Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum
by Dr.Azly Rahman@ www. malalaysiakini.com
by Dr.Azly Rahman@ www. malalaysiakini.com
We Malaysians are so used to feudalism. The culture of patronage and neo-feudalism is firmly entrenched in the 21st century Malaysian mindset. A feeding tube, through which “bebalisma” trickles, regularly nourishes this culture.
Bebalisma is a concept encompassing the notions of foolishness, idiocy, brainlessness, irresponsibility, unintelligence and half-wittedness. The late Syed Hussein Alatas, lexiconnoisseur par excellence, devoted an entire chapter to bebalisma (Chapter 3) in his masterpiece, “Intellectuals in Developing Societies”.
A Corrupt and Disgraced feudal Malay Politician
The development of Malaysia’s post-colonial politics has been chequered by these notions. Our political history exposes an intellectual development that has gone awry. We can blame none other than our enduring culture of patronage and neo-feudalism. It continues to be the assembly line in which bebalisma is efficiently manufactured, packaged and recycled for eager market consumption. Post-May 9 political transformations have not been spared. I take note of a few developments post-GE14 to demonstrate that feudalism is very much alive despite prevailing anti-corruption, anti-racist and anti-bigotry sentiments that brought the Barisan Nasional administration to its knees.
In October, the central leadership of DAP rightfully called for the prohibition of elected representatives and councillors from accepting titles and awards while still in active political service. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong and state rulers were informed of DAP’s decision that titles and awards should be accepted only after the awardees have proven themselves in active service with positive results.
Awards during service is unjustified and leads to complacency. Given the feudal mentality of Malaysian society, a Datuk, Datuk Seri, Tan Sri or Tun has the upper hand in many aspects of governance including access to corrupt practices. We have seen in the previous administration how this abuse gained momentum, and the attention it was given by the media. For instance, in 2017 a series of print and online newspapers carried stories of “Datuks breaking the law”. One newspaper even suggested that at the rate so many Datuks and Datuk Seris are getting into trouble, “the Prison Department might have to build a new wing just to house these VIPs”. The editor of that newspaper had a welcoming tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. However, such humour is premised on acceptable norms but unacceptable cultural values.
Datuks and Tan Sris are VIPs, but whether they are given preferential treatment or not as criminals should not be open to debate. I would like to see more of our media focusing on the phenomenon that our feudal past should stay in the past. Furthermore, the donning of the notorious “orange lock-up” attire is befitting for all criminals, irrespective of whether they were former leaders in government. A criminal is a criminal. Society was cheated, individuals were hurt, citizens’ rights were looted. A title should not have the power to minimise such violations of societal values.
The general public and the ruling elite must change the prevailing perception of what it means to be respected in society. Feudal notions of respect are superficial and empty. An individual earns respect based on services rendered, not on how many lines your name is.
These services have to benefit a majority rather than a select minority with vested interests. The feudal attitude that is so prevalent in Malaysia has resulted in what Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has bemoaned for a long time, more so since he took office in May this year. The sense of shame among Malaysians is at an all-time low.
But how can one feel ashamed of being corrupt or committing academic fraud if punishment is going to be only skin-deep? Feudalism dictates leniency. Since the release of the National Unity Consultative Council blueprint in October this year, there has been a renewed urgency to tackle racial and religious tensions. Last week’s disturbing incident in Seafield, USJ 25 (Sri Maha Mariamman temple), though, tells me more about the misperception of values as opposed to politicking based on race and religion. Let me explain.
Six civilians were injured, including a policeman and a firefighter. The latter caught the media’s attention as his injuries were critical, apart from him being Malay. What caught my attention though were the appeals made by readers in the comment sections of many online media portals. Many called for an end to senseless bickering by politicians, and an end to politicising race and religion by the opposition. Some made visceral attacks targeted at Malays, while others from various races appealed for normality. One non-Malay reader commented that the Malays are a peace-loving, kind, polite and “soft” people, implying that the temple fracas had nothing to do with race or religion.
I agree, but I also worry that these positive Malay traits are fodder for the perpetuation of a feudal mindset in our society. Manipulators will certainly take advantage of such noble characteristics to claim subservience from the hinterland. Rural folk revere their leaders, especially those with titles. They are regarded as orang besar. The reality is that most rural Malaysians have blind loyalty for their titled heroes. Ongoing support for the likes of our previous leaders and their respective parties is a strong case in point. However, the values of being a kind, polite and “soft” people must be divorced from the backward feudal ideology that has been etched into the Malaysian mindset. The only way we can evolve from this feudal pit of inequality is through education.
Our schools should continue teaching universal moral values. Religious education should be separate from our national education curriculum. More time and resources should be devoted to the teaching of the negative aspects of feudalism and its detrimental effect on the social contract.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s call to include the 1MDB scandal in Malaysian history is welcomed. However, if this is not deeply thought through, young minds will fail to see a connection between feudal patronage and corruption. After all, the 1MDB scandal was engineered by many orang besar. Similarly, Malaysians are taught in school to be polite from young, but they should also be taught that stating the honorific Datuk or Tan Sri many times in a single sentence when addressing an orang besar is unnecessary. It does not make the conversation more polite or morally elevated. All it does is prolong an irrational hierarchy in social interaction.
Feudalism being what it is – reverence of a leader, a personality rather than adherence to an ideology – opens society to blatant manipulation. Citizens’ representatives should also be given the choice of whether to accept an honorific or not, without any character assassination should he/she refuse it. In our culture, it is believed that not accepting such awards would be an insult to the Agong or the rulers. On the contrary, I see such a refusal as humble, and an example of a dedicated and selfless “servant” of society. These values should be revered. Such an act of refusal demonstrates great integrity and decency. A feudal mind, however, would think otherwise. A feudal mind would value the financial perks and parking in a no-parking zone.
The overwhelming feeling of privilege and self-deservedness among Malaysians is staggering. For instance, in the world of academia, the highest award given is Emeritus. In Malaysia, we also have Profesor Ulung and Profesor DiRaja, both of which do not make any sense in the global scholarly arena.
On an international level, a professor has reached the highest level of scholarly achievement in a particular academic field based on the decades he or she has devoted to teaching, research and publishing. Recognition of profound academic achievement is also given if students of such professors have achieved their own pristine level of scholarship. Both student and mentor are highly regarded, irrespective of who has been awarded the honorific.
Also, merely the quantity of publications should not be the litmus test of success or failure in the academia. Internationally, academics are given high recognition for quality publications – articles and books that offer cutting-edge discoveries, new theories and creative interpretations that can potentially improve the way we live. An academic could write only a single magnus opus throughout his or her career, and yet go down in history as a legendary scholar and a great mind.
The award of Professor Emeritus should not be dished out irresponsibly. At the monthly staff assembly in the Prime Minister’s Department earlier this week, Dr.Mahathir reminded the government and members of the administration that the power bestowed on them means that they should feel great responsibility to avoid self-benefit and self-interest. Instead, “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Chapter 4 of Alatas’ “Intellectuals in Developing Societies” is entitled “The Fools in Developing Societies”. A serious expose is presented on a somewhat “foolish” topic. The state of being a fool in society is prolonged by titled individuals. These decorated individuals come a dime a dozen. If the deserving are honoured, there would be fewer fools in society. If we learn to appreciate the value of excellence and hard work, we would create a society that strives for such an achievement. In the process the level of competency in all aspects of society will be raised.
In the current Malaysian context, H.G Wells’ “martian red weed” (in “The War of the Worlds”) represents how bebalisma has encroached into every nook and cranny of our lives. It is proving to be a herculean task to re-programme such a mindset.
Many in the top political intelligentsia, the business community and society in general seem oblivious to the “invisible hand” of feudalism. We complain a lot about corruption, racism, bigotry, poor quality of education, the increase in consumer prices, high road accident rates, lack of academic freedom, etc. I hope we will continue to find solutions to these serious problems by invoking a more anti-feudalism, anti-bebalisma narrative.
Thankfully there are segments of Malaysian society which have consciously rejected this feudal hierarchy of “idol worship”. However, our education system must become more involved as the young need to be taught that feudalism is not acceptable just because it is part of our tradition.
* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
December 4, 2018
IN my agama school in Johor Baru in the 1960s, I learnt about Iblis (Satan) who refused to bow down with the other angels before the first human (Adam) that God created. When God asked why, Iblis said, “I am better than him; You created me from fire and you created him from dirt.” For his contempt and his disobedience, God cast Iblis out of heaven.
This parable has remained in my mind as it is this belief in one’s superiority that is the root of cruelty and injustice in the world. To think that one is better, one is greater, one is superior than the other in the name of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, caste, class, leads to all manner of injustice against those who are different from us – for no other reason than the fact that they are different. It is the logic of Satan.
At last Tuesday’s seminar on Islam and Human Rights organised by JJAKIMakim and Suhakam, the de facto Minister for Religion, Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof, made an impassioned plea for Muslims to recognise that human rights are a part of Islamic belief. He sprinkled his speech with verses from the Quran and stories from Prophet Muhammad’s life to illustrate the values of justice, compassion, dignity, freedom of religion, non-discrimination, and anti-racism.
Human rights, he said, constitute “darah daging” (inherent in) Islam. There will never be peace, he warned, if one side insists that its race or its religion is superior as the other side will then retaliate with its own claim of superiority. Two Malay men who had entered the hall in tanjak and keris regalia to display their “superior” Malay identity slinked away in silence after the speech.
Mujahid said he wanted to create a new narrative for a new Malaysia. I believe this is an imperative given the dogged efforts by the supremacists of race and religion to destabilise this new government and derail its change agenda. And I hope Mujahid’s colleagues in the Cabinet and the Pakatan Harapan leadership and membership will share his courage of conviction to do the same. For Malaysia cannot afford to go on being polarised on the basis of race and religion.
Events over the past few weeks reveal the continuing agenda of these desperate demagogues to incite hate and escalate further the sense of siege and fear among certain segments of the Malay community. These mischief makers are priming for violence, with threats of blood being shed and another May 13 being engineered. Such incitement to hatred and violence constitute criminal acts that must not be allowed to go unpunished.
It is obvious that those baying for blood are those who have lost political power and lucrative financial entitlements that they were used to. If they can no longer plunder the country at will as in the past, let’s tear this country asunder so that no one else benefits, seems to be their plan. And they dare proclaim they are doing this in order to protect the Malays and Islam? What an insult. You can fool some Malays some of the time, but you can’t fool all the Malays all of the time.
Enough Malays stood up on May 9 to say enough is enough and voted for change. Let’s get real here. While Pakatan Harapan might have garnered only 30% of the Malay votes, Umno’s share of the Malay votes plummeted by a whopping 15%. There was not just a significant Malay swing, but also a youth swing against Umno and all that it stood for – epitomised by a leader who thought it was all right that RM2.6bil could enter his personal bank account, countenanced by his cabinet and his party leadership.
The challenge before this Pakatan Harapan government is to find effective ways to build more Malay support for its change agenda. Who really pose a threat to the well-being of the Malays? Those who claim to speak in their name and yet plundered the wealth of the nation for personal gain cannot possibly be the champions of those left behind.
The focus of affirmative action must be on those left behind. They have a right to feel aggrieved, not the privileged UMNOputras whose gravy train is wrecked, with no spare parts in sight. Rising inequality and low wages must be addressed immediately so that these demagogues who exploit the vulnerabilities of those left behind have little space to advance their us-versus-them hate narratives.
Datuk Onn Jaafar would be crying in his grave to know that almost 100 years after he relentlessly wrote and cajoled the Malays to work hard, to study hard, to send their daughters to school, to be entrepreneurs, to be brave and confident, to take risks and be their own bosses, the party he founded is today led by those who manufacture endless threats in order to keep the Malays feeling insecure and fearful, instead of building their confidence and their capacity to embrace change.
Onn was obsessed since the 1920s with the backwardness of the Malays, and the need to “betulkan orang Melayu” (get the Malays on the right path). I choke at the sight of our 93-year-old Prime Minister still obsessed with this same mission.
