Human rights and economic dominoes

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"If one adopted a comprehensive approach towards human rights and look at Asia as a whole and Southeast Asia, in particular, we would acknowledge that there have been notable improvements all around in human rights; the attainment in the sphere of economic and social rights especially.

"The basic right to food, shelter, employment, to education, health care, retirement, among others, are enjoyed by a substantial segment of the population in Southeast Asia, and in my country there has been full employment for almost a decade or more.

"There are natural dissimilarities even among the Americans. A few things are universal but a few are not. As a result what is 'universal' to you may not be necessarily so to us and vice versa. Similarly, what appears to Europeans as 'sacred universal values' may not necessarily be the same thing to Americans or to me. We respect authority, however, in your world, individualism appears paramount. This is the most projected contrast between the East and West, I think.

"The American value system is a unique one, and I think it is suitable to you, and just because it works or seems to work for you is no guarantee it will work for others, and, therefore, Washington should not use the same yardstick when measuring other people's compliance and records of human rights. You are measuring a different value system. However, both civilizations do speak of general tolerance and liberty as central values in any good society.

"There are two other categories of human rights: cultural rights and civil and political rights. In these areas, too, Asian countries have made acceptable advances, more shall come as they progress economically. Most communities in the region are able to use their own language, practice their own culture, profess their own religion without hindrance. In Malaysia and many parts of Asia all major religious festivals are national holidays. Not so here (in the US) nor in Europe.

"I am an optimist. An open society is evolving, perhaps not like yours, and frankly, I don't want mine to be completely like yours. I say this with humility as a good friend of the United States, that it is a person like me who had a total Asian or Malaysian immersion and an enriching American experience whom you should engage, and not try to contain.

"There are a couple of hundred thousand men and women like me out there who will defend and fight for the broadest form of democracy and of political, civil and cultural rights.

"I shall resent any interferences in the internal affairs of my country just as I expect you to be likewise.

"Mahathir has devoted all his energies and talents the last 17 years towards realizing by year 2020 a united Malaysian nation and a Bangsa Malaysia, which would put national interests ahead of communal interests. Mahathir has thus far managed to juggle this; he has managed the country and our economic success very well indeed but the best is yet to come, and come it will in good time because our economic fundamentals are in place, and the people united. It is the same story in most Asian nations such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and others.

"I have given you the good picture. Now (a little and quickly) the bad picture. Abject poverty still exists - and in a stark fashion - in some parts of the Asia Pacific region. Millions are still deprived of their fundamental economic and social rights. There are minorities whose cultural and religious rights continue to be restricted or curtailed and political difference or dissent is a luxury and high risk.

"I have tried in fifteen minutes or so to paint you a picture that economic growth, with fair distribution of wealth to the people, and the eradication of ethnic and religious prejudices, will advance and strengthen human rights everywhere in the long run. Hence I ask you to engage your government and congressional leaders to give deeper thought when they want to link human rights with economic aid, trade and commerce. This is the question of the chicken and egg problem for a lot of nations.

"American and Western values, your and European perceptions of human rights are American-European values and American-Western perception; Malaysian-Asians values and Malaysian-Asian perceptions of human rights are Malaysian-Asian values and Islamic and Confucian perceptions. May be in the future the twain can meet, may be never.

"What we want is while accepting the good aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps, the good principles and traditions of the East are also included. Perhaps, what is not there can be added, and what is imperfect can be improved. I do not believe we want to exclude anything, rather we want to include something.

"I hope I have brought you some understanding and appreciation of our views and Asian wisdom. Asia, too, has learned much from American innovation, education, wisdom, sagacity, and adaptability. I urge you to help make what we have achieved irreversible.

"I suppose, to a small extent, I feel I am qualified to speak on human rights because I was a victim of Article Five of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for five years between 1976 and 1981.

"We have our lives to live. While we take into account Western concerns and anxieties, we have our own agendas to pursue and achieve. We need your understanding and tolerance until we reach there. Meanwhile, please don't threaten us with human rights!"

In the afternoon I spoke to Mason fellows on the subject of The Asian Economic Dominoes at the John Kennedy School of Government and Politics. This is the gist of the speech: "Asia has a bright future despite the economic meltdown and the devaluation of currencies. We have to prove how wrong the gurus and experts have been. We will succeed because of our Asian values and resilience, provided we are tough with ourselves and quickly and scrupulously strengthen the mechanisms for correcting errors, mistakes and excesses of the past.

"However, we must not also be overdoing or overdosing things. Otherwise we could be contributing to making Asian economies go into a prolonged and unnecessary recession.

"A prolonged recession would have grave human and political costs to us all and world peace. It would also hurt the American economy in the long run. It will spread. It has already reached Korea, and could set off another bunch of dominoes finally hitting the United States itself. So, Americans should not drink all their champagne yet!"

There are only a handful of Malaysians at Harvard out of 11,646 Malaysian students studying in the United States of whom 3,602 are government-sponsored. Let more of the nation's bright students enjoy the Harvard privilege. They deserve it.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )