Taking on Mahathir

President Estrada was right to have a view on Mahathir’s style of governance and to express it as a personal opinion.  But it would be wrong for him to snub the Kuala Lumpur Apec summit as a way of protesting the detention of his “good friend” Anwar, the former deputy prime minister.

It is certainly refreshing to hear a president express himself on an issue traditionally regarded as part of the internal affairs of another country.   In the name of diplomatic courtesy, most heads of states would suppress their deepest sentiments about the way another country is run even when the values they themselves hold sacred in their own societies are routinely trampled upon.  They would consort with dictators and tyrants as if what they were doing to their people was beyond the moral scrutiny of other nations.

Against the grain of this practice, we may remember that the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa was hastened by the refusal of many countries, including ours, to give it any legitimacy.  Those nations would neither visit nor trade with it for as long as the black people of South Africa were treated by the white minority government as if they were less than human.  Much of the work of the United Nations has involved getting more and more nations to accede to international standards or conventions.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most powerful expression of this aspiration to create a moral community of nations.

Significantly, Mahathir has questioned the validity of the existing UN Declaration of Human Rights.  He says that the framers of this document were mostly Western nations.  They do not and cannot represent the worldview of the other members of the UN today, especially those that were still colonies when the document was drawn.   This is a belief that Mahathir shares with advocates of socalled “Asian values”.

Mahathir’s objections cannot be lightly dismissed.  For indeed every nation is governed by its own value system, by its core beliefs and exigencies.  No one can really say that one nation’s value system is better than another’s, for value systems are “incommensurable.” There are no universal rational standards for resolving conflicts between them.  Summarizing Isaiah Berlin on this question, John Gray, writes: “By incommensurability, then, is meant incomparability – the incomparability of valuable cultural objects, activities, reasons for action or forms of life…. For Berlin, no theory or principle can govern these choices, precisely because they are radical choices among incommensurables.”

Thus, if Mahathir says that social harmony in multi-racial Malaysia is a higher value than individual human rights, there is really no universal ethical ground on which we can stand to say he is wrong.  No theory, not even Kant’s, can supply the rational solution to this question; only through politics can Malaysians settle this for themselves.

To argue otherwise is not only fallacious, it is dangerous.  When powerful nations believe they have a natural affinity with goodness, their judgments of other nations tend to become the warrant for wanting to reform them regardless of their will.  They style themselves as liberators, trustees of a manifest destiny.

But, on the other hand, if the value systems of nations are incomparable, do we have a way of avoiding the paralysis of moral relativism?  What ground can we use to assess or criticize values such as Mahathir’s?  For Isaiah Berlin, the pluralism of life forms is as real as the human capacity to make choices, even if this is based on nothing more than “a groundless commitment” to a form of life with which we are acquainted.

It is this human sensibility that enabled Erap to identify with Anwar and to feel so distressed by his unjust detention as to want to protest it. The question is whether he can do so as president without violating the principles of peaceful co-existence among sovereign nations.

What if Mahathir tells him to shut up and mind his own business; what if he lectures him on how to conduct himself as president?  On this subject, he may take his cue from Bill Clinton.

In late June this year, President Clinton found himself in a bind like this in connection with an invitation to visit China.  A segment of the American public had protested this visit saying it would only lend legitimacy to a government that had brutally crushed the democracy movement of its students and workers.   On the other hand, there were those who argued that he must go and use the occasion to deliver a strong message of condemnation of human rights violations. What the US president did was a masterpiece of respectful and calibrated intervention in the internal affairs of China.  He engaged the Chinese president in a televised friendly debate on human rights.  He spoke before the students of the University of Beijing and told them of free speech as an integral aspect of the American experience.  He did not tell them how to run their country.  He told them how other nations have worked and progressed under  democracy.

President Estrada must go to Malaysia for the Apec summit.  He can show his concern for Anwar and for the other victims of political persecution without having to insult his host.  He can be passionate and presidential about the values his culture has taught him without being arrogant.  Rather than be its blind servant, he can make diplomacy work for his ideals.


John Gray, Isaiah Berlin, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 53.


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