Remembering Herman Kahn–A Pioneer in Future Studies–Thinking the Unthinkable


February 6, 2017

Remembering Herman Kahn–A Pioneer in Future Studies

In Defense of Thinking

by Herman Kahn

Social inhibitions which reinforce natural tendencies to avoid thinking about unpleasant subjects are hardly uncommon.–Herman Kahn

https://hudson.org/research/2211-in-defense-of-thinking

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Futurist Herman Kahn with President Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld

Seventy-five years ago white slavery was rampant in England. Each year thousands of young girls were forced into brothels and kept there against their will. While some of the victims had been sold by their families, a large proportion were seized and held by force or fraud. The victims were not from the lower classes only; no level of English society was immune to having its daughters seized. Because this practice continued in England for years after it had been largely wiped out on the Continent, thousands of English girls were shipped across the Channel to supply the brothels of Europe. One reason why this lasted as long as it did was that it could not be talked about openly in Victorian England; moral standards as to subjects of discussion made it difficult to arouse the community to necessary action. Moreover, the extreme innocence considered appropriate for English girls made them easy victims, helpless to cope with the situations in which they were trapped. Victorian standards, besides perpetuating the white slave trade, intensified the damage to those involved. Social inhibitions which reinforce natural tendencies to avoid thinking about unpleasant subjects are hardly uncommon.

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A Message  for Donald J. Tump

The psychological factors involved in ostrich-like behavior have parallels in communities and nations. Nevertheless, during the sixty years of the twentieth century many problems have come increasingly into the realm of acceptable public discussion. Among various unmentionable diseases, tuberculosis has lost almost all taint of impropriety; and venereal disease statistics can now be reported by the press. Mental illness is more and more regarded as unfortunate instead of shameful. The word “cancer” has lost its stigma, although the horror of the disease has been only partially abated by medical progress.

Despite the progress in removing barriers in the way of discussing diseases formerly considered shameful, there are doubtless thousands going without vital medical treatment today because of their inhibitions against learning, thinking, or talking about certain diseases. Some will not get treatment because they do not know enough to recognize the symptoms, some because they are consciously ashamed to reveal illness, and some because they refuse to think about their condition it seems too horrible to think about. It may now be possible to condemn unequivocally the extremes of Victorian prudery, but less doctrinaire forms of ostrichism must be considered with more care; they are, after all, often based on healthy instincts.

Everyone is going to die, but surely it is a good thing that few of us spend much time dwelling on that fact. Life would be nearly impossible if we did. If thinking about something bad will not improve it, it is often better not to think about it. Perhaps some evils can be avoided or reduced if people do not think or talk about them. But when our reluctance to consider danger brings danger nearer, repression has gone too far.

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In 1960 I published a book (pic above) that attempted to direct attention to the possibility of a thermonuclear war, to ways of reducing the likelihood of such a war, and to methods for coping with the consequences should war occur despite our efforts to avoid it. The book was greeted by a large range of responses, some of them sharply critical. Some of this criticism was substantive, touching on greater or smaller questions of strategy, policy, or research techniques. But much of the criticism was not concerned with the correctness or incorrectness of the views I expressed.

It was concerned with whether any book should have been written on this subject at all. It is characteristic of our times that many intelligent and sincere people are willing to argue that it is immoral to think and even more immoral to write in detail about having to fight a thermonuclear war.

By and large this criticism was not personal; it simply reflected the fact that we Americans and many people throughout the world are not prepared to face reality, that we transfer our horror of thermonuclear war to reports about the realities of thermonuclear war. In a sense we are acting like those ancient kings who punished messengers who brought them bad news. This did not change the news; it simply slowed up its delivery. On occasion it meant that the kings were ill informed and, lacking truth, made serious errors in judgment and strategy. In our times, thermonuclear war may seem unthinkable, immoral, insane, hideous, or highly unlikely, but it is not impossible.

