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29th August 1999

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Going with Asia

Whither Sri Lanka in the new millennium? In the second of this monthly series, Susantha Goonatilake stresses the need for a new identity, not one based on our colonial past

Five hundred years ago, Europeans came to Asia searching for riches. Three hundred years ago, the centres of civilization and development were still largely in Asia, including in Sri Lanka. The gap between Europe and Asia began to develop in earnest only about two hundred years ago.

And, European writers as varied as Marx, Hegel and Weber and lesser ones, falsely gave many Asian characteristics as reasons for this growing gap.

The Asian region today is giving the lie to these leading European commentators. After independence fifty years ago, various national efforts in Asian countries have resulted in Asia becoming the major centre of economic growth in the world.

Historically, if Europe and America had averaged between two and three percent in their annual growth over the decades - and in the case of England over the last two centuries - contemporary Asian growth is much higher. Current growth rates vary generally from the near ten per cent that China has recently had, to about five per cent for South Asia.

But five per cent rates of growth for a country of nearly one billion such as India would soon dwarf in income terms the smaller and medium sized countries in the European orbit.

Within the next thirty years, possibly sooner, some of the largest national economic entities in the world would be in Asia.

In terms of average personal income, many Asians would still lag behind their European and American counterparts, but not their nations taken as a whole. After three hundred years, Asia's voice would dwarf Europe.

The centre of the global economy moving to Asia is a major historical shift.

It is comparable to all the major events of Europe such as its Voyages of Discovery, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, all compressed into a couple of decades. Invariably, this shift will pose and in fact necessitate, serious questions for us.

But responses to such questions for us South Asians have to go against the well known colonial views of McCaulay who said in the 19th century that "a single shelf of a good European history was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia".

He urged training a class of South Asians "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect" who would guide the region's future.

The European administrators in Sri Lanka put this programme as follows (as related in a recent history of Christianity in the country).

They spoke of the need:

to associate the natives [Sri Lankans] with European civilization and gradually raise them to a higher level which eventually might lead to the creation of a new nation [and] their absorption in the controlling European nation.... One of the important features of the education [in search of this civilization] in both the missionary and government schools was the stress laid on the teaching of Christianity...... Christianity was made to appear the end for which all mental processes are conducted.

The rise of Europe as a hegemonizing system was also accompanied by the growth of the means of interpreting the world on her own terms. As a consequence, several subjects came into being as an ideological accompaniment to European expansion.

Disciplines like Anthropology, Sinology and Indology saw non-Europeans as backward. Key thinkers like Hegel, Marx and Weber saw Asia as civilizationally inferior.

Yet, today Asia is the world's economic dynamo a factor which requires urgent rethinking. We have to dump these false motions of Marx, Weber and the others and devise new social sciences. And teach them to the Europeans.

This requires urgent rethinking. The first shot in rethinking has already come in the doubtful attempts to explain East Asia's rise through the authority-obeying aspects of Confucianism.

But East Asia also had other strands- Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. And as the rest of Asia now join as global players, other strands of Asian culture will be evoked as drivers of development, making nonsense of Marx, Weber and other European thinkers. The need to manufacture new thoughts becomes urgent.

The ultimate intellectual culmination of the European project was in many ways what has been called "modernism". There are now cracks in this hegemonic blanket and modernism is in steep decline.

"Post modernism" which throws doubt on established European truths is a fact of current Western thought. For us in Asia, post modernism is however a symptom of the loss of certainty in European thought, a loss of confidence.

For us, this also becomes an opportunity because it questions deeply existing European truths and hence gives possible openings for our own interpretations. The emergence of post modernism is a reflection of the exhaustion of the European project on the terms and agendas set by itself.

A replacement non-European agenda has now to be sought. And this potential openness, allows fresh conceptual elements from our cultures to be introduced, as long as they pass the test of usefulness. So extra European elements now become imperative for navigating the new future.

Sri Lanka had debated some of these issues of the relationship between East and West for at least a century.

But it is now today, in spite of notable achievements, often a neo colonial cultural entity. Politically, the leaders of both major parties are grovelling before foreign entities. There are reasons for our inadequacies.

Sri Lanka has near universal literacy, yet unlike India, its flow of information at the university levels and above - essential for informed debates, - is less than in India.

In India in contrast, debates conducted at the university and post graduate levels are conducted after deep exposure to current Western debates as well as exposure to its local culture.

In Japan and Korea, on the other hand, a flood of translations keeps the local intelligentsia well informed about developments elsewhere.

A few years ago I edited a book 'Technological Independence: the Asian Experience' for the United Nations University. This was a summary of research done in six leading Asian countries like China, Japan and India with nearly fifty researchers on development attempts in the last fifty years.

This showed that European concepts worked best when married to local Asian ones. And further, the next steps in development would require many Asian ideas.

This shift to Asia demands that Sri Lankans and other Asians be not just photocopies of European thoughts and culture.

As the centre of gravity of the world shifts to Asia, Sri Lankans (and Asians) would necessarily have to dig into their own cultures to find material to make our own futures.

With post-modernity sowing doubts in Europe, we must search for truths partly in our own history and our own ideas.

The question for Sri Lanka (and Asia) in the coming century would be, whether we stagnate as a passive producer, marketeer and consumer at second hand, of European products and of second hand European ideas. Or, whether we transform ourselves to one, drawing on both our own cultural roots as well as the European.

This cultural return, involves more than a Sri Lanka that can say no, as it attempted in the late 1950s and 1960s. It means a Sri Lanka that can say yes to itself and the world.

This should not appear strange, because unknown to many of our Eurocentric apologists, some of our ideas helped in Europe's march.

Buddhist influences are seen on key American thinkers such as William James, Charles A. Moore, Santayana, Emerson, and Irving Babbitt. Earlier Buddhistic ideas were found in key thinkers like Hume, who ushered the modern European age; in Ernst Mach the philosopher who influenced Einstein the most and even in the more serious post modern thought.

Our present efforts should aim at helping define the future that is being carved out in a post European, global world, where existing concepts and ideas are found wanting. Conceptual boldness in such an independent milieu will have to be distinguished from the transplanted thought from the West that we now blindly, often unknowingly hug.

The Author is a leading academic whose articles have appeared in leading journals such as Futures Research Quarterly Futures and Futures Bulletin.

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