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Human Rights Quarterly 22.2 (2000) 548-568

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Rights and Culture in the Asian Values Argument: The Rise and Fall of Confucian Ethics in Singapore 1

Neil A. Englehart

I. Introduction

Cultural relativist arguments are problematic for advocates of universal human rights and democracy because a fundamental tenet of the universalist position is the need for tolerance. Universalists must advocate respect for both self-determination and democratic self-government. They can, therefore, be theoretically confounded by the paradoxical claim that some people might choose to be ruled undemocratically or voluntarily surrender certain basic rights--that they might, in Don Herzog's phrase, be "happy slaves." 2

Before sweating through such difficult theoretical issues, however, it is worthwhile to assess the empirical plausibility of claims to cultural uniqueness. Unfortunately, such claims are sometimes made for cynical reasons. Jack Donnelly notes, for instance, that African governments making cultural relativist arguments are often highly selective in their application, basing them on traditions that no longer exist, or selecting only those elements of [End Page 548] tradition most useful to them. 3 Adamantia Pollis has similarly pointed to questionable uses of relativist arguments by some Asian and African regimes. 4

The focus of this paper is a particular version of cultural relativism that holds that Asian cultures are characterized by a set of values that includes obedience to authority, intense allegiance to groups, and a submergence of individual identity in collective identity. The conclusion often drawn from such arguments is that democracy and human rights guarantees, at least as understood in the West, are alien to Asian cultures and inappropriate for them.

My aim is to evaluate the claim that cultural factors such as "Asian Values" really do militate against democracy and human rights. Because it is beyond the scope of a single paper to provide a comprehensive review of all the diverse Asian traditions, I will instead concentrate on one particular manifestation: the Confucian version produced in Singapore. I choose Singapore for two reasons. The first is that the Singaporean Confucian Ethics campaign provides the most well-articulated of the Asian values arguments. The second is that Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is actively trying to promote it elsewhere in Asia--in particular in the People's Republic of China, where he has found an enthusiastic audience. 5 While Singapore certainly does not represent all Asian cultures, the prominence the government of Singapore has assumed in the Asian Values debate makes its position worthy of examination.

This paper argues that the Asian Values claims of the government of Singapore--both in its first incarnation, as Confucian Ethics, and its current form, as Shared Values--have actually been advanced for political and ideological reasons and have very little to do with the traditional mores of the population. In this endeavor, I argue, the government of Singapore has been aided and abetted by an impoverished treatment of culture in Anglo-American political science--one which oversimplifies cultures and ignores important debates that are crucial to understanding how democracy and rights apply across cultures. Understanding the errors of the Asian Values argument requires rethinking the Western concept of culture. This paper [End Page 549] concludes with some reflections on the growing popularity of cultural relativist arguments in the post-Cold War world. All of this suggests the need for careful examination of the empirical plausibility of other claims to cultural uniqueness.

II. Democracy and Human Rights in Singapore

Despite a veneer of democracy that includes regular elections with universal suffrage, from a Western perspective, Singapore must be considered an authoritarian state. The rights provisions in the Singapore Constitution are weak 6 and there is ample evidence that the government violates the rights of citizens who criticize it. There has been no election that could reasonably be described as free and fair since Singapore's withdrawal from Malaysia in 1965. 7 It has a restrictive press law designed to prevent criticism of the government, hampering freedom of expression and restricting access to alternative sources of...


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