Letter: Malaysian views on media freedom; British attitudes to aid and trade

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Anglo-Malaysian imbroglio, threatening British exports to a key player in the South-east Asian economic miracle, must be seen in a wider context. Malaysia is not only an economically powerful country, but lately has also become an epicentre of social and cultural revivalism. South-east Asian nations, led by Malaysia and Singapore, are in the process of evolving a new regional identity. There is now a greater emphasis on rediscovering and revitalising old Asian values to ward off Western influences.

With the collapse of Communism and the closing of US bases in the Philippines, South-east Asian nations have drawn closer. Since the end of the Cold War and Asia's emergence as an economic dynamo, a new confidence has developed to challenge the supposedly universal values of the West. Western concepts such as human rights, freedom of the press, democracy, etc are subjects of intense debates in Malaysian media and government circles.

In May 1993, Asian nations gathered in Bangkok to issue a new definition of human rights that puts more emphasis on social stability and economic development than on individual freedom. The current Euro-centric perception of human rights is not considered suitable for Asian societies. This disagreement, coupled with the West's persistent use of the human rights issue as an instrument of political domination, has prompted many countries in the region to accept the 'Bangkok declaration' as appropriate to their cultural and social needs.

The Malaysian government's decision to cancel contracts to British firms needs to be seen against this background. Having redefined human rights and democracy in a manner consonant with Asian values, Malaysia is now challenging the universality of yet another Western concept: freedom of the press. Whether or not Malaysia will succeed in redefining press freedom will depend in large part on how the British media and government handle the current crisis.

Yours faithfully,

RANDHIR SINGH BAINS

Gants Hill, Essex

6 March

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