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asean discourse & asian values Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006

ASEAN Discourse: The Rhetoric of Human Rights and Asian Values

Claire Sutherland
University of Manchester

In politics, each opposing party or political force tries to win general acceptance for its own discourse type [...] The stake is more than 'mere words'; it is controlling the contours of the political world (Fairclough 1989, 90).
1. The rousing rhetoric of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the early 1990s did much to fuel a debate on the specificity of so-called 'Asian values' and their contribution to regional development. In a provocative conference speech on 'Rethinking Human Rights' delivered in Kuala Lumpur in 1994, Mahathir queried; "What, we are asked, are Asian values? The question is rhetorical because the implication is that Asians cannot possibly understand human rights, much less set up their own values" (Makaruddin 2000, 207). The present article sets out to explore the accuracy of this statement relative to the Association of South-East Asian Nations' (ASEAN) current position on human rights. It asks how ASEAN understands human rights, and whether it has made moves towards 'setting up its own values'. Since 1996, ASEAN has been collaborating with an informal coalition of working groups aiming to establish a human rights mechanism in the region. Efforts in this direction have been influenced by debates surrounding the difference, if any, between a specifically South-East Asian reading of human rights and the concept of universal human rights.

2. The article places ASEAN's human rights discourse in a post-structuralist theoretical framework and discusses the context in which it evolves, before going on to look at a specific case of ASEAN rhetoric, which is in stark contrast to Mahathir's approach. The focus will be on discourse and ideology, as embedded within discourse theory and expressed through the rhetoric of ASEAN elites. Itself a notoriously vague term, the concept of discourse has been not only clarified, but also reconciled with ideology by Laclau and Mouffe (2001). It will serve to analyse the relationship between Asian values, ASEAN and human rights. Do South-East Asian understandings of human rights merely express a general distrust of Western government discourse, or is an alternative reading being developed to that of 'the West'? The article concludes that ASEAN has yet to develop a hegemonic human rights discourse, and that the Asian values approach is only one of several routes being taken towards establishing a 'common sense' understanding of human rights in the region. Mahathir's pronouncements only coincide to a limited extent with the subtle and varied discourse influencing ASEAN, and his flamboyant style as a self-appointed spokesman for Asian values does not reflect the attitudes expressed in some quieter, lesser-known rhetoric.  

Ideology, Rhetoric and Discourse Theory

3. The work of post-structuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida helped to reorient literary criticism by highlighting the ideological nature of texts and their place in a discursively constructed society (Tredell 1987), within which possible meanings circulate between the reader, the text itself and 'common sense' discourse (Belsey 1980). According to this reading, the aim of literary criticism is no longer to uncover the essence of a text, its mirroring of 'reality' or the intention of the author, but to examine instead how text production corresponds to the creation of an identity, a subject, a discursive 'whole'. However, Derrida went beyond the deconstruction of texts in his aim to subvert the very logic on which they were premised. The post-modern philosophical movement to which he belonged was very much a political one (cf. Eagleton 1983, 194). 'The class of 1968' (Rivkin & Ryan 1998), also including thinkers such as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva and Foucault, was "less interested in knowing how systems worked than in finding out how they might be undone, so that the energies and potentials that they held in place might be liberated and used to construct an altogether different kind of society" (Rivkin & Ryan 1998, 334).

4. The 'assimilationist thesis' (Cooper 1993) holds that there is no truth to be found, only an ideological interpretation of the truth. In turn, emphasis on the ideological grounding of all texts has brought about the blurring of interdisciplinary boundaries. If even 'scientific' texts express ideologies, then, the language they use may be evaluated according to how well it persuades us of the apparent 'truth' or correctness of an interpretation of reality. The following analysis derives from this theoretical approach. Ideology is defined here as a flexible, adaptable, but internally coherent belief system that offers a simple, interpretative explanation of society coupled with practical measures for maintaining, reforming or revolutionising the political status quo (Sutherland 2006, 75). It is therefore important to understand the dynamics of ideologies, or how they interact with conflicting Weltanschauungen, as well as their contents:

[Ideology] effects a decontestation of the political concepts it employs by means of a combination of logical and cultural proximities among them, which prioritize certain concepts over others, and certain meanings of each concept over other meanings. The external manifestation of this thought practice is a unique conceptual configuration that competes over its legitimacy with other conceptual configurations (Freeden 2000, 307).  

The notion of conceptual configurations points towards the empirical study of ideology as a construct. Elsewhere, Michael Freeden (1996, 55) takes up the phrase 'essentially contested concepts', first coined by Gallie (1962), to convey a sense of rival ideologies competing to decontest the meaning of core concepts. This, in turn, has parallels with the dynamics theorised about in some strands of post-structuralist thought.

5. Freeden's work has been explicitly related to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's discourse theory (Norval 2000, 326), according to which ideology is a form of discourse geared towards decontesting concepts in order to create the illusion that social structures are unified and thus 'real' (Laclau & Mouffe 2001). Laclau and Mouffe describe ideology as constructing a system of interrelated differences that are presented as fixed and immutable in order to hide their contingency and vulnerability to being superseded by a rival project competing for 'conceptual hegemony'; "The work of ideology is to present the subject as fixed and unchangeable, an element in a given system of differences which is human nature and the world of human experience" (Belsey 1980, 90). Laclau and Mouffe are post-structuralist insofar as they see discourse not as a closed totality, but rather as a concentration of floating signifiers, which actors compete to mould into meaningful configurations. In their terminology, an 'antagonism' denotes the limit of a society, in other words the point of friction between discourses. Its presence brings the hegemonic order into question. A successful 'articulation', defined as "any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result" (Laclau & Mouffe 2001, 105), will result in new 'hegemonic', or apparently 'common sense' concepts.

6. Discourse theory offers a useful set of concepts for the empirical analysis of ideology within the wider context of discourse, in contrast to Foucault who neglects to integrate ideology or its agents into his 'archaeology' of knowledge (Taylor 1984, 168; Sutherland 2005, 188). It views society as a contingent construct in which relationships between concepts are formed, propagated and maintained by means of institutions, language, customs and practices. Taken together to mean discourse, these elements form the supporting framework which serves temporarily to fix social identities, thereby providing an illusion of certainty and stability. In the same vein, Howarth (1995, 132) describes institutions as "sedimented discourse", a definition which can usefully be applied to ASEAN. Political elites play a central role in interpreting, channelling and adapting discourse to further their own ideological projects. Ultimately, their aim is to make their ideological interpretations the crucial identifiers in a given political arena, and thus achieve conceptual hegemony . This is rarely an equal contest. For instance, Stuart Hall (1998) has applied discourse theory to the contested concepts shaping the immigration debate in the United Kingdom, highlighting the difficulties of marginalized groups in rearticulating 'common sense' understandings. The following discussion of human rights discourse in ASEAN will also be informed by discourse theory.

7. ASEAN human rights discourse includes practices such as the 'ASEAN way' and institutional consultation with the ASEAN working group for a human rights mechanism, as well as the language of treaties and political statements. Some strands of ASEAN discourse seem to express an ideological interpretation of society incompatible with dominant, 'Western' understandings of human rights and regional integration. At this level of analysis, discourse can be characterised as long-range 'grand discourse', understood as "an assembly of discourses, ordered and presented as an integrated frame" (Alvesson & Karreman 2000, 1133). Rather like Foucault's juxtaposition of an archaeology of all-pervasive power with localised 'genealogies of power' (Barrett 1991, 132), long-range discourse can be contrasted to the short-range analysis of 'micro discourse' through text. As in the "syntax of hegemony" discussed by Michael Billig (1995, 88), this places the study of language within a wider theoretical framework; "Speech and writing are themselves but internal components of discursive totalities" (Laclau & Mouffe 1987, 4). Empirical work on localised discourse thus feeds into long range theory-building and vice versa. Applied to the analysis of ideology; " It can be assumed that the ways of thinking, which are created by and within ideology, are themselves inherently rhetorical. Similarly, the use of rhetoric will itself reflect the patternings of ideology" (Billig 1991, 3).

8. The linguistic manifestation of a political ideology is an archetypally rhetorical one in that it aims to convince and convert. To look at a text in terms of its rhetorical features is "probably the oldest form of literary criticism in the world" (Eagleton 1983, 205). Language constitutes the raw material used to express an ideology, and rhetoric is the means to mould language into a pleasing, persuasive and effective form. As such, the study of rhetoric provides a means of access to a text in its specificity, and therefore constitutes the hinge between the theory of discourse and empirical analysis. Michael Billig (1991, 2) refers to post-modernity's repudiation of the premises of scientific modernity as "the rhetorical turn." The desire to expose modernity as ideological and transcend its characteristically binary thinking (Eagleton 1983, 133) is central to the work of Derrida and Foucault and explicit in the term post-modernism itself. Stripped of the assumptions and pejorative meaning attributed to it by the modernist paradigm, rhetoric can be seen as an organisational and presentational technique which aims to arrange arguments informatively and persuasively. To this end, all manner of stylistic tricks are employed in order to convince, move and win over an audience. Although some of these may be concerned with oral delivery - emphasis, pace, tone and so on - just as many involve syntax and structure, which also play a central role in expressing the speaker's thought. From pathos to polemic, the mood of a speech can thus be gleaned from a written transcript.

9. Rhetoric is an art in that the attractiveness of a proposition matters more than its plausibility. But then again, the art of the rhetorician lies precisely in making his or her proposition appear plausible. This represents a fundamental dynamic of the politics of loyalty and recalls the paradoxical nature of any ideological project. Ideologies masquerade as the truth, and rhetoric is their disguise. The use of text analysis as a research method is dictated by an understanding of rhetoric as a technique, which in turn is informed by a conception of ideology defined according to discourse theory. The form of rhetoric has moved from oral delivery in Classical times, through dependence on a printed version in the early modern period, to a post-modern fragmentation in which speeches reach most people distilled into soundbites or accompanied by visual images to create a technologically enhanced whole (Corcoran 1979). The analysis of textual fragments within the limited scope of an academic article thus becomes a meaningful exercise. Close textual analysis representing all the conflicting ideological strands of a debate is not feasible in this context, but provides a basis for larger-scale research.

