Cultural-Intellectual Rejuvenation: The ‘prescription’ to help Asia break out?

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History suggests that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. Can the current economic rise of Asia be an opportunity for a cultural and intellectual rejuvenation?

On 22 March 2017, Prof Michael S.H. Heng discussed how Asia can and should be inspired to achieve something of civilizational significance and to leave behind an enduring and valuable legacy for the world.

Prof Heng began by establishing that Asia has a basis for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation, citing examples such as the “Chinese Dream” which is historically seen as a continuation of China’s mission to regain its wealth and power after the traumatic experience of repeated defeats by foreign powers since the First Opium War in 1839. The concept of the Chinese Dream is very broad and is still evolving. It is hoped that the Chinese nation will draw inspiration from human history in their historical journey, and that the Chinese people will dream of building a modern Chinese civilization.

He then argued that there is a need for such a historical project. He believes that modernisation is like the flight of a bird, requiring two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing while the other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.

He listed three major challenges of Asian cultural reinvigoration: drawing on Asians’ own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, learning from others, and learning from each other. Prof Heng asserted that old beliefs can put on modern attires and assume modern colours, resulting in a new idea. Learning from others can only increase the range of possible solutions, but it is important to be culturally and intellectually confident to critically appreciate the achievements of others. He also says that Asians need to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions.

Prof Heng proposed the idea of Singapore as the hub of the Asian Mediterranean. Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilisation of cultures and ideas.  Hence, its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. According to him, Singapore can have an important role in such a historical process given that the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western) are co-existing as mainstreams of social life and representing invaluable resources.

Prof Heng then closed the lecture by discussing the audience’s comments and questions on topics such as innovation in Confucian societies.