In Today's Newspaper
ASIAN VALUES, WESTERN DREAMS
- ASIAN VALUES, WESTERN DREAMS Understanding the New Asia
By Greg Sheridan. 336 pages. 29.95 Australian dollars. Allen & Unwin.
Reviewed by Philip Bowring
IT is sometimes a puzzle why, despite much worthy endeavor, Australia has such difficulties in developing relations with its neighbors. Recent strains with Indonesia over East Timor may have been hard to avoid, but relations with other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations are still unrelaxed despite 25 years of cultivation.
Australia has excellent diplomats, is host to a wealth of academic talent on almost every aspect of Asia and even has a handful of journalists with an expertise on some countries that is respected in Asia. Yet it is hard for Australia to find middle ground between old-fashioned condescension, new-fangled righteousness and a cultural cringe toward the ''new Asia,'' which seems to have supplanted the former cringe toward Europe.
This book may not explain the causes of the problem, but it is a symptom. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, falls into the cringe category. He is a true convert to all things Asian. In the days when Prime Minister Paul Keating belatedly came to believe that his and Australia's destiny lay in Asia, Sheridan was in the vanguard of those listening eagerly to words of wisdom from all and sundry Asian leaders. Sheridan at least has the decency not to do a 180-degree shift as a result of the Asian crisis and the political demise of several onetime heroes. Instead, he has written a book that is more preoccupied with attacking what he sets up as Western critiques of Asia and its ''values'' than with coherent analysis of what is happening in the various nations of which he writes.
When he gets away from espousing his version of Asian values, the book is readable and informative. He journeys to a number of countries, interviewing leaders, collecting anecdotes, observing rituals, noting facts and figures and generally acting the honest innocent abroad. Some of his reportage dates back a while, perhaps to days when he was a correspondent interested in describing what he saw in Asia rather than an evangelist preaching the ''mesh with Asia'' gospel to Australians. He is equally at ease enthusing over Taiwan's democracy as over Singapore as the ''exemplar'' of Asian values.
But it seems to be offering two propositions: that because every society in Asia has identifiable values these add up to a concept of Asian values, and that these are essentially Confucian. No wonder Australia can't figure out Indonesia! As for Vietnam and Burma, proud if poor repositories of national identity against Western influence, they scarcely rate a mention while that center of Western business in Asia, Singapore, is Asia's ''epicenter.''
Maybe at a time when Prime Minister John Howard is talking like the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies, curtseying to Queen Elizabeth II and talking tough to Asians, the Sheridan book could be an antidote to the exaggerations of the ''collapse of Asia'' literature and to the instinct of the U.S. ''deputy sheriff'' in the region. But Australians should expect a more balanced and better informed book than this from the foreign editor of what is, if only by default, often viewed overseas as Australia's national newspaper.