ASEAN Human Rights Discourse in Context

10. The analysis of ASEAN rhetoric, practices and institution-building undertaken here helps to illuminate the human rights discourse being developed by political elites in ASEAN member states, thereby shedding light on the ideological interpretations underlying these debates. Laclau and Mouffe (2001) emphasise the contingency of discourse and the instability of meaning, entailing the ultimate 'unfixity' of identity construction. Political elites are thus engaged in a constant struggle to establish their ideology as dominant, or hegemonic, to be generally accepted by a given society until successfully challenged by another world-view. In turn, "to analyse an ideology (as distinct from to participate in formulating one) is to categorise, elucidate and decode the ways in which collectivities in fact think about politics" (Freeden 2000, 304). The principal agents of ideology are political leaders and parties, since they combine the (potential) power to implement strategy with the world-view to justify their actions. Focusing on political elites is well-suited to ASEAN, which continues to be elite-driven. The dynamics of articulation, conceptual hegemony and antagonistic practices structure investigation into and comparison of competing ideological constructs, whilst allowing each to be appreciated in its specificity.

11. ASEAN has not yet reached a sensitive stage of deep integration comparable to that of the European Union (EU), where issues such as monetary policy and constitutional rights are at stake. Nevertheless, tentative steps are being taken in both these directions with the establishment of the Asian Free Trade Agreement and consultations regarding an Asian human rights mechanism. The latter could potentially trump attacks from the Western 'Other' on ASEAN's neglect of human rights issues, thereby creating a positive source of identification where now there are only demands for non-interference. ASEAN's ten member states, despite their differences, pull together as soon as an outside source provides a minor irritant (Haacke 2003).[1] All members look back on a history of outside control and, with the exception of Thailand, outright colonisation. ASEAN is thus particularly important to these states as a marker and guarantor of their external sovereignty. Indeed, the 'ASEAN way' refers to a culture of non-interference in member state affairs and decision-making by consensus, despite unsuccessful attempts by the likes of the Philippines to move towards a more robust doctrine of 'constructive engagement'. These ASEAN principles can be understood as moments of 'grand discourse' developed and institutionalised through the ideological work of government elites. Their interpretations serve to decontest concepts such as sovereignty and integration in the name of ASEAN.

12. Rodolfo Severino, a former secretary general of ASEAN, has referred to the organisation as a "cohesive mass" (cited in Jones 2004, 141). This description still smacks more of aspiration than reality, although factors such as the regional growth in low-cost airlines and the use of English - the organisation's common language - are so many practical indicators of improved communications.[2] The process of ASEAN integration thus far remains elite-driven, with no attempt to gauge the support of public opinion (Du-Chel 2000). Yet ASEAN discourse paints a picture of 'unity of diversity', and the organization has taken steps towards informing and engaging the public. Regular cultural events such as song contests, festivals, exhibitions, sporting events and other competitions are organised under the aegis of ASEAN (Mertes 2004). The first ASEAN beauty pageant, which took place on the 19 th of March 2005, is one example. The biennial ASEAN culture week, inaugurated in 2002, is another. Furthermore, ASEAN has developed plans to address the young by introducing information about the organisation into primary education curricula (Jones 2004, 142). Additional educational initiatives to spread awareness of human rights have also been launched.

13. The issue of human rights is a controversial one for ASEAN to tackle. To take but one example, the Vietnamese government executed at least sixty-four people in 2004 according to official figures - including two for economic crimes - although Amnesty International believes the actual number to be much higher.[3] In 2006, twenty-one people were executed by firing squad and sixty-five sentenced to death in Vietnam.[4] Cambodia's judicial system is particularly weak and human rights abuses in Myanmar have long been a bone of contention between ASEAN and the EU, among others. Nevertheless, ASEAN seems to be taking the lead in asserting itself as the voice of a South-East Asian perspective on human rights. Some see the current process of consultation concerning an ASEAN human rights mechanism as a counterweight to Western interpretations of allegedly universal human rights, which have long been dominant in the international arena. This is by no means a hegemonic interpretation within ASEAN, however.

