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Special case of Western values

Another important feature of this book is that it uses the notion of Western values as the pivot. Its centrality in global politics and contestations makes it the most consequential expression of cultural chauvinism. Appiah writes in this regard of “the multiple mistakes we make about our broader cultural identities, not the least the very idea of the West” and of “the temptation to imagine that people’s origins make them either inheritors of, or outsiders to, Western civilization.”7

The corollary to Appiah’s concern is that other cultures tend to express their cultural chauvinism in relation to “Western values.” Either they are a part of it or they are the antithesis. As with the claim to Western exceptionalism, the counter-claims also manifest ambivalence and contradictions.

For a quick illustration, here is a press contestation that encapsulates the complexity. On April 10, 2013, the Singaporean daily The Straits Times published a letter to the editor in which one Dr. George Wong Seow Choon lamented the debasing effects of “Western values.” He was commenting on a story in an earlier issue of the paper about a rising incidence of abuse of healthcare workers.

“Part of the reason is that many of our children are now brought up by maids, and they lack the strong cultural milieu to cultivate codes of good conduct,” he wrote. He reminisced about his own upbringing during which he was imbued with Confucian values and good character, and blamed the West for the erosion of those values. “Now, some affluent, Westernised Singaporeans throw litter, abuse nurses and are road bullies,” he wrote. “Fortunately, they are a minority, but nevertheless, the trend cannot be ignored.”

In a rebuttal letter two days later, another reader. Dr. Wong Jock Onn, took exception to the message that “seemed to be that ‘East is good, West is bad.’” Jock Onn wrote: “It puzzles me how some Singaporeans continue to blame the West for supposedly bringing decadent values here.” While in Australia and England, he wrote, he found those places spotless and his Western friends not at all abusive.

He then compared Chinese values unfavorably with those of the West. “Western values like democracy, egalitarianism, minority rights and environmental friendliness are values largely alien to traditional Chinese culture,” Jock Onn wrote. “Singaporeans who do treat people such as maids and nurses as equals probably learnt from these values. Contrary to what Dr. Wong implies, there is a great deal we can learn from the West.”

The contestation between two Singaporean Wongs encapsulates the phenomenon of cultural chauvinism. One extoled Confucian values over Western values, and the other turned the table on him. Beyond that, the contestation also demonstrates how convoluted is the meaning of “Western values.” It is a phrase that is used often and with presumed specificity of meaning. Yet, it is a rhetorical paradox with grave implications.

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