Human Rights for Foxes and Hedgehogs


June 25, 2015

Human Rights for Foxes and Hedgehogs

by Professor Dr.Antoine Buyse

http://sim.rebo.uu.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Inaugural-Lecture-Antoine-Buyse-Human-rights-for-foxes-and-hedgehogs.pdf

AntoineBuyseOratie150There are two kinds of thinkers, according to the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin: hedgehogs and foxes.

2. Hedgehogs are those people who try to incorporate everything in the world into one single vision or over-arching truth. By contrast, foxes are people who draw on a wide range of observations, ideas and perspectives. Their thoughts are manifold and they do not try and squeeze reality into one straightjacket. Put in scientific terms: foxes easily jump from one paradigm to another without asserting that any of them represents the final truth. Berlin developed this metaphor by building on a line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus which runs as follows: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

3. Dante Alighieri, Plato, and Proust are, in Berlin’s view hedgehogs. Aristotle, Montaigne and James Joyce are foxes. Berlin, in his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, specifically applied the metaphor to the famous Russian novelist Lev Tolstoy, author of the great 19th century novel War and Peace. Tolstoy was, to Berlin, the prime example of a fox who desperately tried to be a hedgehog.

So, you may wonder by now, what does this have to do with human rights? Let me assure you that you have not stepped into a lecture on Greek or Russian literature. Neither will this be a talk about animal rights. Rather, what I propose to do today is to use this metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog to look at the current state of human rights in the world and more specifically, to look at those who study human rights: that strange little tribe called academics.

I will do so by addressing how a number of academic fields have engaged with human rights and their biggest academic support group: the human rights lawyers. I will argue that studying human rights from non-legal perspectives, from different disciplines, is key to acquiring new insights in the legal academic study of human rights. Secondly, but no less importantly, this may lead to progress in the implementation of human rights on the ground, by a better understanding of factors that contribute to or, by contrast, hinder the ways in which people can use their rights to improve their lives.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the state of human rights in the world today. Close to home in the Netherlands, cities are struggling with the legal and practical issues of giving shelter and care to irregular migrants and the decentralization of social services. Discrimination in the police forces, lack of interest for the right to a safe living environment in the earthquake prone North of the country, and an absence of basic human rights knowledge among youngsters are all challenges we face. In Europe, the coming together of the human rights systems of the European Union and the Council of Europe has endured a setback veiled in the shape of an Advisory Opinion.

4. And on a much more worrying global scale, the conflicts that rage across Syria, Iraq and Yemen have caused thousands of deaths. In 2014 war crimes were committed in at least 18 countries. The Mediterranean is turning into a blue graveyard. Freedom of expression and of the press are under pressure in Hungary, Eritrea, Venezuela, Russia and many other places. It is estimated that arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression occurred in over 75% of the world’s states last year. It led Amnesty International to conclude that 2014 was a “devastating year” and an “ultimate low point”.

5 Should we then abandon all hope, as if entering Dante’s Inferno? Well, arguably, in the longer run, the picture does not seem that bleak. The various forms of extreme violence that catch our attention in today’s news reports are not entirely representative. The psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature has argued that history shows a somewhat irregular, yet overall steady decline of violence between human beings.

6 He ascribes this decline to various civilizing and pacification processes of which one is of particular interest for us today. These are the so-called rights revolutions, as Pinker dubs them. Movements for citizens’ rights started in the eighteenth century and gained particular momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. They expanded to rights movements for women, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, disabled people, and children, and yes, even to animals. One of the key factors enabling this development is a leap of imagination and empathy: the fact that we can imagine how other humans suffer from injustice and that they are in many ways similar to ourselves. This empathy for the other, stretching far beyond people’s own circle of family and friends was nurtured, according to historian Lynn Hunt, by the novel.

7 The eighteenth century saw this new literary genre rise and spread. Novels like Pamela by Richardson and Julie by Rousseau enabled readers on a much wider scale than ever before to empathize with people who were oppressed. It is no coincidence in Hunt’s view that the first declarations of human rights, with the American and French ones as the most famous examples, were created in those very same decades that these novels were read. Although human rights were not, as the title of her book claims, invented in the eighteenth century – the idea is of course much older and the relevance in national and international politics much more recent – Hunt does bring home an important point about human rights. They are imagined. Indeed, just like the country of the Netherlands (which was imagined in this very grand hall a few centuries ago in the Union of Utrecht), but also money, or Mickey Mouse, human rights are figments of our very fertile imaginations, as another historian, Yuval Harari, has put it.

8 This very capacity to imagine things is in his view what distinguishes humans from other animals. Like humans, animals may laugh or even fool each other, but imagining non-existent things is not something a single fox or hedgehog is capable of (at least as far as we humans are aware). This skill of imagination enables us to cooperate, for good or bad, in larger groups. And these products of our imagination have very real consequences in reality – people may kill in the name of their country, buy goods across the globe with their money or build entire theme parks for their favourite cartoon character.

The leap of imagination towards human rights did not happen in one go, however, and faced several setbacks after it flourished in the Enlightenment. The nineteenth century saw a turn towards nationalism which, far into the twentieth century, remained stronger in the West than universalist ideologies, whether they were about civil and political rights or the rights of workers. No wonder then that the first large-scale international rights agreements, in the period between the two World Wars, concerned the protection of national minorities: in many ways these minorities were perceived as a country’s own nationals who had ended up in the wrong state. It was only after the Second World War that the universalist movement came back in full force, even if only for a short time, in the years of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And even then, nationalist prejudice still lingered. The most conspicuous example is that one of the people considered to become a member of the Human Rights Commission, Hersch Lauterpacht, was rejected as an option by the legal advisor of the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom. He stated, and I quote:

“Professor Lauterpacht, although a distinguished and industrious international lawyer, is, when all is said and done, a Jew fairly recently come from Vienna. Emphatically, I think that the representative of His Majesty’s Government on human rights must be a very English Englishman imbued throughout his life and hereditary to the real meaning of human rights as we understand them in this country.” End of quote

9.The drafting of the Universal Declaration itself is a telling example of both cooperation and differences of views between different disciplines. For not only politicians and lawyers were involved, as one may expect. Both philosophers and anthropologists took an interest in the genesis of this key human rights document. This involvement was closely connected with one key question: how to produce a document that truly reflected global values, that could truly be called universal? As the drafters struggled with what to put in the text and what not, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO came to the rescue. It established a Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights, consisting of mostly philosophers. This group sent out questionnaires across the globe and across cultures asking whether the norms present in human rights could also be found in their own traditions. People ranging from Mohandas Gandhi to Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, responded. To the philosophers’ delight they were able to find a range of common principles across cultures similar to many of the rights the drafters of the Universal Declaration were construing, sufficient at least to justify that a global document could be called universal. Of course, this agreement was only a common denominator and it was agreement mainly on what the norms were, not on their justification. As one philosopher on the UNESCO Committee liked to say: “Yes, we agree about the rights but on condition no one asks us why.”