14. Citizenship rights are still severely limited in ASEAN member states such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. In Singapore, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's belief that aspects of democracy can destabilise and thus hinder economic development continues to influence government thinking. The recent coup in Thailand testifies that constitutional rights are not guaranteed there. ASEAN's progress still derives primarily from the pursuit of member states' national interests, especially in a region of post-colonial states whose legitimacy, let alone that of their leaders, cannot be taken for granted. The necessities of nation-building naturally trump regional altruism wherever the two do not coincide. Nevertheless, member state rhetoric, at least, seems to have overtaken realist analyses of the 1990s, which deemed there was not enough loyalty to go round (Boisseau du Rocher 1998, 18). This is evident in pledges to support socio-cultural community-building, for instance. Attempts to turn what has long been a bone of contention, namely human rights issues, into a positive marker of ASEAN solidarity, could also strengthen both the security and socio-cultural pillars of future integration. Indeed, remarks made at the fourth workshop for an ASEAN human rights mechanism point to the projected ASEAN Security Community as the appropriate field for entrenching such a mechanism.[5]  

15. In ASEAN's Plan of Action agreed at the 2004 Vientiane summit, the promotion of human rights features under political development as part of a wide-ranging package of initiatives for 2004 to 2010. Concrete measures include completing stocktaking and establishing a network of existing mechanisms, elaborating an instrument and a commission on the rights of migrants, women and children, and finally promoting human rights education. An independent coalition of working groups for establishing a human rights mechanism (hereafter the working group) has already been engaged in formulating policy for the last ten years and regularly meets with ASEAN representatives. It should be noted, however, that only half of ASEAN's ten member states have national working groups; Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei are not represented. The options discussed within the forum range from a declaration of principles to a regional commission and/or a court, which could have either a specific or general remit.[6] ASEAN foreign ministers agreed in 1993 that the establishment of a mechanism should be considered, the policy rationale partly being to avoid foreign interference. As stated in the working group's report to the 31st ASEAN ministerial meeting in 1998:

The lack of an ASEAN mechanism implies that while the region is exposed to monitoring from sources outside the region, there are few opportunities for the region to take stock of human rights developments from the standpoint of ASEAN. Establishing such a mechanism would thus enable the ASEAN perspective to be better understood by outsiders.[7]

16. This understanding of the 'ASEAN perspective' could be summarised as a greater emphasis on so-called second generation human rights, such as the right to subsistence, development and work, than first generation political and civil rights (Kermarec 2003, 189). Basic human rights such as freedom of speech and opinion are thus subordinated to the principle of non-interference in general and the pressing need for economic development in particular. According to this reading, a human rights commission would do much to institutionalise the 'Asian values' debate, thereby turning ASEAN's negative, wary stance on what it sees as Eurocentric interference into a positive articulation of human rights as a 'moment' of ASEAN discourse. In Laclau and Mouffe's terminology, linguistic 'elements' become interdependent 'moments' once articulated within a discourse. Establishing new relationships between elements is, therefore, equivalent to redefining a given discourse. The next section will look in more detail at the place of Asian values in ASEAN discourse.

17. ASEAN member states consider poverty to be a major obstacle to human rights and have thus resolutely resisted attempts by some EU member states to add a social clause to trade agreements (Kermarec 2003, 163). Being held accountable in this way is regarded as an unacceptable encroachment on ASEAN states' sovereignty. The eradication of poverty through job creation has thus been upheld as a higher priority than worker protection, for instance. Some states, such as Singapore and Vietnam, put public order and stability before individual rights, although this approach is not shared by the Philippines and, until recently, Thailand (Tinio 2004, 46). Thailand's 1997 constitution included the creation of a human rights commission, adding to those in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. This concrete step provided further support to long-standing efforts to move the human rights debate forward in the region, with an ASEAN human rights mechanism being the ultimate goal. To this end, regular workshops and meetings have taken place with the support of German, Japanese and Canadian donors. The working group also has partnerships with the Asia foundation and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund.[8] One initiative, organised under the auspices of the Filipino Ministry of Education, was a series of so-called 'writeshops', during which teachers from ASEAN countries collaborated in developing lesson plans on the subject of human rights, to then be collated and published.[9]   

18. In 1998, ASEAN ministers officially noted the working group's proceedings.[10] In 2000, several outside observers, including Australia's then foreign minister, noted a wind of change surrounding the issue, suggesting that the prospect of a human rights mechanism was not as fanciful as it once seemed.[11] Nevertheless, its basis and structure have yet to be agreed upon by the academic, government, parliamentary and NGO representatives composing the working group. Training for legal staff, further education, advocacy and an inter-governmental human rights commission have all been proposed as ways forward. Although the working group has stated its wish to work in concert with civil society, an ASEAN human rights mechanism is unlikely to filter into the public consciousness. Even a regional commission is likely to remain as remote to the bulk of the population as the European Court of Justice to European citizens. Nevertheless, ASEAN's claim to be a coherent, credible organisation could benefit vis-à-vis third powers.  

19. A plan of action for promoting human rights has been on the table since the working group's first workshop, held in 2001. These annual, two-day gatherings of regional experts and politicians discuss the issue in the light of political developments. In closing remarks to the group's fourth ASEAN human rights working group in 2004, it was noted that " protection of migrant workers in the ASEAN region, the traffic in women and children, and terrorism" had been singled out as areas of possible cooperation which could help advance the cause of human rights.[12] A representative from Indonesia's foreign ministry went on to state that "terrorism has an important human rights aspect [and] even suspected terrorists have human rights". This can be considered a step forward to the extent that non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International have repeatedly called for Indonesia to recognise that "human rights are part of the security equation." [13] Pointing to the country's acts of repression in Aceh and Papua in 2001, Amnesty urged for the issue to be integrated into ASEAN regional forum meetings as had been previously announced. However, Indonesia's status as the world's largest Muslim nation, coupled with reports that terrorist cells are being trained on its soil, suggest that this development might have the protection of possible Indonesian terrorist suspects among its motives.

