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Asian Values: dead or alive?

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Asian values along with its proponents mainly from Singapore and Malaysia had their day in the 1990s to become an unfashionable topic in the following decade. I don’t think Asian values were brought up as a valid alternative to human rights. As a concept, they complement human rights and provide constructive criticism, which should serve to improve current human rights regime. The significance and outcome of Asian values dispute, conveying the new confidence that emerged in Asia, and signalizing that some nations don’t want to put up with the Western dominance anymore, or as Kishore Mahbubani put it: "Asians can think".

The University of Helsinki organized a seminar on Asian values in 2007, which resulted in publishing a book Human Rights in Asia: a Reassessment of the Asian Values Debate. The academics who participated in the Helsinki seminar shared a common view that although the term ‘Asian values’ has already expired, "the core issues persisted, however subtly, in public debates in and on Asia" (Avonius & Kingsbury, 2008). Asian values, although not employed as a political concept directly, still underpin Asian politics of non-interference, especially when human rights violations occur in a neighboring country, and ‘cultural difference’ rhetoric to explicate why some social or political issues were not tackled.

Although Singaporean and Malaysian politicians were most vocal in the debate on Asian values, the notion was clearly echoed in other countries. China came up with its own version of ‘Chinese values’, and although didn’t deny universality of human rights, it made clear that civil and political rights were second-order rights to be implemented only after strong economic base had been developed. Asian values were fit for China also owing to their Confucian connotations. Confucianism has become increasingly popular concept among Chinese politicians to fill up the value vacuum created after the fall of hard-line communism.

Conversely, for the sake of Confucianism, Asian values debate didn’t grow big in Japan due to the fact that "there is a general negative association of Confucianism with ‘feudalism’ in Japan"(Ibid). However, some Japanese academics did engage in the discourse. Prof. Yasuaki Onuma came up with the intercivilizational framework to human rights, which is based on intercivilizational dialogue and releases human rights regime from the "West-centrism in the form of civil-rights centrism" (Bauer&Bell, 1999). Readings of Yasuaki Onuma are a good counterbalance for the article of Amatra Sen Asian Values.1 He considers tracing human rights in the history of non-Western cultures and questioning whether they existed in Islam, Buddhism, or Confucianism naïve, and argues that the idea of human rights has always been qualified.

The point is not to inquire the origin of human rights, but to focus on the further universalizing human rights. Human rights as we know them today were born in Europe (although non-Western societies also had its own mechanism to protect well-being of humans) to protect an individual from oppression of the state, but they gradually evolved to a more comprehensive concept to adapt to humans in a global dimension (development of the second and the third generation of rights). Asian values debate should be seen as a contribution to liberating human rights regime form the dichotomy of "Western universalism" and "non-Western particularism".

Finally, it is questionable whether imposing human rights is a practical strategy given that "universal values are only universal in a Platonic sense" (East Asia Forum, October 10, 2010). To rephrase, values may be universal in theory, but in practice they find concrete expression as systems transform and evolve.

"The adaptation of universal values to a particular context can be achieved only by the society as a whole. It is this that makes them universal." (Ibid)

In conclusion, it may be risky to dismiss the role of cultural perspectives in implementing human rights regime, or as Anthony Miller put it: "I think he is right [Mahbubani] to see the ‘Asian values’ debate of the 1999’s as only one episode in a much longer process of international, cultural reconfiguration" (1999).

  1. Avonius, L. & Kingsbury, D. (2008). Human Rights in Asia: a Reassessment of the Asian Values Debate. Palgrave Macmillian: New York.
  2. Bauer, J.R. & Bell, D.A.(1999). The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Kelly, D. (October 11, 2010). Liu Xiaobo and universal values. East Asia Forum. Retrieved on October 20 from http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2010/10/11/liu-xiaobo-and-universal-values/
  4. Mahbubani,K. (1998) Can Asians think? K. Marshall Cavendish: Singapore
  5. Mahbubani, K. (2008). The New Asian Hemisphere. Public Affairs: New York.
  6. Milner, A. (1999). What’s Happened to Asian Values? Australian National University. Faculty of Asian Studies. Retrieved on October 20 from http://dspace.anu.edu.au/html/1885/41912/values.html
1 The essay In Quest of Intercivilizational Human Rights and a chapter titled Toward an Intercivilizational Approach Human Rights included in the volume of Bauer and Bell (in the references)

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