This essay was written in February 2000 (11 and a half years ago) and published in the old Yawning Bread website. A comment-maker in the previous article was possibly referring to it in his comment, and for convenience, I am republishing it here.
I saw a man blow his nose, but the mucus just strung out, suspended half the distance from nose to ground. He was only a metre away from me having lunch at a coffeeshop. For an interminable one and a half seconds, I was confronted with this disgusting sight; time enough for me to retch up this essay about “Asian Values”.
Spitting and nose-blowing on public streets are habits that represent total disregard for the public domain. They are at the same time, among the more venerable traditions of the Chinese, yet they are never included in the package labelled “Asian Values”.
Why? Well, the answer is obvious: because what the politicians promote as “Asian Values” is a selection of “values” useful to their agenda. It is also interesting that in Singapore at least, when we speak of “Asian Values”, we often mean the things that others would recognise as Confucian precepts and Chinese traditions. So there is no great contradiction when I speak of “Asian Values” and Chinese practices in the same breath.
An exhaustive discussion of “Asian Values” would be impossible within the space I have. All I want to do is to talk about nose-blowing, and what it tells you about those values. Actually nose-blowing is only one side of the coin. The other face of the same coin is known as “strong family ties”. They’re one and the same thing, presenting in different ways, that’s all. So if politicians promote “strong family ties” as a virtue to be emulated, they really cannot deny nose-blowing.
At this point you may think this is all tongue-in-cheek, or that I’m talking rubbish. Maybe mucus got to my brain. But hang in there, bear with me.
* * * * *
Strong family ties become important in societies when outside of the family, threats abound. In such societies, family is what you can most rely on in the face of insecurity. If you become impoverished, no one else will help you. If you are injured, no one else will look after you. If you are treated unjustly, the system provides no remedy, you can only rely on your brothers and cousins to exact revenge for you, and in this connection, we should note that secret societies are a kind of surrogate family — their initiation rites stress blood-bonding.
In other words, this value that we praise — strong family ties — is in fact a reflection of the weakness of society itself. It’s an indictment of how poorly developed is that society.
This poverty is a poverty at many levels. At its highest, there is an absence of structures and systems that provide support and remedies for the individual. For example, there may not be a justice system he can trust. He may perceive it as corrupt or perhaps indifferent to the plight of the small guy. What is the victim to do then? Falling back on family, clan or triad, and through them, getting even with the perpetrators, must seem the most effective recourse. Another example: there may not be any kind of social security system, or any reputable insurance industry. If he falls ill, he has to depend on the family to pay the medical bills.
Below the level of the state, strong family ties also indicate weak fellow-citizen ties. The high dependence on family suggests that there are few groupings or platforms that may enable a person to publicise his grievance, and to persuade others to come to his assistance. The “mind-your-own-business” attitude that is prevalent here is another symptom of this. We don’t want to get involved in others’ causes or difficulties. Voluntary organisations are always saying Singaporeans are very reluctant to offer a bit of their time. Even at a personal level, for example, if your ceiling leaks badly, and you need to stay somewhere else for a while, most Singaporeans end up moving in with a sister or going back to mother. It’s rare indeed to move in with a friend. There is a great reluctance to open our hearts and homes to others in need.
The warmth of the family domain is a reflection of the coldness of the non-family, or public, domain. It is hardly surprising then that we do not value the public domain. We show our alienation from it, unconsciously of course, through our daily thoughtlessness towards others and the public space. We never clear our trays from Burgerkings. We push open a swing door to walk through, then let it slam back against the person behind us instead of holding it open for a little longer. Inside many Singaporeans’ flats, everything is spick and span, but five paces out in the common corridor, worn mops, short-circuited toasters and soiled pillows accumulate.
It’s not a huge leap from such thoughtlessness to blowing your nose while walking past a coffeeshop, flinging the mucus at another’s feet.
* * * * *
Can’t we have strong family bonds without so much disrespect for others in general? Perhaps, though what I have argued above is that family bonds grow strong in response to the paucity of alternatives. But such a question also indicates how we automatically see family ties as a “good” in itself, such that even as we might want to strengthen social ties, we wouldn’t want ever to weaken our existing closeness of family bonds.
I think once in a while, we should squint a little at this “social virtue” that is family ties. Except for our spouses, we never choose our families. We are bound to them by emotion and guilt. It is not obvious that all that sacrificing to help each other is truly satisfying to ourselves as individuals. Sometimes, our family obligations seem a very heavy burden, e.g. when we have to act as caregiver for years to an aging and dying parent, or to look after a Down’s syndrome sibling for the rest of our lives. Yet we can’t shirk that responsibility; we’ve been imbued with too great a sense of guilt, even as it greatly destroys our own freedom and happiness. Very often, there is no alternative, anyway. Either society is still so weak that there are no solutions outside the family, or, in Singapore’s case, the government, under the rubric of not undermining family responsibility (see how family responsibility is cast as something so precious, it must not be undermined?), is reluctant to provide the full array of social services. Either way, we feel trapped by our family obligations, as much as unhappy wives have been trapped in loveless marriages, cleaning up after drunk and abusive husbands, all in the name of family values. Or, to reduce it to something very immediate and personal to many Yawning Bread readers — gay men in their twenties and thirties — think of how difficult it is to move out of their parents’ homes, yet how oppressive it can be on some days to continue living there!
So already, the idea that strong family ties are an immaculate “good” is disputable.
Still, as a political message, it’s an easy sell. Chinese culture, courtesy of that Confucius of 2,500 years’ vintage, have long placed great store on filial piety, ancestral worship, and family obligations. People are brought up to believe that these are good and worthwhile objectives. If the government says so too, then it must be.
In the next step of selling Asian Values, strong family ties are presented as something Asian, at least as something that Asians have retained, while others have allegedly lost it. High divorce rates, juvenile deliquency are used to paint other societies as unenviable. Casting this virtue of family bonds as Asian dredges up racial or nationalist pride, maximising the chance that the audience would be uncritical with the next argument: that resonating with strong families as an Asian characteristic, we also have strongly communitarian values.
The theory goes: in our Asian societies, we are respectful and considerate of others. We see society as an extended family. We take care to give face, not to cause offence, and we are mutually co-operative.
This is where my nose-blowing comes in. It is difficult to reconcile the utter disrespect to the public domain represented by this act with the claim to be a society that is considerate of others.
And then the Asian Values argument is stretched further. From the credo that we are a communitarian society, it is argued that we are, or should be, respectful of hierarchy and authority. In other words, we should be proud that we are obsequious to our rulers. And thus, unchecked governments, suppression of the press, censorship, and equating criticism of the government with subversion of the state, become the natural order of the Asian universe.
My reading is that we are not really communitarian. We don’t give two hoots to our responsibilities to the community. We don’t modify our individual behaviour in the interests of others. (When I say “we”, I mean Singaporeans, albeit it could also mean the Chinese in general)
It only looks as if we modify our behaviour to be respectful of the community, but in actual fact we are just cowed by our government. We don’t speak up and criticise, not because we don’t want to cause offence, but because we fear punishment.
Where there is no punishment to be feared, noses are blown, loud as foghorns.