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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


7th February 2011

CGHR Research Group

Beyond "Asian Values": A reassessment of Western and Asian perspectives on human rights

Yvonne Tew (PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge)

Theories of human rights over the past half century have largely fallen into two broad categories: the universalistic conception of human rights and the relativistic approach. The former, so-called “Western”, paradigm has been accused of advocating an individualistic approach to human rights that prioritizes the individual’s rights against society; by contrast, the non-Western approaches emphasize socio-political and economic stability, privileging community and duties over the rights of the individual. Although the “Asian values” model has been criticized as a construct used by authoritarian regimes to undermine civil liberties under the guise of maintaining political stability, little effort has been made to move beyond this stagnant approach or to develop a more nuanced theory of human rights through a Southeast Asian lens.

The result is a lacuna in the jurisprudence dealing with the challenges of accommodating fundamental liberties within the constitutional framework of Southeast Asian countries, particularly Malaysia and Singapore. Faced with a seemingly stark choice between the two competing models, courts in Southeast Asia have instinctively viewed a strong protection of an individual’s human rights as a “Western” approach inappropriate for the Asian context. This has led to an undermining of civil liberties in many cases where there appears to be a potential clash between the rights of an individual and communitarian goals, such as those involving freedom of religion or freedom of expression.

The paper aimed to provide an analysis of the so-called Western and non-Western models of human rights protection and to examine whether the tensions identified continue to frame discourse in this area, particularly after the Asian financial crisis in 1997. It argued that there is a need for a more developed model of rights protection that combines a contextual Asian perspective with a balanced liberalism approach, and made preliminary observations on the principles that will shape the contours of this balanced contextual approach.

Discussant: Dr Robert Weatherly, POLIS Associate

For more information, please visit Ms Yvonne Tew's webpage.

A version of this paper has been published as a CGHR Working Paper.