10 This justification problem, although it did not prevent the creation of the Universal Declaration, has continued to haunt the international human rights movement ever since. The interest of philosophers in human rights has continued to this day, amongst others here in Utrecht by the vibrant research group of our dear colleagues of the Ethics Institute.

Another discipline also took an interest in the Universal Declaration: anthropology. In a statement sent to the Human Rights Commission in 1947, the American Anthropological Association warned that the Declaration should not become a mere reflection of the values of Western Europe and America. Since each human being was not only an island in itself, but a social being functioning in a group and in her or his own culture, a truly universal document should reflect the common elements among these cultures and not, implicitly or explicitly postulate the supremacy of one culture over another. One should, the anthropologists argued, avoid to make human rights part of “the white man’s burden” and thereby blemish it with all the problems of colonialism and imperialism. The anthropologists’ statement has later often been misread as cultural relativism, as opposed to the universality of human rights. But the anthropologists were not claiming that creating a universally valid text was impossible. Rather, they added to the concerns of the philosophers about the ‘why’ of human rights, concerns of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Not all of the norms and values about right and wrong that one may identify are shared across the globe. As the anthropologists put it, “The saint of one epoch would at a later time be confined as a man not fitted to cope with reality.”

11. And the practice or expression of common ideas widely differs across cultures. The anthropological interest in human rights did not limit itself to its cradle, the Universal Declaration. Indeed, in the past decades a large amount of research has been done into how human rights are perceived, talked about, practised and yes, even imagined.

12 Where a stubborn universalist might be a hedgehog trying to fit it all into one system, many anthropologists better resemble the foxes, being very aware of the enormous variety in human rights practice. Thus even an experience I once had in the train is an example of that practice and imagination of human rights: the old couple sitting next to me complained that they were forced to take public transport as their human right to park their car in their city of destination was not guaranteed. In more academic terms, as the anthropologist Mark Goodale put it a few years ago, the meanings of human rights “are constituted most importantly by a range of social actors (…) within the disarticulated practices of everyday life.”

13 And, one may add, anthropologists have also found their way to courtrooms of human rights litigation, and not as suspects or prosecutors, but to study the proceedings and their interaction with the social context in which these cases occur.

The rise of human rights later also spawned interest in other fields of research, from international relations to political science. The work of Risse and Sikkink on norms cascades and of Beth Simmons on how human rights are mobilized are just two of the many examples of theorizing on how both international and national rights can become a force to be reckoned with inside states.

14. As this practice grew in both democracies and countries in transition, research on human rights also increased. A search in Google Scholar shows that in 2014 alone over 45,000 books and articles mentioning the words “human rights” were uploaded.

These are staggering amounts, even for the most optimistic and voracious reader trying to stay up-to-date with the state-of-the-art on the topic.

The developments in different disciplines briefly mentioned here show that many researchers from other fields than law have shown interest in human rights. So, what about the lawyers? The rise of international human rights after World War II meant that apart from constitutional lawyers, legal researchers in the fields of international and European law started to study the issue. Later on, researchers in criminal law and private law joined them. Critical legal studies, feminist, utilitarian, marxist, and other critiques on human rights have all helped to point out and gradually decrease the blind spots of Lady Justice. These critiques have shown, for example, that the initial human rights treaties were too focused on the public rather than the private, and on, for example, torture rather than domestic violence.

Thus, human rights have increased in numbers, pervaded more fields of law, and gained traction in a large number of countries. Their understanding has increased from a negative approach to one in which positive obligations for states are prominently represented, ranging from protection against threats to life to fostering equality, as legal scholar Sandra Fredman has convincingly shown in her work.

15. This broadening of human rights has come at a price, however. The very extension of the number of rights, which we can call human rights proliferation, may have extended protection or at least attention to new groups, but it has also led to criticism that the wide scope of rights is rather a sign of inflation, detracting from a supposed traditional core group of rights which would be more important. Eric Posner, for example, in his recent book with the ominous title The Twilight of Human Rights, argues that the very multiplication of rights will lead to their demise. He contends that attaching a rights label to an increasing number of societal claims is counterproductive. According to Posner, [and I quote]

“the idea of a rigid legal framework will gradually dissolve into a soup of competing and unresolvable claims about which interests deserve human rights protection, which interests do not and how much weight should be placed on each of them.” [end of quote]

16. He contends, moreover, that many of the international human rights protection systems have remained ineffective. Along similar lines, Stephen Hopgood traces the, in his view, fatal problems facing human rights, in his The End times of Human Rights.

17. Human rights are part of the Western liberal tradition and power. The demise of that power, especially of the United States, weakens human rights. Nationalism and religion reflect a resurgence of different values and it is not just rogue states like Syria or North Korea who challenge the human rights system, but also large, emerging powers. If one would follow Posner or Hopgood, one would not even need to consult Nostradamus to believe the end is near.

Indeed power balances in the world are shifting. Indeed the United Nations human rights system is not the most effective legal system the world has ever seen. And indeed the proliferation of rights causes new dilemmas of dealing with competing claims taking the shape of human rights. International human rights are not an iron shield but rather a frail safety net that can break if stretched too far by those trying to attack it. But Posner and Hopgood miss out on a number of crucial points.

18. Even if in international relations the balance of power changes, human rights continue to make inroads in many countries, also less-liberal ones, by way of active courts and justifiability of rights, and human rights education. Even if the global human rights system is not the strongest, several regional ones are relatively effective, including the Strasbourg-Luxembourg twins here in Europe – even if they do not always acknowledge they are close family. As for the increasing number of competing claims, lawyers have long devised and are still devising new and practical ways of dealing with them. And even on those points where these critical authors are partly right about the weaknesses of human rights practice – Posner mentions the lack of empirically-informed approaches – matters should be improved not left to fade into a twilight zone. Put differently, if human rights protection systems are like an ambulance stuck on the road, we should repair the engine, not discard it. Fighting illegal and arbitrary action by states and non-state actors alike is simply too important.

19. What can academic researchers do to engage in these issues and to help and improve matters on the ground without turning into activists themselves? Mixing activism and research where one weakens the other, is indeed a perennial risk for human rights researchers. You may not be surprised that legal research infused by insights from other disciplines is what in my view is necessary. Lawyer-hedgehogs need hedgehogs from other disciplines, and a few foxes amongst themselves, to connect the lot of them. For indeed, the metaphor of the foxes and the hedgehogs of Isaiah Berlin, with which I started this lecture, cannot just be applied to literature and writers, but also to academia.

20. There are researchers who try to incorporate everything they find into one all-encompassing system. And others who apply a variety of methods to critique various models and systems, not particularly bothered by a striving for unity or coherence. This is not simply a contrast between deductive science and inductive, empirical research. Nor is fox science automatically better than hedgehog research or the other way around. Great thinkers can be found among both groups of academic animals. Rather, it has a lot to do with each researcher’s personal preferences.

The metaphor can be applied to legal thinkers too. The famous book A Theory of Justice of John Rawls is an attempt at a coherent whole and could be compared to the work of a hedgehog.

21 Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice was partly a reaction to the ideas of Rawls.  Walzer constantly engaged with and criticized the catch-all theories of others and argued that there are no ready-made solutions for just societies. This makes his work more that of a fox. His thinking can be read as a plea for a more complex and layered egalitarianism. Finally, Ronald Dworkin explicitly identified with one animal in his book, Justice for Hedgehogs.

22.In his work, he tried, not always successfully, to argue for a coherent notion of what human dignity would entail. What is important for law, in my view, is to supplement the almost inherent quest for coherence and system-building that lawyers display – a hedgehog endeavor – by an openness to other perspectives, insights and disciplines – to become a bit like foxes when necessary.

23.So what should happen in academia, in research? I am not arguing that other disciplines should start to show some interest for human rights. They have. Nor am I saying that lawyers should finally start going beyond black letter law. Many do, including a great number of colleagues present here today. We need both those who deepen the knowledge deep in the trenches of their specialization and those who build bridges across those very trenches. What I would say, rather, is that we should all become a bit more aware of each other’s work, the lawyers and the non-lawyers. To connect the legal study of human rights more firmly with insights and research on those same rights by other disciplines. By establishing a chair on human rights in a multidisciplinary perspective, Utrecht University shows commitment to this aim of connecting the dots. None of us should lock ourselves up in our own field like pedantic, know-it-all hedgehogs. But most of us researchers also do not have the time and means to become foxes who can easily jump from one disciplinary perspective to another – few are, in other words, like Roald Dahl’s fantastic Mr Fox. Even combining just two disciplines takes years of study. That is why we have to join forces to solve problems that cannot be tackled by one discipline alone. And we can do so through cooperation.

24. Let me give you one example from my own research on how to bring insights from other disciplines to bear on law. This concerns the issue of freedom of expression in relation to violent conflict escalation. Put differently, the question of when do words kill? Freedom of expression is, like most human rights norms, an open norm. But some norms are more open than others. What is seen as acceptable speech widely differs from one society to another and what shocks, offends, or disturbs is different for each individual. Explicit commercials, the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, or the comments of politicians may all stay within, or cross, the limits of freedom of expression, depending on whom one asks. However, there is one almost universally accepted limitation to free speech and that is speech that incites to or otherwise causes violence. This rarely concerns instances in which someone literally gives orders to shoot, as a commanding officer would shout to a soldier. Most situations do not lead to an easy ‘I know it when I see it’. After all, the links between a specific speech on television, a cartoon in a newspaper, or a radio broadcast on the one hand and the escalation of violence between groups on the other are not always as self-evident as during the Rwandan genocide.

25. Yet, freedom of expression cases in relation to violence do reach courts and are subject to legislation and policy-making. Moreover, most judges may believe that they need to call in an expert when they are dealing with a medical case, but they often see freedom of expression cases as falling within their own area of expertise. A consequence of this has been a somewhat misguided emphasis on utterances of hatred as somehow leading up to violence. It is no coincidence that the legal notion of hate speech has become used so much in the past decades. But is that truly the key to correctly assessing such matters? And if we accept that context somehow matters, which context should judges and policymakers consider?

26. It is here that the open norm of freedom of expression needs some fleshing out, aided by insights from a field in which the escalation of violence has been a core theme of research: conflict studies. As I have argued in my research over the last few years, these insights may contribute to better legal and political decision-making in three different ways.

27. First, conflict researchers have shown that in many violent conflicts between groups, instilling fear, especially a fear of being lethally attacked, has been found to be an important factor in the process leading to violence. Such fear may lead to the acceptance of the use of violence as a legitimate means to solve a perceived inter-group problem.

28. Thus what I have dubbed “fear speech,” expressions aimed at instilling (existential) fear of another group, rather than “hate speech” may be more relevant when assessing violent conflict escalation. Hatred is not irrelevant, but it is not as such the triggering factor. The emphasis of lawyers, including human rights lawyers, on hate speech may thus be an example of looking for a solution to a legal problem in the wrong direction. Secondly, context matters. This is not something lawyers would deny, but they would have to concede that it is not always easy to identify which factors are relevant. In a human rights test of free expression, contextual factors mostly appear in the third leg of the three-pronged test of limitations, as for example in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the test of necessity in a democratic society. It may be clear to anyone that if someone outside on the Dom Square calls for the extinction of all blue-eyed people in Utrecht, it may have little effect. A similar call to violence against religious minorities may, by contrast, be very effective in the midst of a town square in Syria or Iraq today. Again, insights from conflict studies may help to see which factors – the position of the speaker, the medium used, or the exact wording chosen – are truly relevant. Again, a judge may or may not look at the relevant factors. Thirdly, we know that a very good indication for the outbreak of violence is recent earlier violence. While this fact in itself is not very helpful, it does become a tool for analysis if we use framing theory to look at this earlier violence.

29. For indeed, the way in which an earlier incident of violence is framed in the media or through gossip – as an instance of thug violence or as an attack of one ethnic group on another – may pave the way respectively for law enforcement or violent conflict. The chosen wording or imagery in an expression is thus important, as it may explain, justify or motivate violence. Framing theory insights provide useful tools of analysis here.

What this single example of freedom of expression and violence shows is that legal scholarship and practice may be usefully assisted by insights from other bodies of knowledge, if translated and handled with care.

In conclusion, what I propose to do in my own research in the coming years is to try and build and extend the bridges to other disciplines. The example of fear speech is an illustration of this. In this way, I will try to be a fox, bringing in different perspectives whenever that can enrich and further our legal understanding of human rights. On the other hand, part of my work will also remain very much that of the hedgehog looking for consistency of the system, in the more positivist, legal study of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights treaties. Never the twain shall meet? Well, maybe hedgehogs and foxes at times can. Just like Tolstoy was a fox desperately trying to be a hedgehog.

