Asia’s Cultural and Intellectual Rejuvenation
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By Michael S. H. Heng

Asia’s Cultural and Intellectual Rejuvenation

Apr. 25, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s — first Japan, then the Four Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers, and now China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st century will be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century?


How would Asians like this period of their history to be understood and remembered in the centuries ahead? It could be remembered as a period of impressive economic growth, but also known for its environmental degradation, crimes, corruption, social disparities, religious extremism, and social conflicts. Or it could be remembered as a period that drew on the best of human achievements and advanced them. The second case would contribute immensely to a new global civilization characterized by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement, and sustainable economic growth.


I will dwell on four points. First, on what basis can we argue for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation? Second, is such a historical project necessary? Third, three challenges facing us. Fourth, being in Singapore, I will briefly touch on roles that can be played by this city-state.


The Conceptual Basis for an Asian Cultural Rejuvenation


History tells us that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. The transformations generate social dislocations that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, and social institutions. The problems are serious and they engage the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve these issues, these best and brightest draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilize them, and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.


Examples are Ancient Greece, the Spring-Autumn-Warring period of China, the Islamic golden age, and the Maurya and the Gupta period of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. We all know at least a dozen of such names. These European thinkers or cultural giants acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as a social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization and continue to exert an influence on our thinking and cultures even until today.


What I outline may sound very idealistic and romantic for Asia. But it is not. There are indications that even seasoned political leaders have been thinking along this line. Let me quote two cases. The first is Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia. In his book The Asian Renaissance published in 1996, he says: “The economic rise of Asia, though critical and fundamental, is only a dimension of a much deeper, more profound and far-reaching reawakening of the continent which may be called the Asian Renaissance. By Asian Renaissance we mean the revival of the arts and sciences under the influence of classical models based on strong moral and religious foundations; a cultural resurgence dominated by a flowering of art and literature, architecture and music and advances in science and technology.”1 Anwar Ibrahim takes the European Renaissance as a reference model.


The second is the idea of the Chinese Dream propounded by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It is a dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Seen historically, the Chinese Dream is a continuation of China’s mission to regain its wealth and power after the traumatic experience of repeated defeats by foreign powers since the First Opium War of 1839. The concept of the Chinese Dream is very broad and is still evolving. It is hoped that the Chinese nation will draw inspiration from human history in their historical journey, and that the Chinese people will dream not just of wealth and power, but also of building a modern Chinese civilization. This is in line with the deep Chinese concern to keep their cultural heritage while evolving a system of social, economic and political philosophies to cope with the demands of a modern China.


The same may be said for the rest of Asia. India can boast of names like Mohan Roy,2 Tagore, Nehru, and Gandhi. The list continues.


The Need for the Historical Project


Ever since Asia suffered defeat and humiliation in its encounters with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realized the crucial importance of reform and modernization in order to face the onslaught. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we can see in the case of Japanese imperialistic aggression. By the end of the 19th century, Japan, through its Meiji Restoration, was the most successful Asian country in modernizing its military and economy, fulfilling its national agenda of being both powerful and wealthy. Once powerful, Japan began to behave aggressively, turning Korea into its colony, seizing large tracts of Chinese territory, and occupying Southeast Asia. It was a military adventure which ended with Japan’s total defeat at the close of World War II.


To use a simple metaphor, modernization is like the flight of a bird. It requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner. Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing. The other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.


Fast forward into the early 21st century, Asia has regained much of its share of the global economy. Statistics provided by the IMF, the World Bank, and transnational banks testify to this shift of economic power from the West.


To the ordinary public, this shift is visible in the form of improved standards of living and the new physical landscape. The most visible are Asia’s super-tall buildings — architectural icons of modernity. Of the ten tallest buildings in the world, 8 are in Asia, and just 2 in the US.


In contrast to the modern landscape in Asian cities, Asia has a string of disturbing social ills. There is dysfunctional culture exhibited by the people at the top running the show. State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent. Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of sync with the demands of a modern economy. In societies where there are modern economic and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack integrity and independence.