It is a tragedy that 72 years after the founding of UMNO, 61 years of being the dominant party in power, 47 years of affirmative action, these UMNO leaders and Ketuanan Melayu agitators still cannot figure out what they might have done wrong if the Malays still feel insecure and left behind in the country’s development. Obviously, their priority is not to find solutions. Their priority is how to get back into power. Since the rakyat have lost confidence in their leadership, and refuse to buy into their race and religion under threat mantra, they are upping the ante by publicly baying for blood and violence. What a disgrace, what a betrayal.
But how do you get those Malays who feel threatened by every conceivable difference to deal with the realities of the Malaysia and the world they live in today? How does this new government undo the damage of decades of indoctrination and demonisation against the Chinese, the Christians, the DAP, the liberal Muslims, the LGBT community, the Shi’as, the Ahmadiyyahs, and against principles and standards that uphold equality, non-discrimination, human rights, liberalism and pluralism. These were all constructed as bogeymen used to divide the nation in order to build Malay groupthink for their Ketuanan Melayu and authoritarian brand of Islam to maintain power and privilege.
This pipeline of hate and mistrust must be plugged.The latest Merdeka Centre survey on religious extremism in Southeast Asia shows that narratives matter. Muslims who believe in the diet of conservative beliefs such as a literalist understanding of Islam, the primacy of hudud law, and reviving the Islamic Caliphate are those who feel animosity towards others who are different from them and who hold violent and non-violent religious extremist tendencies. Around 66% of Muslims in Malaysia want non-Sunni sects to be banned, and only 41% support multi-faith education, compared to 73% non-Muslims who believe that students should learn the religious beliefs of all groups. What is also disturbing is the attitude towards Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Muslim respondents in Malaysia look negatively towards these “outgroups”, when asked to rank their attitudes towards others. Malaysian Muslims also scored the highest in terms of support for Jemaah Islamiyah (18%) and ISIS (5%), compared to Muslims in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
May 9 has given us hope that change is possible. The new Malaysia must build new dominant narratives on a just and compassionate Islam in a Malaysia that is big enough for every one of every hue and colour.
Those in government, in academia, in business, in the media, and in civil society must take the bull by the horn in loudly challenging the hate spewed out by these supremacists who use race and religion to divide the nation for political and personal gain. Rule of law must be upheld and the authorities must take firm action against those who incite racial and religious hatred. The responsibility to steer this nation to embrace diversity and differences belong to all of us.
There is no other choice. We need to reimagine and rebuild this new Malaysia if we want to live together in peace and prosperity in an inclusive country that should be a model to the Global South and to the Muslim world. We were once that country. We will, we must, we can, once again, be that model.
November 15, 2018
“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.
For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’ But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.
His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.
“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”
Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”
Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.
Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”
The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:
Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.
Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”
Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.
It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.
From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.
Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.
These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.
“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.
The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)
Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.
Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”
After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.
But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.
The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.
Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.
He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.
The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.
Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:
And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.
“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.
Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.
By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.
It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”
This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦
November 7, 2018
Ever since the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession, economists have been pilloried for failing to foresee the crisis, and for not convincing policymakers of what needed to be done to address it. But the upheavals of the past decade were more a product of historical contingency than technocratic failure.
From the end of World War II until 2007, Western political leaders at least acted as if they were interested in achieving full employment, price stability, an acceptably fair distribution of income and wealth, and an open international order in which all countries would benefit from trade and finance. True, these goals were always in tension, such that we sometimes put growth incentives before income equality, and openness before the interests of specific workers or industries. Nevertheless, the general thrust of policymaking was toward all four objectives.
Then came 2008, when everything changed. The goal of full employment dropped off Western leaders’ radar, even though there was neither a threat of inflation nor additional benefits to be gained from increased openness. Likewise, the goal of creating an international order that serves everyone was summarily abandoned. Both objectives were sacrificed in the interest of restoring the fortunes of the super-rich, perhaps with a distant hope that the wealth would “trickle down” someday.
At the macro level, the story of the post-2008 decade is almost always understood as a failure of economic analysis and communication. We economists supposedly failed to convey to politicians and bureaucrats what needed to be done, because we hadn’t analyzed the situation fully and properly in real time.