And finally, each of you may now start to wonder whether you are yourself more of a fox or a hedgehog.

Portrait of a Beautiful Mind: George Fitzgerald


June 22, 2015

Portrait of a Beautiful Mind: George Fitzgerald

by J J O’Connor and E F Robertson

George_Francis_FitzGeraldThe function of the University is primarily to teach mankind. .. at all times the greatest men have always held that their primary duty was the discovery of new knowledge, the creation of new ideas for all mankind, and not the instruction of the few who found it convenient to reside in their immediate neighbourhoodGeorge Francis FitzGerald

George Francis FitzGerald was a brilliant mathematical physicist who today is known by most scientists as one of the proposers of the FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction in the theory of relativity. However, this suggestion by FitzGerald, as we shall see below, was not in the area in which he undertook most of his research, and he would certainly not have rated this his greatest contribution.

George FitzGerald’s parents were William FitzGerald and Anne Frances Stoney. His father William was a minister in the Irish Protestant Church and rector of St Ann’s Dublin at the time of George’s birth. William, although having no scientific interests himself, was an intellectual who went on to become Bishop of Cork and later Bishop of Killaloe. It seems that George’s later interest in metaphysics came from his father’s side of the family. George’s mother was the daughter of George Stoney from Birr in King’s County and she was also from an intellectual family. George Johnstone Stoney, who was Anne’s brother, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and George FitzGerald’s liking for mathematics and physics seems to have come mainly from his mother’s side of the family.

William and Anne had three sons, George being the middle of the three. Maurice FitzGerald, one of George’s two brothers, also went on to achieve academic success in the sciences, becoming Professor of Engineering at Queen’s College Belfast. George’s schooling was at home where, together with his brothers and sisters, he was tutored by M A Boole, who was George Boole‘s sister. It is doubtful whether Miss Boole realised what enormous potential her pupil George had, for although he showed himself to be an excellent student of arithmetic and algebra, he was no better than an average pupil at languages and had rather a poor verbal memory. However, when the tutoring progressed to a study of Euclid‘s Elements then George showed himself very able indeed, and he also exhibited a great inventiveness for mechanical constructions, having great dexterity. He was also an athletic boy yet he had no great liking for games.

Miss Boole prepared her pupils very well for their university studies. She noticed one remarkable talent in her pupil George, that was his skill as an observer. Many years later FitzGerald, clearly thinking of his own youth, wrote:-

The cultivation and training of the practical ability to do things and to learn from observation, experiment and measurement, is a part of education which the clergyman and the lawyer can maybe neglect, because they have to deal with emotions and words, but which the doctor and the engineer can only neglect at their own peril and that of those who employ them. These habits should be carefully cultivated from the earliest years while a child’s character is being developed. As the twig is bent so the tree inclines.

FitzGerald certainly showed that he had acquired the ability to learn from observation, experiment and measurement. He entered Trinity College Dublin at the young age of 16 to study his two best subjects which were mathematics and experimental science, and he was soon putting the training he had received at home to good use. At Trinity College, FitzGerald [8]:-

… attained all the distinctions that lay in his path with an ease, and wore them with a grace, that endeared him to his rivals and contemporaries.

It was not an undergraduate career devoted entirely to study, however, for FitzGerald played a full part in literary clubs and social clubs. He also continued his athletic interests, taking to gymnastics and to racquet sports. In 1871 he graduated as the best student in both mathematics and experimental science. He won a University Studentship and two First Senior Moderatorships in his chosen topics.

The aim of FitzGerald was now to win a Trinity College Fellowship but at this time these were few and far between. He was to spend six years studying before he obtained the Fellowship he wanted, but during these years he laid the foundation of his research career. He studied the works of Lagrange, Laplace, Franz Neumann, and those of his own countrymen Hamilton and MacCullagh. In addition he absorbed the theories put forward by Cauchy and Green. Then, in 1873, a publication appeared which would play a major role in his future. This was Electricity and Magnetism by Maxwell which, for the first time, contained the four partial differential equations, now known as Maxwell‘s equations. FitzGerald immediately saw Maxwell‘s work as providing the framework for further development and he began to work on pushing forward the theory.

It is worth noting that FitzGerald’s reaction to Maxwell‘s fundamental paper was not that of most scientists. Very few seemed to see the theory as a starting point, rather most saw it only as a means to produce Maxwell‘s own results. It is a tribute to FitzGerald’s insight as a scientist that he saw clearly from the beginning the importance of Electricity and Magnetism. Maxwell‘s theory was for many years, in the words of Heaviside, “considerably underdeveloped and little understood” but a few others were to see it in the same light as FitzGerald including Heaviside, Hertz and Lorentz. FitzGerald would exchange ideas over the following years with all three of these scientists.

During the six years he spent working for the Fellowship, FitzGerald also studied metaphysics, a topic which he had not formally studied as an undergraduate, and he was particularly attracted to Berkeley‘s philosophy. His liking for metaphysics and his deep understanding of the topic combined with his other great talents in his future career. He won his Fellowship and became a tutor at Trinity College Dublin in 1877. This was not his first attempt at winning a Fellowship, rather it was his second since he failed to win a Fellowship at his first attempt. At Trinity College he was attached to the Department of Experimental Physics and soon he was exerting the greatest influence on the teaching of the physical sciences in the College.

In 1881 John R Leslie, the professor of natural philosophy at Dublin, died and FitzGerald succeeded him to the Erasmus Smith Chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. At the time of his appointment he gave up his duties as College tutor, a role in which he had been extremely successful, to concentrate on his duties as a professor. One of FitzGerald’s long running battles at Trinity College Dublin was to increase the amount of teaching of experimental physics. He soon set up classes in an old chemical laboratory that he was able to obtain for his use, and he gathered round him colleagues who would help in the practical aspects of the subject. As is so often the case in universities, however, he was restricted in the progress he could make from a lack of funds.

In a lecture which he gave to the Irish Industrial League in 1896 FitzGerald emphasised his lifelong belief in practical studies:-

The fault of our present system is in supposing that learning to use words teaches us to use things. This is at its best. It really does not even teach children to use words, it only teaches them to learn words, to stuff their memories with phrases, to be a pack of parrots, to suffocate thought with indigestible verbiage. Take the case of experimenting. How can you teach children to make careful experiments with words? Yet it is great importance that they should be able to learn from experiments.

