You've come a long way

December 8, 1995

The Scottish renaissance of the 18th century was a remarkable development. Its original contributions to modern thought deserve the attention they have received. What is less well known is that the Scottish renaissance has also helped us understand something called provincialism.

For all their achievements, David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, Robert Burns and James Boswell remained provincials from the point of view of London. They lived with that condition until they got used to it. Being reminded of this early form of English-language provincialism brings me to a contemporary manifestation of it that is of growing interest in Asia.

There is nothing new about provincialism itself. Every great culture, empire or large country with a dominant centre will have its provinces. If the culture is large enough, there may even be degrees of provincialism, distinguishing those nearest the centre from those further away. The Hindu-Buddhist idea of a mandala and the Chinese projection of a Middle Kingdom both imply the existence of concentric circles of the more or less civilised as defined by their distances from the core.

As far as provincialism is concerned in the British context, Scotland was only the beginning. The colonies in North America soon followed and, later, in the 19th century, the new provincials were those people who had emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, there may be some people in Britain today who still regard these peoples as provincials.

Then, in a new application of the concept, peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds came to be termed provincials. Where the British empire was concerned, the first to qualify as some kind of provincial were the educated elites of British India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) who admired the cultural values of the metropolitan country. They led the way in being accepted as provincials worthy of a place not far behind Canadians and Australasians, and for a while, somewhat ahead of rebellious and treasonable Americans who did not play cricket.

Thus an imperial provincialism spread to the non-white peoples of the empire. Elsewhere in Asia, the subjects of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States joined with those of the Caribbean and British territories in Africa and Oceania in qualifying for membership. When they met the standard, they were welcomed with tolerance, some condescension, and not a little affection. But the number of those people who were comfortable with such a reception was relatively small.

After independence, parts of British culture continued to be admired by the former colonials on every continent. In Asia, as Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Malaysians and Singaporeans, many long remained provincials in British eyes, even though most British people no longer thought the concept appropriate. In any case, the Indians and other South Asians were too numerous and self-assured to care too much what the British thought of them.

This is less true of those in Malaysia and Singapore, where national identities are still new and there is still sensitivity about being patronised. What is remarkable is that this form of provincialism is not peculiar to Britain. It would seem that some Untied States politicians and commentators of late have come to look on the leaders of these two countries in rather familiar ways.

Why do I say that? Are Malaysians and Singaporeans now provincials in American eyes? This surely cannot be. I am reminded of some of the ways, especially during the 1950s, British commentators had picked on Indian intellectuals, suggesting that they had grown too big for their boots. This was particularly so when Indian nationalist and anti-colonial writings were being reviewed in the British press. All that has now settled down, as various groups of South Asians have integrated their borrowed skills into the emergent national cultures of the region.

So where does the United States come in? As a superpower, and since 1989 the only country worthy of that name, it may have claims to be the global centre of modern culture. Furthermore, through the dominance of English as a language of international intercourse, the US could inherit the mantle of the empire where the sun never sets and see the whole English-speaking world as answerable to it.

Not to be forgotten is the American experience of having been provincials to the British, and then to the western Europeans. With that background, it should not surprise us if the leading centre of Western culture today might expect to have provincials of their own and to see themselves as responsible for setting standards of civilised behaviour.

To come back to the Malaysians and Singaporeans. The UScause today is that of human rights and democracy, and Malaysians and Singaporeans have stubbornly refused to come on board. On the contrary, they answer back and defend something called Asian values. This seems to have been seen as something of an affront. And the right to speak of such contrary Asian values seems to have been questioned.

If this defence had come from Japanese or Indian leaders, would the US have regarded them in a similar way? It seems unlikely, if only because both those protagonists are big enough to have brushed all criticisms aside. What if the Indonesians or the Thais had spoken up? Again, that would be unlikely, because both these countries have strong indigenous traditions to argue from. And if the Filipinos had talked back, I suspect the Americans would have looked at their history and found that amusing.

Why then do the actions and words of Malaysia and Singapore arouse such ire among some well-connected Americans? The leaders of those two countries have many achievements to their name, and deserve the reputations they have earned. But they are seen as the products of English-language tutelage. Surely their education should have predisposed them to better appreciate Western values. It is thus likely that Americans perceive them as successful graduates of the core culture who are out there guarding the far-flung frontiers of civilisation. They really should not be so misguided as to offer alternative Asian values. Instead, they should join the team on the periphery of an English-speaking heartland that has now been translated to the US.

To come back to the example of Scotsmen in the eyes of London, it would be interesting to ask if the best-educated Malaysians and Singaporeans should be seen as the new provincials of a global English-language world. I am intrigued by the thought that only a new kind of education could rid us of this kind of provincialism. Perhaps the deliberate call for Asian values is part of the answer. But it will take a lot of fresh educational thinking and many original blueprints, a lot of voices in unison, and a lot of agreed agendas by much bigger powers with much greater resources, before that condition could be changed.

Wang Gungwu, vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, leaves this month to become chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore from January 1, 1996.

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