20. Referring to the ASEAN regional forum meeting held in Hanoi in 2001, the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch pointed out that members had not taken the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights, despite the fact that Vietnam's record appeared to have taken "several major steps backward" that year.[14] Although the working group included "continuing to engage ASEAN senior officials" in its 2002 plan of action, it is clear that the subject is too sensitive to be broached in anything other than abstract terms. Considering Thailand's violent repression of southern insurgents over the last few years and Myanmar's continuing status as an international pariah, any ASEAN state upbraiding a neighbour would simply be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Although ultimately preferable to condemnations coming from the United States or any other outside power, it nevertheless remains hard to imagine that ASEAN member states will welcome scrutiny from their neighbours on such a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, pressure to establish an ASEAN human rights mechanism represents a glimmer of hope for all those suffering human rights violations in member states. This is what speaks most strongly for the working group's activities.

21. At the working group's third workshop in May 2003, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand emphasised the need to make the task at hand "concretely meaningful to the people we always refer to. In short, we need to help instill a keen sense of belonging into the society at large." [15] This points to an awareness of the initiative's potential as a powerful discourse, although its importance as a "countervailing force vis-à-vis the untoward intrusion of external powers" was still first to be mentioned in the speech.[16] Contextualising the concept still further, human rights were defined as "moral claims by people in particular socio-economic contexts." There followed a clear rejection of claims to their universality. Six months later, the Thai arm of the working group and the Thai Law Society attempted to put statements of principle into practice by considering ASEAN criminal justice cooperation. Among their conclusions was a call to support the functioning of an international criminal court and for ASEAN to balance national security concerns with international human rights standards.[17] The plea for international standards contrasts with the regional definition of human rights espoused by Thailand's human rights commission, suggesting a lack of clear direction in the strategy to be adopted.

22. In July 2005, the working group heralded ASEAN's decision to consider establishing a commission on the rights of women and children as a "breakthrough" and expressed the hope that this would eventually lead to a full regional human rights body. The news was also greeted by the non-governmental Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong. [18] It welcomed the fact that ASEAN was going through a period of positive change by engaging in a lot more critical thinking about governance. However, it guarded against the proposed body becoming little more than a talking shop and urged human rights groups to exert pressure in order to speed up the process. Clearly, the ASEAN human rights lobby is still pitched at the level of political elites. News of unspectacular decisions concerning abstract legal bodies is unlikely to filter into the public consciousness. Neither do government spokespeople even pay lip service to the fact that ASEAN's people might benefit, preferring to rehearse international relations arguments instead. A spokesman for Indonesia's foreign ministry expressed the view that putting ASEAN's house in order would mean there was not any "justification for others to come into our house".[19] In supporting the decision on a women and children's commission, Indonesia thus returned to the aim of minimising external interference rather than championing the importance of human rights per se.

23. Myanmar's shocking human rights record is regarded outside ASEAN as a particularly dark blot on the organisation's copybook. Other members discreetly encouraged Myanmar to stand down from the rotating ASEAN chairmanship in 2006 so as to avoid international opprobrium and possible boycotts of joint meetings by the EU in particular. The chairmanship question led to open criticism of Myanmar's disregard for human rights by several fellow members.[20] It is a further source of embarrassment to member states that Myanmar's pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi is the region's most prominent female prisoner.[21] The pressure seems to have worked, as Myanmar will now miss its turn as chair, ostensibly in order to focus on domestic reforms.[22] Myanmar's elected government-in-exile has pointed to the fact that the United Nations' special rapporteur to Myanmar labeled the military regime's so-called democratisation programme a "meaningless and undemocratic exercise", and considers ASEAN to be a means of exerting pressure for change.[23] Nevertheless, it too appeals to improvements in ASEAN's international standing as a means of persuasion, rather than characterising human rights as a common good for South-East Asians. Despite the uncharacteristically blunt condemnation of Myanmar by fellow members and vague treaty pronouncements to the contrary, the defence of human rights does not appear to have been successfully articulated into a coherent or hegemonic ASEAN discourse. It is neither represented as part of the 'common sense' understanding of ASEAN, nor does it have institutional representation at the regional level. The final section will examine two competing ideological interpretations of human rights discourse in the light of the Asian values debate.