Some economists, like Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University, saw the dangers of the financial crisis, but greatly exaggerated the risks of public spending to boost employment in its aftermath. Others, like me, understood that expansionary monetary policies would not be enough; but, because we had looked at global imbalances the wrong way, we missed the principal source of risk – US financial mis-regulation.
Still others, like then-US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, understood the importance of keeping interest rates low, but overestimated the effectiveness of additional monetary-policy tools such as quantitative easing. The moral of the story is that if only we economists had spoken up sooner, been more convincing on the issues where we were right, and recognized where we were wrong, the situation today would be considerably better.
The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policy making having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.—
The Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has little use for this narrative. In his new history of the post-2007 era, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, he shows that the economic history of the past ten years has been driven more by deep historical currents than by technocrats’ errors of analysis and communication.
Specifically, in the years before the crisis, financial deregulation and tax cuts for the rich had been driving government deficits and debt ever higher, while further increasing inequality. Making matters worse, George W. Bush’s administration decided to wage an ill-advised war against Iraq, effectively squandering America’s credibility to lead the North Atlantic through the crisis years.
It was also during this time that the Republican Party began to suffer a nervous breakdown. As if Bush’s lack of qualifications and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s war-mongering weren’t bad enough, the party doubled down on its cynicism. In 2008, Republicans rallied behind the late Senator John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, a folksy demagogue who was even less suited for office than Bush or Cheney; and in 2010, the party was essentially hijacked by the populist Tea Party.
After the 2008 crash and the so-called Great Recession, years of tepid growth laid the groundwork for a political upheaval in 2016. While Republicans embraced a brutish, race-baiting reality-TV star, many Democrats swooned for a self-declared socialist senator with scarcely any legislative achievements to his name. “This denouement,” Tooze writes, “might have seemed a little cartoonish,” as if life was imitating the art of the HBO series “Veep.”
Of course, we have yet to mention a key figure. Between the financial crisis of 2008 and the political crisis of 2016 came the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2004, when he was still a rising star in the Senate, Obama had warned that failing to build a “purple America” that supports the working and middle classes would lead to nativism and political breakdown.
Yet, after the crash, the Obama administration had little stomach for the medicine that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had prescribed to address problems of such magnitude. “The country needs…bold persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policymaking having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.
Still, I do not find Tooze’s arguments to be as strong as he thinks they are. We economists and our theories did make a big difference. With the exception of Greece, advanced economies experienced nothing like a rerun of the Great Depression, which was a very real possibility at the height of the crisis. Had we been smarter, more articulate, and less divided and distracted by red herrings, we might have made a bigger difference. But that doesn’t mean we made no difference at all.1
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.
November 1, 2018
by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas
Since 9/11, global scrutiny turned to contentious concepts such as terrorism, mono-polar, bipolar, superpower, economic and cultural imperialism, as well as linguistic colonialism.
It is the latter which is the subject of this commentary because it has stirred harsh, aggressive and sometimes, amusing reactions in the media (local, regional and global), as well as in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary sitting.
A few days ago, Parliament was entertained by the rantings of a particular opposition MP who claimed that English is not an intellectual language. Among the many incoherent sentences that were uttered, he cited examples of ancient civilisations and conquerors, attempting to rationalise that, “English is not an intellectual language that develops the mind and brain”. He also confidently pontificated that “modern economies like Japan, Taiwan and non-English speaking Europeans do not use English in their journey to become developed nations”.
I hope this issue commands the attention of most Malaysians because for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, economically-developing and relatively-peaceful nation, we need to separate the “wheat from the shaft”.
Linguistic colonialism or imperialism as a concept is a derivative of Edward Said’s conceptualisation of cultural imperialism (in his two famous books Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism). I doubt, though, that the recent local uproar about the use of English as a medium of instruction of a few subjects in school is based on any knowledge of Edward Said’s work.
Nevertheless, anti-English language crusaders keep creeping out of the woodwork because it seems fashionable. It is glaring that all of these narratives to date have been devoid of historical context. And this makes for extremely wimpy analyses.
Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin, is not alone. There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified”. They also believe that English speakers never created great civilisations. Leaving aside that this notion is erroneous, it also begs the question, “what is a great civilisation?”
In my understanding, a great civilisation is based on a network of cities (territories) comprising cultures that are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them.
So, the Roman, Spanish, Arab, French, British and Chinese (with their various dynasties) were great civilisations. How did language then become the signature dish, so to speak, of that civilisation?
Through these empires, languages spread and shifted in dominance. In the past, empires spread their influence through their armies, and after the conquests, so began the social and linguistic assimilation. Between the 3 BC and 3 AD, the Roman Empire was bilingual — Latin and Greek. This was because the Romans knew that Greek was a language of prestige, philosophy and higher education — an “intellectual” language.
Spain succeeded in making over 20 sovereign states today, that speak Spanish, excluding millions of Spanish speakers in immigrant communities in other non-Spanish speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines.
Castillian Spanish became the most important language of government and trade. It was the lingua franca of the Spanish empire, a derivative of Latin. Latin was still the “intellectual” language of the Spanish and of the Church.
The Chola Dynasty was one of the longest, most civilised empires in the history of southern India. Tamil and Sanskrit were the official languages.Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct languages, the former being Dravidian and the latter being an Indo-Aryan language. As we can see, all three great civilisations were bi-lingual.
In 21st century Malaysia, however, we are faced with a backlash of a-historical pundits who reject the ebb and flow of civilisational change, yet advocate for national progress and development.
Let me educate them on the current position of English in the world today. First, it is an intellectual language. The British Empire, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (1588-1952), had about 250 million English language speakers. English achieved unique conditions of development. The large continents of North America, Africa and Asia were colonised with industrialisation and trade in mind.
Global conditions at the time facilitated the transition towards the flourishing of English in previously French and Spanish colonial territories of North America and Africa. Due to abundant natural resources and human capital in these regions, the wheels of commerce and trade helped to “deify” (not my word) the English language. English was “at the right place, at the right time”.
Today, all civilisations are enriched by the ideas, thoughts and knowledge disseminated world wide in English. Of course there are other languages that perform this function, but English is predominant.
Second, people like Hasan Arifin and his supporters cannot distinguish between modernisation, Westernisation and imperialism.
Modernisation is the development and application of current and innovative science in the development process of all sectors of society. Westernisation is a process subsumed under modernisation when specifically-Western notions of what it means to be modern are accepted as universal values of modernisation.
Many aspects of Westernisation should not be accepted as modernisation. Imperialism, on the other hsnsd, is the process of domination of policies and ideas with a specific agenda in mind. In history, imperial powers have imposed power and influence through diplomacy or military force.
I think the current discourses in France and India of a “linguistic imperialism” are far-fetched. Like Westernisation, there is good and bad imperialism. It is also era-specific.
In the 21st century, military and economic powers like the US, China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia do not mirror the same imperialistic goals of the World War Two era.
Anintellectual, would realise that the need to master the English language is hardly the imposition of an imperialistic agenda.
The inadequacy of the historical-context approach is dangerous for nation building. A system oiled by pseudo-intellectuals who run the policy-making machinery will be suicidal for our “new” Malaysia.
My advice is to be firmly grounded in historical processes, be up-to-date with current economic and socio-political trends and subdue ethnocentric tendencies which are embarrassing and underdeveloped.
Critics of the English language quote China and Japan as being ignorant of the English language, yet they challenge the US and other great powers economically and militarily. It takes more, however, to become a global hegemon.
Anti-English crusaders in Malaysia believe religiously that China and Japan, despite their incapacity to speak and write in English, have reached a level of global economic hierarchy that threatens US and other major power positions. However, even this notion is skewed.
China, for example is known as “the factory of the world” and “the bridge-builder of the world”. But China’s global hegemonic status is in doubt because it lacks the capacity for economic reform, to minimise economic inefficiencies and it has proven inadequate at reforming the financial sector in order to provide investors with consistently profitable returns (the failure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction is a case in point). Therefore, the issue of language does not figure in the equation.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.