On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Our right to have our own approach

He was then asked whether the  denial of a scholarship, for example, to a
qualified non-bumiputra  was an
infringement of human  rights.

The moderator pointed out that  the
bumiputra who won the scholarship could be from a well-off  family.

The human rights advocate from  Suaram
appeared to be caught off guard and could not provide a reasonable reply.

The lesson here is that it is not 
possible to translate human rights 
to the letter.

If we argue literally, the NEP  was certainly
against basic human  rights. But it was a
package accepted by Malaysians, including non Malays. Some see it as positive

It brought along political stability and the expansion of the middle  class, particularly among the Malays. A
bigger middle class means  greater
consumption which, in  turn, will
galvanise the economy.

One of the most recent significant political developments is  greater political awareness.

Malaysians, particularly the  younger
set, have begun to scrutinise the functions of our institutions.

There is no question that there  are
flaws in our system but that  does not
mean the entire system is  wrong.

If positive changes could be  made to
laws which we think are no  longer
relevant, then we should be  open enough
to review those laws.

We should also learn to appreciate the role of non-government organisations
(NGOs) in providing  feedback to the

The entry of the Movement for  Social
Justice (Adil) initiated by  Datin Seri
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail would be another form of  check and balance.

At this point, we are unsure of its 
programme but its multi-ethnic 
composition is certainly a step in 
the right direction.

It has a list of respectable figures, lending further weight to the  movement. Comprising mostly academicians,
Adil has given the impression that it wants to play an  educator's role.

Thus, it has announced that it  wants to
be “non-political'' but at  the same
time said it would push  for

So, like many other NGOs, it may  end up
as an armchair critic by issuing press statements, giving lectures and
publishing books.

Having said that, Adil has a fresh 
chance of being more holistic in its 
approach to human rights.

One of the greatest disservice of  some
NGOs is their refusal to emphasise economic and social rights.

It is a pity that our Malaysian  human
rights groups are not committed to a more comprehensive  view of human rights. Most of them  seek to defend political and civil  rights, as they are conventionally  understood.

Whether our NGOs are ready to  admit it
or not, we cannot help but  suspect the
powerful psychological  and possibly
financial influence  and impact that
Western human  rights groups have on
their Malaysian counterparts.

Thus, our NGOs do not see our  right to
food, clothing, shelter, employment, education and health   which are all basic needs.

For example, opposition parties  and NGOs
have fought for decades  to repeal the
Internal Security Act  during elections
but the tactic has  never generated sufficient
emotions for it to be translated into 

The reason is simple. Draconian  as it
may seem, the ISA means very  little to
many ordinary people who  are too busy
trying to feed their  families.

Right or wrong, and selfish as it  may
seem, they assume that politicians should be prepared to face  the consequences of the game.

In Myanmar, the economic sanction has led to factories being shut  down. For ordinary folk, it means  loss of jobs.

The military regime is still in  power,
Aung San Suu Kyi is still in  her
bungalow, the investors merely  packed
off to neighbouring countries to set up shop and NGOs continue their

But we spare very little thought  for the
faceless factory workers  with families
to feed. It's all too  simple to blame
the system but for  these people, it
means the right to  survive.

Surely, there must be better  ways to
pressure a government,  even if we scoff
at Asean's constructive engagement policy.

Another flaw of our NGOs is  their
continuous approach to human rights to revolve around individuals, which is a
very Western  perspective.

In Malaysia, as in many Asian  countries,
collectivity, community  and the nation
still matter.

Thus, when we talk about human  rights,
we also have to consider our  duties to fellow

As proven, the right to demonstrate, as a form of collective expression, has
gone down badly with  many

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, shows an  overwhelming concern for political  and civil rights.

Through NGOs, Western powers  have
created the belief that human  rights is
essentially political freedom and civil liberties.

Many of us, in fact, have become  so
convinced by such arguments  that anyone
who comes up with a  different approach
is perceived as  a sycophant of the

Similarly, we need not term those  who
advocate changes and reforms  as
anti-government and unpatriotic.

We must not write off those who  do not
subscribe to our views but  we must
accept the views of the  majority. Those
who talk about the  right to dissent must
respect the  majority.

There is nothing wrong for us to  tailor
human rights according to  our needs and

Politicians and activists who embrace human rights from a democratic-liberal
approach are regarded as champions of human rights  with high principles.

Many, somehow, are willing to  forgive
them even when they are  not objective.
Everyone seems to  be biased except these
privileged  human rights activists.

So, we end up having another  warped
definition of human rights.  To be
critical of the government  means to
uphold social justice.

Thus, we continue to treat lightly  the
dominance from the West in the  form of
economic superiority, authoritarianism in international relations and the flow
of information.

Our human rights groups cannot  say their
concern is merely Malaysian. If that is so, then their understanding of human
rights would  only hamper the growth of a
more  holistic understanding of this
universal value.

Malaysians deserve the right to a 
legitimately elected government 
which can ensure political and economic stability.

And if we truly subscribe to social justice, we should also be  ready to censure any move from  the West to challenge our sovereignty.