August 30, 2008

Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations

Posted in Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 1:53 am by egalitaria

   Last Thursday I was invited to speak on a panel at the Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations (HPAIR) on the topic of “Do Human Rights & Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?” It was a great crowd of highly intellectual students from universities in Asia. I was impressed they had such a high-calibre series of speakers, including Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary General of ASEAN (former Deputy PM of Thailand); and Perak Crown Prince Raja Nazrin.

It was good fun, speaking on the panel with friend and fellow combat partner Elina Noor from ISIS KL, who spoke on the security aspect of social justice and national priorities. I don’t think I presented all my points thoroughly, but here is the gist of what I said:

  1. In an ideal world, social justice objectives should be mainstreamed into national objectives, and both should converge easily.
  2. This holds true even for developmental frameworks that have been proposed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) amongst others.
  3. However, this is not the case and we all know it. Asian countries in particular have been struggling to balance the two, often at the expense of fundamental liberties.
  4. I gave reasons for this: mainly to do with how governments choose responsibilities over rights; economic stability over political freedoms (“rice before rights”); national sovereignty and non-interference principle akin to ASEAN; lack of political will.
  5. Another issue is the multiethnic aspect of societies, certainly true in Malaysia. I also said that traditional nation-states like Korea and Japan should also start examining this issue, since ethnic minorities although very very minimal will start to emerge as they liberalise their economies – and they had better start thinking about how to balance different national priorities.
  6. I didn’t give any solutions. But I did say that economic rights are to improve the living conditions of individuals and that governments should actively involve themselves in the allocation of public resources.
  7. We should be working towards achieving these ideals, where both objectives converge. Even where they fail, this should be the plan/vision/mission in mind.

Full text of my speech is here…

HPAIR, 21st August 2008, PJ Hilton, Malaysia


Do Human Rights and Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?


Tricia Yeoh[1]


1.         Good afternoon to all present. Thank you Kim and the rest from HPAIR for inviting me to present some of my views at this esteemed conference. This panel’s duty is to make sense of the session’s title, “Do Human Rights and Social Justice Objectives Conflict with other National Priorities?”, and I will be speaking specifically on the balance between economic and developmental goals and human rights protection – first more generally as interactive themes, and then specifically in relation to the region and country I am most familiar with; Asia, and Malaysia.


2.                  Let me begin by presenting two worlds to you. In an ideal world, there should be no incompatibility between human rights principles and a country’s economic and developmental goals. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)[2] contains principles that could coincide with any country’s national objectives. These include ensuring the right of each person to employability, education and the freedom to pursue economic and social development. In this particular world, human rights principles would be mainstreamed into national economic policy as far as possible. Similarly, emphasis would be given to social justice, narrowing the gap between socioeconomic inequalities between communities.


3.                  Now let us assume that we are still living in this first utopian world, and that as policymakers we have adopted an equally idealistic framework – the developmental one. The developmental framework traces its way from the OECD goals of the post-Cold War mid 1990’s to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) adopted by the UN, and hence many developing countries, today – inclusive of Southeast Asia. Here you will find emphasis placed on poverty reduction, access to water and basic amenities, literacy and governance. Action is taken to advance the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children, the disabled, and minority groups.


Except for some differences to do with approach, there is no fundamental problem in blending a developmental framework with a human rights one. In fact, they converge because they share similar principles on expected outcomes. Some shared values are participation, empowerment, consultation and partnership amongst civil society, governments and academics. So far, so good. A rights-based approach to development seems to work well in this little world as well.


4.                  But such a world paints too simplistic a picture. In many East Asian countries, we stumble time and again despite efforts to practice this approach. This is the second, more realistic world that we are all well aware of; one that exchanges democracy for economic efficiency; right of expression for a stable environment and national development. Countries like Burma are examples of how the situation swings to the far end of the spectrum. In these situations, social justice objectives did seem to conflict with national objectives. What were the reasons for this, given that a rights-based developmental approach seemed acceptable as argued above?


5.                  The first major debate is whether rights or duties should come first. More conservative governments would advocate that responsibilities to the state and to other human beings would precede rights. This approach would resound amongst the Asian community that practices a greater communal value system. Hence, whilst economic development of all citizens is a national objective, the primary focus of governments would be their responsibility to facilitate stable political environments, resulting in conditions favourable for the flourishing of the economy.


6.                  Compare the approaches used by Russia and China, post Cold-War years. Russia’s then leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ahead of his time and attempted introducing perestroika and glasnost (openness) of both political and economic environments simultaneously. In a nutshell, its citizens were not ready for it having lived under a closed environment for too long, eventually lost confidence in the government and his leadership collapsed. China on the other hand has liberalised the economy at the cost of individual freedoms on the political front, and look where it is today. Having said that, “Asian values” is an excuse many governments use to justify authoritarian oppression and limit freedoms. For other Asian countries to use China as a human rights example is worrying. Hence in this region, economic and social rights have been more readily accepted than civil and political rights have been, holding true to the mantra of “rice before rights”.


