Whose cultural norms and practices matter? — Khoo Ying Hooi

OCTOBER 2 — Recently, a controversial video went viral on social media showing a man allegedly urging non-Muslims at Flora Damansara apartments to adhere to Islamic and Malay cultural norms and sensitivities on drug abuse, public consumption of alcohol and women wearing revealing clothes.

According to the man, he said he was merely addressing the “African residents” and not Malaysians.

This is just one example out of many instances of cultural intolerance that are currently happening in our country.

Cultural rights are known as rights that are related to arts and culture, where the aim is basically to ensure that people get to practise their own culture and participate freely in the culture of their choice.

The practice of culture is often debatable as there’s a line between appreciation and appropriation that should not be crossed.

The question is, who are to determine those lines? When we say human rights is universal, does that mean there should not be any lines at all?

To me, what’s important is where do we make the connections? If we use the international universal human rights standards, these should be based on the principles of equality, human dignity and non-discrimination.

Having said that, essentially, universal human rights acknowledge and accommodate cultural rights. Similarly, the demand of cultural rights should follow the same principles and should not violate the fundamental human rights that protect human dignity, well-being and integrity of the people.

It can be as simple as taking a look at issues affecting the women’s rights. It is very often, but not exclusively, violated on cultural grounds. Why is that so? For example, in the patriarchal society, universal human rights are often labelled as a Western idea and it is not in line with the traditional mechanisms. In effect, culture then unfortunately legitimise the violation of the rights of others.

Comparing to other categories of human rights; civil, political, economic and social, cultural rights are normally the least known and neglected at various levels. The definition of culture itself is vague and there is no one binding definition. Most relate it to creative and artistic activities such as dances and musical instruments. But, if we look at it deeper, the scope of culture also embraces other rights, for example the right to education.

Last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune completed her official visit to Malaysia from 11 to 21 September 2017 to assess the efforts of Malaysia in assuring access to cultural heritage, and how cultural diversity and expression are respected and promoted.

The Special Rapporteurs are one of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s monitoring mechanisms under the category of Special Procedures. In which the experts are appointed by the Council to address human rights issues, but they are independent and serve in their individual capacity with no salary.

Among her observations included in the preliminary observations report that has been released last week is about the full bans on traditional cultural performances such as mak yong, wayang kulit, main puteri and dikir barat in Kelantan. She also added that the restriction on women from performing in public also is another signal of the growing religious fundamentalism. Women should be able to also enjoy freedom of expression just like the men.

Bennoune also expressed her concern on the cases of customary land disputes in Sabah and Sarawak, as well as the discrimination towards the Orang Asli such as bullying cases in the school and their displacement due to development projects. As mentioned above that the cultural rights if not respected, it could also impact on the right to education. That’s what the Orang Asli children are facing.

Apart from these issues, Bennoune also called for the government to take steps to review the criteria for censorship of books and films so to guarantee freedom of artistic expression. Another important issue that she highlighted is the approach of the government in tackling religious fundamentalism, where she suggested the government to step up efforts in keeping the international commitments to the local context in which the government has portrayed Malaysia as a country that practices moderate Islam.

Around the globe, we realise there’s a growing awareness of cultural identity where it is crucial to exercise mutual respect of one culture for another. This is a huge challenge for states in term of reaching national unity, where everyone accepts and respects different cultural identities and specificities.

As of to the question on how do we overcome that, as Bennoune concluded in her preliminary observations, and I quote, “It is time to ensure that the lived reality of moderation and progressiveness in Malaysia is consistent with the rhetoric of its government. This is essential for the enjoyment of cultural rights More voices of actual moderation must be raised and those voices must be allowed to express themselves.”

From the perspective of the universal human rights standards, cultural relativism should not be used as an excuse for the on-going violations of the fundamental human rights of people. As our society becomes more culturally diverse, by becoming more aware of our similarities, we will slowly realise that cultural differences do not necessarily divide us. Instead, it enriches us when there’s shared knowledge of others’ cultures. What we really need is to learn to understand and value other cultures in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. — Sin Chew Daily

* Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.

** This article was first published here.

*** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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