Military Loyalty is to King and Country, not UMNO


May 25, 2017

It is elementary, military loyalty is  to King and Country, not UMNO

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

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If you feel that strongly about something, you have an obligation to try and change my mind.”

– Aaron Sorkin

While some armed forces personnel – active and retired – have nothing but vitriol for my writings for Malaysiakini, I am glad to report on an anecdotal level at least, there has been far more support – most often qualified – for what I write amongst serving and retired members of our security services.

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Loyalty to King and Country

Anecdotal levels are of course cold comfort when the reality is that most people would rather not say anything unless cloaked in anonymity and people often confuse the echo chambers they live in as the “real world”, which is unfortunately far more complicated and diverse than what they read online.

I have always disliked the propagandising of the security services and while I believe that there are many people who do the hard work of keeping our country safe, they are hampered by the petty fiefdoms of their immediate superiors and hobbled by a self-serving political apparatus. The latter is more interested in maintaining political hegemony than by ensuring that these institutions are independent and serve the people of Malaysia.

The former meanwhile hampers the legitimacy of these institutions by eroding public confidence by its official statements, but more damagingly by engaging in practices that apes the accepted political culture that has resulted in our country being categorised as a kleptocracy.

Malaysian Armed Forces Veterans Association (PVATM) Deputy President Sharuddin Omar’s rejoinder to old soldiers, or in my case old sailors, “to the principle that we are always loyal to the current government” misses the point about loyalty, obligation and serving the country.

On a professional level, while I have always observed the chain of command, truth be told my duty – however, you define it – was always to the men and women under my charge. This of course is old school military thinking but one shared by many old timers who put the welfare of the men and women under their charge ahead of politics, racial or religious. Times have changed, of course.

While many would dismiss this veteran’s association as just another government appendage, I was impressed that they disavowed former soldier Mohd Ali Baharom’s (aka Ali Tinju) racist actions in the strongest possible terms. As reported in the media – “His actions are contradictory and incompatible with the principles and practices of all armed forces veterans in the country.

“In the future, we also hope that the media will only relate the actions of Ali Tinju as that of an individual and a Malaysian civilian, and not that of a Malaysian armed forces veteran,” said the association.

Quoting the Malay proverb “kerana nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga” (one bad apple spoils the whole barrel), the association expressed hope that its reputation and that of all armed forces veterans would not be ruined by the actions of one man.

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Many retired armed forces veterans make a distinction between loyalty to the institution and the people who make up those institutions. While I get that principle, I have never been unable to separate the office from the individual. To me, if the person in the office is corrupt then why bother defending the institution? I would much rather channel my energies in advocating change rather than spend my time defending the institution.

Honestly, what really bothers me is not that the “gomen is corrupt” but rather that our security apparatus is riddled with the kind of scandals that should make every retired armed forces personnel hang their heads in shame. To list the numerous corruption scandals perpetrated by service people is disheartening and we cannot solely blame the hegemon for that.

But what does loyalty to the government mean?

Compromised institutions

Does it extend to postal vote fraud? Remember in 2011, when four retired military personnel admitted they were marking postal ballots on order from higher up? To recap – “The four – Major (Rtd) Risman Mastor, Kamarulzaman Ibrahim, Mohamed Nasir Ahmad and Mohd Kamil Omar – said they were ordered by their commanding officers to mark postal votes for the hundreds and thousands of personnel who were out in the field.

“Their expose today is the second after an ex-army man came forward earlier this month, making a similar claim that he was ordered to mark postal votes for other personnel.”

The problem with advocating loyalty to compromised institutions is that armed forces personnel who have served with distinction and honour are tarnished by those who would dishonour the codes they claim to hold in service of their political masters. Besides the existential threat that a certain religion poses, this has been one of my main themes that I have revisited – unfortunately – over the years.

I wrote about how the armed forces was sinking in UMNO’s quagmire – “(Navy chief) Abdul Aziz (Jaafar), if you remember was one of the service chiefs lined up behind (looking rather sheepish) Armed Forces chief General Zulkifeli Mohd Zin when he made an emotional appeal, which also included subtle threats and comments which were unacceptable, not to mention unprofessional, for an officer holding the highest rank in the military to make. He made this appeal when confronted with accusations by retired service personnel of vote/voter manipulation in the armed forces.”

Another example is when the current Prime Minister had a sit down with retired personnel to discuss the Lahad Datu incident.