However, practical applications are built on theoretical foundations and FitzGerald fully understood this. In his inaugural lecture on 22 February 1900 as President of the Dublin Section of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, he spoke of how electricity had been applied to the benefit of mankind during the nineteenth century. Behind a practical invention such as telegraphy there was a wealth of theoretical work:-

… telegraphy owes a great deal to Euclid and other pure geometers, to the Greek and Arabian mathematicians who invented our scale of numeration and algebra, to Galileo and Newton who founded dynamics, to Newton and Leibniz who invented the calculus, to Volta who discovered the galvanic coil, to Oersted who discovered the magnetic actions of currents, to Ampère who found out the laws of their action, to Ohm who discovered the law of resistance of wires, to Wheatstone, to Faraday, to Lord Kelvin, to Clerk Maxwell, to Hertz. Without the discoveries, inventions, and theories of these abstract scientific men telegraphy, as it now is, would be impossible.

We should also look at FitzGerald’s idea of the purpose of a university since it was, like his other educational beliefs, the driving force in how he carried out his professorial duties. He believed that the primary purpose of a university was not to teach the few students who attended but, through research, to teach everyone. He wrote in 1892:-

The function of the University is primarily to teach mankind. .. at all times the greatest men have always held that their primary duty was the discovery of new knowledge, the creation of new ideas for all mankind, and not the instruction of the few who found it convenient to reside in their immediate neighbourhood. … Are the Universities to devote the energies of the most advanced intellects of the age to the instruction of the whole nation, or to the instruction of the few whose parents can afford them an – in some places fancy – education that can in the nature of things be only attainable by the rich?

As can be seen from the quotations we have given from FitzGerald’s writing, his interest in education went well beyond the narrow confines of his own department. It was not merely a theoretical interest for, true to his own beliefs, he took a very practical role in education. He was an examiner in physics at the University of London beginning in 1888 and he served as a Commissioner of National Education in Ireland in 1898 being concerned with reforming primary education in Ireland. As part of this task he travelled to the United States on a fact finding tour in the autumn of 1898. As one might have expected, his aim was to bring far more practical topics into the syllabus of primary schools. At the time of his death he was involved in the reform of intermediate education in Ireland and he also served on the Board which was considering technical education.

In 1883 FitzGerald married Harriette Mary Jellett. She was the daughter of the Rev J H Jellett, the Provost of Trinity College and an outstanding scientist who had been awarded the Royal Medal by the Royal Society. It was through his personal friendship with Jellett, and also their joint scientific studies, that FitzGerald got to know Harriette. Although the couple had been married just under eight years at the time of FitzGerald’s death, they had eight children during this time; three sons and five daughters. FitzGerald was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1883 and, like his father-in-law, he was to receive its Royal medal. This was in 1899 when the prestigious award was made to FitzGerald for his contributions to theoretical physics, especially to optics and electrodynamics. Lord Lister, presenting the medal, said [3]:-

His critical activity pervades an unbounded field, enlivened and enriched throughout by the fruits of a luxuriant imagination.

We should now examine the research for which FitzGerald received these honours.

Beginning in 1876, before he obtained his Fellowship, FitzGerald began to publish the results of his research. His first work On the equations of equilibrium of an elastic surface filled in cases of a problem studied by Lagrange. His second paper in the same year was on magnetism and he then, still in the year 1876, published On the rotation of the plane of polarisation of light by reflection from the pole of a magnet in the Proceeding of the Royal Society. He had already begun to contribute to Maxwell‘s theory and, as well as theoretical contributions, he was conducting experiments in electromagnetic theory. His first major theoretical contribution was On the electromagnetic theory of the reflection and refraction of light which he sent to the Royal Society in October 1878. Maxwell, in reviewing the paper, noted that FitzGerald was developing his ideas in much the same general direction as was Lorentz.

At a meeting of the British Association in Southport in 1883, FitzGerald gave a lecture discussing electromagnetic theory. He suggested a method of producing electromagnetic disturbances of comparatively short wavelengths:-

… by utilising the alternating currents produced when an accumulator is discharged through a small resistance. It would be possible to produce waves of as little as 10 metres wavelength or less.

So FitzGerald, using his own studies of electrodynamics, suggested in 1883 that an oscillating electric current would produce electromagnetic waves. However, as he later wrote:-

… I did not see any feasible way of detecting the induced resonance.

In 1888 FitzGerald addressed the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association in Bath as its President. He was able to report to British Association that Heinrich Hertz had, earlier that year, verified this experimentally. Hertz had verified that the vibration, reflection and refraction of electromagnetic waves were the same as those of light. In this brilliant lecture, given to a general audience, FitzGerald described how Hertz:-

… has observed the interference of electromagnetic waves quite analogous to those of light.

After his appointment to the chair, FitzGerald had continued to produce many innovative ideas but no major theories. For example despite his ideas on electromagnetic waves he had not followed through the research and the final experimental verification had been achieved by Hertz. The reason for this is perhaps best understood with a quotation from a letter which FitzGerald sent to Heaviside on 4 February 1889 (see for example [1]):-

I admire from a distance those who contain themselves till they worked to the bottom of their results but as I am not in the very least sensitive to having made mistakes I rush out with all sorts of crude notions in hope that they may set others thinking and lead to some advance.

Although FitzGerald is modestly talking down his contributions in this quotation, the comment he made about himself is essentially correct. O J Lodge [9] gives a similar, but fairer, analysis of FitzGerald’s work:-

… the leisure of long patient analysis was not his, nor did his genius altogether lie in this direction: he was at his best when, under the stimulus of discussion, his mind teemed with brilliant suggestions, some of which he at once proceeded to test by rough quantitative calculation, for which he was an adept in discerning the necessary data. The power of grasping instantly all the bearings of a difficult problem was his to an extraordinary degree …

Again Heaviside wrote (see for example [8]):-

He had, undoubtedly, the quickest and most original brain of anybody. That was a great distinction; but it was, I think, a misfortune as regards his scientific fame. He saw too many openings. His brain was too fertile and inventive. I think it would have been better for him if he had been a little stupid — I mean not so quick and versatile, but more plodding. He would have been better appreciated, save by a few.

