The Role of Value Judgments in Public Policy Choice: Some Observations in the Asian Context

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Chapter 12
The Role of Value Judgments in Public Policy Choice: Some Observations in the Asian Context

Lu Ding



It is not unusual for public policy debates to end with controversies over value judgments. This is because the goals of public policy always reflect certain social values. After weighing all the pros and cons, it will eventually be the values that policymakers believe in that will determine the choice among policy alternatives. This chapter will study the role of value judgments in policymaking using some examples from the Asian context.

With the remarkable economic growth in East Asia in recent decades, talk about the role of “Asian values” in formulating public policies has been rife among social scientists and political leaders in the region. East Asia as a geographical region consists of many nations, cultures, and races. However, before a discussion about the role of “Asian values” in public policy can proceed, they need to be defined first.


For advocates of “Asian values,” some elements in traditional East Asian societies, such as those of China and Japan, have offered alternatives and challenges to “Anglo-American capitalism” and its inherent “Western values.” The so-called “Western values” have their roots in the tradition of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century sought truth through reason rather than through faith. Their commitment to reason played a crucial role in liberalizing human minds from the oppression of the dogma and authority of earlier regimes.

Although the Enlightenment scholars differed significantly in their views of human nature and the ideal model of a state and society, an axiomatic element of their analysis is the notion of basic human rights. The discourse on the rights of man laid down the basis of the intellectual rationale for capitalism and democracy, which is the most important legacy of the Enlightenment. The conceptual legitimacy of capitalism and democracy arise from the following basic Enlightenment rights:

  1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. These rights are natural, inalienable, and sacred.
  2. Reason resides in each individual and so human beings need only exercise their reason to know the truth. Freedom ensures the exercise of reason. Free exercise of reason and choice is the best way to guarantee personal welfare.
  3. All individuals have the right to express views based on their reason.4. Human beings' freedom and interests may conflict. Such conflicts should be resolved through voluntary deals, not coercion.

The evolution of the modern market economy and democratic state has in many ways institutionalized these rights. As observed by classical and neoclassical economists, free and voluntary exchange is capable of efficiently coordinating the economic activities of large numbers of people. It provides the best potential for maximizing social welfare without sacrificing the freedom of rational choice at the individual level, which is also an end in itself. The property right, as a result of free choice in the market, being an inviolable right in a capitalist system, is a necessary condition for an efficient outcome. Modern political democracy is a system of voluntary social contracts on governance built on equal rights of voting. Through democratic elections, individual citizens exercise reason and freedom in choosing public policies and policymakers. The media and press also play an indispensable role in holding government officials accountable for their actions.1 These elements define the institutional relationship between the state and the market mechanism in modern societies.

The Enlightenment tradition has led to popular social movements toward individualism, empiricism, and attempts at scientific reasoning. These developments have greatly emancipated human creativity and productivity all around the world. Progress in science and technology, interwoven with innovations in production and commerce, has brought human society unprecedented material affluence and cultural prosperity.

Meanwhile, tensions have arisen from the frictions and conflicts between individuals' material pursuit and social equity, and between freedom of personal choice and community harmony. The so-called “Asian values” have been advocated as a non- Western alternative to cope with these tensions. According to the “Confucian thesis” backed by some academics, traditional values in East Asian societies have been conducive to modern social-economic development.2 This view is also shared by some political leaders in the region.

1 Berger (1987); and Lipson (1993).

2 Tu (1991); Kelly and London (1990); Lewis and Warneryd (1994); and Wong (1996).

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, claimed that “the more communitarian values and practices of the east Asians… have proven to be clear assets in the catching up process.” “The values that east Asian culture upholds, such as the primacy of group interests over individual interests, support the total group effort necessary to develop rapidly.”3 He concluded that hard work, thrift, a passionate belief in education and scholarship, and respect for elitist authority are the key values that helped Singapore prosper in recent decades.4


