University of Hong Kong.
What is remarkable about a number of his positions is how familiar they are in the discourse of colonial resistance. The issues he raises--on the unequal relationship of periphery (African states) to metropolitan center (the West); internalized colonized subjectivity; loss of indigenous cultures to processes of hybridization; the struggles for autonomous state identity--have dominated decolonizing discourses throughout the long historical stretch of the break-up of European empires in the twentieth century. Moreover, as evidenced in his references to African intellectuals and leaders, his view of "Africa" is founded on Francophone political and philosophical thinkers such as Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire from pre-independent or newly decolonizing states. He also draws his ideas on African identity from an older generation of Anglophone writers, such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe, who became established in the 1950s and 1960s. These foundational references suggest that debates on "African" identity and polity have not moved much beyond colonial and early post-Independence discourses.
Kom asks rhetorically, "Today, just as in the past, doesn't everything happen as if most countries in Africa were irremediably extrovert, the quest for knowledge being organised mainly so as to be able to claim some sort of extracontinental legitimacy?" That I find this question astonishing testifies to my ignorance of what is occurring in African countries. The same question would make little sense today in large Asian states such as China, Japan, India, and Indonesia, and also in smaller states such as South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.
Comparison is beyond my abilities as a cultural commentator. It needs to be noted however, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about the continent of Asia in the way that Kom does with Africa. A number of Asian countries, for example, were never conventionally colonized, as in the case of China, Japan and Thailand. Still, all these countries experienced histories of traumatic contact with Western powers: China, for example, suffered a series of humiliating defeats and loss of territory to many European powers and Japan was occupied by American forces after the end of the Pacific War. Thus, my statements are partial and there will be exceptions and qualifiers that this brief commentary will not be able to cover.
Kom begins by suggesting that contemporary African debates on democracy have been affected by the 1989 Autumn Revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall. It isn't clear to me what the connection is between the dismantling of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and democracy movements in Africa. However, I assume Kom means something like what Francis Fukuyama intended by the phrase, "The End of History," that with the defeat of Communist ideology, only Western democratic capitalism remains as the hegemonic global force. The first sentence of the article establishes, to my mind, an ironic reduction of these weighty developments, as sieved through the discourses of "the intellectual elites" of almost every African country. That is, discussions on democratization in Africa are mediated (accompanied by) debates on "the value and weight of numerous diplomas held in national and/or metropolitan institutions."
Structuring his brief on this observation, Kom makes a passionate indictment of the failure within African society itself, pointing to the lack of even "the desire. . . to create an autonomous framework for the validation and appropriation of a local body of knowledge, which could help [Africans] better to perceive their environment and construct a context for living which is suited to their own aspirations." Kom sees this devastating disconnection between subject and place rightly as a consequence of European colonial history; that is, "the colonial institutions appear to have succeeded in a masterful piece of undermining and conditioning."
If what Kom observes is accurate, then indeed one may conclude that many Asian states are in a very different position. Intellectual discourses in states like China, Japan, India, Malaysia, and Singapore are seldom about the continued psychological damage of colonial history, even though, as seems to be the case with the African elite, many Asian states continue to send their brightest to Western metropolitan universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and M.I.T., Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley in the United States. However, while the benchmark of "world-class excellence" remains set by these metropolitan institutions, the relationship is seldom articulated as one of abjection ("shame" in Kom's language) and imitation. Rather, for a number of years now, the relational discourse has taken the shape of discussions on globalization, free trade competition, and "democratic capitalism."
Varieties of democratic capitalism, based on free market flows, transparency, rule of law, even some form of human rights discourse and other associated mechanics of what is now termed globalization, are very much installed or are being installed in the economies of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and so forth. Even China, still a one-party socialist state, has committed itself more and more to the practices of "globalization." One may debate how much of these mechanics are actually in place. Do the Korean chaebol system, the close relationship between Japanese corporations and government and Malaysian crony capitalism qualify as forms of "democratic capitalism"? These debates engage both Western analysts and native intellectuals and they have large material bearing on the economic development and well being of people in these territories. But these debates are seldom criticized as extracontinental; they are approached as vital to national security and economic competitiveness.
