ASEAN leaders should embrace 4IR for another 50 years of peace, growth


November 24, 2017

ASEAN leaders should embrace 4IR for another 50 years of peace, growth

by Jayant Menon and Anna Fink, ADB

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/09/asean-looks-to-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

The 10-member ASEAN is celebrating this year its 50th anniversary.
The 10-member ASEAN is celebrating this year its 50th anniversary.

When the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather for their 31st Summit in the Philippines this week, they will also celebrate “ASEAN@50” – testimony to ASEAN’s endurance and durability, as the longest-running regional grouping of developing countries in the world.

A major item on the agenda will be regional security and addressing the rising tide of terrorism.  This takes ASEAN back to its roots, having been born as a politico-security pact during the Vietnam War in 1967.

Indeed, ASEAN’s role in sustaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia is often undervalued, if not overlooked. It’s easy to see why. War cannot go unnoticed but peace can, easily. ASEAN deserves its share of the credit for delivering the peace dividend. Moving forward, its economic success may depend on a different kind of revolution.

Inclusive, innovation-led growth

The summary of Key Outcomes from the 49th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting in September noted that the overall thematic priority of this year’s Summit would be “Inclusive, Innovation-led Growth”.  This would be supported by three strategic measures: increasing trade and investment, integrating micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) into global value chains, and developing an innovation-driven economy.

The trade slowdown appears to have bottomed out, and there are early indications that both domestic private investment and foreign direct investment are showing promising signs of recovery in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, and continue to increase impressively in the Mekong countries. To sustain this growth, reforms will need to continue. Achievements on tariff liberalization have been partially offset by a rise in non-tariff measures which are a much more significant barrier to trade.

  Innovation-driven ASEAN economy must address 4IR

A new and growing trend in cross-border investment involves MSMEs, so much so that the last ASEAN Investment Report took this as its theme. And an innovation-driven economy has to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Image result for ASEAN and the 4th Industrial Revolution

All three strategic items are linked, especially the last two, as discussed in a joint Asian Development Bank-World Economic Forum report titled, What does the 4IR mean for ASEAN Regional Economic Integration?, to be presented to leaders at the upcoming Summit.

The report notes the differing level of preparedness of member countries, negatively correlated to their level of development, and how this may widen rather than narrow development gaps if not addressed.

4IR brings challenges and opportunities

One of the major challenges of the 4IR will be the loss of jobs caused by automation and increasingly advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. Jobs losses will affect some countries more than others. Low-skilled, repetitive jobs (such as assembly line workers) are most at risk, but increasingly service jobs (such as business process outsourcing) will be threatened.

As an immediate response, enabling greater mobility of unskilled workers would curtail unemployment in sending countries and help sustain growth in receiving countries, while also helping counter growing economic inequality within and between countries.

Image result for ASEAN and the 4th Industrial Revolution

In the medium term, new industries will grow and workers will need new skills. Investing in improving human capital must start now. The skills needed extend beyond technical capabilities to include creativity and innovative problem solving. What’s more, the accelerating pace of change calls for adult training and life-long learning not just early-life education. In addition, mutual recognition agreements must expand to cover new occupations, while expediting the harmonizing and streamlining of employment visas.

Integrating MSMEs into global value chains

One of the major opportunities of the 4IR, as highlighted in the report, is the potential of “disruptive technologies” to empower MSMEs. More than 90% of enterprises within ASEAN are MSMEs and they provide most of the employment in member states.

MSMEs are often constrained by lack of access to business and financial services. Blockchain technology has the potential to dramatically increase the security of cross-border financial transactions and logistics even in countries where these services are relatively underdeveloped. This technology has the potential to benefit the smallest firms in the poorest countries of ASEAN.

The rise of online marketplaces also provides platforms for MSMEs to access regional and global markets.

  4IR can help integrate ASEAN MSMEs into global value chains

The 4IR, therefore, provides an opportunity for ASEAN to meet its goal of greater inclusion by integrating MSMEs into global value chains. But it also presents a challenge to the region to invest in human capital to continue to trade and attract investment, and to enable innovation-driven economies.

Given the unequal impact of new technologies in the region, the promotion of inclusive growth must also be seen as a key pillar in underpinning peace in the region. Growing economic inequality could quickly contribute to social unrest and political instability.

Embracing the 4IR, and inclusive, innovation-led growth will be essential to securing another 50 years of peace in ASEAN.

Jayant Menon is Lead Economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank, and Adjunct Fellow of the Arndt–Corden Division of Economics, The Australian National University.

Anna Fink is Economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank.

This blog was first published as an op-ed by the Jakarta Globe, Singapore Business Times, Phnom Penh Post, Agence Kampuchea Presse, Myanmar Times, Philippine StarEast Asia Forum, Daily Star (Bangladesh), and the Bangkok Post.

Guna’s Take on Fake News


November 8, 2017

Guna’s Take on Fake News

One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.–P. Gunasegaram

by P. Gunaegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

QUESTION TIME | One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.

In its simplest form, fake news is just manufactured news but there are degrees. Some are outright lies while others combine untruths with elements of true news to project an image which is not wholly correct while appearing to give the impression that it comes from accurate news sources.

It is most easy to do this online by setting up websites and/or blogs to propagate the news and manufacture news to the benefit of the sponsoring authority. Thus, political parties and candidates up for election pay so-called cyber troopers large amounts of money to boost their image in the eyes of the public.

Simultaneously they engage in activities to drag down the image of the opponents through smear campaigns, sometimes unearthing true stories and twisting the context and at other times broadcasting outright lies.

In Malaysia, as elections loom large and have to be held by August next year, this whole idea of fake news, especially on social media, has grabbed the attention of politician and layman alike, especially when US President Donald Trump, who has propagated fake news against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, accuses US mainstream media of fake news in repeated tweets.

 

But in Malaysia, the situation is very different. We have had fake news with us for decades now, especially during general elections, when more or less the entire regulated media industry gets commandeered by the ruling government – BN and its predecessors.

Look at for instance, how newspapers either directly owned by political parties or those close to them behave at election time – UMNO’s Utusan group, MCA’s The Star, as well as New Straits Times, RTM1, RTM2, TV3, and even ntv7, the other broadcast media.

It is as if the government can do no wrong, it is as if the opposition is a major threat to the unity of the country. The only viable party that can rule the country is, of course, the BN, everyone else will take the country to ruin.

So the heavily-controlled mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcast organisations not just spewed fake news but engaged in regular propaganda blasts about how the government was so great, with documentaries about what it did, and through advertisements. The poor opposition is denied any airtime or space in the newspapers while the ruling party of the day runs riot over the opposition in all the various broadcast and print media.

Is it any surprise that the ruling party thrashed the opposition soundly in almost all the elections since 1969 (until the tide turned in 2008) when the opposition denied the ruling party two-thirds majority for a while? BN regained it following the collapse of many opposition parties into BN in the aftermath of oppressive measures following the May 13 riots shortly after the elections, riots which many consider to have been manufactured.

 

And then came 2008 – BN did not lose but soundly lost its two-thirds majority and five states in the general elections, its biggest setback yet. And the opposition finally began to think about riding into Putrajaya in triumph. In 2013, despite all of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts, BN did not regain the two-thirds majority although UMNO did better.

So what made the change in 2008 and 2013? In two words, social media, which remained largely uncensored and unregulated and which gave the opposition a lot more space than it ever did before – there was a new medium to send news out instead of just print and broadcast and it was accessible to all.

A game changer

The control of the print and broadcast media no longer ensured that only some news of the favourable kind reached the general public. In Malaysia’s case, social media stopped the avalanche of fake news spewing out of the mainstream manufactured news factories.

But unfortunately, with fake news making such an impact on social media in the US for instance, with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the polls significantly attributed to it, the importance of social media is being increasingly recognised as a game changer for elections in Malaysia.

Thus, both Najib and his deputy have been increasingly talking about fake news on social media and the need to counter it effectively. But in all probability what they mean is that the true news is coming out from many sections of the social media, so we have to do something about it.

 

Their thinking goes something like this: We have to counter all these things which are true which are coming out from social media – we can blank it out from the print and broadcast media but we need a social media attack to counter these truths with lies.

Thus, we see Najib claiming in his blog rather preposterously that 1MDB will save RM200 billion in 20 years for Malaysia when the truth is that it has in all probability it has already lost as much as RM40 billion.

Expect this broadside by the BN on social media in Malaysia to increase – in the US, fake news may have reached epidemic proportions already, but in Malaysia, the process is just beginning but will increase very rapidly.

It is not going to be easy to differentiate the truth from the fake news but if you stick to respected and established online new organisations such as … – you know who they are, I don’t have to tell you – you will be safe.

Stick to independent news organisations who have a strong tradition of respect for truth, accuracy and balance and who cover both what the government as well as what the opposition has to say. Look at who are behind news portals – if they are not specific enough about ownership and editorial team, be suspicious.

Verify and crosscheck sources of information. Much is passed on over social media websites such as Facebook and WhatsApp with not even a mention of the source. If you want to check the source, type a key extract into a search engine and look at the results.

Please remember, especially at election time – you are more likely to get fake news and inadequate news of the right kind from mainstream media who have had a long track record compared to some of the online news portals who may not have as long a record.

And finally, please support those who supply good, fair information at reasonable prices (less than 60 sen a day) by subscribing to them (instead of sharing passwords indiscriminately), and take out advertisements with them and donating to them. It’s a small price to pay.

The sad truth is that information that is free is more likely to be tainted. Now, who was it who said that there is no such thing as a free lunch?


P GUNASEGARAM says truth often lies hidden under a pile of lies. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

NY Times Book Review: Three Inquiries into Religion


October 21, 2017

Three Inquiries Into Religion

by James Ryerson@www.nytimes.com

Three exciting books on Religion by a Philosopher, a Man of Science and a Theologian

 

Contemporary debate about religion seems to be going nowhere. Atheists persist with their arguments, many plausible and some unanswerable, but these make no impact on religious believers. Defenders of religion find atheists equally unwilling to cede ground. The Meaning of Belief offers a way out of this stalemate.

An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. Crane offers an alternative account based on two ideas. The first is the idea of a religious impulse: the sense people have of something transcending the world of ordinary experience, even if it cannot be explicitly articulated. The second is the idea of identification: the fact that religion involves belonging to a specific social group and participating in practices that reinforce the bonds of belonging. Once these ideas are properly understood, the inadequacy of atheists’ conventional conception of religion emerges.

The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.

 

Image result for Religion :What It is,How it works, and why it matters by Richard Dawkins

Religion: What It is, How It works, and Why It Matters (Princeton University)–Richard Dawkins

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John F. Haught: The  New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University)

John Haught is a distinguished theologian who has spent his long career thinking through connections between our outer world revealed by science and the inner experiential world of religion, and has a seasoned grasp of the literature in both realms. Not just a philosophical argument, beautifully precise prose guides the reader through the veil separating the physical-and-objective from the subjective-and-spiritual. He points out that only recently have we determined that the cosmos is not “fixed” but rather is a still evolving (awakening) narrative in which the evolutionary emergence of life and mind are major milestones. He draws attention to the unseen explosion in recent millennia of subjectively experienced, interior life, of which religion is the major expression (as well as literature, media, etc.)

Image result for John F.Haught

Theologian John F. Haught

The main theme of the book is to redirect our seeking from the past into the future: we are submerged within an unfolding cosmic drama in which the unifying principles of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth, what Haught summarizes as rightness, all lie in the “horizon” up ahead of us. Haught’s is a spiral argument in which the general project is plainly manifest from the very beginning, and then, as you proceed through each chapter, your understanding effortlessly deepens; old concepts come alive, as faith is welded to patience and prayer to anticipation.

China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia


October 18, 2017

China: Zero Tolerance for Academic Freedom, not unlike Malaysia

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

Universities will be closely scrutinised, professors will be evaluated and the Party will punish those lacking ideological firmness. Such is the program released by Xi Jinping’s government to coincide with the Communist Party congress, where Xi is seeking to reinforce his authority as a world leader.

Image result for Academic Freedom in China

Dr Bill Chou Kwok-ping, a political scientist who was last month elected vice-president of Macau’s biggest pro-democracy group is the second Macau academic to lose his job after intervening in political debates in as many months, stirring concerns about academic freedom in the former Portuguese colony.

Image result for Academic Freedom in China

 

Efforts to control universities and disregard academic freedom are also taking place abroad. In early September, Reuters and The Guardian exposed efforts by Chinese authorities to partially restrict access to the American Political Science Review from within China. The Review, one of the most reputable journals in its field, is published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press (CUP). Ultimately the publishing house resisted the Chinese pressure, but the news has sparked upset, coming just a few weeks after another controversy that shook the foundations of academia.

The “China Quarterly” affair

In August, China scholars from around the world learnt that Beijing had demanded that Cambridge University Press withdraw 315 articles and book reviews from China Quarterly, produced by University of London’s respected School of Oriental and African Studies and published by CUP.

These articles dealt with topics considered sensitive by the Chinese government: the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Mao Zedong and China’s Cultural Revolution; ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang; Taiwan; and anything relating to democratic reform.

CUP complied, pulling the offending articles from their Chinese site, explaining that it would rather withdraw a small number of articles of interest to a handful of academics, in order to ensure the continued availability in China of its numerous other academic and educational publications.

Image result for China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

 

Led by China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle, academics and NGOs expressed outrage that CUP would favour its own commercial interests above academic freedom, and threatened to boycott the publishing house.

Faced with protests, the Chinese government defended its actions in an editorial published in the August 20 edition of the Global Times, stating that, while it respects academic freedom in the UK, China has the right to decide what can be published within its borders.

Three days after the censorship came to lighy, CUP had a sudden change of heart, and made the 315 articles available again.

Around the same time, the US-based Association of Asian Studies (AAS) revealed it had received a similar demand but did not comply.

Ideological battle

The controversy highlights the oppressive nature of the government of the People’s Republic. Despite the undeniable international character of Chinese universities, higher education and research must tow the party line.

Deng Xiaoping’s late-1970s policies of economic reform and opening-up enabled the country to become a laboratory of ideas in the last quarter of the 20th century. But for the past decade or so, China appears to be engaged in an ideological battle against the West.

Following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy, behind the US, which was itself weakened by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the resulting severe recession.

Yet China quickly found itself facing dissatisfaction from those steamrollered by a policy of growth at all costs, in spite of the country’s economic and diplomatic successes. Many Chinese intellectuals began to think the lot of their fellow citizens should be improved with a final – political – reform.

Image result for liu xiaobo

Led by writer, Nobel laureate and university professor Liu Xiaobo, one of the key activists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, hundreds of intellectuals signed the Charter 08, a manifesto in favour of democratising the regime. For this Liu was sentenced in 2009 to an 11-year prison term. He was released in July 2017 and died a few days later.

Document #9, the “anti-subversion kit”

Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012-2013 signalled a new era in the curtailing of freedom of thought. Fearing any threat to the purity of their ideology, Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders released a handbook listing the subversive ideas to be eradicated, the infamous Document #9.

The following topics are now banned from public discussion: western constitutional democracy, the universal nature of human rights, the empowerment of civil society, multiple interpretations of history, and anything questioning the validity of Chinese economic reforms and socialism.

Image result for  China Quarterly editor Tim Pringle

While post-Mao China was not free of taboos, they were usually limited to the “three Ts”: Taiwan, Tiananmen and Tibet. Several things have changed since 2012. Firstly, the publication of Document #9 expanded the scope of unacceptable ideas: any subject, without exception, could now be censored.

Secondly, Chinese universities are now the reluctant front-line soldiers in this ideological battle: in 2015, the Minister for Education urged universities to ban the use of textbooks promoting Western values. Lastly, any contravening of the new norm is now subject to severe repression, and the CPC has no qualms about openly resorting to totalitarian tactics.

A violent crackdown

On top of routine intimidation, 248 human rights advocates were rounded up in a brutal mass arrest in July 2015. In the resulting atmosphere of fear, liberal intellectuals no longer think it wise to answer questions from foreign journalists; they practice broad self-censorship and, when possible, wind up living in exile abroad. For those who remain, harassment is commonplace.

These attacks against fundamental rights and specifically academic freedom are now extending beyond mainland China, starting with the special administrative regions. In 2014, several Macau professors were abruptly dismissed; in Hong Kong, the 2015 disappearances of five book-sellers and publishers is still unresolved. These cases reveal the widening cracks in the “one country, two systems” model. Yet Beijing’s influence does not stop there.

n the summer of 2014, the European Association for Chinese Studies had several pages of its program ripped out by the Confucius Institute the day before its biannual conference in Portugal.

The institute apparently objected to advertising from Taiwanese sponsors. That same year, the American Association of University Professors initiated calls for the closure of Confucius Institutes, claiming they undermine freedom of speech on US university campuses.

Last month Australia acknowledged Chinese government interference in its universities. Beijing has been carrying out unprecedented influence and control operations targeting Chinese students as well as Chinese and non-Chinese professors. In response, the Group of Eight (Go8), a coalition of the top eight universities in Australia, has called for a coordinated and measured response.

In 2016, more than a quarter of the 550,000 overseas students enrolled in Australian universities came from China. They represent a significant financial boon for Australian universities, who don’t want to offend the Chinese government. The question is, can the core values of academic institutions be preserved without incurring the wrath of Party leaders?

This article was originally published in French

 

Jomo Kwame Sundaram–Need to Speak Truth to Power


October 16, 2017

Jomo Kwame Sundaram–Need to Speak Truth to Power

by Malaysiakini Team

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Tomorrow: Jomo on why Malaysians are worse off today

INTERVIEW | Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the United Nations, talks about the need to “speak truth to power,” among others.

Image result for dr jomo kwame sundaram

 

Question: In a recent speech, Prime Minister Najib Razak accused you of taking “every opportunity to attack me and my policies, from our participation in the TPPA, to the administration of welfare payments, to foreign investment in Malaysia.” What do you have to say?

Jomo: What can I say? One should not read him out of context. He said this as proof of freedom of speech and democracy in the country. Obviously, I appreciate his commitment to freedom of speech, and presumably, freedom after speech [laughs]. In fact, some people now tease me as the PM’s “poster boy” for free speech in Malaysia.

But unfortunately, his fact-checkers did not do their homework, or perhaps facts don’t matter in this age of fake news. As many know, I have also been criticised by the PM’s critics for supporting several of his policy initiatives, most notably BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia) and the minimum wage policy.

BR1M goes directly to beneficiaries and is hence much appreciated by recipients. Understandably, as with the mid-year deal for Felda settlers, opposition politicians see BR1M as bribing the electorate, but one should not condemn BR1M itself.

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However, labour market interventions, such as the minimum wage policy, have been far more significant for improving a lot of low-income earners although the public may not realise it.

I recently lauded the Health Ministry initiative to get an affordable Hepatitis C treatment, for a small fraction of the US price, for the almost half million Malaysians who suffer from it.

So factually, his speechwriters were wrong. But he was right to say that I do not blindly support everything his government has done, and have been critical of specific policies, which I have done for decades, long before he became PM.

Najib said you have been critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).

Jomo: He is correct that I have long been critical of the TPPA. Before I came back to Malaysia last year, I joined some UN colleagues to critically assess the TPPA. The report was launched in Washington DC in early 2016, soon after I left the UN.

That work was not focused on Malaysia, and simply pointed out that the methodology used simply assumed away the problems the TPPA would generate, including for the US. In the US, both Democrats and Republicans cited our work to oppose the TPPA.

After returning to Malaysia, I felt obliged to point out that the gains promised by the TPPA, even by its most fervent US advocates, were actually very modest and exaggerated by its Malaysian proponents.

Image result for Trump withdraws from TPPA

 

I also pointed out that most of the gains to the US were at our expense. Strengthened intellectual property rights (IPRs) would raise the costs of medicines, for example.

The TPPA’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions would allow private tribunals to make rulings in favour of powerful foreign corporations at potentially great expense to the Malaysian government.

Even now, although the TPPA is dead in law because President (Donald) Trump rejected it, there are those trying to push TPP 11 through while the government and public are distracted by other matters.

This would be worse as it would sell out the national and public interest for next to no gain. My concern throughout has been the Malaysian public interest, including the government interest.

What about foreign investments?

Jomo: As for foreign investment, again he is correct that I am concerned about how the government is encouraging foreign portfolio investment, as in the period before the 1997-98 crisis.

Unlike Thailand and Indonesia then, the government and Malaysian corporations had not borrowed very heavily from abroad. But we were vulnerable because of the sudden exit of mainly foreign holdings from the Malaysian stock market.

Such investments have grown so much in the last decade that some estimates suggest that they exceed foreign share ownership in the mid-1970s, more than four decades ago. It is also misleading to think that because Malaysians have been encouraged to invest abroad, we should encourage foreign portfolio investments here.

 

Greenfield foreign direct investments are a different story as they may bring in new productive capacities and capabilities, including technology, management and market access. But my concern remains that Malaysian industrial capacities and capabilities remain modest, and we still have relatively few internationally competitive industrial firms.

My concerns have been expressed with the country’s interests and future progress foremost. I pray that the space for such discussion and debate will be expanded, not diminished. The PM’s affirmation of freedom of speech should, therefore, be welcomed, not feared.

So, what inspires you to do what you do?

Jomo: Many people have inspired me. Those who fought to free us from imperialism, oppression and exploitation. While in school, especially at the Royal Military College, I was inspired by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Yasser Arafat, Kwame Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela.

And yes, I do not identify with the other man I was named after – Jomo Kenyatta, father of Kenya’s current president, who was unfairly jailed by the British from 1952 until 1959, but became increasingly corrupt and tribalistic after becoming president in 1963.

Chinua Achebe’s writings turned from the disruptive colonial impact to the gangrene of corruption. Then, in 1983, I was shaken by the brutal torture and murder of my senior in school, the late Jalil Ibrahim, in Hong Kong.

We are all enjoined to “speak truth to power.” Initially, when I was at UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) with the late Ishak Shari, Osman Rani and Ismail Muhd Salleh, and later with others after I moved to Universiti Malaya.

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During Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)’s long tenure, I was also known as a critic, even though I appreciated many aspects of particular policy initiatives. Although I was quite outspoken in those days, BN politicians did not harass me.

 

Rather, petty university administrators who had ambitions or agendas of their own were the vindictive ones. But most left me alone as I had no ambitions in terms of university positions.

Also, there is no personal animus on my part towards the Prime Minister. As is well-known, I greatly admire his late father (Tun Abdul Razak )for many reasons. In fact, I wrote an article early last year, just after leaving the UN, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his untimely passing.

As a student then, in the cold winter of early 1976, we organised a memorial meeting at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to honour his contributions soon after he passed.

Tomorrow: Jomo on why Malaysians are worse off today

Challenging Obscurantism with Reformist Mindset


 

October 15, 2017

Challenging Obscurantism with Reformist Mindset in Malaysia

When reason gives way to dogma, obscurantism, anti-intellectualism and un civil discourse, Malaysia enters neo-Stone Age.–Din Merican

by Dr. Ahmad Farouk  Musa

Image result for Din Merican and Dr Farouk Musa

“Verily, We did offer the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – for, verily, he has always been prone to be most wicked, most foolish”.
[Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:72]

cherepno-mozgovaja-travma-klassifikacijaMany interpreters derive various meanings from the word ‘trust’ that is connected to this verse; but perhaps the closest definition that describes the meaning of ‘trust’ – as per Muhammad Asad’s explanation in his commentary ‘The Message of the Quran’ – appears to be ‘reason’ or ‘intellect’, and ‘the faculty of volition’. Thus, it is primarily the superiority of intellect or the force of reason that allows for that volition. And, it is this ‘reason’ and ‘intellect’ that becomes the basis to differentiate us from all other celestial beings, including the angels.

The angels were once commanded to prostrate before Adam because of the superiority of reason bestowed unto no other creation but the creatures called humans. In this matter, Muhammad Asad, greatly influenced by the views of Imam Muhammad Abduh, clearly establishes the importance of ‘reason’ in his debate surrounding the following verse:

“And He imparted unto Adam the names of all things; then He brought them within the ken of the angels and said: “Declare unto Me the names of these [things], if what you say is true.”
[Surah Al-Baqarah, 2: 31]

2.Para5.RightThe term ‘ism’ (name), according to philologists, shows an expression of “imparting knowledge (about something)”. According to Muhammad Asad, in philosophical terms, it signifies the meaning of a “concept”.

The subsequent verses indicate that based on the impartation of knowledge achieved from God in the form of a “name” or concept of thinking; man is therefore, in some situations, higher in status than Angels. “Name” is a symbolic expression of the formidability in defining an expression, the formidability in elaborating the views that form the unique characteristics of humankind and which makes it possible for them, in the words of the Qur’an, to become God’s vicegerent on earth.

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It is with that, therefore, the mission and aspirations of the Islamic Renaissance Front to rejuvenate or renew Muslim thinking or in other words, to champion the superiority of reason or simply ‘the rise of reason’. Consequently, it is not an exaggeration to say that it manifests a form of rethinking and a rejuvenation of the Mu’tazilites (Rationalists) course of rationalism in the modern world Islam.