As reported to me by concerned retired service personnel – “The whole atmosphere seemed surreal to some who attended. When the Prime Minister walked in, ‘Negaraku’ was sung and the armed forces marching song ‘Barisan Kita’ (which one general quipped ‘Has the song been annexed by Barisan National?’) also got an airing. Apparently, it got quite comical when one retired air force general was frothing at the mouth that stern disciplinary action should be taken against generals who showed support for the opposition, the PM was chuffed up of and reminded those who attended that ‘spirit of this general’ was what was needed.”

These days many young people are speaking up. I am not talking about mainstream oppositional politics. I am talking about young people who rightly feel that current establishment politics is nothing but the same manure but with a different shovel.

What veterans should be doing, and this applies to anyone who has worked in the civil or security services, is to encourage these young people in their efforts to change the paradigm. We had it our way and we should encourage and support those people who truly believe in what this country could be.

Ultimately when we pledged to serve the King and country, our oath goes far beyond loyalty to the government. We are really serving the people of this country and our loyalty is with them. It does not matter if you support the establishment or the opposition, your loyalty should be with the people and not with political elites, especially when they dishonour the institutions you pledged to serve and protect.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

GW Establishes Program to Bring more STEM Teachers to High-Need Schools


May 20, 2017

 

https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/gw-establishes-program-bring-more-stem-teachers-high-need-schools

by GW Today

George Washington statue in University Yard

The George Washington University’s Center Courtyard–Making History at GWU

Read the full Strategic Plan (PDF)

The George Washington University has evolved into one of the nation’s leading universities. To continue advancing, the university has produced Vision 2021, an educational vision that reflects our aspirations to provide a unique, rigorous education to every one of our students and to secure our position as one of the world’s premier research universities.

View Our Progress

GW Establishes Program to Bring more STEM Teachers to High-Need Schools

Scholarships will contribute to two years of college tuition in exchange for teaching after graduation.

A new program at the George Washington University will offer science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors the opportunity to receive teacher training and scholarships for agreeing to teach in high-need school districts across the country after graduation from GW.

The new initiative is made possible by a grant through the National Science Foundation and the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. The five-year, $1.5 million grant will begin at the start of the 2017-18 academic year and is expected to assist more than 25 students total with $20,000 per year toward the cost of tuition and teacher training in their junior and senior years.

Once students complete the GWNoyce program, they will be prepared to apply for licensure with the D.C. public school system, which would make them eligible to teach in 48 states.

“Producing high-caliber secondary math and science teachers for high-need schools is essential to support our nation’s increasingly STEM-driven economy,” said Larry Medsker, research professor of physics and director of GWNoyce. “This work on behalf of our high-need communities aligns well with the GW mission statement goal of improving the quality of life in D.C.”

Dr. Medsker said the program will be particularly strong because it will recruit students who are already studying STEM-based fields and offer them courses, workshops, seminars and service projects to prepare them to be teachers in high-need schools.

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It also will offer preparatory stipends and projects for freshmen and sophomores who are interested in applying to the program, in conjunction with activities offered by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, GWTeach, a separate GW undergraduate program that prepares STEM majors to become teachers, and a new partnership between GWTeach and the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

Because of these additional offerings, the program is expected to reach more than 500 GW students by 2022.

High-need schools are defined as having at least one of the following characterizations: high percentage of individuals from families with incomes below the poverty line; high percentage of secondary school teachers not teaching in the content area in which they were trained to teach; or high teacher turnover rate. These school districts can be found in urban, suburban and rural settings.

“The GWNoyce program will enable our students to more easily transition into STEM teaching in high-need schools, a cause that is critical to meeting the needs of colleges, graduate schools and ultimately our nation’s STEM workforce,” said Ben Vinson, dean of the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences where GWNoyce is housed. “The goal of the GWNoyce program is a timely one and aligns with our vision for an engaged liberal arts, one that will bring our education and research to a new level of excellence.”

The GWNoyce program also will create a new relationship with Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus, allowing students accepted into the program to transfer to GW for the start of the junior year. The scholarship will help ease some of the financial burdens in pursuit of their bachelor’s degrees. The program is expected to create new opportunities for Virginia students interested in studying STEM fields at GW.

 

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in SEA


April 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW

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Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Andrew Alan Johnson

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/review-of-scholarship-and-engagement-in-mainland-southeast-asia/

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast AsiaAchan Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

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My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former Regional Director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

 

Hishamuddin’s steps to power: Loyalty pays off


April 17, 2017

COMMENT:

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I have been very critical of Prime Minister Najib Razak on many issues, corruption and governance among them; more often than not, I have been brutally so. Frankly speaking, his record has been dismal since taking over from Tun Abdullah Badawi in 2009 (with thanks to the machinations of his political mentor, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad). Najib’s popularity is now at an all time low.

