“Asian Values”: a credible alternative to a universal conception of human rights,or a justification for restricting freedom of expression?

A recent High Court ruling has reignited fierce debate on Freedom of Expression in Singapore. Dr Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, has just lost his appeal to overturn a conviction for speaking in a public place without a licence. Sentenced to a fine of $20,000 or imprisonment of 20 weeks in default, the SDP leader is facing the very real risk that, incarcerated, he will be unable to lead his party in the forthcoming general elections.

Dr Chee’s case is symptomatic of a wider problem in Singapore: the systematic repression of the right to freedom of expression. On the issue of freedom of the press, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked:

“We cannot allow [the press] to assume a role in Singapore that the American media play to America, that of invigilator, adversary and inquisitor of the administration.”

The Singapore government has the power to appoint all members of staff and directors at Singapore Press Holdings Ltd (SPH), a corporation which owns all the general circulation newspapers and often employs journalists with prior government associations. The Newspaper and Printing Press Act restricts newspaper content and circulation, as seen in successful cases against the Asian Wall Street Journal, Time and Economist. Similarly the Broadcast Act prohibits foreign media commenting on domestic issues. This regulation has created a tendency towards self-censorship among the media.

Criminal and civil defamation laws permit imprisonment, fines and damages which have exceeded $5.8 million.[i] The government have made increasing use of the defamation laws to those who report or express dissenting views. In November 2010, Alan Shadrake was convicted of  contempt of court, for his critical review of Singapore’s death penalty law and administration in his book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock”. He also faces separate charges of criminal defamation, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a hefty fine. 

Singapore has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but as a member state of the United Nations is bound to respect “fundamental human rights”. But who decides these rights? Many commentators will argue that they are those enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, in which Freedom of Expression is guaranteed by Article 19.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stressed that freedom of expression ensures the free political debate essential to democracy[ii] and has expressed concern that overbearing government controls of the media are incompatible with Freedom of Expression.

The Singapore government’s view is different. They have long asserted that human rights principles and conceptions are dominated by Western perceptions and argue for an “Asian Values” interpretation of human rights. This has been characterised as the assertion of the primacy of duty to the community over individual rights and the expectation of trust in authority and dominance of the state leaders.

Crucially for Dr Chee and Alan Shandrake, it translates to the precedence of economic and social rights over the political right to freedom of expression. According to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, this theory, known as the “liberty trade-off”, asserts that:

“Asian governments are justified in restricting civil and political rights in some circumstances in favour of social stability and economic growth. Civil and political rights are immaterial when people are destitute and society is unstable.  Accordingly, as luxuries to be enjoyed once there is social order, civil and political liberties must be temporarily suspended so as to not inhibit the government’s delivery of economic and social necessities and so as to not threaten or destroy future development plans.”

Whilst this argument may have been slightly more palatable if Singapore’s citizens were, in fact destitute, the reality is that Singapore is ranked as one of the world’s wealthiest countries and boasts a high life expectancy. Thus in Singapore’s case, arguments made in favour of a “liberty trade-off” are rendered completely untenable.

The “Asian Values” hypothesis is equally suspect. The UDHR recognises the universal applicability of human rights and any nation party to this treaty is not permitted to restrict rights purely on cultural, religious or political grounds.

The recent murder of gay rights campaigner David Kato who campaigned tirelessly against the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” in Uganda, highlighted the potential clash between international standards of human rights and cultural specific attitudes. The draft bill broadens the prohibition the criminalisation of homosexuality and introduces the death penalty in certain circumstances.  Even against a backdrop of culturally systemic homophobia, regarded as “un-African” and enshrined in the penal code, which makes homosexual acts illegal, the United Nations has been quick to condemn the new bill as “draconian” and “blatantly discriminatory”, warning that if enacted, the bill would bring Uganda into a “direct collision” with established international human rights standards aimed at preventing discrimination.

Similarly, even in the face of blatant and shocking human rights abuses, those who oppose a normative standard of fundamental rights will defend violations. In Afghanistan, footage has recently emerged of a woman being stoned to death after she ran away from an arranged marriage.  A religious justification and general suspicion of alternative values was forthcoming from a Taliban spokesman:

“Stoning is in the Koran, and that it is Islamic law. There are people who call it inhuman – but in doing so they insult the Prophet. They want to bring foreign thinking to this country.”

Although perhaps more stark, these cultural and religious justifications for violating rights are as unacceptable as Singapore’s purported assertion of an “Asian Values” conception of human rights. Even though the Singapore government’s language is more subtle, their arguments amount to same basic tenet: the purported justification of the denial of fundamental human rights, by reference to cultural, religious or political specific norms. Speaking recently in New York, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon warned against such an interpretation of human rights:

 “Yes, we recognize that social attitudes run deep.  Yes, social change often comes only with time.  Yet, let there be no confusion: where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day. ”

The universal and fundamental nature of human rights is the founding principle on which the United Nations was built: the right to freedom of expression must be guaranteed, “Asian Values” notwithstanding.


[i] Lee Kuan Yew v. Tang Liang Hong and other actions (1997) [1997] 2 Singapore Law Review 819. Case unavailable online. Please see here for an informal case summary.

[ii] Castells v Spain, 24 April 1992, Application No. 11798/85, para. 43

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3 Responses to ““Asian Values”: a credible alternative to a universal conception of human rights,or a justification for restricting freedom of expression?”


  1. 1 BryanT February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    “Even for the ongoing episode, except for some purported donations to help CSJ pay for the fines, NONE of the Opposition leaders have some come out openly and proudly to argue against why he should not be convicted for what he did.

    As for the people who did donate to keep him out of jail, they have done him a great disservice.

    But avoiding a jail sentence, the outpourings from international NGOs would now be much muted. Imagine the impact had he gone to jail. For the comfort of staying out of jail, CSJ would miss the opportunity to bask in international limelight as an imprisoned martyr – an imagery that he craves for himself.

    Too bad for SDP, these international NGOs don’t get to vote at the GE.”

    .. my views are here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?saved&&note_id=10150100959218977


  1. 1 Singaporean government should drop politically motivated charges against Chee Soon Juan – Human Rights Watch | Jacob 69er Trackback on February 9, 2011 at 1:25 am
  2. 2 Trade knees off « serialdeviant.org(y) Trackback on February 24, 2011 at 11:48 am

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