Even with a modern economy and society that operate efficiently, we need something more. Again, using the example of Japan, we see that it is the most modern Asian country, yet its modernization is confined to the fields of economy, technology, and lifestyle. It has not undergone a philosophical development based on a foundation of critical rationality and humanism. The Japanese nation as whole has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during World War II.


Next, I will explore three challenges which confront Asian cultural re-invigoration.


Three Major Challenges


Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history, namely (1) drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, (2) learning from others, and (3) learning from one another.


The first challenge can be formulated as: how and what Asians can draw from their own cultural and intellectual resources in the process of dealing with new problems.


With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. If a new interpretation provides an effective way in solving problems, the new solution is likely to find easier acceptance because it is framed in language familiar to the people. A sense of continuity is useful in coping with change.


Interestingly, there is often a link between the old and the new. Even a new philosophy is dependent on the intellectual achievements of the preceding centuries and millennia. A scholar of the European Enlightenment observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas. Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”3 In other words, old beliefs can put on modern attire and assume modern colors. The result is a new idea.


This sounds rather straightforward. But it is not so if we observe carefully around us. Hardcore conservatives prefer a literal and rigid interpretation of their traditions, all the more so if these are written.4 There is also the fear that in rejuvenating local culture and tradition to cope with the demands of a modern economy, the local culture and tradition may disappear, and that future generations will become culturally rootless. Another problem is what to select from the past.


I believe that the proper attitude is to embrace change, and to see culture as something living — tradition as living tradition. They are products of their times, and they will change with the demands of the time.


The second challenge is how and what to learn from others. To the extent that there are similarities in the issues involved in the transition from pre-modern to modern societies, we should learn from others’ experiences, both positive and negative. To quote the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: “Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views”5. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, Asia can certainly learn from them.


Again, like the first challenge, learning from others is not easy. Some believe that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to transplant ideas, values, and institutions that have sprouted and developed in a different culture with a different set of historical conditions.

Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Singapore can aspire to be the Florence of Asia.

Take the case of China’s difficult journey of learning after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. While the Chinese leadership welcomed the adoption of obviously more advanced technologies from the West, they had difficulties embracing Western ideas and values. The problem is less acute today but is not over.


What happened in China a century ago is happening across Asia. The common belief was that “Eastern” culture of spirituality was superior to “Western” culture of materialism.6 There is a fear that the spirit of local heritage and culture is being threatened with destruction by the importation of western ideas and values.


Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. Though the process is complex, it has happened in history, in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Asia, and Europe.


The evidence from history supports the claim that we can borrow ideas that originated in a very different historical context, and adapt them to serve local needs or even improve upon them in the process of creative synthesis. Let me list briefly three examples.


The first example: Southeast Asia was able to adopt religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. These influences from distant lands had originated in settings that were alien to Southeast Asia.


The second example is Europe’s absorption of bureaucracy from China. Combining it with checks and balances by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master.


The third example: Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a profoundly different culture. After centuries of acclimatization, we have a synthesis of the two cultural traditions known as “Chan” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese.


The sensible attitude of learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical, and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernization, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West. Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.


The above two challenges are related. It is difficult to learn from foreign sources and adopt their useful elements if we are not culturally and intellectually confident. With confidence in our own cultural heritage, we are at ease to critically appreciate the achievements of others. And cultural confidence can only stem from a deep and critical understanding of our own cultural roots, to the extent of discarding the outdated ideas and practices of our own traditions.


The third challenge is for Asians to know much more of one another’s histories, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions. Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language which renders the exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude. Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe, and America than their Asian neighbors.


In fact, Asians have already benefitted from sharing their experiences in modernization. Japan’s path of rapid economic development provided valuable insights to Southeast Asia, and later China and India. This pattern of economic development is described as the Flying Geese, with Japan as the lead goose. In coping with the broader social and cultural issues arising from modernization, the Middle Eastern countries are more likely to consult the experiences of Indonesia and Malaysia than the West.


