Human Rights in Asia
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Human Rights in Asia

Edited by Thomas W.D. Davis and Brian Galligan

Does the increasing prominence of Asia also mark a new era for human rights in the region? This timely book uncovers the political drivers behind both recent regional and country-based changes to the recognition, promotion and protection of rights.
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Chapter 6: Contesting Human Rights in Malaysia

Anthony Milner


Anthony Milner Malaysia – like Singapore – was prominent in the ‘Asian values’ campaign more than a decade ago, and the ‘human rights’ discourse tended, of course, to be portrayed by leaders of these countries as a central element in the competing Western agenda. Some commentators suggested that the 1997–98 Asian economic crisis finally discredited Asian exceptionalism. Others noted that Mahathir’s Malaysia had come through the crisis while defying the IMF, and that the crisis brought a strengthened China and new impetus to the type of Asian-led regionalism (including the ASEAN + 3 process, which began in 1998) that Mahathir had been advocating throughout the decade. It has also been argued that the values that Malaysian leaders cited as specifically ‘Asian’ – the importance of the individual as against the community, a stress on order above liberty, a refusal to divorce religion from other spheres of life, a condemnation of permissiveness and selfishness – are not merely convenient constructs, but deeply embedded in the Malay community (Kahn, 1997; Han Sung-Joo, 1999; Milner, 2000). The phrase ‘Asian values’ has certainly been used less often over the last few years, but in thinking about the progress of ‘human rights’ in Malaysia (and in many other countries in the Asian region) it would be misleading to ignore the continued potency of local values and perspectives. The role of religious and ethnic imperatives requires special attention. Another factor to be taken into account in considering the prospects for ‘human rights’ in Malaysia is the changing international relations...

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