7.                  A second reason often cited by Asian countries is their advocacy of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs. For such countries, whenever there is a conflict between international human rights standards and national practices, the latter takes precedence over the former. Malaysia, for example, has a whole list of Acts that have been criticised as being largely repressive. This includes the Internal Security Act[3], the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the University and University Colleges Act, and the Sedition Act. These although contravening international human rights laws, still exist and are justified based on national sovereignty. Each time an issue emerges and the international community reacts critically, national leaders rise in a huff and puff, claiming self-autonomy. This is usually done for political show – realpolitik at play. Again, the issue of whether economic stability as a national priority should be emphasised over and beyond political expression.


8.                  However, even when civil and political rights are sidestepped to advance economic, social and cultural rights, many countries falter. I will spend a bit more time exploring this area, since the national human rights institutions[4] in Asia deal primarily with these issues. Crucial working groups in the region focus on these developmental areas of social justice: women’s rights, child rights, refugees, people with disabilities, elderly and minorities and indigenous people. In order to advance economically, these groups must be taken care of sufficiently – and yes – they are part of national priority but only theoretically.


9.                  Several spanners are thrown into the works here, where in most countries in the region, there lacks serious political will to deal with problems facing the above issues. After tasting economic wealth and progress, governments eventually fail to look out for the best interests of such disadvantaged communities. The lack of structures and systems to resolve distortions resulting from liberalised economies further exacerbates this. Add to this the excessive and largely unaudited behaviour of exclusive community interests, you then get a nation that firstly is drawn into profiteering by greed (benefitting only certain individuals) and secondly lacks the systems of governance to deal with this.


10.              In this context, why are social justice objectives seldom successfully achieved? Using Malaysia as a case study, exclusive community interests in the form of ethnicity have been used as a justification tool for the past three decades. The Bumiputera community (made up of Malays and other indigenous groups) have had an affirmative action policy since 1971 to elevate their status economically. This has been taken to be a national priority, ironically for social justice objectives, growing the wealth of a community that was before underprivileged.


Unfortunately, it has come as a cost to other minority communities, including the Indians, the Orang Asli (indigenous), and Chinese, since policies have worked to their disadvantage. Here, how “national priority” is defined is becoming trickier, since the priority of one party (Barisan Nasional) is not the same as another (Pakatan Rakyat); neither is the priority of one ethnicity (Malay) necessarily the same as the other ethnic groups. In this country, race is a political tool used to benefit certain portions of society, and as a result not all have equal access to economic advancement, even amongst the Malay community. The trick is being able to balance the majority interests whilst at the same time upholding human rights principles – but as we can see, these are structurally breaking down.


11.              A system of governance should have already been instituted, in the form of the Federal Constitution 1957. Along with other governance systems, Malaysia is thoroughly equipped. Its failure has been the steady erosion of key institutions, hence failing to adhere to the rule of law. This is a primary default of the country, making it difficult for any measure of social justice to be successfully achieved, even when these were part of national priority.


12.              I began by illustrating a perfect world where human rights and social justice values converged nicely with national economic and development objectives. I then introduced a more realistic world, in which countries compromise rights for economic stability and efficiency. In these countries, responsibilities trump rights. National sovereignty and Asian values are also often used in response. Finally, I showed that even where economic and social rights have taken precedence, this has also marginally failed. In Malaysia, there is a careful balance that has to be struck between all factors at play. This is the practical difficulty of governing a multiracial, multi-religious environment.


13.              Balancing economic growth with human rights and social justice has become a key challenge for governments across the globe, but one that must necessarily be dealt with. Whilst there is no silver bullet to resolve these conflicting tensions, the role of the State must be discussed openly. At present, Asian governments seem to play the facilitating role in providing economic liberalism so that the private sector can flourish. At the same time, it should also assume its responsibilities of providing social safety nets to ensure the marginalised do not fall through the system’s cracks.


14.              In conclusion, the image of the utopian world should not be dismissed completely. If the role of economic, social and cultural rights is to improve the living conditions of the individual, then the government is to actively involve itself in the destination and allocation of public resources – both needs and services. The ideal is for both social justice and national priorities to converge – and this ideal should be held in high esteem.


15.              With that, I thank you for your time and attention. I look forward to an interactive discussion with all, on this issue.



[1] Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute.

[2] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 3 January 1976.

[3] The Internal Security Act stipulates detention without trial.

[4] Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia have such national human rights institutions. Others that will be set up are in Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and South Korea.


1 Comment

  1. Jason Loh said,

    “In conclusion, the image of the utopian world should not be dismissed completely. If the role of economic, social and cultural rights is to improve the living conditions of the individual, then the government is to actively involve itself in the destination and allocation of public resources – both needs and services. The ideal is for both social justice and national priorities to converge – and this ideal should be held in high esteem.”

    The trick is getting the partisan political priorities with the national agendas to converge. Far too often politicians separate the two, and even subjugate the latter to the former! The challenge is for politicians to walk the talk. Perhaps, Gerakan might want to be the “first” political party to do so by leaving Barisan Nasional and wash its hands clean and start afresh. But for that happen, the denial symdrome so symptomatic and endemic of BN leaders must be purged. This depends on the party faithful, rank-and-file and the grassroots to vote with their feet. After all, all the talk about “conscience” is self-contradictory and meaningless if the “conscience” is clear that UMNO will always indulge in racism (to cover up for its corruption) to which there cannot be an assent but there is no follow-up action. This much is recognised (excluding the bracketed) by Gerakan. So, if the very basic “starting-point” is “repressed” by the top Gerakan leadership, why talk about “conscience” in the first place?

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