SINGAPORE - THE controversy in India over American movie star Richard Gere kissing Celebrity Big Brother winner Shilpa Shetty highlights the dangers of the assimilative process that the Chinese used to call 'drinking foreign ink'.
It also indicates that the Asian-values debate is far from dead.
The Gere-Shetty incident took place at an Aids awareness function in Mumbai. Some thought it was 'vulgar'. Three lawyers filed suits against what they called 'an obscene act'. Others, including Shetty and her representative, dismissed the complaints as over-reaction.
But the avidity with which the case is discussed, even in Singapore, suggests more than the excitement that surrounds Hollywood and Bollywood personalities. It reflects a deeper concern about the direction in which society is heading.
Back in 19th-century China, the T'ai P'ing rebellion reflected the conviction of those who believed that progress demanded erasure of China's national past. Strongly influenced by Christianity - which was 'modern' and 'Western' - they destroyed Taoist and Buddhist temples and persecuted Confucian scholars.
Since every action has a reaction, the Boxer Movement - the I Ho Ch'uan (Righteous Harmonious Fists) - sought to defend all that was traditional. It was aimed at Christian converts and those who wore Western clothes and used Western implements. Instead, the Boxers practised traditional martial arts and used ancient Chinese weapons such as curved halberds - pole weapons - and spears.
There is a message in the fact that the movement was crushed by a huge force of American, Russian, British, Japanese and other troops led by General Albrecht Graf Von Waldersee. Even if the Western powers thought they were restoring stability, the far-reaching implication of their action was to uphold internationalisation - today's globalisation - over national exclusiveness.
India has not experienced such a violent clash between traditionalists and modernists, though elements of that polarization were present in the 1857 Mutiny. It was more marked in the celebrated 19th-century debate between Anglicists and Orientalists over whether education should be in English or an Indian language.
The former won because though the leaders of Indian - which then meant Bengali - society did not go so far as the T'ai P'ing rebels and embrace a 'foreign' faith, they were convinced that social and economic progress could only come through 'foreign' education.
No one demurred, therefore, when Lord Macaulay, the historian responsible for Indian education, prescribed a system to create 'a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect'.
Only such cultural hybrids could be trusted 'to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population'.
The Chinese called this strategy 'using foreign ways to protect Chinese ideas'.
The question today is whether Western ways protect or annihilate Asian ideas. Cultural assimilation is unavoidable, but the two sides are not evenly matched. Technology aids the flow of Western influence into everyday modern life. When asked to explain their American spelling, my students at the Nanyang Technology University communications school replied 'Spellcheck!'.
Given this imbalance, we must strike the best bargain we can. Which leads back to the Gere-Shetty controversy. The Western social gesture of a peck on the cheek, though alien to most Asian cultures, is now widely practised. But TV coverage showed Gere hugging and bending over a backward-leaning Shetty, and many Indians found it suggestive.
It's knowing how much to take from each culture, how to mix and when, that saves the blend. As Mahatma Gandhi said, while he wanted the winds of all cultures to blow about his house, he refused to be blown off his feet by any. Gandhi also recognised that allowance must be made for the bugs that fresh winds sometimes blow in.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Copyright: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray