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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Economic Crises and the Crisis of Economics


January 17, 2017

Economic Crises and the Crisis of Economics: Economists should learn to be humble and accept their own limitations

by Paola Subacchi@www.project-syndicate.org

Paola Subacchi is Research Director of International Economics at Chatham House and Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna. She is the author of The People’s Money: How China is Building an International Currency.

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Is the economics profession “in crisis”? Many policymakers, such as Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, believe that it is. Indeed, a decade ago, economists failed to see a massive storm on the horizon, until it culminated in the most destructive global financial crisis in nearly 80 years. More recently, they misjudged the immediate impact that the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote would have on its economy.

Of course, the post-Brexit forecasts may not be entirely wrong, but only if we look at the long-term impact of the Brexit vote. True, some economists expected the UK economy to collapse during the post-referendum panic, whereas economic activity proved to be rather resilient, with GDP growth reaching some 2.1% in 2016. But now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has implied that she prefers a “hard” Brexit, a gloomy long-term prognosis is probably correct.

Unfortunately, economists’ responsibility for the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent recession extends beyond forecasting mistakes. Many lent intellectual support to the excesses that precipitated it, and to the policy mistakes – particularly insistence on fiscal austerity and disregard for widening inequalities – that followed it.

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Some economists have been led astray by intellectual arrogance: the belief that they can always explain real-world complexity. Others have become entangled in methodological issues – “mistaking beauty for truth,” as Paul Krugman once observed – or have placed too much faith in human rationality and market efficiency.

Despite its aspiration to the certainty of the natural sciences, economics is, and will remain, a social science. Economists systematically study objects that are embedded in wider social and political structures. Their method is based on observations, from which they discern patterns and infer other patterns and behaviors; but they can never attain the predictive success of, say, chemistry or physics.

Human beings respond to new information in different ways, and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, economics cannot provide – nor should it claim to provide – definite insights into future trends and patterns. Economists can glimpse the future only by looking backwards, so their predictive power is limited to deducing probabilities on the basis of past events, not timeless laws.

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And because economics is a social science, it can readily be used to serve political and business interests. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, global economic growth and profits were so strong that everyone – from small investors to the largest banks – was blinded by the prospect of bigger gains.

Economists employed by banks, hedge funds, and other businesses were expected to provide a short-term “view” for their employers and clients; and to dispense their “wisdom” to the general public through interviews and media appearances. Meanwhile, the economics profession was adopting more complex mathematical tools and specialized jargon, which effectively widened the gap between economists and other social scientists.

Before the financial crisis, when so many private interests and profitable opportunities were at stake, many economists defended a growth model that was based more on “irrational exuberance” than on sound fundamentals. Similarly, with respect to Brexit, many economists confused the referendum’s long-term impact with its short-term effects, because they were rushing their predictions to fit the political debate.

Owing to these and other mistakes, economists – and economics – have suffered a spectacular fall from grace. Once seen as modern witch doctors with access to exclusive knowledge, economists are now the most despised of all “experts.”

Where do we go from here? While we should appreciate Haldane’s candid admission, apologizing for past mistakes is not enough. Economists, especially those involved in policy debates, need to be held explicitly accountable for their professional behavior. Toward that end, they should bind themselves with a voluntary code of conduct.

Above all, this code should recognize that economics is too complex to be reduced to sound bites and rushed conclusions. Economists should pay closer attention to when and where they offer their views, and to the possible implications of doing so. And they should always disclose their interests, so that proprietary analysis is not mistaken for an independent perspective.

Moreover, economic debates would benefit from more voices. Economics is a vast discipline that comprises researchers and practitioners whose work spans macro and micro perspectives and theoretical and applied approaches. Like any other intellectual discipline, it produces excellent, good, and mediocre output.

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But the bulk of this research does not filter into policymaking and decision-making circles, such as finance ministries, central banks, or international institutions. At the commanding heights, economic-policy debates remain dominated by a relatively small group of white men from American universities and think tanks, nearly all of them well-versed devotees of mainstream economics.

The views held by this coterie are disproportionately represented in the mass media, through commentaries and interviews. But fishing for ideas in such a small and shallow pond leads to a circular and complacent debate, and it may encourage lesser-known economists to tailor their research to fit in.

The public deserves – and needs – a marketplace of ideas in which mainstream and heterodox views are afforded equal attention and balanced discussion. To be sure, this will take courage, imagination, and dynamism – particularly on the part of journalists. But a fairer, more pluralistic discussion of economic ideas may be just what economists need as well.

A piece of advice after BERSIH 5.0


November 24, 2016

A piece of advice after BERSIH 5.0

by Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Malaysians, we need to come back to our senses. Our strength will still come from diversity and the respect and cultivation of talent. We should rejoice and celebrate the achievements of this nation for that beautiful concept of unity in diversity; not to organise any rally that spews hatred and invoke the horrors of the May 13, 1969 tragedy.

 

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The recent yellow-shirt 60,000 strong-mass rally in Malaysia, urging cleaner elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak ended in both warring parties winning – the protesters got their message across for the fifth time and the government got to test-drive the 2012 Special Offences Act (Sosma), its new anti-terrorist law, for the first time.

The leader of BERSIH (‘Clean’ in Malay), Maria Chin Abdullah, a long-time human rights activist, is now in solitary confinement, detained like a suspected Islamic State (IS) terrorist while investigations on her alleged links with the American intelligence-gathering-legit-government agency, the CIA, are being carried out. Exactly how she is linked will be a puzzle and a mystery, like those of the world-famous money-laundering and high-profile case of the Malaysian 1MDB.

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But the government, as always, is winning. I attribute this perpetual victory to one concept – hegemony. Rousseau and Gramsci have written a lot about this idea of ‘common sense’. The control over Man, machinery, media, and money.

The former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia with an iron glove for 22 years mastered this concept. Today he marches with the BERSIH protesters, outside of the real of hegemony he created, and trying to figure out how to play the game of counter-hegemony and feels what it is like to play with authority.

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Najib learned politics from Mahahtir Mohamed

Ironically, the authority he is trying to bring down was a child of his own creation – his Frankenstein. Or rather, culturally speaking, his Badang. It is a tough and complicating act and one which seemingly has no poetic justice in sight.

Recently, in a US-based publication, I wrote about the representation of the Malays on the eve of the red-shirt-yellow-shirt confrontation:

“ … Aren’t Malaysians tired of seeing the Malays being represented as buffoons, stupid, amok-prone, close-minded, rempits, kris-kissing fools, Ali Baba forty-thieves, rejects, religious fanatics, red-shirts, whatever shirts… it is a clever production and reproduction of the Malay ruling class, both feudal and wannabe-feudal… so that the Jebat aspect of the Malay – the amuck, the wannabe-sultan, the misogynic, the sex-maniac-royal groper and rapist of ancient Malacca, the royal-jet-setting-good-for-nothing-ancient-kings, the hedonistic, the grotesque epicure, the gangster, the absurd – is pushed forward and propagated to strengthen the Tuah aspect – the fool that followed the foolish orders of the foolish and idiotic Malacca sultan, the womaniser-cum-religious leader – the bad hombre of Malay culture – these are the twin representation of the Malays. A laughing stock – the Malays are made to become…” Source here.

So – how now brown cow? What are Malaysians to do after yet another rally? After yet another governmental pounding on the protesters with arrests a la Machiavelli?

The way forward

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Dr. Azly Rahman–An Educator for Peace

As an educator for peace and an advocate of long-haul bloodless revolutions focusing on changing consciousness through education and self-reflection, through living an ethical, morally-compassed, and intelligible life for the collective-good of society, I would suggest the following as a long-term plan for a radical change:

It is better to focus on raising your children well in adjusting to a changing, globalising, and very diversifying Malaysian and global society. We must work harder to improve race relations, be stronger to fight corruption and power abuse, and be more intelligent in designing policies that will benefit the poor, the marginalised and the powerless.

We must teach our children to focus on ways to understand others, improving their English language skills, perfecting their moral compass, encouraging them to think well and good about children of other races and religion, to encourage them to make friends with people of other races, to be grateful that schools offer the great opportunity to love and respect teachers of different races.

Teach them to learn about the dangers of generalising, stereotyping, and projecting hate that would lead to mass deception, to encourage each child to learn about other cultures and religion, and to teach them that all of us in Malaysia are now Malaysians and not this or that group of immigrants.

We all are migrants in time and space and in history and that all of us are human beings with emotions, struggles, challenges, history of joy and despair, memory of pain and pleasure of living, and that all of us are merely of differing skin colour tone and born to speak different languages and to believe in different things about salvation and that we are all travelers in this life.

We cannot allow Malaysia to come to a point in which riots such as those race-based against the police to take root. We cannot allow the Malaysian version of #BlackLivesMatter to be the impetus for urban violence.

We are all these and will not need moments of history where we cultivate hate for the bigger picture of oppression we do not understand. We may all be pawns in this great political game of big-time plunderers and multi-ethnic robber-barons skilled at mass deception and distractions. Today, the level of corruption and the growing cases of mass corruption and power abuse that are going unpunished have made Malaysia a critically ill nation.

We should be grateful that we are still alive and breathe daily and that we must think happily and joyfully like Malaysians in order for each and every one of us to prosper in peace. We cannot travel the path of America in which racism is on the rise and of late especially in places such as Texas, Islamophobia is brewing.

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Malaysians, we need to come back to our senses. Our strength will still come from diversity and the respect and cultivation of talent. We should rejoice and celebrate the achievements of this nation for that beautiful concept of unity in diversity; not to organise any rally that spews hatred and invoke the horrors of the May 13, 1969 tragedy.

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Let us design a safer journey towards a progressive and harmonious Malaysia, beyond for example, the red T-shirt red-river of blood march of some mangled manufactured propaganda of Malay dignity.

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My Thanksgiving wish is to see a saner and more peaceful America as well as Malaysia – two countries I have loved and will continue to love. On that note: Have a blessed Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans!

Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis


November 17, 2016

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Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

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Malay Nationalism or Tribalism ala Ku Kluk Klan

One thing that shocked me when I first went to Sweden for my studies 35 years ago was how dirty a word “Nationalism” was in Western Europe. This reaction, I realized, was very much a reflection of how the concept was positively implanted in my mind while a schoolboy in Malaysia; but it also demonstrated how greatly human experiences can differ in different parts of the world.

More importantly, it revealed to me how strongly we are intellectually captured by the language use of our times and our location.

But the Swedes are very proud of their country, so how come nationalism is frowned upon so badly? The same thing applied throughout Europe, at least until recently. Excessive immigration over the last two decades, coupled with declining economic fortunes and waning self-confidence has buoyed the ascendance of ultra-rightists groups in all countries throughout the continent.

So why was Nationalism so despised? Europe is after all the home continent of the Nation State.

For starters, Europe was always a place of endless wars often fought ostensibly for religious reasons between feudal powers. The arrival of the Nation state ideology helped to lower the frequencies of these tragedies, but only to replace it soon after with non-religious types of rationale for conflict. The American Revolution and French Republicanism added the new phenomenon of “government by the people”. The French case also brought into the equation the Left-Right Dimension that would define politics and political thinking for the next two centuries.

This conceptual division between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule expressed sharply the rights of common people on the one hand, and the role of the state on the other. Once this gap was articulated, conflating the two poles anew became a necessary task.

The three major articulations in Europe of this mammoth mission to bridge the divide and achieve a functional modern system were Liberal Democracy, Communism and Fascism. While the Anglo-Saxon world championed the first, Stalin’s Soviet Union perfected the second and Adolf Hitler developed the third to its insane conclusion. In Europe, it was basically these three actors who fought the Second World War.

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Malay Tribalism in Action

In Asia, Japan’s brand of state fascism ran riot throughout the region, rhetorically championing nationalism in the lands it took from the European colonialists.

While the National Socialism of the Third Reich died with Hitler, Fascism lived on in Franco’s Spain until 1975 and Nationalist Communism of Stalin continued in Eastern Europe until the early 1990s.

Nationalism in the rest of Europe after 1945 came to be understood with disdain as the longing of the Nation State for purity and autonomy taken to pathological lengths. It is after all always a defensive posture, as is evidenced today in its return in the form of right-wing anti-immigrant groups.

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Maruah Melayu dijual ka-Cina untuk membela masa depan politik Najib Razak–Jualan Aset 1MDB

In Malaysia, nationalism was—and for many, still is—the most highly rated attitude for a citizen to adopt.There are obvious reasons for this, given the historical and socio-political context in which Malaysia came into being. Constructing a new country out of nine sultanates, the three parts of the Straits Settlements, with Sabah and Sarawak on top of that, was a more daunting task than we can imagine today. Furthermore, the contest was also against other powerful “-isms”, especially Communism and Pan-Indonesianism. These threatened to posit what are Malaysia’s states today in a larger framework, and would have diminished these territories’ importance and uniqueness.

Putting a new regime in place of the retreating British required a rallying idea; and what better than the very fashionable image of a new nation to whom all should swear allegiance. Malayan nationalism was thus born.

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For Inclusive, Liberal and Progressive Malaysia–Escaping the Nationalism Trap

It is no coincidence that the path to independence became much easier after Malaysia’s major political party, UMNO, decided under Tunku Abdul Rahman to change its slogan from the provincial “Hidup Melayu” [Long Live the Malays] to the inclusive “Merdeka” [Independence].

But already in that transition, one can see the problem that Malaysia still lives with today. Is Malaysia the political expression of the prescriptive majority called “Melayu” [later stretched to become “Bumiputera”], or is it the arena in which the multi-ethnic nation of “Malaysians” is to evolve?

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Nationalism in essence, and most evidently so in its narrow ethno-centric sense, is defensive and fearful, and understood simplistically and applied arrogantly very quickly show strong fascist tendencies. The issue is therefore a philosophical one.

What Malaysia needs today, is to accept the regional and global context that sustains it, and work out as best it can a suitable balance between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule which is clearly less belaboured and less painful than the cul-de-sac alleyway it has backed itself into.

OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute) and the Editor of the Penang Monthly (Penang Institute). He is the author of the prizewinning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”


November 17, 2016

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”

By Ooi Kee Beng

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One of the first things that any undergraduate learns is that when writing a scientific text, he or she must provide references. In fact, without such references, a text is not considered scientific.

This referencing behaviour is meant to show that the student has been reading the correct material; and that he has been digesting the words so thoroughly that he can now include the thoughts in his own writing. Now, what a Malaysian student will end up doing is provide references to books and articles written by professors based in faraway universities and colleges.

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Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS (Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore

My argument is not with this jarring asymmetry in global knowledge. It has always been the case in human history that in every period of time, knowledge is concentrated and generated at certain centres much more than at others. At the moment, much first appears in the English language and in countries using that language. What’s more, the spread of new knowledge is also strongly overseen by a global network based on that language.

Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, among others, have played that role before. But none has the global reach and the amazing speed and width of dissemination that English today commands. The soft power that America enjoys today – and no other culture comes close to the reach of its soft power – is not merely of its own doing; it rides on the back of hundreds of years of English imperial strength and colonial mastery, during which the English language and its cultural preconditions penetrated the farthest reaches of the world.

My concern is with a serious side effect of the sharp imbalance in knowledge generation in our times. What happens is that people outside the English-speaking world are left nursing a lack of confidence, not only in themselves but also in those in close proximity to them. Their behaviour where the transfer and generation of knowledge are concerned becomes rather warped.

In writing a scientific text, for example, it is much more probable than not that a Third World person will refer an idea or train of thought to a known person from a distant land even when that idea may have come to him through some other more immediate and personal channel. This is because he had learned to assume that he gains more points among his peers by referring to the politically and academically correct person; and that his own ideas are merely approximations of that bigger idea expressed better by others.

But if we contemplate the matter and observe what actually happens in our daily life, we should realise that inspiration comes most of the time from proximate impulses and from individuals in our surrounding.

Given the habit of referring distantly, the chances of us giving credit to those around us are also diminished, and complimenting things and people in our immediate surrounding – for referencing someone is indeed a high form of compliment – is rendered suspect.

The competition among students and scholars of showing that they know something that their peers have as yet not gotten around to knowing cultivates in them the tendency to be stingy with praise and to be secretive about their immediate sources of inspiration.

This is an impoverishment of the soul and of our culture; where we withhold praise and admiration from those close to us and give generously of the same to distant and often dead persons.

Note that I am merely using academic referencing to initiate a debate on a more general matter. In my experience, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but if I were to inform people around me of personal epiphanies, I would not get as good a hearing as I would if I referred whatever idea I just had to some distant knowledge authority.

Perhaps this explains why prophets always come from distant lands speaking exotic languages; and sometimes bearing superior arms. Those who dare to be prophets in their homeland are forced to flee into exile or are crucified in one way or another.

Catholic hymns are sung in Latin, Japanese Buddhists chant in Chinese, and Muslim thoughts are preferred in Arabic. In the secular sphere, Coolness wears an American accent. Indeed, we seem tobe talking here about something generically human.

We tend not to join clubs that will accept us as members. Since you know me, you cannot possibly be a significant person. But I am being far too categorical here; I am not being generous. Come to think of it, there are two ideal types of people. There are those who cannot imagine that people they come into contact with can be important; and then there are those who treat all coming into their orbit as meaningful and significant. Most of us are sometimes the one, and sometimes the other.

My basic point is that, epiphanies are always waiting to happen and inspiration can come to us at any time and place. We just have to let this take place by not imagining that profundity dwells far away, and are foreign to us.

We just have to realise instead that inspiration lurks around every corner, and is present at every meeting.

This article is republished in Merdeka for the Mind: Essays  on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century by Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2015). pp 9-11.

 

 

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards


September 24, 2016

New Mindset required to uplift varsity standards, says my  Academic Friend, Dr. James Gomez@Bangkok University, Thailand

by Pratch Rujivanarom
The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Universities-face-hard-test-to-lift-standards-30293472.html

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Bangkok University’s Dr. James Gomez
ACADEMICS have highlighted the challenges that higher education institutions within the region face in trying to meet international standards, including syllabus problems, system diversity, a lack of international staff and limited government support.

With the ASEAN Economic Community officially set up this year, improving the quality of education remains one of the community’s main goals.  This topic was the focus of a forum titled “Can Asean be a Global Higher Education Destination?” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand recently.

Prof James Gomez from Bangkok University said many universities in ASEAN were restructuring to become international institutions to improve the quality of education and, more importantly, rebrand themselves to attract more students.

“Many university administrators chose internationalisation for increasing the university brand value, because it ensures the financial viability of the institutions by attracting more students,” Gomez said.

However, he said most universities usually directly translated syllabuses from the national language into English, so the curricula were not truly internationalised. He said another issue was that syllabuses were usually drafted by nationals, which resulted in a focus on issues particular to the home country instead of a truly international emphasis.

“From my experience in the field, most of the international university staff typically work in the language institutions or international colleges of the universities and are not stationed at the main faculties or executive positions that can guide the university’s policy,” he said.

Assoc Prof Nantana Gajaseni, Executive Director of the ASEAN University Network, said there was great diversity and disparity between educational systems in ASEAN states, so it was hard to harmonise a standardised system within the region.

‘Diversity makes credit transfers hard’

“The major challenge of internationalisation of higher education in Asean is the system diversity and quality recognition of the education. This disparity is making student and credit transfers among [ASEAN countries] and beyond the region hard,” Nantana said.

Gomez added that there was a lack of international staff in the region because of low salaries, the lack of research grants and government regulatory barriers. “There is the income gap between the rich countries in the region, such as Singapore and Malaysia, and the rest of the region. This income gap makes fewer international staff choose to work in these [lower-income] countries,” he said.

“Another barrier is the limitation of research grants. For instance, Malaysia limits applicants for its grants to Malaysian citizens only. Furthermore, consideration for research scholarships usually focuses on the national perspective only and it is hard for the researchers to apply for funds to study the international perspectives.”

Wesley Teter, UNESCO senior consultant for the Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, related his experiences teaching in China, where government regulations could be a barrier for international staff. In his case, strict information restrictions imposed by the Chinese government made academic research more difficult, reducing the appeal for international researchers.

Nantana said another big problem for internationalisation was budgetary. She said high-income countries in the region such as Singapore and Brunei had an easier time encouraging the internationalisation of their universities, but for poorer countries the task was difficult.

“There are many problems from shortages of budgets in low-income countries such as the lack of infrastructure. Even in Thailand, the state has just let public universities rely on themselves to find revenue and does not grant governmental support anymore,” she said.

“However in my view, an abundant budget does not ensure quality education and successful internationalisation … I believe that the mindsets of university administrators and professors need to change as well to suit global education.”