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Letter: ‘Why Are Asians So Successful?’

The 21st Century will be the Asian Century. We’ve known that since the 1980s when Toyota replaced GM in the parking lot, Sony replaced RCA in the living room, our hospitals and engineering firms became increasingly staffed with Chinese surgeons and Korean technicians and our local businesses came increasingly to be owned and operated by Indian and Pakistani businessmen. Indeed, since crime, poverty, illiteracy and homelessness dramatically decreased in Singapore, China, Taiwan and South Korean whilst increasing in Western countries – the U.S. in particular. Since the proportion of Asian populations who can speak English – the language of science, diplomacy and international trade – increased as America became increasingly confronted with issues of bilingualism.

America’s decline as a world power does not necessarily mean that the good life won’t be possible for our grandchildren (although we must accept the reality that many will have to look overseas to find the American Dream they couldn’t obtain here).

Why are the Asians so successful? It’s not that they’re inherently smarter than Westerners else while it’d be difficult to explain Aristotle, Mozart, Shakespeare, Newton and Einstein. I’d say it’s because Asians possess what we call the Puritan work ethic. Now that ethic – nostalgia aside – is not popular in 2012. Our sociological experts with their re-heated Marxist economic determinism dismiss the idea. Our individualist consumerism militates against the notion of thrift, simplicity, practicality and “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Our corporate capitalist system considers “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” to be quaint in an Amish or Quaker sort of way. And our Welfare State chafes at the thought of individual responsibility and hard work. Americans embrace a philosophy of mediocrity and failure; Asians don’t - that’s why increasing numbers of young Americans would rather live in a world where they win the lottery or sign the multi-million dollar NFL or record contract than live in one where, through hard work, everyone has a decent place to live and receives a good education. Indeed, so powerful is the rejection of the Puritan work ethic that even a friend of mine, a moderate conservative Republican, dismissed it as “an idea whose time has come and gone” and a product of a particular time and place.

The fact is, the Puritan work ethic is a universal one and any people – irrespective of their race, color, religion, or past poverty – will prosper by adopting it and any people who abandon it, regardless of their previous wealth and power, will be reduced to poverty. When Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore, for example, he imported ethnic Chinese into the British colony for the same reason Frederick the Great imported Jews into Berlin: both men appreciated the work ethic and business skills of those respective peoples. We find examples of the Puritan work ethic in other cultures, too. It’s found in Islam where scholars and merchants (like the Prophet himself) transformed places like Cordoba, Baghdad and Samarkand into great centers of learning and commerce. Also amongst the Black Moslems who, racist rhetoric aside, entreat African-Americans to embrace family and community values, honest work and education. We see it amongst the growing community of Mormons. We see it paralleled in Confucianism with its emphasis on community, family, respect for authority, social responsibility in business dealings, and accountability in government. Indeed, since the 1980s, there’s been a revival of interest in Confucian teachings in the universities and popular culture of many Asian countries as they reject Maoism on one hand, the European Welfare State model and every-man-for-himself American capitalism on the other.

Now the societies that have embraced the Puritan work ethic and have seen their standard of living and literacy rates increase have another thing in common. They are all, in one fashion or another and to one degree or another, authoritarian societies in which there’s a consensus of values, shared cultural norms, a singleness of purpose, and an emphasis on the community’s needs rather than the individual’s whims. By contrast, confusing license with liberty and an ever-expanding definition of civil rights with fundamental human rights derived from natural law, the West has undermined the very spiritual and intellectual attributes that made it the center of the modern world in the first place. We need to consider that the Puritan work ethic is not a paradigm whose “time has come and gone” but that it is the democratic libertarian philosophy that’s obsolete; that notwithstanding its growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, and expansion in the 20th (albeit more in shape than substance), it has no reality in the Asian Century. Too, that Western societies might even reverse some of their decline once they come to appreciate this fact.

Paul Manton