To act intelligently we must learn as much as we can about the risks. We may thereby be able better to avoid nuclear war. We may even be able to avoid the crises that bring us to the brink of war. But despite our efforts we may some day come face to face with a blunt choice between surrender or war. We may even have war thrust upon us without being given any kind of choice. We must appreciate these possibilities. We cannot wish them away. Nor should we overestimate and assume the worst is inevitable. This leads only to defeatism, inadequate preparations (because they seem useless), and pressures toward either preventive war or undue accommodation.

Many terrible questions are raised when one considers objectively and realistically the problems created by the cold war and the armaments race. For some years I have spent my time on exactly these questions both in thinking about ways to prevent war, and in thinking about how to fight, survive, and terminate a war, should it occur. My colleagues and I have sought answers to such questions as these: How likely is accidental war? How can one make it less likely? How dangerous is the arms race today? What will it be like in the future? What would conditions be if a nuclear attack leveled fifty of America’s largest cities? Would the survivors envy the dead? How many million American lives would an American President risk by standing firm in differing types of crises? By starting a nuclear war? By continuing a nuclear war with the hope of avoiding surrender? How many lives would he risk? How is it most likely to break down? If it does break down, what will be the consequence? Are we really risking an end to all human life with our current system? If true, are we willing to risk it? Do we then prefer some degree of unilateral disarmament? If we do, will we be relying on the Russians to protect us from the Chinese? Will the world be more or less stable? Should we attempt to disarm unilaterally? If the answers to these last questions depend on the degree of damage that is envisaged, are we willing to argue that it is all right to risk a half billion or a billion people but not three billion?

There seem to be three basic objections to asking these types of questions:

1. No one should attempt to think about these problems in a detailed and rational way. 2. What thinking there is on these problems should be done in secret by the military exclusively, or at least by the government. 3. Even if some of this thinking must be done outside the government, the results of any such thought should not be made available to the public.

It is argued that thinking about the indescribable horror of nuclear war breeds callousness and indifference to the future of civilization in our planners and decision makers. It is true that detailed and dispassionate discussion of such questions is likely to look incredibly hard-hearted. It should also be clear, at least to thoughtful readers, that such questions must be considered. The reality may be so unpleasant that decision makers would prefer not to face it; but to a great extent this reality has been forced on them, or has come uninvited.

Thanks to our ever-increasing technology, we are living in a terrible and dangerous world; but, unlike the lady in the cartoon we cannot say, “Stop the world, I want to get off. We cannot get off. Even the most utopian of today’s visionaries will have to concede that the mere existence of modern technology involves a risk to civilization that would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago. While we are going to make major attempts to change the nature of this reality, accepting great risks if necessary, most of us are unwilling to choose either a pronounced degree of unilateral disarmament or a preventive war designed to “settle” our problems one way or another. We therefore must face the facts that thermonuclear bombs now exist [and that] unless we are willing to abdicate our responsibilities, we are pledged to the maintenance of terrifying weapon systems with known and unknown, calculable and incalculable risks, unless and until better arrangements can be made.

If we are to have an expensive and lethal defense establishment, we must weigh all the risks and benefits. We must at least ask ourselves what are the likely and unlikely results of an inadvertent war, the possibilities of accident, irresponsibility, or unauthorized behavior on the other side as well as on our own.

A variation of the objection to careful consideration of these problems focuses on the personality of the thinker. This argument goes: Better no thought than evil thought; and since only evil and callous people can think about this, better no thought. Alternatively, the thinker’s motives are analyzed: This man studies war; he must like war much like the suspicion that a surgeon is a repressed sadist. Even if the charge were true, which in general it is not, it is not relevant. Like the repressed sadist who can perform a socially useful function by sublimating his urges into surgery, the man who loves war or violence may be able to successfully sublimate his desires into a careful and valuable study of war. It does indeed take an iron will or an unpleasant degree of detachment to go about this task. Ideally it should be possible for the analyst to have a disciplined empathy. In fact, the mind recoils from simultaneously probing deeply and creatively into these problems and being conscious at all times of the human tragedy involved.

This is not new. We do not continually remind the surgeon while he is operating of the humanity of his patient. We do not flash pictures of his patient’s wife or children in front of him. We want him to be careful, and we want him to be aware of the importance and frailty of the patient; we do not want him to be distracted or fearful. We do not expect illustrations in a book on surgery to be captioned: “A particularly deplorable tumor,” or “Good health is preferable to this kind of cancer.” Excessive comments such as, “And now there’s a lot of blood,” or “This particular cut really hurts,” are out-of-place although these are important things for a surgeon to know. To mention such things may be important. To dwell on them is morbid, and gets in the way of the information. The same tolerance needs be extended to thought on national security.

Some feel that we should consider these problems but view them with such awe and horror that we should not discuss them in normal, neutral, professional everyday language. I tend to disagree, at least so far as technical discussions and research are concerned. One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to tamper, to change, to criticize, a factual and dispassionate, and sometimes even colorful, approach is to be preferred. And if the use of everyday language jars, that is all the more reason for using it. Why would one expect a realistic discussion of thermonuclear war not to be disturbing?

The very complexity of the questions raised is another reason why many object to their consideration. There is no doubt that if we reject hard thinking about alternatives in favor of uncritical acceptance of an extreme position we make the argument simpler and most of us prefer simple arguments.

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To summarize: Many people believe that the current system must inevitably end in total annihilation. They reject, sometimes very emotionally, any attempts to analyze this notion. Either they are afraid of where the thinking will lead them or they are afraid of thinking at all. They want to make the choice, between a risk and the certainty of disaster, between sanity and insanity, between good and evil; therefore, as moral and sane men they need no longer hesitate. I hold that an intelligent and responsible person cannot pose the problem so simply.

The last objection to detailed thought on thermonuclear war rests on the view that the subject is not only unpleasant but difficult. Many people feel that it is useless to apply rationality and calculation in any area dominated by irrational decision makers. This is almost comparable to feeling that it would be impossible to design a safety system for an insane asylum by rational methods, since, after all, the inmates are irrational. Of course, no governor or superintendent would consider firing the trained engineer, and turning the design over to one of the lunatics. The engineer is expected to take the irrationality of the inmates into account by a rational approach. Rational discussions of war and peace can explicitly include the possibility of irrational behavior.

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The Danger for America Today–The Unthinkable is Thinkable under Donald J. Trump  45th  POTUS

Of course, analysts may be misled by oversimplified models or misleading assumptions, and their competence readily attacked. However, except for irrelevant references to game theory and computers, such attacks are rare, and are usually so half-hearted that it is clear that their main motivation is not to expose incompetency. Given the difficulty of the problems, one would expect the critics to work more effectively on the obvious methodological problems and other weaknesses of present-day analysts.

Critics frequently refer to the icy rationality of the Hudson Institute, the Rand Corporation, and other such organizations. I’m always tempted to ask in reply, “Would you prefer a warm, human error? Do you feel better with a nice emotional mistake?” We cannot expect good discussion of security problems if we are going to label every attempt at detachment as callous, every attempt at objectivity as immoral. Such attitudes not only block discussion of the immediate issues, they lead to a disunity and fragmentation of the intellectual community that can be disastrous to the democratic dialogue between specialist and layman. The former tends to withdraw to secret and private discussions; the latter becomes more and more innocent, or naive, and more likely to be outraged if he is ever exposed to a professional discussion.

Finally, there is the objection that thermonuclear war should not, at least in detail, be discussed publicly. Even some who admit the usefulness of asking unpleasant questions have advocated raising them only in secret. One objector pointed out to me that if a parent in a burning building is faced with the problem of having to save one of two children, but not both, he will make a decision on the spur of the moment; it wouldn’t have made any difference if the parent had agonized over the problem ahead of time, and it would have been particularly bad to agonize in the presence of the children. This may be true, but other considerations dominate our nation’s choices; our capabilities for action and the risks we are assuming for ourselves and thrusting on others will be strongly influenced by our preparations both intellectual and physical.

Other reasons for this objection to public discussion range all the way from concern about telling the Soviets too much, and a fear of weakening the resolve of our own people, through a feeling that public discussion of death and destruction is distastefully comparable to a drugstore display of the tools, methods, and products of the mortician. Perhaps some or all of these objections to public discussion are well taken. I do not know for sure, but I think they are wrong.

They are wrong if we expect our people to participate rationally in the decision-making process in matters that are vital to their existence as individuals and as a nation. As one author has put it: “In a democracy, when experts disagree, laymen must resolve the disagreement.” One issue is whether it is better that the lay public, which will directly or indirectly decide policy, be more or less informed. A second issue is whether the discussion itself may not be significantly improved by eliciting ideas from people outside of official policy-making channels.

There are in any case at least two significant obstacles to full public debate of national security matters. The first, of course, is the constantly increasing problem of communication between the technologist and the layman, because of the specialization (one might almost say fragmentation) of knowledge. The other lies in the serious and paramount need to maintain security. Technical details of weapons’ capabilities and weaknesses must remain classified to some degree. Nonetheless, technical details may be of vital importance in resolving much broader problems. (For instance, who can presume to say whether the military advantages of atomic weapons testing outweigh the obvious political and physical disadvantages unless he knows what the military advantages are.) Moreover, those who feel that in some areas “security” has been unnecessarily extended must concede that in certain areas it has its place. To that extent the functioning of the democratic processes must be compromised with the requirements of the cold war and modem technology. Fortunately, non-classified sources often give reasonable approximations to the classified data. I would say that many of the agonizing problems facing us today can be debated and understood just about as easily without classified material as with provided one carefully considers the facts that are available.

It is quite clear that technical details are not the only important operative facts. Human and moral factors must always be considered. They must never be missing from policies and from public discussion. But emotionalism and sentimentality, as opposed to morality and concern, only confuse debates. Nor can experts be expected to repeat, “If, heaven forbid. ….,” before every sentence. Responsible decision makers and researchers cannot afford the luxury of denying the existence of agonizing questions. The public, whose lives and freedom are at stake, expects them to face such questions squarely and, where necessary, the expert should expect little less of the public.

*Herman Kahn, Founder, Hudson Institute

January 1st, 1962 Adapted from Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon Press), © Hudson Institute

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FDR started the Long Peace. Under Trump, it may be coming to an end.


January 29, 2017

FDR started the Long Peace. Under Trump, it may be coming to an end.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/fdr-started-the-long-peace-under-trump-it-may-be-coming-to-an-end/2017/01/26/2f0835e2-e402-11e6-ba11-63c4b4fb5a63_story.html?utm_term=.748842165167

In his first days in office, President Trump has begun to reverse the domestic policies of the previous eight years. But with regard to the United States’ relations with the world, Trump seems far more radical. In word and deed, he appears to be walking away from the idea of America at the center of an open, rule-based international order. This would be a reversal of more than 70 years of U.S. foreign policy.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Jessica T. Mathews points out that since 1945, Americans of both political parties have accepted three principles. First, that America’s security is enhanced by its broad and deep alliances around the world. Second, that an open global economy is not a zero-sum game but rather allows the United States to prosper and others to grow. And finally, though there was debate about whether dictatorships were to be “tolerated, managed, or confronted,” in the end there was a faith in democracy and its advantages. Mathews notes that for 30 years, Trump has attacked these views as costly naivete that has allowed the world to rip off America.

Given the magnitude of the policy shift, it is worth recalling why the United States adopted this outward-looking approach in the first place. It started with Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Nigel Hamilton explains in his superb book “Commander-in-Chief.” By 1943, while victory was still a distant prospect, Roosevelt began to imagine a postwar international system. Hamilton brilliantly sets out Roosevelt’s foresight, determination and skill in establishing a new world order.

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Neither of FDR’s key wartime allies was much interested in his approach. Joseph Stalin, a communist autocrat, would resist many of his ideas, and Winston Churchill was stubbornly committed to continuing Britain’s rule over its vast empire. Roosevelt wanted something different: to establish an enduring peace in which freedom could flourish. That meant the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, to wipe the slate clean of fascism and militarism. And it meant that Britain and France would have to decolonize Asia and Africa. Roosevelt despised the system of colonial exploitation and believed that it created the conditions that led to revolution and war. He also wanted open trade, rather than the ruinous protectionism of the 1930s. To secure all this, FDR understood that the United States would need to be permanently engaged with the world in a way it had never been before.

Hamilton vividly describes how, in the midst of directing military strategy in the largest conflict in human history, Roosevelt always kept his eye on postwar planning. With Congress and the public still suspicious of American involvement, he juggled various plans and proposals to make sure that this time, unlike after World War I, America would help keep the peace. He needed Churchill’s and Stalin’s support, which is why he kept trekking around the globe to meet them at summits. (To understand the strain on FDR, keep in mind that Roosevelt’s trip to meet Churchill at Casablanca in 1943 entailed a long train ride to Miami, a 10-hour flight to Trinidad, a nine-hour flight to Brazil, a 19-hour flight to Gambia and finally another nine-hour flight to Casablanca. All this for a man who was paralyzed, had a failing heart and had not taken a plane ride since 1932.)

Roosevelt’s vision for a global system did not work exactly as he had hoped, chiefly because of the Soviet Union and its postwar behavior. But much of it did happen, from the United Nations to an open global trading system to the decolonization of Europe’s empires. And the great holdout to America’s vision, the Soviet Union, itself collapsed in 1991.

The results have been astonishing. Many historians have pointed out that we live in unprecedented times. The period since 1945 has been marked by the absence of war between the world’s major powers. Most of prior human history is a tale of economic mercantilism, political conflict and repeated war. Since 1945, we have lived in what John Lewis Gaddis dubbed the “Long Peace.” Through the Long Peace we have also had decades of rising incomes, living standards and health throughout the world, especially in the United States.

When Roosevelt was beginning to design his system, he was the dissenter. The dominant foreign policy ideas in America at the time were represented by a movement called “America First.” Nativist, isolationist and anti-Semitic, the movement held that an outward-oriented America was a policy for suckers. It took Hitler and World War II to make Americans recognize that, for a country of America’s size and scale, isolation and narrow self-interest would lead to global insecurity and disaster. One wonders what it will take to make today’s America Firsters relearn that same lesson.

 


 

The Passing of Israel’s Man of Peace and Nobel Laureate, Shimon Peres


September 28, 2016

The Passing of Israel’s Man of Peace and Nobel Laureate, President Shimon Peres

2016 has so far not been a particularly great year for me. It is in fact a time of sadness and serious contemplation. Earlier I lost my childhood friend and Malaysia’s Iron Gate  Footballer, Dato’ Yusoff Bakar, followed by the death in San Francisco of  Dato’ Dr. Haron Din who is a model of a good Muslim (his politics aside), and then the passing of my golfing hero and legend,  Arnold D. Palmer. Today I learn  that my favourite Middle East statesman and a man of Peace, Nobel Laureate President Shimon Peres has died.

People in Syria and the Middle East, and elsewhere are dying daily because leaders of powerful countries  and their proxies cannot talk peace. The rest of us are content to watch the carnage on the sidelines. We seem to have forgotten what Shimon Peres had tried to accomplish in his life time.

To Prime Minister Bibi Nyatenyahu and the people of Israel,  and in particular  readers in Israel on my blog, I wish to express our sincere condolences (Dr. Kamsiah and I) on the passing of their former President. Let us all remember the deeds and celebrate the life of President Shimon Peres. –Din Merican and Dr. Kamsiah Haider.

Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, was an effective orator, and over the decades was a fountain of seemingly effortless bons mots and poetic musings on war, peace and Israel’s future. Here are some of his best:

Life

I’ve been controversial for most of my life. Suddenly, I’ve become popular. I don’t know when I was wrong, then or now.

September 2007, Haaretz

Sometimes people ask me, ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?’ So I reply that there was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer.

May 2011, Maariv

At my age, after looking back, if I feel that I have to make a choice between being experienced and cynical or being curious and innocent, I prefer the second. It is much more appealing.

May 2000, The Jerusalem Post

Peace

For peace, one must remember: As a bird cannot fly with one wing, as a man cannot applaud with one hand, so a country cannot make peace just with one side, with itself. For peace, we need the two of us.

June 1996, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem

He who has despaired from peace is the one hallucinating. Whoever gives in and stops seeking peace — he is naïve, he is the one who is not a patriot! In order to be practical and not hallucinate and not be naïve, there is a need to recognize several basic truths that are sharp, clear and eternal:

Israel will not have permanent security without peace. Israel will not have a stable thriving economy without peace. Israel will not have a healthy society free from poverty and discrimination without peace. Israel has no chance of preserving its Jewish democratic character without peace. Israel will be giving up its future if it sees the status quo as its desire.

November 2014 at Rabin Square

It took Zionism 25 years to overcome its great error — its attempt to ignore the existence of the Palestinians in this land — and Oslo was the true and correct beginning of such a solution. More than anything else, Oslo was proof that we can live in this land another way.

September 2003, Ma’ariv

Politics

I believe that in foreign policy, it is better to talk like a lion in a sheep’s skin rather than a sheep in a lion’s mane. It’s a matter of taste. I think it is more effective to understate.

April 2012, Ma’ariv

Nuclear Weapons

The nuclear option is that most of our neighbors, who want to destroy us, believe that Israel has the capability to destroy them. Their suspicion is our strength.”

November 2009, Yedioth Ahronoth

There is no doubt that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a mortal danger. I also have no doubt that Israel has to view this matter with all seriousness and gravity. Iran is a danger to the entire world. It is currently as dangerous to America as it is to Israel, and that is a good union. We have often been alone.

August 2012, Mako

Judaism

Jewish history is devoid of any desire to rule over another people. I think that what is happening now is a deviation. All the people who ruled over us have been erased from the stage of history. We are the only ones who never ruled over anyone else, and we prevailed.

February 1988, The Jerusalem Post

 

 Human Rights

I support the right of every human being to marriage, including gay marriage. Every human being has the right to breathe fresh air, to eat food, to fall in love with whoever they want. According to our tradition, we are all created equal.

December 2013, Facebook

Science and Technology

We know already that computers are mightier than guns. We know that the new opportunities reside in the campuses of the scientists, rather than in the camps of the army.

May 1994, at the signing of the Gaza-Jericho Accord

Resources

You know what our greatest lack is? It’s that we have nothing. This small piece of land is an arid land — swamp in the north, desert in the south, and no water. We have two lakes — one is dead, the other dying. We have one river — which has fame but no water. If you want to pray, you go to the Jordan River, but if you want to irrigate, go somewhere else.

November 2011, CNN

 

Haris Ibrahim of ABU Fame


September 1, 2016

My Superman: Haris Ibrahim of ABU Fame

by FA Abdul

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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Haris Ibrahim of ABU (Anything but UMNO) Fame

A few weeks ago, during one of my usual breakfast get-togethers with my close friends, I saw a familiar face walking towards an empty table next to us. It was Haris Ibrahim, a social activist whom I have a very high regard for. For a moment, our gazes crossed and I took the opportunity to smile at him – he nodded and returned my smile.

Throughout my conversation with my girlfriends, I kept an eye on Haris, for I am truly and utterly in awe of him and his incredible personality. Truth be told, I secretly hoped he would turn to look at me too – which he never did (total potong stim on my part).

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Anyway, being a Facebook queen, on my way home, I updated my status. It read: “Met Haris Ibrahim at my usual breakfast place and I feel like a little girl who just met Superman.”

In a matter of a few seconds, comments started pouring in. Many of my Facebook friends had very nice things to say about Haris while others shared stories about his dedication to his cause and his courage. One friend, who claimed not to know Haris, was ‘educated’ by means of a long thread of comments on who this ABU champ was.

What happened next totally blew me away. “Ting!”

A few notifications on Messenger informed me about screen shots of my status that had been sent to Haris! Apparently some of them were mutual friends of his. Ayoo kadavuleh, this is gonna be a major embarrassment, I thought.

An hour later, a text message arrived: “Fa, Haris is asking for your convenient time for tosai meet up.” I almost died. And so we did meet up for tosai one fine morning.

Haris was not as gregarious as I thought he’d be – he was a lot more. Star-struck, I utilised our breakfast time to ask him everything I wished to know. This was not going to be an encounter I would waste. We spoke about a lot of things that morning. Race, religion, education, discrimination, corruption, power abuse, hypocrisy, bigotry, faith, trust and hope.

As we spoke about our family and children, I asked him how he separated his time for his children with that of his struggle to fight for what he believes in.

“I have always found it tough to carry out my responsibility as a mother and still be able to find time to do my part in fighting for what’s right for the country. How do you do it, Haris, how do you find the time to be a good father to your children?” I asked while he took a sip of his kopi.

With his natural charm, Haris replied: “I have 10 million children…”

In just one short sentence, he answered a very tough question. Clearly, not everybody is capable of doing what my Superman does. To dedicate your entire being for one single purpose takes a lot. And to be ready to give away your freedom for your struggle is a whole different thing.

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Yes, Haris is currently waiting for his appeal following his eight-month prison sentence by the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court for allegedly delivering a seditious speech in 2013.

I tried imagining being in his shoes – I could think of a thousand things I would be doing before I ended-up facing four walls for eight long months. Spending time with my family, friends, traveling within the country, watching movies, going for a karaoke session, hitting the beach, eating all the food I love – the list would never end.

But there he was, answering calls in between our conversation, still attending to people who needed his expertise as a lawyer. Clearly, this man never gives up fighting.

Talking to him, time flew by. After a few more rounds of drinks, it was time to leave – and I managed to ask him one final question.

“I don’t believe in our current government,” I said, “and I fear our Opposition is no different. So what do we do?”

Haris tilted his head, raised his eyebrows and while looking sharply at me, he said, “Look to your right. Look to your left. If the one on your right is not reliable and so is the one on your left – then it is time to take a step forward.”

Profound words indeed. Profound words from my Superman.

An architectural beauty and brutality


August 20, 2016

An architectural beauty and brutality

by Julia Mayer

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Can architecture help heal the wounds of Cambodia’s genocide? Julia Mayer takes a look at the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s new memorial to a dark past, the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. 

Passion and patience make strange bedfellows but are essential when best-laid plans temporarily go awry.

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) continues to work tirelessly on his ambitious proposal to reconcile his country’s brutal past with its rich ancient cultural heritage. He is trying to build a multi-purpose centre commemorating Cambodia’s genocide and is doing this in what can best be described as an uneasy present.

Facing numerous setbacks, Chhang, who is also a survivor of the infamous Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79 in which more than two million people perished, remains undeterred.

“We were planning to start building in February this year,” says Chhang. But efforts have ground to a halt. The delay is very complicated involving government bureaucracy, and we are working to resolve it now.”

Designed by the late multi award-winning London-based Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, back in 2014, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s design immediately conjures images of a distant future as well as Cambodia’s glorious past. Five towers reminiscent of Angkor Wat rise from the monsoonal mists of the famed and beautiful jungle to inspire yet another allegory — trees of knowledge and life.

“The repression of cultural knowledge during the French colonial era, followed by the Khmer Rouge regime’s ideology as a form of education meant that links to the rest of the world were severed.It was an ideology that almost destroyed us. Today we are still chained to the past, which is why for me, only education can set us free. We should not be enslaved by the past. We cannot escape it; we have to face it,” says Chhang.

The name Sleuk Rith is highly symbolic and refers to the power of leaves, explains Chhang, as he recounts a story of Cambodian intellectuals and activists secretly writing messages on dried leaves during the colonial era to preserve their knowledge and culture.

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The symbolism runs even deeper.

There are distinctive parallels between the ancient regional tradition of meticulously writing Hindu then later Buddhist texts on palm leaves, sastra, to the hundreds and thousands of leaves of paper filled with forced confessions delivered under unabated torture, to reams of survivor testimonies painstakingly recorded and collected by the DC-Cam team since it began its work in 1995.

Chhang is quick to mention that within the concept of the power of leaves exists another meaning — plain paper, or that critical moment before the page fills with ideas and feelings, and which allows for the possibility of new versions of the history of genocide.

“When I was growing up, there was no education, and very few had traveled outside of the country,” says Chhang.

“As a result of genocide, Cambodians are now all over the world, and I think, because of that, people have formed a new version of the history of genocide. Each person comes with a different idea, different ways of thinking and different views, so there’s no singular interpretation.”

The new building is meant to inspire reflection, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships broken by the Khmer Rouge’s near four-year reign of terror. However, unlike other memorials and in situ sites scattered throughout the country offering explicit and undeniably invaluable evidence of the atrocities orchestrated by the regime, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to tell the same horror story a little differently.

“Many young people look at a skull, a shackle or a blood stain on a wall and feel that it is the older generation who are responsible for the mistakes made,” says Chhang.

“They see the past as remote and have problems seeing it as part of their identity. But if you come in with photography, with beauty, with dialogue, you bring them in, and they start to question.”

Reinterpreting the atrocities in any way as ‘beautiful’ immediately calls for a reevaluation of aesthetics, as does the message that is hoped to be shared and retold by others.

Sites like Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and interrogation center codenamed S-21, and Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ where the majority of prisoners were executed, all serve as important witnesses to the past.

However, it can be argued that they elicit intense feelings of pity, shame and disbelief, which can be counterproductive when trying to understand what happened and to possibly achieve reconciliation through empathy. And not everyone can visit such places.

“The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic places that engage with all generations in the community,” says Chhang.

“A memorial should be enlightening, a place where both the younger and older generation can feel comfortable learning about the tragedies of the past to find new ways to heal, and to move forward.”

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The centre will not only commemorate the lives lost but also serve as a tribute to the survivors via a museum of memory. It will also be an archive of all documents about the period, a library and an international research center for genocide studies, placing the Cambodian experience in context with other atrocities still being perpetuated today despite global outcries.

While such outcries have sadly done little to lessen the frequency and the impact of genocide across the globe, the fact remains that there are survivors and with them comes the arduous and initially insurmountable task of rebuilding a stable cultural identity that helps to heal. These efforts require hope and relentless optimism.

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Architect Zaha Hadid

Architecturally, Zahara Hadid’s futuristic designs embody this kind of optimism, as well as the belief that the past defines the future. The future depends on it, and, so by challenging the more traditional pessimistic practices of memorialising traumatic histories, her designs reach into the future as if to show that this can be, if not already, achieved. In the case of the Sleuk Rith Institute, this can be seen in the shimmering waterways and the warmth of exposed wooden beams that evoke the image of verdant and fertile trees or the themes of the rebirth of knowledge.

By widening the conceptual space for healing, the Sleuk Rith Institute has a profoundly important role to play. It shows that heritage so unequivocally rooted in pain and shame can be transformative through an oddly unsettling yet familiar kind of beauty that has the potential to evoke much-needed empathy and compassion.Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Youk Chhang, founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia

“Genocide is part our identity– it is our identity. It just takes a matter of time to accept it,” says Chhang.

Time is a great healer, and after a succession of delays we can only hope that Cambodia will see a building it so desperately deserves — one that will aid a more informed idea of the past well into the future.

Julia Mayer is a Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the Australian National University. She has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea, and has written extensively on traditional arts, performances and cinema in the region. She is also the Asia Correspondent for Metro Magazine Australia.

A building and brutality