Some of the claimed “Asian values” are, however, not much different from those universally accepted in other societies. Even the communitarian ethic itself is not a Confucian or Oriental value system per se. As defined and observed by Kapur (1997), the essential propositions of communitarian ethics can be distilled from “the great religions and philosophies of the world, both Eastern and Western.” Meanwhile, some “Western” traditions, including Christianity, also praise hard work and thrift. The “Protestant work ethic” has long been touted as an ideological principle of Western capitalism.5 Some scholars have pointed out that most of the asserted values of Confucianism can be conveniently translated into Western virtues, which are either present or lost but recoverable in Western societies.6

However, in contemporary Asian/Oriental societies, it is still possible to identify values and beliefs that are distinct from the Enlightenment principles and not readily available or translatable in contemporary Western cultures. The Oriental communitarianism is deeply rooted in Confucianism, which views society as an extension of family, and places great emphasis on harmony between individuals and society, and between human beings and nature. This link between communitarian ethics and the family has been endorsed by some Asian leaders, such as Lee Kuan Yew. When asked about the existence of an “Asian model” for political and economic development, he denied it, but emphasized the difference between Asian and Western societies by referring to the underlying concept binding South Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam, in which the individual exists in the context of his family. “The family is part of the extended family, and then friends, and the wider society” (Zakaria, 1994).

This family-based communitarianism has been well institutionalized in some modern Asian societies. For instance, many Japanese companies have a culture that stresses individual workers' loyalty to their company as a big family. In return, such large corporations are much slower than their Western counterparts to lay off their employees in economic

3 Lee (1996).

4 The Straits Times (Singapore), October 6, 1994, p. 1.

5 Weber (1958).

6 Chua (1995).

downturns. Life-long employment used to be a merit of Japanese corporations. Both Japan and South Korea have been well known for their large business groups featuring cross-shareholding and collusive business behavior. This collectivism has cultivated close links between businesses, banks, and governments.

At the individual level, the emphasis on family cohesiveness has been the basis of Oriental communitarianism. Traditional Chinese society upheld the multi-generation family as a virtue of harmony and success. Virtues centered around filial piety dominated intergenerational wealth transfers within the family. Family savings used to play a major role as a safety net. Asian countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, continue to place emphasis on the role of family savings in providing social security. Moreover, the family as the basic unit of society is one of the officially endorsed moral codes in Singapore. In the words of Minister for Community Development, Abdullah Tarmugi, “We believe that the state of our families, the building blocks of society, determines not only the moral tone of the society but its economic health as well.” Cohesive families are thought to be a “basic tenet of Singapore's progress.”7 A distinctive feature of the city-state's public policy is its great emphasis on strengthening the family.

The role of family and kinship in doing business is seen by some sociologists and economic historians as important in explaining the features of Chinese entrepreneurship. Goldberg (1985, p. 20), for instance, observed that “family and kinship relationships, including a broadly defined extended family, are closely tied into business activities and are central to any understanding of overseas Chinese businesses and business cultures.” It is well recognized in the existing literature that ethnic Chinese all over the world have developed numerous clans and hometown societies that give rise to local and border-crossing business networks (Landa, 1983; Lim, 1983; Yoshihara, 1988; and Menkhoff, 1993). Family and kinship support are crucial to entrepreneurship in economies where capital markets are imperfect and contractual institutions are underdeveloped. Reliance on family and kinship connections to do business, however, may segment the market and hinder the evolution of market institutions.

In contrast to the Western concept of democracy, a major “Asian value” often cited is quality governance built on meritocracy. In Western societies, it is widely accepted that the government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” A government upholding these rules is unlikely to make policies that do not represent the prevailing public opinion. In an Asian perspective, however, a representative government may not be a good one. To illustrate this perspective of governance, Goh Chok Tong, Singapore's former prime minister (1990–2004), once pointed out that his government “acts more like a trustee. As a custodian of the people's welfare, it exercises independent judgment on what is in the long-term economic interests of the people and acts on that basis.” On the other hand, in the United States, “the role of government is often to act only as a representative, to reflect and respond to the expressed preferences of the people.”8