Finally we should examine the contribution for which FitzGerald is universally known today. There had been many attempts to detect the motion of the Earth relative to the aether, a medium in space postulated to carry light waves. A A Michelson and E W Morley conducted an accurate experiment to compare the speed of light in the direction of the Earth’s motion and the speed of light at right angles to the Earth’s motion. Despite the difference in relative motion to the aether, the velocity of light was found to be the same. In 1889, two years after the Michelson-Morley experiment, FitzGerald suggested that the shrinking of a body due to motion at speeds close to that of light would account for the result of that experiment. Lodge [9] writes that the idea:-

… flashed on him in the writer’s study at Liverpool as he was discussing the meaning of the Michelson-Morley experiment.

Lorentz, independently in 1895, gave a much more detailed description of the same kind. It was typical of these two great men that both were more than ready to acknowledge the contribution of the other, but there is little doubt that each had the idea independently of the other. The FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction now plays an important role in relativity.

Sadly FitzGerald died at the age of only 49 years. Maxwell, whose work had proved so fundamental for FitzGerald, had died at the age of 48 while Hertz died at the age of 36. In fact in 1896 FitzGerald had reviewed the publication of Hertz’s Miscellaneous Papers for Nature after Hertz‘s death. Four years later, in September 1900, FitzGerald began to complain of indigestion and began to have to be careful what he ate. A few weeks later he complained that he was finding it difficult to concentrate on a problem. His health rapidly deteriorated and despite having an operation the end came quickly.

W Ramsay, on hearing of FitzGerald’s death wrote (see [8]):

We should also look at FitzGerald’s idea of the purpose of a university since it was, like his other educational beliefs, the driving force in how he carried out his professorial duties. He believed that the primary purpose of a university was not to teach the few students who attended but, through research, to teach everyone. He wrote in 1892:-

The function of the University is primarily to teach mankind. .. at all times the greatest men have always held that their primary duty was the discovery of new knowledge, the creation of new ideas for all mankind, and not the instruction of the few who found it convenient to reside in their immediate neighbourhood. … Are the Universities to devote the energies of the most advanced intellects of the age to the instruction of the whole nation, or to the instruction of the few whose parents can afford them an – in some places fancy – education that can in the nature of things be only attainable by the rich?

As can be seen from the quotations we have given from FitzGerald’s writing, his interest in education went well beyond the narrow confines of his own department. It was not merely a theoretical interest for, true to his own beliefs, he took a very practical role in education. He was an examiner in physics at the University of London beginning in 1888 and he served as a Commissioner of National Education in Ireland in 1898 being concerned with reforming primary education in Ireland. As part of this task he travelled to the United States on a fact-finding tour in the autumn of 1898. As one might have expected, his aim was to bring far more practical topics into the syllabus of primary schools. At the time of his death he was involved in the reform of intermediate education in Ireland and he also served on the Board which was considering technical education.

In 1883 FitzGerald married Harriette Mary Jellett. She was the daughter of the Rev J H Jellett, the Provost of Trinity College and an outstanding scientist who had been awarded the Royal Medal by the Royal Society. It was through his personal friendship with Jellett, and also their joint scientific studies, that FitzGerald got to know Harriette. Although the couple had been married just under eight years at the time of FitzGerald’s death, they had eight children during this time; three sons and five daughters. FitzGerald was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1883 and, like his father-in-law, he was to receive its Royal medal. This was in 1899 when the prestigious award was made to FitzGerald for his contributions to theoretical physics, especially to optics and electrodynamics. Lord Lister, presenting the medal, said [3]:

His critical activity pervades an unbounded field, enlivened and enriched throughout by the fruits of a luxuriant imagination.

We should now examine the research for which FitzGerald received these honours.

Beginning in 1876, before he obtained his Fellowship, FitzGerald began to publish the results of his research. His first work On the equations of equilibrium of an elastic surface filled in cases of a problem studied by Lagrange. His second paper in the same year was on magnetism and he then, still in the year 1876, published On the rotation of the plane of polarisation of light by reflection from the pole of a magnet in the Proceeding of the Royal Society. He had already begun to contribute to Maxwell‘s theory and, as well as theoretical contributions, he was conducting experiments in electromagnetic theory. His first major theoretical contribution was On the electromagnetic theory of the reflection and refraction of light which he sent to the Royal Society in October 1878. Maxwell, in reviewing the paper, noted that FitzGerald was developing his ideas in much the same general direction as was Lorentz.

At a meeting of the British Association in Southport in 1883, FitzGerald gave a lecture discussing electromagnetic theory. He suggested a method of producing electromagnetic disturbances of comparatively short wavelengths:-

… by utilising the alternating currents produced when an accumulator is discharged through a small resistance. It would be possible to produce waves of as little as 10 metres wavelength or less.

So FitzGerald, using his own studies of electrodynamics, suggested in 1883 that an oscillating electric current would produce electromagnetic waves. However, as he later wrote:-

… I did not see any feasible way of detecting the induced resonance.

In 1888 FitzGerald addressed the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association in Bath as its President. He was able to report to British Association that Heinrich Hertz had, earlier that year, verified this experimentally. Hertz had verified that the vibration, reflection and refraction of electromagnetic waves were the same as those of light. In this brilliant lecture, given to a general audience, FitzGerald described how Hertz:-

… has observed the interference of electromagnetic waves quite analogous to those of light.

After his appointment to the chair, FitzGerald had continued to produce many innovative ideas but no major theories. For example despite his ideas on electromagnetic waves he had not followed through the research and the final experimental verification had been achieved by Hertz. The reason for this is perhaps best understood with a quotation from a letter which FitzGerald sent to Heaviside on 4 February 1889 (see for example [1]):-

I admire from a distance those who contain themselves till they worked to the bottom of their results but as I am not in the very least sensitive to having made mistakes I rush out with all sorts of crude notions in hope that they may set others thinking and lead to some advance.

Although FitzGerald is modestly talking down his contributions in this quotation, the comment he made about himself is essentially correct. O J Lodge [9] gives a similar, but fairer, analysis of FitzGerald’s work:-

… the leisure of long patient analysis was not his, nor did his genius altogether lie in this direction: he was at his best when, under the stimulus of discussion, his mind teemed with brilliant suggestions, some of which he at once proceeded to test by rough quantitative calculation, for which he was an adept in discerning the necessary data. The power of grasping instantly all the bearings of a difficult problem was his to an extraordinary degree …

Again Heaviside wrote (see for example [8]):

He had, undoubtedly, the quickest and most original brain of anybody. That was a great distinction; but it was, I think, a misfortune as regards his scientific fame. He saw too many openings. His brain was too fertile and inventive. I think it would have been better for him if he had been a little stupid — I mean not so quick and versatile, but more plodding. He would have been better appreciated, save by a few.

