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Universalism challenged - human rights and Asian values

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Thursday, 1 February 2007

I was raised in a very traditional Chinese family in Australia. My values and ethics are a convergence of two different cultures. As I get older I realise that human rights, while universal in their application, can’t be universal in their acceptance because of who we are, where we come from and what we believe. This is not necessarily a problem, but we must understand that our ethics and values are not homogenous and it is culture that poses the challenge to the universality of human rights.

The universality of human rights today has come into conflict with some of the oldest traditions in human history. The emergence of China and India, both economically and socially has meant western culture has had to engage with a different ethical structure that I call “Asian values”. This development has sparked some debate about common sets of values and who has the right to impose values upon others.

Clearly, a general view of an Asian value system would argue that its ideals are not drawn from the more individualistic notion of human rights that is common within western culture.


In reality, our ideals and values are diverse as ever. This makes for a healthy democracy. But, how then do we develop policy to reflect diversity. Even human rights, which we assume in the West are universal, may be different depending on one’s culture, religion or family. Asian values have influenced and governed the lives of Asian cultures for centuries and as history has shown, its success is in its survival.

Rather than focusing on individualism and democracy, Asian values provide greater emphasis on the moral and collective duties of a human being. The notion of rights is based more around “duties” to other human beings. These can be to parents, friends, traditions and the greater interest of the community, which are the main concerns in most Asian cultures and societies.

To sum it up, the community takes precedence over individuals, social and economic rights take precedence over civil and political rights and rights themselves are a matter of national sovereignty.

For example, my parents instilling the importance of a good education is not about my individual achievement, but about representing my family and focusing on what my achievements bring to others. A good education leads to gaining a promising job, which in turns brings prestige and honour to the family and the capacity to support them into the future. Family forms the core value of my responsibilities.

My decision to continue to live with my parents and assisting in taking responsibility of paying bills shows a strong sign of the duties emphasised in Asian cultures. Rather than fight the idea that the money I earn is mine, I accept that my role is to contribute to the family and community in which I live. These obligations and commitments to duties don’t fit within a generally accepted human rights framework, as I understand it.

The Asian values challenge to the universality of human rights can be seen in three terms: cultural, economic and political. Culturally, they assert that the Western approach ignores the specific cultural traditions and historical circumstances of Asian societies.


Economically, they maintain that the priority of developing Asian societies is to eradicate poverty and the right to survival must come first.

And politically, having political stability under a capable leadership of good governance is essential to the survival of a nation and its culture.

This doesn’t mean that Asian values support dictatorships, it just means people who are bounded by these values tend to work for the continuation of its culture and the growth of the nation, rather than for individual gains.

For example, the continuation of Lee Kuan Yew’s prime ministership is seen as a breach of democratic values, but in terms of Asian culture the continuation of his leadership ensures substantial and uninterrupted growth for Singapore. The criticisms of Asian societies’ human rights record has shown that observers fail to acknowledge other elements and values that Asian cultures promote.

There has been a controversial belief that the concept of human rights is, by and large, a Western cultural norm, which is often at odds with non-Western cultures and therefore, not applicable in non-Western societies. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects this deep-rooted and popular assumption. It is culture, not the political, religious or ethnicity that is providing as the main obstacle to achieving a universal system of human rights. We should not all pursue human rights in the same way.

It is vital that observers acknowledge the cultural diversity and relativism that exists among societies. A call for cross-cultural dialogue and cross-national engagements on the universality of human rights is needed. Western societies should acknowledge the fact that other cultures have their own beliefs and systems of living.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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