Human rights and economic dominoes

30 November 1997

Harvard, founded in 1636 by John Harvard, a fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge University, is the premier of the front-row Ivy League universities, and the oldest institution of higher learning in North America.

It is also an expensive institution. This new semester in September it became the first university from among the 5,400 plus universities in the United States to charge each undergraduate an average of US$33,700 (RM114,580) for tuition, room and board while in 75 other colleges in Massachusetts the average cost is only US$22,710 (RM 77,214) a year.

Though the fees are expensive, Harvard receives a deluge of applicants every year. Yet, you can't get into Harvard even if you have a million ringgit unless your SAT scores are outstanding. Harvard has a US $11 billion (RM 37.4 billion) endowment which makes it the richest university in the United States, followed by Yale, a distant second, with some US$6 billion (RM 20.4 billion) in endowment.

Returning to Harvard is always a pleasure, even suffering in the wet and chilly New England early winter which was the case last week. My wife experiencing her first New England, emphatically stated next time she would only visit Harvard in spring! The Harvard campus is divided by the beautiful Charles River which I could see from my 9th floor room in Charles Hotel nearby. I salute those students practising rowing in chilly weather. I saw five boats at the time of writing.

Last week's homecoming was a particularly memorable one for me. I met three of my class of 85 classmates - Doris Wan Cheng, now a senior adviser to Shanghai Caohejing HiTech Park and chairperson of Sino-Global Capital Inc. Chicago, Kamalesh Sharma, Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations and Philip Bozzelli, a retired United States Naval Captain - for the first time since we parted twelve years ago. Two of our 85 class have since died, a Pakistani diplomat Hadi Raza Ali and Enrico Augelli, former Italian ambassador to Singapore.

Kissinger ... first director of CFIAThe Centre for International Affairs (CFIA) reunion was attended by 150 fellows and their wives. The fellowship was started 40 years ago and its first director was Dr Henry Kissinger. During my time the director was Samuel Huntington, author of the Clash of Civilizations.

Since Nov 6 this year, the centre has been renamed the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs (WCFIA) following a gift of US$21 million (RM 71.4 million) from the Weatherhead Foundation.

Malaysia has had three fellows - the first was Victor Kanapathy in 1972. I became the first Malay when I was made a fellow in 1984 followed by Tan Sri Musa Hitam in 1987. During the fellows' alumni reunion and conferences on Nov 20 and 21, 24 seminars or talks were held on wide-ranging topics. One of these was Human Right Standards, East and West which featured Maurice D. Copithorne, a Canadian Queen's Counsel and myself.

Copithorne was the Canadian deputy High Commissioner in Malaysia in the early 60s. He is now Human Rights Commissioner for Iran and a well-known QC in Vancouver. I spoke first followed by Copithorne. Then we spent what remained of the 90 minutes discussing and answering questions from participants. This is the summary of what I said in my presentation:

"The good news is we are making progress whether in the West or the East, even if we disagree on the definition and standards of human rights. May be we agree. Still the protection and promotion of human rights should differ from region to region and should take into account cultural norms and practices, religious beliefs and the socio-economic development and political and cultural diversity of a place.

"With your permission, I shall be talking about the Malaysian experience, which is a good example of what is happening in the East. We have been performing an accelerated economic development and high growth for almost a decade until recently, without having to curtail each and every political liberty or restrict fundameninal cultural or religious rights.

"I have seen it happening at the United Nations and elsewhere - the brute power of realpolitik. My sixth sense says it is probable that a group or a superpower would cripple any attempt by Asian-Pacific nations to assert themselves at the regional and international level in order to preserve extend and entrench Western domination of the world. This resonates of imperialism, and, naturally, what we do also resonates of a continuing reaction to colonialism!

"The unabashed opposition of the US to the Malaysian idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) which merely seeks to enhance economic solidarity amongst East Asian nations is a case in point. The other example is US opposition to Petronas - our national oil company - joining France and Russia to invest in a US$2 billion (RM 6.8 billion) gas project in Iran.

"Isn't this American opposition tantamount to a denial of Malaysian human rights, a denial of the right of association at the regional and international levels? Why then this double-standard? What is bothering Washington if we in Asia are articulating and exercising our human rights? Is it the fear of our once booming economies? It should no longer be the case since we are now in reduced circumstances! Asian economies - including the Malaysian economy - will be buoyant sooner than most people realise, unless as many people seem to stink, there is going to be a world slump; maybe not soon but not too far away.

"Western dominance in the world has become so intrusive and widespread that Asia and other non-Western societies have no choice but to react. We want equitable access to new, fast-growing multi-media, Information Technology and to the vast bank of scientific and technological knowledge which, perhaps, belongs to all human beings; it is humanity's heritage.

"It is our experience in Malaysia that as we prosper, political difference or dissent, which has always existed, will have more latitude as a result.

"Our ability to combine economic growth, democratic governance and respect for human rights is the more remarkable because Malaysia is, at the same time, one of the most complex, sensitive and delicately balanced multi-racial, multi-cultural multi-lingual and multi-religious societies on this earth.

"I am not saying everything is perfect, but I should say here that Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad has contributed much to this "right mix" between economic high growth and respect and protection of human rights which continue to flourish.

"Malaysia is not an Islamic country, however, the religion of the majority is Islam. And in Islam, like any religion, the notion of balance is valued and should be fostered. Rights should be balanced with responsibilities and duties, the individual's aspirations should be in harmony with the community's larger interest, the expression of freedom should be balanced and correspond to the imperative of authority.

"It is through balance that one achieves the middle path of moderation - the ideal path where there is neither too much freedom nor too much control! In the West, human rights are equated with civil and political rights as if the rights represent the sum total of human rights. As if this is everything or nothing.

"Rejecting this Western equation of human rights and civil and political rights by any means is one of the paramount challenges facing in the developing world. Political liberty does not include power to injure another be it a person or a community. The exercise of the natural rights of every man cannot therefore be boundless.

"We believe we are less hypocritical than the West, we don't pretend to champion human rights. We do not like to preach what we ourselves do not practice. We expect others to do the same.