However, the question often asked is, what about ‘iman’ or faith? Is reason required to experience it? On this point, Imam Muhammad Abduh opines that faith is incomplete so long as it is not based on reason. According to his view reason is the only source of faith. It is due to reason that Man can recognise the signs of Divine power, not through reckless confidence by merely following along.

The Challenges

Image result for Din Merican and Dr Farouk Musa

Malaysia’s Obscurantist in-Chief with India’s Fugitive Zakir Naik

Indeed, all the challenges we face now are the same challenges the past reformists faced, that is, intellectual stagnation. And, as a result of this decline in rationalism amongst modern Muslims, we witness the decay of the Islamic world today.

3.Para10jpgTo think that we were once a people proud of our great civilisation at time when the West was still in the dark ages. We had thousands of scientists, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, astrologists, physicians and many more fields of expertise all of which were established at the House of Wisdom in the Rationalists era. But, all of that only remains recorded in the folds of history.

The Rationalists at that time believed that one of the ultimate traits of God was justice. This is as embodied in their usulul khamsah (five principles) or one of the five principles of the Rationalists’ doctrine. And since God is just, Man must therefore possess the will to endeavour.  Man should we willing to use reason as endowed by God to differentiate between what is right and wrong and to endeavour to uphold justice.

And for the Rationalists, since God is most Just, verily, God will not respond to what is good and bad arbitrarily. Man will receive God’s response be it the blessings of heaven or the torture of hellfire as a result of his own choices made based on his own free will.

Thus, whoever believes that God is the most Just, will witness the reality that man is the maker of his own actions. And accordingly, he is responsible for whatever response God gives him based on his actions by his own hands.

This certainly conflicts with what has been extracted from works of the Ash’arites (Traditionalists). For the Traditionalists, God is most Compelling; who with His strength may cast someone who is pious and just into the hellfire and place someone who is cruel and evil into the heaven. Because that is the reality behind the power of God who is the most Compelling and the most Powerful.

But what remains clear, God in the view of the Rationalists, is a God who is Just and not a God who is a dictator; and this is the cause behind the theological problem that existed once upon a time. And this is what we have inherited for generations.

How Does God Interact with Us?

Verily, God who is Most Compelling delivered to us, His creations; the message primarily in two ways, through his Revealed Book or from the Book of the Universe.

Embodied in His Revealed Book sent down to us, i.e. the Qur’an, is the verse:

“Verily, this Qur’an shows the way to all that is most upright, and gives the believers who do good deeds the glad tiding that theirs will be a great reward.”
[Surah Al-Isra’, 17:9]

However, we often forget that God also speaks to us through the universe He created. Was it not in Surah al-Imran where it was stated:

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight, [and] who remember God when they stand, and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and [thus] reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created [aught of] this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe, then, from suffering through fire!”
[Surah Al-Imran, 3:190-191]

4.Para19.RightIt was based on that, according to Imam Muhammad Abduh, someone could not possibly have faith in his God other than mobilising his mind and intellect to think about the creations of God the Almighty.

This Mu’tazilite rationalism also brought them to summarise, that God, and the firmaments of His creation, should operate in accordance with rational rules that He himself has created. It was this view that successfully brought the Muslims to direction of scientific research and to the pinnacle of scientific excellence in various dimensions.

This realm operates through a system that is determinate in as much as it is orderly, where everything functions in an organised manner, from the smallest atom; proton, neutron and electron; to the biggest planets and stars that revolve in their respective orbits.  All of them revolve in a manner that is neatly arranged by the divine natural rules.  All these natural rules are entirely pure, and many of them have mathematical properties. Water will boil at 100°C and it will freeze at 0°C. Everything that is thrown from above will land on the ground due to the attractive force of gravity.  All of these are the natural laws of the universe created by God. Only when we understand and study these natural laws and universal rules, it is then that we understand how a particular phenomenon occurs based on scientific knowledge, knowledge which itself originates from God Himself. And by pursuing and equipping ourselves with such scientific knowledge, it is only then that we may spur ourselves towards shaping a new civilisation.

The Rationalists at that time were a group of people who deeply understood all these natural laws. They studied this various wealth of knowledge from the East and the West, translated these scientific ideas and improved upon those ideas without assuming such knowledge was obtained from a people who held agnostic beliefs about God. Due to that, they advanced in all fields of knowledge with the peak of which lead to the building of the House of Wisdom. They were the people that held to this rational theory that everything that happens must be in accordance with the natural laws determined by God, which in modern language, would be scientific knowledge.

However, Muslims influenced by the Traditionalists’ doctrine today, assume that God who is most Compelling can do whatever that conflicts with the natural law. Because He is the God who is the most Compelling. Thus, His power does not require Him to abide by the natural laws that He created, just as how He is empowered to cast someone pious into the hellfire or to place an evil person in heaven.

It is this kind of belief that creates so many shamans who proclaim to be able to perform all sorts of otherworldly surgeries to remove gallstones and all other kinds of spiritual surgeries. And it is belief such as this that fan the development of various pseudosciences that only use the incantations of magical spells based on the belief that because God is the most Compelling, He may do whatever He pleases to displace the laws of nature and He doesn’t have to operate within these natural laws.

The Modern Problem

5.Para25This issue of pseudoscience is but one of the problems that exists amongst Muslims impeding their ability to advance in the field of science. However, what is more severe is in the field of politics and statecraft. What is clear is that as result of this assumption that the Qur’an is to be executed without any room to consider the created Qu’ran which with it brings the implication that the Qur’an should be viewed from the angle of historicity, that makes it possible to face compelling issues of this age including issues like fundamental human rights, democracy and pluralism.

Such rigid and literal views in understanding the Qur’an entraps Muslims in the Medinan  State concept or to use Professor Tariq Ramadan’s terminology from his book “Radical Reform”, an obsession with model rather than its underlying principles. In fact, for us to advance and to prove that Islam is a religion suited to and in line with fundamental human rights and the modern concepts of nationhood, the religion of Islam must, therefore, be in line with sound logic.

Unless we can manage to achieve unanimity in giving reason and intellect its appropriate standing in facing the shifts of time and the various challenges of the era, we will not be able to free ourselves from the clutches and burdens of the past generation to move forward and to rebuild the glorious civilisation that has been lost.

The Solution

“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves”
[Surah Al-Ra’d, 13: 11]

Muhammad Asad interprets this phrase to be an illustration to the Revelation regarding cause and effect (sunatuLlah). This Revelation encompasses the life of the individual and the community. And makes the rise and fall of a civilisation depend on the quality of morality in humankind and on change “from within themselves”.

Accordingly, Muslims will, therefore, cannot expect change merely by sitting idly and praying and hoping that a miracle will happen. They have this mistaken belief that every matter on Earth has been determined for them just as how the Traditionalists believed that our fate has been predetermined and that any effort is merely an illusion. No matter how hard we try, what has been fated will not change. With that, Muslims will therefore become the most backward people and the most unproductive in their contribution to science and technology.

6.Para31.RightThe earliest generation of Muslims did not idly await for the arrival of al-Mahdi to rescue and to lead them. Due to that, we may see the renowned sociologist and historian, Ibn Khaldun in his ‘Muqaddimah’ (Prolegomena) fiercely opposed to the concept of the Mahdi (Islam’s Awaited Messiah) as well as rejecting all possibilities of such an event taking place as it serves only to make Muslims a more passive people.

Indeed, the understanding of the Qur’an shook Arabia, and freed the Muslims from the shackles of tribal conflicts. Within the span of a few decades, the Qur’an spread its worldview across Arabian borders and gave birth to the first ever ideological community in history through its insistence on awareness and knowledge. It enlivened amongst its followers the enthusiasm to seek knowledge and to research freely based on rationalism and the natural laws which ended with an era which captivated others in research and scientific discovery that raised the Islamic world to the highest peak of its culture.

This culture pioneered by the Rationalists penetrated middle-age European thought in many ways and through many paths. Ultimately it sparked a revolution in the European culture which we named as Renaissance, and later the passing of time played a major role in giving rise to what is termed as the “scientific age” in which we live in at this time.

And this is what we currently hope for so that the culture of thinking and researching based on science of technology can be reignited again to return to the success and the glory of our past predecessors.


AFMusaDato’ Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa is a Director at Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a think-tank advocating reform and renewal and the empowerment of the intellect.

https://irfront.net/post/articles/articles-english/restoring-the-reformist-mind/