The Fallacy of ASEAN Values

NOTE: This was publised as a letter that appeared on Malaysiakini on 1st August 2008.

I was pleasantly surprised when I read last year that the ASEAN Charter, intended to be a Constitution for ASEAN Member States, would include provisions for the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Commission.  At the time I was skeptical over just how rigorous an ASEAN-wide human rights framework would be.  At the time, I suspected that such an initiative may simply have been a superficial exercise to demonstrate some recognition of human rights by ASEAN member states to the rest of the world.  After all, I thought, each country has it’s own particular pet peeves: for Singapore it is freedom of expression, for Malaysia it is freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and probably quite a few others.  As for Burma, suffice to say that it would be quicker to assemble a list of freedoms that are respected by the Burmese government.

In view of this, it was heartening to read on the website of the ASEAN Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism notes that such a Commission would go towards

  • Ensuring that international human rights laws are observed and implemented by ASEAN countries who have agreed to them;and
  • Helping ASEAN people have a common understanding of universal human rights issues and perspectives.

It was therefore disappointing, though hardly surprising, when I read of a recent statement made by Malaysia’s Foreign Minister, Dr Rais Yatim, at the recently concluded ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore that the “ASEAN value system” should be incorporated into any human rights framework arising from the ASEAN Charter.  Such a statement harks back to the notion of “Asian Values” which suggests that Asians are more willing than people in other parts of the world to forego a range of rights which broadly fall under the categories of internationally accepted political and civil rights in exchange for greater prosperity/law and order.  This is a premise championed in the past by the leaders of both Singapore and Malaysia.

The concept of Asian Values has been well critiqued from both economic/historical and sociological persepctives.  In my view, the concept of Asian Values is nothing short of a fallacy.  It is but a culturally relativist veil behind which those in power can perpetuate and justify their authoritarian forms of rule.

To make allowances for so-called Asian or ASEAN Values within the human rights provisions of the ASEAN Charter would defeat the purpose of the human rights provisions as it lends itself to the real danger that each country within ASEAN will derogate from various internationally accepted human rights norms on the basis of Asian Values.  It follows that such attempts must be strongly resisted.

To his credit the current Secretary General of ASEAN, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, challenged ASEAN members at the recently concluded AMM to “look back at our roots, in the documents of our civilisations, to see if we really have different definitions of human rights”.

If we take up Dr Pitsuwan’s challenge we would find that the truth is that human rights has a far longer history in Asia than in the West.  The Cyrus Cylinder of Persia, which advoctes respect for humanity as well as religious tolerance and freedom is today widely regarded as the world’s first charter of human rights.  It is said to predate England’s Magna Carta of 1215 by more than a millenium.  Similarly, the Edicts of King Asoka of India through its emphasis on moral and social precepts, in particular a committment towards uniformity in law (which has more than a passing resemblance to the oft discussed Rule of Law) incorporates elements of what are commonly regarded “modern” human rights norms.

Rather than advancing the cause of cultural relativism, we in ASEAN should instead be rediscovering our true Asian heritage – one in which we are pioneers in the field of human rights.

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2 Responses to “The Fallacy of ASEAN Values”

  1. bow Says:

    Why is ASEAN still refuse to fully subject itself into adopting the universal value of UN human right declaration? With few of its members still violating individual rights, continue to deny liberty and justice to citizens within their border, show that this organization is in no hurry to move on the righteous path of principle but rather keep thrive on mutual beneficial value.

  2. JC Says:

    To Bow: ASEAN has become what is because of people like Rais Yatim and his Malaysian co-horts who have brought Malaysia down to its knees.

    To blogger: Thank you for the eye-opener.

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