Asian Values and ASEAN Human Rights

24. In 1994, Mahathir Mohamad asserted that "The West's interpretation of human rights is that every individual can do what he likes, free from any restraint by governments [...] They [Western governments - CS] have no respect for independence or territorial integrity in their zeal to uphold their human rights principle" (Makaruddin 2000, 205). This provocative statement is typical of the rhetoric used in a collection of essays entitled ' The Voice of Asia', published by Mahathir together with the outspoken Japanese nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, former member of the diet of Japan and now governor of Tokyo,. As the title of the volume illustrates, the essentialising tendencies of the Asian values debate work both ways. Mahathir's portrayal of Western culture and values, which he variously equates with "Anglo-Saxon models" (Mahathir & Ishihara 1995, 106), moral degeneration, traditional family breakdown, drug abuse and unbridled hedonism, is accompanied by a form of "reverse orientalism" (Lawson 2001) which strongly hints at   "Asia's superiority" (Mahathir & Ishihara 1995, 105) across the board; "Asians know we can have the baby of affluence without the bath water of western values" (Mahathir & Ishihara 1995, 106). Ironically, a discourse born of enduring post-colonial tensions makes the same gross generalisations about Asians for which the 'Orientalism' of the colonisers has been criticised (Saïd 2003). The Asian "postcolonial Orientalist" (Clammer 2001, 53) creates an imaginary Asian unity in opposition to 'the West', but in doing so merely perpetuates Eurocentric stereotypes and an East/West binary typical of the modern paradigm.   

25. Together with those of the former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir's pronouncements are deemed to have sparked the Asian values debate, vigorously conducted by commentators and intellectuals across the globe until the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s appeared to discredit many of its claims. Although there is no single authoritative version, Asian values have been summarised as follows;

A stress on the community rather than the individual, the privileging of order and harmony over personal freedom, refusal to compartmentalize religion away from other spheres of life, a particular emphasis on saving and thriftiness, an insistence on hard work, a respect for political leadership, a belief that government and business need not necessarily be natural adversaries, and an emphasis on family loyalty (Milner 1999).

Talk of Asian values tends to encompass the countries of ASEAN and North-East Asia, despite their many differences.

26. Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore, a tiny country with four official languages, several ethnic groups and myriad dialects, is reported as saying; "When I say East Asians, I mean Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, as distinct from Southeast Asia, which is a mix between the Sinic and the Indian, though Indian culture itself emphasizes similar values" (Sen 1997). In a variation on Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis (Woodiwiss 1998, 1), Lee's assertion of similar Sinic and Indian values is implicitly contrasted to an equally undifferentiated West. Values are thus blithely run together across states, cultures and the political spectrum. This binary has been widely criticised, not least as regards the implications for human rights. Nobel prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen (1997) pointed out what he saw as the dangers inherent in the position taken by the likes of Singapore and China at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. He argued that their emphasis on the need for recognition of diversity as opposed to universal human rights goes hand in hand with an authoritarian privileging of state interests over those of the individual in the name of Asian values, a stance he shows to be based on flawed economic and cultural assumptions (Sen 1997).

27. The Asian values perspective has been criticised by non-Asian as well as Asian commentators. The so-called Asian value of privileging the community over the individual, for instance, is difficult to delimit. Does the Asian understanding of community include ethnic minorities, some of which have endured oppression in Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia? Further, if this perspective is so peculiarly Asian, why does it base claims for non-interference in community life on conceptions of sovereignty and self-determination well-established in the West? Looking beyond simple East/West binaries, one also finds considerable overlap between the disputed values (Freeman 1996). Further, it has been pointed out that "the idea of universal human rights does not represent an attempt to impose a particular 'culture' on those who would prefer another but rather a proposal for the rules under which people who pursue diverse goals [...] might hope to live in dignity and peace" (Freeman 1996, 359). However, it can be argued that these rules will necessarily reflect an underlying ideology, or world-view, which is more likely to be hegemonic than truly universal. Yet despite criticising its 'Western' colouring, some commentators implicitly subscribe to this dominant Weltanschauung when they argue that first generation human rights must be relegated in Asia for the time being , until economic development (presumably measured according to established standards) has been achieved. The difference here thus seems to stem from an issue of priorities, rather than a fundamentally different understanding of the rights per se . On the other hand, economic development could also be seen as eroding precisely the type of values championed by Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir and leading to the so-called Western degradation they despise (Freeman 1996, 361).   

28. The discussion has highlighted some attempts at incorporating the ideology of Asian values into ASEAN human rights discourse. However, this tendency does not dominate the debate. The following extended extract from the keynote speech delivered by Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia's foreign minister, to the fourth working group workshop in 2004, testifies to this. In line with the link between micro-discourse and grand discourse discussed in section one, a close reading of the text enables us to analyse the underlying ideology through the rhetoric used. Text analysis can dissect concepts, trace arguments and highlight nodal points. Close analysis of one text is therefore preferable to the summary treatment of several, as it is better adapted to elucidating the conceptual links and layers of meaning which together form an ideology. Nevertheless, the text should be read in the context of the preceding discussion of ASEAN human rights discourse, lest it be taken as typical of the ASEAN position as a whole.