However, Najib’s decision to give Defence Minister Hishamuddin Tun Hussein Onn a special role in his administration is, in my view, a very strategic, politically astute and timely one. Every leader needs an aide he can trust, not someone who has ambitions of his own to be the 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Hopefully, together and with the help of the charismatic  UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin, Najib and Hishamuddin can forge a strong alliance to face Malaysian voters in GE-14 on a Malaysia-centric political and socio-economic agenda rather than a Malay nationalist-Islamist one, with a view to bringing Malaysians together again.

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Najib, Hishamuddin and Khairy –a Formidable Combination for UMNO

Hishamuddin to Najib is what Tun Hussein was to Tun Abdul Razak with one fundamental difference. Tun Hussein was a reluctant politician who had the premiership thrust upon him. Our 3rd. Prime Minister was also a man of integrity, a lawyer of excellent aristocratic pedigree and a loyal son of Dato’ Onn Jaafar, who was UMNO’s founder President.

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Hishamuddin,  on the other hand, is a thorough bred UMNO politician who rose through the ranks at a measured pace. One needs to look at his resume to note that he has held key Cabinet positions. He performed  well and served the Prime Minister and UMNO loyally. Finally, his hard work and dedication to his responsibilities have earned him the right to take on this new job. But it is difficult to say that the premiership is his for the taking.

The incumbent Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Zahid Hamidi is a formidable rival with strong support among the UMNO grassroots and Malay nationalists of the extreme right. But at least Hishamuddin is an alternative who represents the moderate face of UMNO, which will be more acceptable to voters and UMNO’s Barisan Nasional partners (MCA, MIC and Gerakan) than the plebian Zahid. I did not mention PAS because I think this Hadi Awang-led Islamic party is headed towards political extinction after GE-14. –Din Merican

Hishammuddin’s steps to power

 by Scott Ng
 
The new Minister with Special functions occupies an unusual but maybe pivotal role.
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Hishamuddin as Malaysia’s Defence Minister in Singapore

 

The appointment of Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to the position of minister with special functions is one of the more curious political moves in recent memory. The buzz is that Prime Minister Najib Razak needs his first cousin as his right hand man. So one must wonder what must be running through the head of current DPM Zahid Hamidi, especially so close to a general election.

Zahid’s ambition has been noted by several quarters, with some critics believing that he veers too far to the right for the comfort of the public. Nonetheless, the DPM is a valuable asset to the Najib administration, but Hishammuddin’s sudden ascent has thrown the succession plan into disarray.

Hishammuddin certainly has a much better reputation with moderates than Zahid, and perhaps can be seen as something of a peace offering to those spooked by the new religious fundamentalist and ethno-nationalist approach of UMNO.

Unlike his cousin’s other lieutenants, Hishammuddin has kept a low public profile. While he is not looked to for an opinion like Khairy Jamaluddin is whenever a crisis erupts, he is seen as a quiet problem solver, brokering important defence deals in the Middle East and working with China on defence interests.

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Overall, he is seen as better spoken and more temperate a candidate for leader than Zahid, but memories may be long when it comes to perceptions of a politician’s character. People still remember his belligerence as UNMO Youth Chief. He brandished a keris during his speech at the UMNO General Assembly of 2005. He might have to do a little work to shake off that memory if he is truly positioned to take over as Deputy Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, Hishammuddin’s presence may yet prove to be appealing to the more cosmopolitan of the right wing and an acceptable compromise for the moderates and the left. Such an appeal is something that BN probably feels it needs in facing GE14.

However, the appointment does not signal a complete shift to the middle ground. GE14 is shaping up to be defined as a Malay vs Malay fight. If one thing is certain, it is that all parties will fight over the hallowed motherland vote and the insults will fly thick.

Hishammuddin may yet walk out of this the biggest winner, but only if he is the contrarian of his party and maintains the professional image he has groomed for himself over the past decade or so.

There are some who theorise that Hishammuddin’s appointment signals the beginning of a transition, that our Prime Minister is preparing to step down. If that is true, then all eyes will be watching how he behaves during the coming election campaign period.

At this point, Malaysians simply want a win, and if that win comes in the form of an heir apparent with all his clothes on, it will be a positive start.

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.

Big Challenge for Asian Modernization


March 30, 2017

Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenge for Asian Modernization

by Michael Heng Siam-Heng (received by e-mail with thanks)

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Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s, first Japan, then the Four Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers and now China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century?