7 The Straits Times (Singapore), March 11, 1995.

8 The Sunday Times (Singapore), September 24, 1995.

This trustee–custodian concept of government can be traced to a paternalistic governing philosophy in traditional Chinese society. Social harmony and order are the core values in such a society. An ideal Confucian society should be ruled by junzi (noble men with virtue), who can set a good moral example and govern the state by virtue. A ruler's moral qualities, as well as his knowledge and personal stature, should be more fully developed than the ordinary people. Since people differ by their inherited capability and readiness of understanding, only a few could qualify for the moral and knowledge standards of the ruling élite (Lu, 1983). Therefore, the élite moral rulers have the responsibility to guide and govern the majority with paternal love. The government should take care of the people as parents do for their children. While most people may not possess the wisdom not to make short-term decisions, the ruling élite should take a long-term view of social welfare and avoid “hoping for quick results and seeing just petty gains.” This is probably why sometimes “the people may be made to follow a path of action, but they may not be made to understand it” (Lu, 1983).

Against this backdrop, good governance must be built on meritocracy. In ancient China, the power of the supreme ruler (the emperor) came from the so-called “Mandate of Heaven,” which had no institutional guarantee for moral standards or administrative talents. For government officials, however, there was a thousand-year-old nationwide examination system to identify and select scholars as bureaucratic candidates. The system, although far from perfect, played an important quality-control role in bureaucratic governance. Apart from the examination system and limited checks-and-balances in bureaucracy, moral self-cultivation served as the behavior code for bureaucrats.9

Of course, in most modern Asian nations today, the “Mandate of Heaven” has been replaced by the mandate of democratic election to various degrees. The tradition that emphasizes meritocracy has nevertheless been more or less preserved. In some Asian countries, public respect for élitist authority still prevails. This has perhaps made it easier for a government which is more than just a representative one to survive and rule.

A major consequence of meritocracy, another often-claimed Asian value, is the passionate belief in education and scholarship. Most Asian governments control or censor the content of primary and secondary school textbooks, impose regulations on tertiary education, and centrally plan or administer their national universities. Some officially organize nationwide college entrance examinations annually. Children at a young age have to compete in academic performance. In some countries, streaming of students starts as early as in primary school. In such an environment, the pursuit of good scholarship has been a social culture. Asian parents, on average, spend much money and time on their children's education. Any major bookstore in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, or Singapore would not survive without displaying

9 According to Confucianism, moral values are cultivated first from within and then extended to external human relationships. The ruler must have his moral qualities more fully developed than the ordinary people. He should first extend his knowledge, keep sincerity of the will, rectify the mind, cultivate the personal life, and regulate his family. See Lu (1983, p. 8).

in a corner thousands of school tuition materials. Because of their early start in school, students from East Asia often achieve outstanding examination results in American and European universities.


“Asian values,” if they exist, can best be defined by their public-policy implications that are distinct from the Enlightenment tradition of Anglo-American capitalism. Some examples will be used to illustrate the role of value judgments in public policy in the Asian context.

State Intervention in the Capital Market

In retrospect, value judgments played a pivotal role in diagnosing the causes of the Asian financial crisis (1997–1998) and the important implications for public policymaking. The crisis not only revealed the defects of some Asian socioeconomic institutions and policies but also exposed fundamental problems in international financial markets and the world capitalist system.

When it first hit the East Asian economies, many perceived the crisis as home-grown and quickly linked it to “crony Asian capitalism.” Some declared the event as a victory for Anglo-American capitalism. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vindicated America's political model—liberal democracy—so the collapse of Asia's markets in 1997 proved the wisdom of America's economic model—free-market capitalism. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, observed that one consequence of the Asian financial crisis was an increased awareness throughout East Asia that “market capitalism, as practiced in the West, especially in the United States, is a superior model.” The U.S. model “provides greater promise of producing rising standards of living and continuous growth.”10

It is undeniable that internal weaknesses, such as so-called “crony capitalism,” contributed to the Asian financial crisis. It is equally true that the tragedy was triggered by the speculative attacks launched by international hedge funds that pushed financial markets into panic. With the unfolding of the Asian crisis, the internal weaknesses of the economies involved became less relevant than they initially were. Meanwhile, the damaging effects of premature openness to volatile international short-term capital flows became more evident. As Paul Krugman said, “To keep on talking about crony capitalism as the be-all and end-all of the Asian crisis is to miss 90 percent of the story. The suffering and punishment these economies received from the capital markets are surely five to ten times as large as the initial mistakes would justify.”11

10 U.S. Information Service Singapore, “Greenspan on Asian Financial Crisis,” EPF211, March 3, 1998.

11 Interview with Paul Krugman, Business Times (Singapore), August 29, 1998.

At one end of the public policymaking spectrum, the free-market orthodoxy and its implied value judgment dominated. To die-hard free-market ideologues, the main justification for the free-market system is not its superior efficiency but its moral strength in ensuring economic freedom. Freedom––economic, political and civil––is an end in itself, not a means to an end.12 Even as the Asian crisis was unfolding in August 1997, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Interim Committee at the Hong Kong meetings of the IMF and the World Bank was still urging member nations to continue along the dangerous path toward full capital account convertibility. In rescuing Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia, the IMF targeted its austere policy conditionality at the domestic symptoms of the crisis, short of addressing the damaging effect of speculative capital flows across international borders. The austerity packages did not keep these economies from falling over the cliff. Nor did they stop the contagious spread of the crisis to the whole region. The free-market orthodoxy blinded the IMF into seeing the potential benefits of imposing urgent controls on short-term capital flows. Despite being a supranational organization that oversees the world's financial markets, the IMF was reluctant to take measures to moderate the impact of heavy capital flows during the crisis. The value judgment that cherishes unfettered capital markets also kept governments of the leading industrialized countries from taking resolute action to reform the international financial system.

At the other end of the policy spectrum, there was a deep distrust of the free market principle of global capitalism, highlighted by the Malaysian government's imposition of draconian controls on capital flows and the adoption of a dollar-peg for its currency in September 1998. As an urgent measure to survive the crisis, this policy reaction to free market principles was masterminded by then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who blamed his country's troubles squarely on Western speculators and the flawed international monetary system that allowed the crisis to have happened. Meanwhile, he was, himself, blamed by the Western media for nurturing crony Asian capitalism at home. The Malaysian leader's resolute measures to rescue the economy were greeted with horror by the international community, with the harshest criticism coming from the IMF. A representative verdict of the Malaysian policy choice was aired by The Economist: “His recipe for economic recovery—stringent capital controls—may provide a measure of short-term stability, but only at the cost of postponing and making worse the final reckoning. Bad loans and investments do not go away, nor do they turn good by themselves if banks are kept afloat… Malaysia is not emerging from recession; it is entering what could be depression.”13 In the years that followed, when Malaysia not only recovered quickly but also resumed prosperity, these criticisms turned to grudging approval. Even the IMF praised Malaysia's economic recovery in a 2001 report.

In the middle ground, Hong Kong's defence of its economy in 1998 serves as a test case for value judgments in policymaking during the Asian crisis. From August 1997

12 See Friedman and Friedman (1998).

13“Dr. Mahathir's noxious remedies,” The Economist (UK), September 24, 1998.

to August 1998, international speculative funds launched a total of six assaults on the Hong Kong dollar despite the fact that its peg to the U.S. dollar was backed by massive reserves, and Hong Kong's economic fundamentals were among the soundest in East Asia at the beginning of the crisis. Unlike conventional currency attacks, these attacks were sophisticated enough to involve different elements—the foreign exchange, securities, and index futures markets and different time dimensions—both the spot and futures markets. When the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) took a passive non-interventionist position, these sophisticated tactics guaranteed that international speculators would win. International speculative funds had manipulated the situation to such an extent that Hong Kong had become a cash machine to them. In August 1998, the HKMA finally fought, using its reserves to absorb the massive sales of Hong Kong dollars and intervened aggressively in the stock and futures markets. After two weeks of breath-holding, the Hong Kong government won at a heavy price. The intervention, however, immediately drew almost instinctive criticism from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and the IMF. These criticisms were based more on the value of market freedom than on reality.

