratic model of the Philippines and democratizing states in Thailand and Malaysia.

On the other, the authoritarian regimes in Singapore and Indonesia face mounting pressure to loosen their grips as sustained economic growth stimulates wider political participation of their citizenries.

Vietnam, meanwhile, still resembles a totalitarian state ruled by its Communist Party. Brunei is effectively feudal. The views of these countries toward basic concepts of government, including ''due process of law,'' are irreconcilably different.

But incompatible political and social systems may be the least of ASEAN's immediate problems. The 28-year-old organization faces the challenges of enlargement, to incorporate Vietnam and eventually Laos, Cambodia, and Burma.

Rivalry and uncertainty

An enlarged ASEAN will have to synchronize the lethargic ASEAN Free Trade Area with the new members. Apart from AFTA, ASEAN is being challenged by external forces, particularly the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. The proposed free-trade area for APEC could well render AFTA irrelevant.

These foregoing challenges are taking place in an ominous air of uncertainty in the security field. With its spectacular economic development, Southeast Asia does not have an effective vehicle to handle perennial rivalries and territorial conflicts. The yawning gap between continued growth and the absence of a security framework is fanning an unprecedented arms buildup in the region.

At a time when ASEAN members need to hunker down, hammer out their fundamental differences and deal with challenges within and without, Singapore's self-serving and unjust hanging of Flor Contemplacion threatens future ASEAN cohesion.

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