Finally we should examine the contribution for which FitzGerald is universally known today. There had been many attempts to detect the motion of the Earth relative to the aether, a medium in space postulated to carry light waves. A A Michelson and E W Morley conducted an accurate experiment to compare the speed of light in the direction of the Earth’s motion and the speed of light at right angles to the Earth’s motion. Despite the difference in relative motion to the aether, the velocity of light was found to be the same. In 1889, two years after the Michelson-Morley experiment, FitzGerald suggested that the shrinking of a body due to motion at speeds close to that of light would account for the result of that experiment. Lodge [9] writes that the idea:-

… flashed on him in the writer’s study at Liverpool as he was discussing the meaning of the Michelson-Morley experiment.

Lorentz, independently in 1895, gave a much more detailed description of the same kind. It was typical of these two great men that both were more than ready to acknowledge the contribution of the other, but there is little doubt that each had the idea independently of the other. The FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction now plays an important role in relativity.

Sadly FitzGerald died at the age of only 49 years. Maxwell, whose work had proved so fundamental for FitzGerald, had died at the age of 48 while Hertz died at the age of 36. In fact in 1896 FitzGerald had reviewed the publication of Hertz’s Miscellaneous Papers for Nature after Hertz‘s death. Four years later, in September 1900, FitzGerald began to complain of indigestion and began to have to be careful what he ate. A few weeks later he complained that he was finding it difficult to concentrate on a problem. His health rapidly deteriorated and despite having an operation the end came quickly.

W Ramsay, on hearing of FitzGerald’s death wrote (see [8]):

… to me, as to many others, FitzGerald was the truest of true friends; always interested, always sympathetic, always encouraging, whether the matter discussed was a personal one, or one connected with science or with education. And yet I doubt if it were these qualities alone which made his presence so attractive and so inspiring. I think it was the feeling that one was able to converse on equal terms with a man who was so much above the level of one’s self, not merely in intellectual qualities of mind, but in every respect. … he had no trace of intellectual pride; he never put himself forward, and had no desire for fame; he was content to do his duty. And he took this to be the task of helping others to do theirs.

FitzGerald was described by Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) as (see [10]):-

… living in an atmosphere of the highest scientific and intellectual quality, but always a comrade with every fellow-worker of however humble quality…. My scientific sympathy and alliance with him have greatly ripened during the last six or seven years over the undulatory theory of light and the aether theory of electricity and magnetism.

On his death the Faculty of Science of the University of London adopted the resolution [3]:

That this meeting … having heard with profound sorrow of the premature death of the late Professor George Francis FitzGerald, desires to place on record its high appreciation of his brilliant qualities as a man, as a teacher, as an investigator, and as a leader of scientific thought …

Article by: J J O’Connor and E F Robertson

List of References (11 books/articles)

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/FitzGerald.html

Transformation Blues Minister rebutts Bloomberg’s William Pesek


June 20, 2015

COMMENT:I am very skeptical about whatever Mr.dato-din-merican Transformation Blues  says on the state of our economy. He uses statistics with amazing ease  in  his rebuttal to Mr Pesek’s article. We know that statistics can be massaged for purposes for which they are intended. Malaysians are familiar with this kind of public relations exercise.

Minister Jala has been spinning too often and now has a serious credibility problem. Throwing statistics  around  will not  change public perception about the Prime Minister’s mismanagement of the economy.

Let us face reality. The 1MD debt problem is like an albatross around our national neck.  It has been badly handled by  company and Treasury officials and the Prime Minister himself. Minister Jala should be providing the answer to what happened to the RM42 billion debt? Why has he not commented on it in his rebuttal?  He must know that the issue has undermined public trust and investor confidence.

What transformation is he talking about when we know that our economy is up against some very  serious challenges in the years ahead. For example, we are in the middle-income trap and I have not seen any attempts on the part of the Najib administration to deal with this major challenge. We are still a commodity export economy, dependent on palm oil and oil and gas.

We have been talking about a knowledge economy for as long as I can remember, yet we are unable to fix our standard of education from primary to tertiary level. Our Research and Development policy is shrouded in mystery.

We know that the Prime Minister is not providing the leadership the country badly needs since he is pre-occupied with his own political survival.

Minister Jala should be talking to ordinary people to get a better understanding of their situation and  listening to economists who have contrarian views on our government’s  fiscal policy, and development strategy as  outlined in the 11th Malaysian Plan (2015-2020).

What is Minister Jala’s intention in making this point:

Because of our achievements, I was invited to share our experience at both Harvard and Oxford universities this year. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I had the privilege to share Malaysia’s success story with government ministers from many countries. Last month, I was invited to share our experience with Russian ministers in Moscow.”

What success story is he telling his audience at Oxford and Harvard and the Russian Ministers in Moscow?  Are they gullible? My readers and I on this blog are not.–Din Merican

In addition to the above, I wish to add my good friend Dr. Bakri Musa’s  rebuttal to our Tranformation Blues Minister’s response to Mr. Pesek’s article as follows::

“The facts, however, are these. Between 2009 and 2014, Malaysian Gross National Income grew by 47.7 percent …”

Facts and figures by themselves mean nothing. What is the comparable figures for our peers – Taiwan, South Korea or even Vietnam. Not to mention Singapore or China. To quote the man, let me repeat again (… and one more time!), facts and figures must be put in proper perspective!

Oops! I forgot that our peers are now Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in which case Jala’s figures are indeed impressive.Yes, our growth rate is higher than Japan, Western Europe and other advanced countries but those countries are already there, cruising at high altitude. Malaysia is still trying to take off and ascending. It cannot afford a low growth rate without risking a stall.

As for our devalued ringgit, Jala seems impressed by Zeti’s confidence rather than what the market is telling us. It is pathetic that Jala would consider his invitation to Harvard as an endorsement of the government’s policies. Jala should instead visit our universities and schools and discover how pathetic they are.

More important than what Jala tells those Harvard folks or how honored he was to be invited, what did Jala learn when he visited Boston and what lessons can he impart onto our local institutions. Or was Jala, like so many ministers on their “study” visits abroad impressed only with the glitz and ceremonies?–M. Bakri Musa

Transformation Blues Minister rebutts Bloomberg’s William Pesek

by Dato Seri Idris Jala@www.themalaysianinsider.com

Guitar Playing Singer Idris JalaRebutting with Pemandu Statistics

When I read William Pesek’s latest commentary on Bloomberg View, I barely recognised the country he was writing about.

He starts by referring to Malaysia’s “underlying economic distress” and “prolonged slow growth”, which he says are caused by “race-based policies that strangle innovation, feed cronyism and repel multinational companies”.

