THE good faith of Asian leaders who affirm the universal nature of human rights must be tested against the policies and actions of their governments towards their people. So, too, must speeches contradicting the notion that Asian values justify sacrificing individual liberties for the greater good of society. Malaysia previously has strongly supported the notion - enshrined in last year's Bangkok Declaration - that human rights, though universal, should not be promoted in Asia by the imposition of incompatible (that is, 'Western') values. And Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has taken a lead in developing the concept of Asian values to deflect Western criticisms of human rights abuses in the region. Malaysia, despite its democratic credentials, has championed the right of such illiberal regimes as China and Burma to develop their own human rights rules. Nevertheless, the speech to the Asian Press Forum in Hong Kong yesterday by Dr Mahathir's deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, offers hope that new, more liberal ideas may be taking root in Kuala Lumpur. The popular Mr Anwar is widely regarded as Dr Mahathir's heir apparent. His words carry weight within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Mr Anwar has been no slouch when it comes to promoting supposedly unique Asian values. Nor, understandably enough, has he been slow to criticise the West's irritating tendency to patronise Asia - or its failure to recognise Asia's cultural traditions and aspirations. But yesterday he was remarkably outspoken in warning against the abuse of so-called Asian values for political ends. An Asian politician who says it is shameful to cite Asian values as an excuse for autocracy, and the denial of basic rights and liberties, deserves attention. Not only did he dismiss the idea (so beloved of many governments in the region) that Asian traditions, particularly Confucianism, put society above the individual, he rubbished the argument that politics or morality should not interfere with business. On the contrary, he said, the quest for growth must always be balanced by a profound concern for social justice and equity. Mr Anwar was vague on what was so unique about Asian values but he was gratifyingly specific in what the concern for social justice and equity entailed. He called for the development of a civil society and of truly representative, participatory government, the promotion of the rule of law and the cultivation of a free and responsible press. His definition of 'free and responsible' included the right to criticise governments. But the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Radical though these ideas may sound to many who have listened to modern Asian leaders, they could turn out to be just another set of platitudes. Malaysia's press is not known for its radicalism: it is government-backed and government-licensed. Mr Anwar's argument that Western-style newspapers controlled by wealthy tycoons are no less constrained in their editorial policies does not bear close examination. Meanwhile many of Dr Mahathir's policies over the years have been aimed at tightening UMNO's grip on power. Yesterday's signs of moderation are a welcome fresh breeze, but the world will not be convinced until it sees change in the way Malaysia - and other countries - put their concepts of Asian values into practice.