The appropriateness of Hong Kong's currency pegging system and its use of emergency measures during the crisis is a subject for discussion. In today's international capital markets, the multibillion dollar hedge funds have enormous market power. When launching currency attacks, they can absorb all the liquidity in the money market of an economy with an open capital account and become the only major lenders of the currency they have attacked. Small economies with limited foreign reserves are helpless against such attacks. Even Hong Kong, a fundamentally strong and sound economy, was almost pushed over the cliff by speculative attacks in August 1998. In retrospect, it is naïve to suggest that the Hong Kong government, with its huge foreign reserves, should passively allow its economy to be turned into a foreign speculator's “cash machine.” It is also absurd to insist that, for the sake of free-market principles, the Hong Kong government should have sat still and watched its economy being manipulated, battered, and shattered by such ruthless attacks.

In fact, even industrialized countries have imposed strict controls on currency and capital flows historically. After World War II, only Switzerland, Canada, and the United States adopted open capital regimes. Many other countries did not dismantle currency controls until as late as the 1980s and early 1990s.14 It is interesting to note that Japan's Ministry of Finance took a more supportive stance after Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan introduced measures to defend themselves from global speculators or erratic flows of short-term capital. As an official of the Ministry of Finance pointed out, “Each country has a right to implement policies corresponding to the level of economic development.” “The argument that regulations of any kind (in capital/currency markets) are wrong is a bit too naive and meaningless.”15

14 “Time to turn off the tap?” The Economist (UK), September 12, 1998.

15 Reuters, Business Times (Singapore), September 11, 1998.

An important lesson that can be learnt from the unfolding of events in the Asian financial markets during 1997–1998 is the fallacy of market fundamentalism. In a world of change, it is crucial to keep one's mind open regarding values and value judgments. Market freedom is a value and an end itself but not the only end. Good policies are pragmatic ones, not idealistic ones. Blind faith in one set of value judgments' will only lead to disaster.

State Coordination of Labor Relations

Singapore's unique tripartite approach toward the labor market is an example of an institutional innovation aiming to utilize the social strengths of communitarian values. Without direct wage control or wage regulation per se, wages in Singapore are strongly influenced by the National Wages Council (NWC), a government body that involves tripartite wage negotiations between the government, employers, and worker unions. The NWC annually provides non-mandatory, but widely accepted, guidelines on wage-salary standards for workers and employers. A subtle balance is sought between economic efficiency and the harmonious distribution of benefits. Meanwhile, the government-backed wage guidelines have effectively ensured downward rigidity of wages, a main source of macroeconomic stability and solution to involuntary unemployment. Therefore, since its inception in 1972, the NWC has been able to provide a harmonious industrial relations climate and a policy instrument to counter business cycles.

In this framework, changes in the rate of compulsory contributions to the Central Provident Fund (CPF)—a state-managed retirement fund—play a role in macroeconomic management. The employee's contribution rate directly affects the individual's disposable income, and the permitted uses of CPF savings influence the structure of aggregate demand. The steady rise in employees' contribution rates from the 1950s to the mid-1980s probably played a role in restraining aggregate demand and suppressing consumer price inflation (Ng, 1996). Meanwhile, changes in the employer's contribution rate have an immediate effect on labor costs.

As argued by Lim et al. (1988, p. 204), in the West, trade unionists' resistance to wage cuts leads to a downward rigidity in wages, which in turn forces the government to resort to inflationary monetary and exchange rate policies. The trade unions then respond by demanding higher wages and a wage-price spiral is set off. Singapore, fortunately, has been spared such a situation.

When the economy encountered a deep recession in the mid-1980s, the government, in consultation with the NWC, prescribed strong medicine to reduce business costs and expedite economic recovery. This included a wage freeze for two years and a sharp reduction in the employers' rate of contribution to the CPF, from 25 percent of wages to 10 percent. In effect, it amounted to a 12-percent cut in workers' wages. The bitter medicine was administered speedily and effectively. Together with some tax cuts and countercyclical infrastructure expenditure, these measures helped the economy to recover in 1987, and by 1988 wages had started to grow by 6 percent per annum in real terms. Goh Chok Tong proudly recalled,

“Short-term belt-tightening had laid the foundation for a sustained and robust recovery. The trustee model of democracy that Singapore has subscribed to enabled it to pursue the tough policies necessary for economic development.” He used the example to illustrate the point:

