The International Conference on Rethinking Human Rights, Kuala Lumpur, 7 December 1994
We commend the Just World Trust for its boldness in choosing the theme of this conference. The organizers certainly run the risk of being reproached as "reactionaries" by certain quarters of the human rights lobby for the audacity to question some of their cherished assumptions. Nonetheless, a critical rethinking of the notion of human rights has become necessary on account of the growing number of advocates who propagate it with such single-mindedness and fanaticism that they overlook other no less crucial societal issues. These issues may differ from country to country. In Malaysia, for example, such an issue may be the preservation of public order and harmony. In another country, it may be the eradication of hardcore poverty or the reduction of inequities between social groups. In all cases, if those issues are not addressed as part of the human rights movement, then the desired impact on the people will not be gained.
We share the reservations expressed throughout this conference about some aspects of the human rights movement. This, however, is in no way spawned by the East-West cultural confrontation as was made clear yesterday by our Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. We are certainly not oblivious to the crimes against humanity perpetrated by non-Western people. Tyranny and injustice are repugnant to all civil societies wherever they may occur. To cite cultural differences or Asian values in order to deflect from ourselves criticism against human rights violations is an affront to our intelligence.
There is a general misconception both in the East and the West that human rights is a notion that is largely Western. While many Eastern countries would reject the concept purely because it is regarded as Western and ipso facto alien to to their cultures, the West, on the other hand, see it as part of their civilizing mission to impose on the rest of the world their brand of human rights. This patronizing attitude has to be rejected. In Islam, for one, human rights is enshrined in the Quran and the Traditions. The Prophet said: "Your lives, your possessions and your dignity are as sacred as this day (of the Great Pilgrimage)". Likewise in all major religions and traditions of the East similar importance has been accorded to human rights in its various dimensions. However, the central issues in the contemporary discourse on human rights is not so much whether it is Western or Eastern in origin but rather the balance between civil and political rights on the one hand, and societal and economic rights on the other.
The advocacy of human rights cannot be reduced to a mere slogan such as "Give me liberty or give me death." Human rights concerns will be rendered meaningless if only pursued by the elite and the affluent who at the same time relegate the more pressing issues such as social injustice and poverty to the side lines. While we agree that developing countries must not compromise political and other liberties related to the growth of civil society we nonetheless regard as paramount the safeguarding of economic and social rights -- rights that ensure decent and humane living conditions for the people.
Beyond this basic level of rights is the equally compelling right of the socially disadvantaged or economically weak to participate in the mainstream societal processes and economic activities and to benefit from the principle of equal opportunity. In most cases affirmative action programmes are found necessary to realize the ideals of human dignity and social equality. In this area, the perfomance of developing countries, often subjected to trenchant criticism from human rights groups, has been better that the industrialized countries. Growing poverty and homelessness in many Western cities testify to the deteriorating social conditions of their marginalized communities. Thus, the urgency to promote and entrench these rights is no more paramount in developing states than in the West.
While we accord high priority to social and economic rights, we must at the same time guard ourselves from stretching the argument too far. Development cannot be used as an apology for authoritarianism. Indeed, it is often argued that civil and political liberties are incompatible with the pressing needs of backward or emerging economies. Democracy, it is claimed, follows economic advancement and not vice-versa. The fact that there are democratic countries with poor economic perfomances has been cited in support of this argument, together with the economic success and rapid growth in a number of countries which are not so democratic or with a markedly authoritarian bent.
Nevertheless, authoritarian rule more often than not has been used as a masquerade for kleptocracies, bureaucratic incompetence, and worst of all, for unbridled nepotism and corruption. More nations have been impoverished by authoritarianism than enriched by it. By not giving vent to the voices of dissent, wrongs cannot be made right and remedies for failures cannot be made available. Thus the notion that freedom must be sacrificed on the altar of development must be rejected. Indeed, it is our conviction that only through the ability of every individual, however weak or disadvantaged, to freely articulate his fears and grievances can we hope to bring about a just and caring society. Only by guaranteeing the individual's right to participate fully in the society's decision-making processes can we confer legitimacy to political leadership and governance. To paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Notwithstanding our proposition that the granting of civil and political liberties should no longer be disputed in modern day governance, we would not hesitate to affirm the primacy of economic and social rights. This equally significant body of rights, extending beyond the individual domain into that of the society, has also to be given due recognition everywhere. These include subsistence rights such as food, water, housing, medical care, public amenities such as roads and schools. All these are subsumed under the general right of every individual to be freed from the clutches of poverty and destitution.
We do not condone the perpetuation of authoritarian regimes. But we would urge the so-called liberal democracies to refrain from persisting with policies largely aimed at denying the citizens of developing countries the realization of their social and economic rights. Rather they should look more closely at their own societies and attempt to practise more of the ideals that they preach to the rest of the world. As far as we are concerned, the arbitrary entanglement of civil and political rights issues which matters which are essentially commercial in nature is reprehensible. This unwarranted linking of the issues would only serve to muddle up the whole discourse on human rights and throw it out of focus.
We are agreed that there is a need to guarantee all these rights. Yet there remains the overriding concern of a responsible government to ensure peace, order and stability of the society. As Rousseau said: "The social order is a sacred right which serves as a basis for all other rights." With anarchy and disorder, the fundamental rights will be largely illusory. Hence freedom of speech entails a corresponding duty not to disseminate lies not to incite communal and religious hatred, and generally not to undermine the moral fabric of society. The right to property may have to be balanced against the State's right to acquire private property for societal development. And similarly freedom of religion does not confer a licence to promote fanaticism or to spread deviationist teachings which could threaten social stability and lead to discord and even violence.
We believe there is no inherent contradiction between the existence of a body of fundamental liberties enshrined in the constitution of a civil society on the one hand, and a set of rules and regulations governing the proper enjoyment of these liberties on the other. Thus, in Malaysia, any sensible examination of human rights must not draw its substance solely from the Federal Constitution but also all Acts of Parliaments and State Enactments bearing on the subject. Any rethinking of human rights must necessarily entail a consideration of the implications and consequences on the social order, the preservation of harmony and political stability. We must take full cognizance of not only the historical antecedents of our Constitution and laws, but also of the specific mischief that was intended to be avoided. In other words, we cannot indiscriminately argue for the wholesale adoption of Western morms and models. Perhaps even those closer to home may not be quite appropriate to our particular situation.
In the final analysis, the protection of human rights is but a means to an end. The ultimate object of governance is the establishment and preservation of a civil society, wherein all its members are free to enjoy these fundamental liberties, to pursue happiness, each according to his religion or philosophy. The protection of human rights would be meaningless without the concomitant inculcation of those social values which enhance the quality of life, through education, and cultural and moral upliftment. Liberty must not lead to licentiousness, freedom must not lead to anarchy.