How would Asians like this period of their history to be understood and remembered in centuries ahead?  It could be a period of impressive economic growth but also known for its environmental degradation, crimes, corruption, social disparities, religious extremism, and social conflicts. Or it could be a period that draws on the best of human achievements and advances them.  The second case would contribute immensely to a new global civilization characterized by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement, and sustainable economic growth.

I will dwell on four points.  First, on what basis can we argue for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation? Second, is such a historical project necessary? Third, three challenges facing us. Fourth, being in Malaysia, I will briefly touch on roles that can be played by this country.

Conceptual Basis for an Asian Cultural Rejuvenation

History tells us that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. The transformations generate social dislocations that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, and social institutions.  The problems are serious and they engage the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve the issues, these best and brightest draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.

Examples are Ancient Greece, the Spring-Autumn-Warring period of China, the Islamic golden age, and the Maurya and the Gupta period of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. We all know at least a dozen of such names.  These European thinkers or cultural giants acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as a social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization and continue to exert an influence on our thinking and cultures even until today.

The Need for the Historical Project

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Deng Xiao Peng–China’s Great Modernizer–Pragmatist

Ever since Asia suffered defeat and humiliation in its encounters with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realized the crucial importance of reform and modernization in order to face the onslaught. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we see in the case of Japanese imperialistic aggression.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan, through its  Meiji Restoration (明治維新), was the most successful in modernizing its military and economy, fulfilling its national agenda of being both powerful and wealthy. Once powerful, Japan began to behave aggressively, turning Korea into its colony, seizing large tracts of Chinese territories and occupying Southeast Asia. It was a military adventure which ended in total defeat at the closure of WWII.  To use a  simple metaphor, modernization is like the flight of a bird.  It requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing.  The other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.

Fast forward into early 21st century, Asia has regained much of its share of global economy.  Statistics provided by the IMF, the World Bank and transnational banks testify to this shift of economic power from the West.

To the ordinary public, this shift is visible, in the form of improved standards of living, and the new physical landscape.  The most visible is the super-tall buildings – architectural icons of modernity.  Of the ten tallest buildings in the world, 8 are in Asia, 2 in the USA.

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In contrast to the modern landscape in Asian cities, Asia has a string of disturbing social ills.  There is dysfunctional culture exhibited by the people at the top running the show.  State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent.  Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of sync with the demands of a modern economy. In societies where there are modern economic and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack integrity and independence.

Even in a modern economy and society operating efficiently, we need something more.  Again using the example of Japan.  It is the most modern Asian country. Yet its modernization is confined to the fields of economy, technology, and life styles. It has not undergone a philosophical development based on a foundation of critical rationality and humanism. The Japanese nation as whole has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during World War II.

 Three Major Challenges

Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history, namely (a) drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, (b) learning from others, and (c) learning from each other.

The first challenge can be formulated as: how and what Asians can draw from their own cultural and intellectual resources in the process of dealing with new problems.

With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. If a new interpretation provides an effective way in solving problems, the new solution is likely to find easier acceptance because it is framed in language familiar to the people. A sense of continuity is useful in coping with change.

Interestingly, there is often a link between the old and the new. Even a new philosophy is dependent on the intellectual achievements of the preceding centuries and millennia.  A scholar of the European Enlightenment observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas.  Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”  In other words, old beliefs can put on modern attires and assume modern colours. The result is a new idea.

This sounds rather straightforward. But it is not so if we observe carefully around us.  Hardcore conservatives prefer a literal and rigid interpretation of their traditions, all the more so if these are written. There is also the fear that in rejuvenating local culture and tradition to cope with the demands of a modern economy, the local culture and tradition may disappear, and that future generations will become culturally rootless.  Another problem is what to select from the past.

I believe that the proper attitude is to embrace change, and to see culture as something living, tradition as living tradition.  They are products of their times, and they will change with the demands of the time.

The second challenge is how and what to learn from others. To the extent that there are similarities in the issues involved in the transition from pre-modern societies to modern societies, we should learn from others’ experiences, both positive and negative. To quote the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan : “Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views”. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, Asia can certainly learn from them.

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Again like the first challenge, learning from others is not easy. Some believe that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to transplant ideas, values, and institutions that have sprouted and developed in a different culture and a different set of historical conditions.

Take the case of China’s difficult journey of learning after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. While the Chinese leadership welcomed the adoption of obviously more advanced technologies from the West, they had difficulties embracing the Western ideas and value system. The problem is less acute today but is not over.

What happened in China a century ago is happening in West Asia. The common belief was that “Eastern” culture of spirituality was superior to “Western” culture of materialism.  There is a fear that the spirit of local heritage and culture was threatened with destruction by the importation of western ideas and values.

Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. Though the process is complex, it has happened in history, in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Asia, and Europe.

Evidence in history support the claim that we can borrow ideas that originated in a very different historical context, and adapt them to serve local needs or even improve upon them in the process of creative synthesis. Let me list briefly three examples. First example: Southeast Asia was able to adopt religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. These influences from distant lands had originated in settings that were alien to Southeast Asia. Second example is Europe’s absorption of bureaucracy from China. Combining it with check and balance by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master. Third example: Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a profoundly different culture. After centuries of acclimatization, we have a synthesis of the two cultural traditions known as “Chan” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese.

The sensible attitude of learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernization, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West.  Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.

The above two challenges are related. It is difficult to learn from foreign sources and adopt their useful elements if we are not culturally and intellectually confident. With confidence in our own cultural heritage, we are at ease to critically appreciate the achievements of others. And cultural confidence can only stem from a deep and critical understanding of our own cultural roots, to the extent of discarding outdated ideas and practices of our own traditions.

he third challenge is for Asians to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions.  Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language which renders exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude.  Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe and America than their Asian neighbours.  

Given the guarded attitude many Asians have regarding learning from the West, they have less misgivings regarding learning from each other. They can benefit from sharing their experiences in modernization.  In fact, Japan’s path of rapid economic development has provided valuable insights to Southeast Asia and later on China and India. This pattern of economic development is described as the Flying Geese, with Japan as the leading goose. In coping with the broader social and cultural issues arising from modernization, the Middle Eastern countries are more likely to consult the experiences of Malaysia and Indonesia than those from the West.

As a concrete project of mutual learning and co-operation among Asian countries, they can compile a set of books – the Great Books of the East, containing the cream of Eastern intellectual achievements. It is a doable project.  It serves as a platform for top scholars of Asian countries to work together, creating as a byproduct a network Asian intellectuals of similar interests.  It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world.  It world form a key component of common body of knowledge for serious minded global citizens.

Another concrete project is traditional medicine.  Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Middle Eastern medicine. It represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of medical practice, often under poor material conditions. It is thus evidence-based.  However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of western medicine. Its theory needs a modern set of vocabulary and updated to take into account new medical findings. We can think of a productive sharing and conversation among the three streams of Asian traditional medicine. This is an area for active collaboration of Asian countries that can boost the cultural and intellectual confidence of Asia, while making concrete and valuable contributions to healthcare in the whole world.

Malaysia as the Italy of the Asian Mediterranean(Venice)

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Malaysia is unwilling to tap its rich diversity due to myopic Malay-centered leadership and  corruption–Bodoh Sombong

Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas.  Its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. For example, Italy, widely regarded as the birthplace of the European Renaissance, was an important meeting point of different cultures and intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean.

Malaysia can have an important role in such a historical process. Here, the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western) are co-existing as mainstreams of social life. They represent invaluable resources. Southeast Asia is a region with a multi-layered sedimentation of diverse cultures. It is a vibrant, peaceful and forward-looking region when we compare it to other regions with similar historical background. If we borrow the language of the European Renaissance, Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Malaysia can aspire to be the Italy of Asia (Venice).

Reinventing prevalent social-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes.  It is part of the efforts of a society to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is through such processes of renewal that societies try to overcome internal stagnation and meet external challenges.

The process touches societies profoundly, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture, and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concepts of goodness, truth, and beauty.  The blossoming of culture represents the sublimation of the human spirit, the enrichment of human experience and the nurturing of human nature towards goodness. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a historical soul.

Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.

The rise of Asia may thus be conceived of as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity. Will they translate the opportunity into a mission, and turn it into a reality?

The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking.  It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global.   This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long term well-being of humanity.  As co-operation and competition with the West can be expanded to include friendly co-operation and competition in the field of ideas, this new arena could well be an alternative to the geopolitical rivalry between an emerging China and a US in decline.

Let us imagine that East Asia or South Asia could provide a case of cultural revival together with economic modernization.  It would be an attractive alternative to the current Western model for the Middle East. It may offer new insights and solutions for solving the whole array of social, economic and political problems there.

If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilization to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilization.  It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.

This is the text of the author’s public lecture delivered at the Sungei Long Campus of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman on  March 17, 2017.