[ ...] I believe that greater respect for, and better protection of, human rights would contribute significantly to the development of ASEAN as a true community of nations. And, in essence, this process rightfully reminds the governments of ASEAN countries about what we have officially agreed...Yes, we do have our shared political commitments. Not only because human rights is a universal values [sic.] that cannot be ignored. But also because it is our own people whose rights must be protected. Indeed, it is about our own people when we talk about the protection of such vulnerable groups as women, children, people with disabilities, and migrant workers...Isn't it our own nations' raison d'etre [sic.] to uphold human rights and dignity? Isn't it our own determination to maintain our countries' independence? Our own history has taught us that none of us should live under colonialism, foreign domination, and discrimination of any kind. Nor should we live under abject poverty, social regression, and cultural obscurity...It is always worth reminding that the first principle of the Ten Principles of Bandung, to which ASEAN subscribes, reads "Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations." Indeed, the Final Communique of the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung dedicated one chapter specifically for human rights and self-determination...One of the basic principles enshrined in the 1967 ASEAN Declaration is that "the countries of Southeast Asia share a primary responsibility for strengthening the economic and social stability of the region and ensuring their peaceful and progressive national development, and that they are determined to ensure their stability and security from external interference in any form or manifestation in order to preserve their national identities in accordance with the ideals and aspirations of their peoples." If it is not a principle of human rights, what is?...Hence, there should be no argument against the fact that human rights as a universal values [sic.] are by no means alien to us in Southeast Asia [...] [24]

29. The speech begins by linking support for an ASEAN human rights mechanism to the fostering of a community identity. This could be interpreted as a vote for an articulation of human rights discourse according to common Asian values. However, it is followed by a clear endorsement of universal human rights, which is later repeated for added emphasis. In turn, this explicit statement is prefaced and followed by references to treaty obligations, as if to couch it in an established legal framework. Existing agreements are announced at the beginning and quoted later in the text, thereby signalling that attention to human rights issues should be seen as an international obligation. Use of the pronoun 'we' reinforces the idea of a community and seeks to implicate other member state governments in recognising human rights as universal. The phrase 'yes, we do' seems designed to pre-empt possible objections to this reading of ASEAN treaties. It brooks no argument. Similarly, it is presented as a matter of course that human rights are universal. The assertion is not justified, although it is open to speculation whether the grammatical error in an otherwise well-formulated text is a sign of insecurity or doubt. Tellingly, the text does not dwell on the concept of universality. Instead, it moves swiftly on to specific examples, in an effort to make an abstract concept more relevant and immediate to the South-East Asian region. Repetition of "our own" and the listing of "vulnerable groups" are emotive appeals to loyal sentiment and protective instincts.

30. The focus of the text shifts from the legal duty of states to individuals' sense of responsibility for weaker members of society, only to change tack once again with a patriotic appeal, which suggests that "human rights and dignity" are at the core of ASEAN nations' self-understanding. Few of those concerned are likely to dispute this claim. The positive effect is heightened with a second rhetorical question alluding to national self-defence against foreign interference. The potential threat from a post- colonial 'other' is alluded to here and the lessons of history are rehearsed in the following sentence. Instead of constructing a binary which portrays universal human rights as a western imposition, however, links are made between Asian national pride, independence, rights and dignity. Cherished state sovereignty is thus equated with human rights and these are described as no less than Asian "nations' raison d'etre [sic]". The rejection of "abject poverty, social regression, and cultural obscurity" is not cited as a reason to put human rights on hold, as some interpretations of Asian values have done. On the contrary, the list closing the third paragraph recalls the previous enumeration of "vulnerable groups" as a reminder that human rights are precisely there to protect from such dangers.   

31. The following two paragraphs return to the legal basis for the argument being developed, quoting treaty articles which ASEAN member states have pledged to respect. Again, core principles of the 'ASEAN way', such as non-interference and the pursuit of national development, are interpreted as supporting the need to protect human rights. A further rhetorical question presents this link as self-evident, although the Asian values debate shows that it is nothing if not contested. The text has been seeking to counter an interpretation of human rights according to Asian values throughout, without ever mentioning this explicitly. It is evident from the final sentence, which claims to have rebuffed the argument that universal human rights are somehow "alien to us in Southeast Asia". Not only are universal human rights portrayed as compatible with South-East Asian values, but they are also seen as inherent in regional self-understanding, national pride and individual altruism. Ironically, this interpretation could provide an effective ideological springboard for satisfying Mahathir's demand that "everyone, including Asians, must be allowed to make suggestions and contribute towards devising new sets of values" (Makaruddin 2000, 208).

32. This analysis illustrates that the linkage of Asian values to issues of human rights is by no means all-pervasive in South-East Asia. Alternative readings of human rights, of which the preceding text is one example, are being offered within the ASEAN context. Typicality refers to how representative a text is of the themes, arguments and images commonly found across a specific discourse (Schofield 1993, 210). A survey of the rhetoric relating human rights and ASEAN does not reveal any typical, hegemonic discourse but rather fragmented and contradictory ideological constructions. Statements by working group members in the preceding section illustrated attempts to construct a particularist ASEAN discourse on human rights. In contrast, the speech by the Indonesian foreign minister analysed above emphasised a universalist reading. The first interpretation, or decontestation, is compatible with the idea of Asian values, whilst the second is not. As such, no clear, guiding thread or hegemonic moment defining human rights could be discerned in ASEAN discourse. In the language of discourse theory, a successful decontestation of human rights would amount to a nodal, or privileged point of "partial fixation" similar to the Lacanian concept of points de capiton (Laclau & Mouffe 2001, 112). The working group's continuing consultations largely revolve around a search for this nodal point. This would give rise in turn to a relatively unified "political space" (Laclau & Mouffe 2001, 136), in which the rhetoric of ASEAN human rights would be supplemented with a declaration, court or some other institutional mechanism, to be further entrenched as hegemonic discourse through custom and practice.