Government policy is not dictated by opinion polls or referenda. This has sometimes meant overriding populist pressures for “easier” economic politics.16

In the second half of 1998, Singapore entered its first recession in ten years, following the contagion effects of the 1997–1998 Asian financial crisis. In June 1998, the government released a S$2 billion package of off-Budget measures to help lower business costs and improve Singapore's competitiveness, which had been eroded by the sharp falls in other regional currencies. This was further bolstered by a second S$10.5 billion package in November 1998. Besides tax rebates, lower rentals and duties, a crucial component of the package was a 10 percentage-point cut in the employers' CPF contribution rate. Together with a recommended 5–8 percent reduction in wages, these measures were expected to lower business costs by about 15 percent and help Singapore recover from the crisis.17 Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-large, perceived this as “a truly remarkable feat” and pointed out that this was made possible “by the fact that Singapore has truly become a shareholder society, by the social cohesion which exists and by the fact that the government enjoys the trust of the people” (Koh, 1999).

Individual Freedom during the SARS Outbreak

In spring 2003, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a previously unknown variety of pneumonia, shocked the world when it broke out in China and quickly spread to Hong Kong, Canada, and a number of other countries. The disease infected more than 8,400 people and killed over 800 people worldwide. The disease is highly contagious and proved to be more dangerous than first thought. In the fight against the spread of the disease, the most effective measure was to quarantine the victims and all those who might have had close contact with those infected. As pointed out by a chief representative of the World Health Organization: “The most important factors were the government's quick action, leadership and transparency. To control SARS, it was essential to quickly identify the infected and then properly isolate them.”18 In retrospect, how governments adopted and implemented the quarantine measures reflects the role of value judgments in making the choice between the sanctity of individual freedom and community security.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong's experience with SARS illustrated that strong laws protecting privacy and freedom of movement can hinder a swift response to a health crisis. When an outbreak began to unfold in March 2003 at an apartment

16 Goh Chok Tong, Speech made at the Convocation ceremony at Williams College, Sunday Times (Singapore), September 24, 1995.

17 Report of the Committee on Singapore's Competitiveness, CSC Press Conference, Singapore, November 11, 1998.

18 “Harsh lessons from Sars,” The Straits Times (Singapore), August 4, 2003.

complex, Amoy Gardens, it received real-time media coverage. It took some time before the government summoned enough political courage to impose a ten-day quarantine on the complex's residents only to find that more than half the families had already fled. Although Hong Kong police tried to track the 113 families who fled and might be infecting others, the Police Department could not use the threat of law to persuade people to come forward. “Unless an isolation order has been delivered to a person face-to-face, they have committed no offence under current legislation,” said Tang How-Kong, Chief Superintendent of Police. “Despite urgent government pleas, most Amoy Gardens refugees remain in hiding.”19 Daniel Heung Cheuk-Kei of Hong Kong's Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education lamented that people “lack a sense of social responsibility because they are too concerned with personal freedom.”20 The Hong Kong community paid a heavy price.

With 250 cases and 41 deaths, the city of Toronto in Canada was the most badly hit city outside Asia. In a country where freedom is highly respected, the preventive quarantine for those who had possibly come into contact with infected persons was recommended by the health authorities and self-implemented on a voluntary basis. The major issue was not the effectiveness of such quarantine measures but the compensation for the 7,000–10,000 people who had voluntarily quarantined themselves.21 The “soft” approach to the epidemic cost Toronto citizens heavily. The city was the first to be listed by the World Health Organization as an infected city on April 23, 2003, and was later removed from the list on May 14 after a twenty-day period without a report of any new cases. A second outbreak, however, surfaced in less than two weeks and embarrassingly returned the city to the SARS hitlist for another twenty-day period.22

In Taiwan, where political democratization in the past decade had greatly enhanced the sense of individual freedom, the government faced fierce resistance when it tried to impose stringent health measures to contain the outbreak. Some medical workers rejected orders that might expose them to infection. Some policemen would not lock up infected criminals. People refused to allow schools to be converted into hospital wards and physically obstructed the movement of potential carriers. As panic spread, Taiwanese psychologist Albert Chen admitted that the “democratic system also has a role in such disorder as too many people think they are protecting their rights, ignoring the fact that what they are doing could create further havoc.”23

With a British heritage of common law similar to that of Canada, the city-state of Singapore had a much more resolute response to the outbreak. In March 2003, it was the first country in the world to close all schools in a bid to minimize children's exposure to possible infection. The authorities enforced a strict quarantine on the first batch of 861 people who had been exposed to SARS victims. At the peak of the outbreak, over 2,000 people were quarantined. To foil possible violation of the quarantine order, the

19 “Divergent Asian responses show difficulties in dealing with SARS,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2003.

20 “Sars crisis—A case of too much democracy?” The Straits Times (Singapore), May 13, 2003.

21 “Canada's worries: Untouchable,” The Economist, April 7, 2003.

22 “Harsh lessons from Sars,” The Straits Times (Singapore), August 4, 2003.

23 “Sars crisis—A case of too much democracy?” The Straits Times (Singapore), May 13, 2003.

health and police departments installed closed-circuit cameras in the homes of the quarantined. Those who were suspected of violating the quarantine orders were tagged electronically. Convicted quarantine violators could be punished with stiff fines and even imprisonment.24 Many of these draconian measures would not have been acceptable if community interests did not overwhelm individual freedom.

The Singapore government's handling of the outbreak is compatible with the values upheld by the city-state over the years. Singapore is perhaps the only country that has officially endorsed a set of “shared values.” These values, passed by the Parliament in 1991, spell out the priorities of public policies: nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; community support and respect for the individual; consensus not conflict, racial and religious harmony.25

Against the backdrop of these values, public policies in Singapore have long been openly known to institutionalize communitarian principles that subjugate personal freedom to social harmony, and individual rights to responsibilities. For example, to control drug abuse, a special law entitles customs, immigration, or police officers to require any person suspected of being under the influence of drugs to take a urine test. If the test result is positive, the person concerned would be required to go for compulsory rehabilitation. This practice has effectively checked the proliferation of illegal drugs in the city-state although it could be seen as an invasion of privacy in a Western society.26 Given the Republic's track record on practicing communitarian principles, it is no wonder that during the SARS outbreak, “Singapore's generally compliant population [has] barely uttered a word of protest, even as some restrictions seemed to verge on the extreme.”27


This study on the content of “Asian values” reveals several distinct features that may influence public policymaking, including family-based communitarianism; quality governance built on meritocracy; trustee-custodian concept of government; and passionate belief in education and scholarship. Contrary to the “Western” system of Enlightenment values, “Asian values” give priority to community interests over individual rights. These values may play pivotal roles when it comes to value judgments used in making important public choices. The examples discussed above in the Asian context illustrate the point.

Differences in values can best be defined by their public-policy implications, which are associated with various value judgments. In a span of time during which cultural values are relatively constant, only the observable policy changes and institutional reforms

24 In one case, a convicted quarantine violator was sentenced to jail for 6 months (Lianhe Zaobao [The United Morning News, Singapore], May 10, 2003).

25 Singapore government web site,

26 The Straits Times (Singapore), June 6, 1996.

27 “Divergent Asian responses show difficulties in dealing with SARS,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2003.

could have made a direct difference to a nation's economic performance. Though cultural values are not immediate determinants of economic outcomes, they exert influence indirectly through the choice of policies and institutional changes. Good institutions and policies can make cultural strengths more productive and weaknesses less relevant while bad institutions and policies do the opposite. The examples given in this chapter suggest that value judgments may not only determine policy priorities but also influence the effectiveness of institutions and policies.

Some “Asian values,” distinct from the Enlightenment values, have in the past been the basis of some good or poor policies and institutions in East Asia. It is important to preserve and enhance those Asian values institutionalized in good policies and institutions. A major lesson to be learnt is to avoid limiting policy options to single-minded values. Keeping the mind open to alternative values is necessary when weighing different values and ends in making public choices.


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The Role of Value Judgments in Public Policy Choice: Some Observations in the Asian Context

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