As a concrete project of mutual learning and cooperation among Asian countries, they can compile a set of books — the Great Books of the East — containing the cream of Eastern intellectual achievements. It is a doable project, and can serve as a platform for top scholars of Asian countries to work together, creating as a byproduct a network of Asian intellectuals of similar interests. It would also produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world, and would form a key component of a common body of knowledge for serious minded global citizens.


Another concrete project is traditional medicine. Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Middle Eastern medicine. It represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of medical practice, often under poor material conditions. It is thus evidence-based. However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of western medicine.


Traditional medicine needs a modern vocabulary and it should be updated to take into account new medical findings. We can think of a productive sharing and conversation among the three streams of Asian traditional medicine. This is an area for active collaboration between Asian countries that can boost the cultural and intellectual confidence of Asia, while making concrete and valuable contributions to healthcare for the whole world.


Singapore as Hub of the Asian Mediterranean


Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas. Its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. For example, Florence, widely regarded as the birthplace of the European Renaissance, was an important meeting point of different cultures and intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean.


Singapore can have an important role in such a historical process. Here, the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and Western) coexist as mainstreams of social life. They represent invaluable resources. Singapore is situated at the heart of Southeast Asia, a region with a multi-layered sedimentation of diverse cultures. Southeast Asia is a vibrant, peaceful, and forward-looking region when we compare it to other regions with similar historical backgrounds. If we borrow the language of the European Renaissance, Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Singapore can aspire to be the Florence of Asia.


As an important hub of Asian cultural resurgence, Singapore can serve as the first or second home of Asian painters, designers, musicians, film directors, writers, and thinkers. The city-state can aim to become a vibrant metropolis not just for business but also for cultural-intellectual exchange. Singapore can showcase some of the most thoughtful works of artistic creation, articulating the aspirations of the new Asia.




Reinventing prevalent social-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes. It is part of efforts to refine and refurbish the inner resources of these societies. It is through such processes of renewal that societies try to overcome internal stagnation and meet external challenges.


The process touches societies profoundly, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture, and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concepts of goodness, truth, and beauty. The blossoming of culture represents the sublimation of the human spirit, the enrichment of human experience, and the nurturing of human nature towards goodness. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a historical soul.


Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is a lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate one another. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.


The rise of Asia may thus be conceived of as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity. Will they translate the opportunity into a mission, and turn it into reality?


The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking. It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global. This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long-term wellbeing of humanity. As cooperation and competition with the West can be expanded to include friendly cooperation and competition in the field of ideas, this new arena could well be an alternative to the geopolitical rivalry between an emerging China and a US in decline.


Let us imagine that East Asia or South Asia could provide a case of cultural revival together with economic modernization. It would be an attractive alternative to the current Western model for the Middle East. It may offer new insights and solutions for solving the whole array of social, economic, and political problems there.


If and when Asian cultural and intellectual re-invigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilization to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer and modern civilization. It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.


This talk was delivered by Michael S. H. Heng at the HEAD Foundation of Singapore on March 22, 2017.



1. Anwar Ibrahim. (1996). Asian Renaissance. Kuala Lumpur: Times Books International, pp. 17-18.


2. Aurobindo, S. (2004). The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian CultureAshram/Pondichery/India. Nirmala, N. (2001). Indian Renaissance – a Historical and Philosophical Analysis. Department of Philosophy, University of Calicut, unpublished thesis.


3. Cassirer, E. (1951). The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove). Princeton: Princeton University Press,


4. This problem is immense in Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Asia. The world is still hoping and waiting for a decline of such hardcore and radical conservative forces. If and when the decline happens, West Asia may rediscover the rich civilizations that existed before the advent of Islam. In fact, Mesopotamia was widely regarded as the cradle of civilization. The whole world stands to benefit from a re-interpretation of the cultural-intellectual heritage of the splendid Pre-Islamic civilizations of Babylon, Persia and Egypt.


5. Radhakrishnan, S. (1923). Indian Philosophy (Vol. 1). Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 24.


6. See, for example, Secor, L. (2016). Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Riverhead Books, for the situation in Iran.

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