33. In tracing the dynamics of conflicting ideologies, discourse theory encourages us to reassess the coherence of discursive constructs that appear to be 'common sense'. A world in flux leaves everything open to debate. Indeed, asserting the all-pervasiveness of ideology underlines the need to deconstruct those Weltanschauungen which offer to make sense of our world. An insight into the mechanism of meaning creation can only enhance our understanding of the way in which ideology functions. Discourse theory provides an interpretative theoretical framework which can be applied to empirical analyses. In turn, the friction between ideologies competing to achieve conceptual hegemony becomes manifest through contested concepts, of which human rights are just one example. Laclau and Mouffe's notion of antagonism helps to theorise the debate over meaning in the political arena. In order to achieve conceptual hegemony and the illusion of truth, the agents of ideology use rhetoric to articulate concepts in as persuasive and convincing a manner as possible. Rhetoric thereby becomes an 'artefact' of ideology.

34. Despite the fact that an ASEAN of ten South-East Asian members is now firmly in place, promising improved internal security, the organisation still lacks a defining political programme for the post-Cold War era (Gates & Than 2001, 6). Nevertheless, ASEAN's defiance on the subject of Myanmar's membership shows that it is capable of taking a strong stand on controversial issues. Furthermore, the 2004 Vientiane Plan of Action offers evidence that ASEAN leaders are ready to countenance small steps towards greater integration. Perhaps just as importantly for regional cooperation, the detail of the documents shows that legions of diplomats have hammered out a consensus on a wide range of issues, thereby contributing to ASEAN's "epistemic community" (Du Chel 2000, 223). The creation of a human rights mechanism as a nodal point of ASEAN discourse might provide the impetus for further integration. Whether derived from universal or Asian values, a home-grown vision of human rights could turn a negative reaction against Eurocentric interference into a shared, constructive credo. At present, ASEAN is just as likely to talk up a storm of protest at outside interference as to concentrate its energies on moving forward in concert. Nevertheless, incremental steps have both practical and symbolic significance. The rhetoric analysed illustrates a lively debate between Asian and universal values as the potential basis for an ASEAN human rights mechanism. It remains to be seen whether one ideological interpretation will win the struggle over meaning and successfully establish itself as the region's hegemonic discourse on human rights.  


Claire Sutherland is currently a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. Her main research interest is the relationship between nationalism and supranational integration, with particular reference to Germany within the European Union and Vietnam within ASEAN.


[1] ASEAN's member states are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

[2] I am indebted to discussants at the UK Association for South-East Asian Studies 2005 Annual Conference at Exeter University for pointing out these developments.

[3] Amnesty International 'The death penalty worldwide: developments in 2004', accessed 1st October 2006.

[ 4] Amnesty International 'Report 2006: Vietnam'., accessed 1st October 2006.

[5] Keynote speech by Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs,, accessed 28th September 2006.

[6] Working Group for an ASEAN human rights mechanism., accessed 28th September 2006.

[7] HURIGHTS Osaka,
accessed on 29th March 2005.

[8] Working Group for an ASEAN human rights mechanism., accessed 28th September 2006.

[9] HURIGHTS Osaka, accessed 28th May 2005.

[10] HURIGHTS Osaka, accessed 29th March 2005.

[11] Singapore Window, accessed 29th March 2005.

[12] Embassy of Indonesia in Canada, accessed 11th August 2005.

[13] Amnesty International, accessed 11th August 2005.

[14] Human Rights Watch, accessed 11th August 2005.

[15] National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, accessed 29th March 2005.

[16] National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, accessed 11th August 2005.

[17] Coalition for the International Criminal Court
, accessed 11th August 2005.

[18] Asian Human Rights Commission, accessed 11th August 2005.

[19] Asian Human Rights Commission, accessed 11th August 2005.

[20] Reuters, June 9th 2005, 'Singapore suggests Myanmar forego ASEAN chair'
, accessed 28th September 2006. Asian Economic News, July 25th 2005, 'ASEAN's Image will be sullied by Myanmar chair, Malaysia says', accessed 28th September 2006.

[21] 'The mess that the army has made of Myanmar' The Economist July 21st 2005, accessed 12th August 2005.

[22] Agence France Presse, 26th July 2006, 'No signs Myanmar want ASEAN chair'
, accessed 28th September 2006.

[23] National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, accessed 11th August 2005.

[24] Keynote speech by Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs,, accessed 28th September 2006.


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