Archive for the ‘1’ Category

The Fallacy of ASEAN Values

August 22, 2008

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.

Resign Zulkifli Nordin

August 20, 2008

NOTE: This open letter to Zulkifli Nordin has been posted on the Malaysian Bar website and the Malaysiakini letters section.

Dear Zuklifli Nordin

I refer to the Malaysiakini article ‘Zulkifli defends his action at Bar forum‘.

Thank you for finally coming out of hiding and delivering a much needed press conference. During the press conference you made the claim that one can “talk about Islam but you can’t talk for Islam”.  In a similar vein I would like to make it clear that you and Pembela can talk about Muslims but you can’t talk for Muslims.  You certainly don’t speak for this Muslim and I daresay there are many other Malaysian Muslims that you do not speak for.  You and the other leaders of that demonstration have only brought shame upon Muslims and moreover brought Islam into disrepute because by your actions and words on the morning of 9th August 2008 you lend credence to the notion that Muslims are irrational liars who are prone to threats of violence and that our faith is too weak to be discussed in the open.

In a moment reminiscent of pots and kettles you chided the Bar Council for not having “learnt to respect the law, the constitution and also the views of other parties”.  Just what laws or aspects of the constitution did the Bar Council contravene?  You claim that the Bar Council are anti-Islam when in truth, the Bar Council had arranged for a diverse range of speakers including a syariah lawyer as well as representatives from IKIM and JAIS.  The Bar Council had also invited those leading the protest to take part in the forum.  Were you merely ignorant of all this or was there instead a wilful attempt to deceive on the part or you and the other protest organisers?  Ironically, it is you who should learn to respect the constitution and the views of other parties.

You state that  it was the police and not the protest that stopped the forum.  That is mere semantics as you are quoted as saying “I have negotiated with the Dang Wangi police to stop the forum at 9.30am or else we will act.”  Now you expect us to believe that the police would have stopped the forum if your protest had not taken place?  Do you think we were born yesterday?  Stop twisting the truth.  You have already threatened to “do it again” if the Bar Council attempted similar forums.

You claim that Malaysian Muslims have been tolerant living under laws that are not Islamic.  Would it surprise you if you were to find out that most Malaysian Muslims, like their fellow countrymen, are more concerned about the content and quality of the laws they live under rather than the labels of these laws?  It follows that Malaysians of all backgrounds object to the ISA simply because it is unjust on any view, not because it does not carry an Islamic label.  Do not be so presumptuous as to think you are capable of taking the lead to speak for all Muslims in this country.

You are keen to emphasise that to you Islam comes before PKR.  However, the far more pertinent question for you to answer is whether Pembela or your collective constituents come first, and in my view by your actions you have placed Pembela above your constituents.  As an illustration, consider if you had another Shamala or Revathi as a constituent.  Would you be sympathetic to the plight of such a person?  Could such a person count on your support?  Would such a person even be comfortable now to approach you?  Would you be willing to cross swords with JAIS or other Islamic authorities to seek justice for a non-Muslim?  I am guessing the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘No’.

You maintain that you attended the demonstration as a member of Pembela and not as an MP.  Since you are still in a state of denial I provided the above illustration to demonstrate how your actions as a member of Pembela have created a potentially calamitous conflict of interest with your responsibilities as an MP.  Who would now believe that you can impartially serve the interests of all your constituents?

The only honourable course of action for you is to resign from your parliamentary post.

Make way for someone who will unite, not divide Malaysians and one who will make all the constituents their priority.