In looking to the West, to Silicon Valley for example, political and educational elites in Singapore or Hong Kong do not speak from inferior dependency, or for mere imitation and subordinate hybridity. While taking instruction from the scientific, cultural, and economic successes of the West, politicians such as Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister in Singapore, or Tung Chee Hwa, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, take these successes as challenges to their societies toward global competition. The efforts of the states are to grow local societies into global status, not to subordinate them to extracontinental masters.
To this goal, born out of autonomous agendas and striving, many Asian states look to cooperate with each other to create regional identities and markets that can provide stronger global influence and presence. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), inaugurated in 1967, has created a regional identity based on common security and economic goals (Sandhu xiii-xvi). Together, the population of Southeast Asia is almost 500 million, and its total economy equals nine-tenths of China, the most populous nation in the world. ASEAN has grown to include ten member states, which look to each other for capital investment, labour, markets, skills and technical transference, security, and cultural exchanges.
In the cultural sphere of East Asia, young Hong Kong people imitate the newest fashion and music from Japan, while Malaysian Chinese look up to Cantonese film stars from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, film-making as an industry has attracted the envious attention of Hollywood studios which have brought directors such as John Woo and actors such as Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh to California. While English continues to enjoy global eminence as the language of science and of the Internet, many forms of media and media technology coming out of Asian societies operate on a plane of high-tech literacy in which English is irrelevant. Hence the success of video games and filmic techniques that demonstrate Asian entrepreneurial creativity and carve enormous niches in Western markets for Asian-manufactured goods.
My commentary so far appears to be more economist than discourse-based. In many Asian states where the processes for "democratic capitalism" are now in place, "discourse," as political philosophy systematically enunciated by nationally recognized intellectuals, is today a minor contributor to state and social formation. The likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, producers of national political systems in Asia in the earlier part of the twentieth century, are no longer visible in Asian state formation. With greater egalitarianism in tertiary education, increased access to publishing and other media, more social mobility and more multi-party elections, the long-term dominance of one powerful intellect on a national scene is less and less likely. The closest an Asian country has to such a figure is Singapore in the person of Lee Kuan Yew, indubitably the major architect of Singapore's present success as a city-state.
Similarly, many Asian countries do not possess the kind of cultural elite figure that dominated nationalist discourse in the early part of the twentieth century. India has no national Rabindranath Tagore today, only a transnational Salman Rushdie. Today, China has no Lu Xun, but a number of Chinese writers such as Ha Jin and Bei Dao now reside in the West, writing and publishing in English or English translation. Like these authors, "discourse" is today a globally circulating system, morphing, for example, via translation, from France to the United States, entering into Asian education, policies, and social formation and through graduate schools, conferences, and academic publications.
In much the same way as Kom has raised them in his article, questions are recurrently raised on the apparent one-way flow of these discursive systems. Kom turns to Western-based/published intellectuals (Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Deleuze and Guattari, Russell McDougal) to help him pose his interrogation of the centrality of the West in thinking about Africa. In contrast, questions raised by elites in China, Singapore or Indonesia, for example, on the Eurocentrism inherent in globalization's terms--free trade, human rights, democratic elections, intellectual property--are often themselves contested within those countries. Rather than a straightforward oppositional relationship of Asia to the West, dissenting opinions are formed within China, Singapore and Indonesia, articulated by engaged nationalists, to whom individual freedom, rule of law, and democratic elections are local ideals rather than mere propaganda mouthed by "stool pigeons of Western hegemony."
Those "identity-related wounds," that Kom claims are keeping Africa in "submission to injunctions that have come from other places," may also very well be operating in Asian states, whose television shows, music, popular culture, and social values are heavily influenced by the entertainment industries of Western countries. But in the competition for their own stakes in the global economy, societies such as in Japan, China, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and so forth approach cultural transformation less as "shameful" hybridity than as the necessary cost--albeit always interrogated, always negotiated and always mediated by their own local institutions--of entering into the citizenship of global modernity.
Sandhu, K. S. "Preface." The ASEAN Reader, K. S. Sandhu et al. (ed.). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992, pp. xii-xvi.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
Shirley Lim is currently Chair Professor of English and Head of the English Department at the University of Hong Kong, as well as Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her first book of poems, Crossing The Peninsula (Heinemann Press, 1980), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. She is the author, editor or co-editor of many books and has published numerous essays on postcolonial literature, Asian American cultural productions, and feminist theorization. (See HKU's page for details). Her memoir Among The White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (Feminist Press, 1997), received the American Book Award.