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The "Dirty Secret" of Asian Values

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Guest Forum, 
Japan Times, September 18, 1995

In a recent article (The Japan Times, Aug. 25) Professor
Simon Tay muddles the debate over human rights in Asia. 
He makes obeisance to the universality of human rights, but
calls for development of an Asian meaning of these rights. 
This is unobjectionable.  What is troubling is how arguments
for cultural diversity become apologies for authoritarianism.

In urging an Asian meaning of human rights, Tay relies on
five arguments.  The first, the "we-are - all-somewhat-different" argument, is a type of cultural relativism holding
that cultures are distinctive, though not incommensurable,
and that Western human rights may undergo some change
when implemented in Asian societies.

Cultural relativism provides an important anti-imperial
check on the manipulation of human rights, but its dirty
secret is the ambiguity of "culture," its central concept. 
Determining whether a practice is "culture" (worthy of
respect) or "politics" (open to critique) is difficult, since the
two domains are intimately linked.  Moreover, ethnography
has exploded the view of cultures as static, showing them to
be changing, riddled with conflict, and saturated with
power.  Since cultures are incessantly remade out of the
symbols, power relations, and material conditions of the
present, "culture" cannot provide a secure basis for
justifying social practices.

As Yash Ghai has noted, cultures are attributes of
communities, not states, There is thus the large question
whether one can sensibly speak of the "culture" of a nation -state.  Practices seeking justification in a supposed "national
culture" must be handled with caution.  Finally, Asia's
diversity argues against a single, culturally "Asian" meaning
of human rights.

A second argument is the "full belly" thesis: Observance of
human rights depends on stages of economic and social
development, with civil and political rights coming last. 
China set out one version in a 1991 white paper, arguing
that survival rights - to food, shelter and health - take
priority over freedom of expression and other civil and
political rights, since the latter are meaningless if one is
starving.  Violation of those rights is justified as a trade-off
by states with limited resources.

While the full -belly thesis has the virtue of countering the
big powers' scant attention to economic and social human
rights, it wrongly assumes that "development " will result
from this approach, and will be followed by full civil and
political rights.  Latin America and Africa are littered with
the failures of states which have taken this path.  The
reasons for such failures are complex, but "postponement"
of civil and political rights maintains imbalances of power
and fosters grotesque development skewed in favor of the
powerful.  In this model, corrupt, unaccountable
governments are complicit in denying the very rights they
claim to prefer.

The third, "authoritarian success story" argument, conjures
national security. China and others have argued that the
denial of civil and political rights is not just a matter of
tough choices, but necessary to maintain tile political
stability required for development and for an eventual
transition of full human rights.  The examples of Singapore,
South Korea and Taiwan, usually trotted out as proof of
this proposition, are not convincing.  Singapore is
anomalous, a city-state with a colonial history. as a regional
entrepot.  The others benefitted from being showcases of
capitalism during the Cold War; it is far from established
that authoritarianism was required for their development. 
The often-cited Philippines as a cautionary tale of too much
democracy conveniently ignores the pernicious legacy of
Marcos-era crony capitalism and the limited nature of
Philippine democracy.

Tay seems to justify Singapore's draconian detention laws,
the most sweeping of which are the Internal Security Act of
1968 and the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of
Crime) Ordinance of 1969.  The latter grants the Home
Affairs minister broad discretion to detain for up to two
years on grounds, inter alia, of maintaining public order. 
Tay does not mention that this ordinance can be used
because Singapore has maintained, for 26 years, the state of
emergency declared during the 1969 intercommunal riots. 
Quite an emergency.

Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR) provides for national security threats;
suspension of some rights is permitted in times of public
emergency, if such measures are strictly required by the
situation.  In his zeal to defend Singapore's policies, Tay
tilts at "those who make propositions not sustained by
human rights law," such as that a person should never be
detained without trial.  He alludes obliquely to the Article 4
mechanism, then without breaking stride notes that "The
laws on detention in Singapore are different, as no
emergency need be declared," and that "human rights do not
absolutely prohibit detention and critics are wrong to
overstate  their case."  

The issue which Tay ought to address is rather, why does
Singapore reject Article 4-style limits on governmental
power? Because of Singaporean "culture"?  Its stage of.
economic development?  The struggle with neocolonial
domination?  Absent a convincing answer, one suspects the
old masquerade: arbitrary power parading as national

A fourth argument cites self-determination, according to
which Asia needs its own concept of human rights for
defense against criticism by "outsiders," and for the
construction of its own future.  Given the disproportionate
power of Western governments and NGOS, the defensive
tone is perhaps understandable, though it can be
compellingly argued that there are no longer "outsiders"
when it comes to publicizing and criticizing human rights
violations.  The danger is that a concept designed to deflect
external critics usually aids in quashing internal dissenters
and suppressing inconvenient facts.  As Tay indicates, self-determination requires open societies, in which all can
contribute to an informed debate.

Tay's comment that "some American commentators reject
censorship that protects racial or religious sensitivities" is a
red herring.  Article 20 of the ICCPR prohibits "advocacy of
national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes
incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence" so
Singapore is quite free  to ban such speech, taking into
account its own history and circumstances.  Moreover,
Singapore has not been criticized for such censorship, but
for the abusive application of the Official Secrets Act
against journalists, criminal defamation actions against
academics, and curbs on the circulation of newspapers and

A final argument is the "Occi-genetic fallacy": Human rights
are Western creations, therefore unsuited to Asia.  It is true
that human rights appeared first in the West, initially a
defense of the bourgeoisie against arbitrary state power,
later a defense of workers against the ravages of the market. 
To the extent that Asian societies manifest states and
markets posing "Western" threats to individuals, "Western"
human rights are essential, holding back the oppressive hand
of the state from individuals and communities, fostering the
flourishing of culture and giving some shelter from the
profit seeking market, no respecter of local culture.  In this
very practical sense, "Western" human rights are Universal.

(Iohn Tobin, founding administrative director of the
Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program, teaches
international human rights at Doshisha University.)