The facts, however, are these:

1. Between 2009 and 2014, Malaysian gross national income grew by 47.7%.

2. Growth last year was 6%, and over the next four years the OECD predicts Malaysia will enjoy annual growth of 5.6%.

It would be perverse to characterise this as “slow”. By contrast, the Economist reported last month that “The European Commission is forecasting growth in 2015 of 1.5%, which would be the euro area’s best outcome since 2011.” A growth rate nearly four times that of some of the most advanced economies in the world hardly suggests “distress”.

3. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak launched Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme in 2010. Let me highlight some key achievements:

  • Third, as detailed in the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report 2014, Malaysia’s efforts at reducing poverty have been a great success, virtually eliminating absolute poverty to less than 1%. Since 2009, the income of the bottom 40 per cent households has increased by a compound annual growth rate of 12%, even higher than the national average of 8%. Inflation has been kept in check at only 2.4%. And through the implementation of minimum wage legislation, we have lifted 2.9 million people immediately out of absolute poverty.
  •  First, in the last five years, annual investment growth has been 2.5 times more than in the preceding years. Each year, total investment reached a new record for Malaysia. The bulk of this investment is from the private sector. If the private sector has no confidence in Malaysia as alleged by Pesek, why would they put in record investment year on year under the Najib administration?
  •  Second,‎ the country’s fiscal reforms are being successfully implemented, cutting Malaysia’s fiscal deficit for the past five years, while keeping public debt at only 53% of GDP.This level of public debt level is far lower than in many countries, such as the US, UK, France, Japan and Singapore.

4. We touched the lives of five million people through rural roads, electricity and water projects. This represents possibly the biggest government expenditure over a five-year period in the history of Malaysia. All of these were done in the name of inclusive economic development.

That should be enough to dispel the suspiciously negative picture Pesek paints. But let me address some of his other inaccurate accusations, too.

5 As for the alleged failure to “dismantle race-based policies that strangle innovation”, let me quote from a report in a respected international news organisation:

  • “Malaysia eased rules governing overseas investors, initial public offerings and property purchases, peeling back decades of benefits to ethnic Malays. Foreign companies investing in Malaysia and locally listed businesses will no longer need to set aside 30% of their equity to so-called Bumiputera investors, Prime Minister Najib Razak said today. He also raised overseas ownership thresholds in the fund management industry and at local stockbrokers.” At Initial Public Offerings, “Publicly traded companies will no longer have to meet any Bumiputera equity requirement under today’s liberalisation measures.” If Pesek disagrees with any of the above, perhaps he might discuss it with his editors. The report was published, after all, by none other than Bloomberg.
  •  At another point, he writes that Najib has “deepened the economy’s reliance on oil and gas production”. The International Monetary Fund believes otherwise. The headline on its “Economic Health Check” report this March was: “Favourable Prospects for Malaysia’s Diversified Economy”.

6. Pesek rounds off his imaginative piece of writing by declaring that “the ringgit’s fluctuations are a decent summary of the country’s wayward course in recent years”.

Perhaps he would like to discuss this with Malaysia’s Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, one of the most admired central bank governors in the world. She has repeatedly said that the ringgit is undervalued. Here is what she said recently: “When the oil price plummeted, the wrong perception of the degree of dependence of the Malaysian economy on the oil and gas sector led markets to think that we would be more affected than others. Of course, the ringgit is undervalued. It doesn’t reflect our underlying values, which are solid and strong.”

7. Pesek’s opinions do not seem to have a strong connection to the facts. He gives away his true agenda when writes that “Asia-based journalists have missed (Tun Dr) Mahathir Mohamad since he left office in 2003” and suggests “a return to old political leadership” is “urgent”.

It may be that nostalgia for the past and his distance from Malaysia have clouded his judgment, and led him to write an unsubstantiated hatchet job on the current prime minister in order to please a former Prime Minister about whom he gushes, his “mercurial governing style and fiery rhetoric made for great copy”.

He certainly seems to have changed his mind about Dr Mahathir. Only last year he wrote: “The insular and jury-rigged system of affirmative action, national champions and fat subsidies over which Mahathir presided now holds the economy back. The Malaysian leader also had a tendency to embarrass his nation on the international stage with his nutty anti-Semitic tirades.”

He concluded: “Malaysians must find fresh inspiration by looking forward, not back to 1990.” We agree. Why does Pesek now think we should look back to a system he described in such a derogatory manner last year?

8. Malaysia has undergone an impressive economic transformation under Najib and the country is on course to reach the goal of becoming a high-income nation by 2020 – as the figures and achievements I have mentioned above make clear.

Because of our achievements, I was invited to share our experience at both Harvard and Oxford universities this year. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I had the privilege to share Malaysia’s success story with government ministers from many countries. Last month, I was invited to share our experience with Russian ministers in Moscow.

9. I wonder why it is that many countries and institutions can see the progress we are making, but Pesek chooses not see any of it? His latest outburst is consistent with a series of slanted articles that unfairly run down Malaysia and its leadership.

10. Differing opinions are bound to be expressed on Bloomberg View. The defence of “fair comment”, however, does not apply to getting facts so woefully wrong. We would hope that the editors at Bloomberg agree, and will correct or take down such a disgracefully biased and ill-informed article.

* Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Leadership by moral legitimacy


June 7, 2015

Leadership by moral legitimacy

by Graham Harris*

*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology atgraham_harris Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.

Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.

Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-moral-legitimacy-graham-harris

The_Thinker_in_NTHU_TaiwanThe Thinker @NTHU, Taiwan

We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.

[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris

As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.

I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.

Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.

David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.

We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.

C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.

Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.

At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.

Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.

To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.

C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.

Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!

Kassim Ahmad –The Long Agony of a Public Intellectual


June 3, 2015

Kassim Ahmad –The Long Agony of a Public Intellectual

Kassim Ahmad in Kulim, KedahNote: I must thank Conrad, my journey man in intellectual discourse, for drawing my attention to an outstanding article in three parts on  (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad by academician Dr. Clive Kessler.  This article is a comprehensive account of the trials and tribulations of Kedah’s most prominent public intellectual and my senior at the University of Malaya  whose legal battle with JAKIM I covered in this blog last year (2014).

Dr Kessler’s is an inspiring and at the same time a moving story of a Malaysian who is never afraid to speak his mind on matters relating on politics, Islam, freedom and justice. (Dr.) Kassim is a stout and uncompromising defender of the right to dissent and the pursuit of unencumbered scholarship.  Dr. Kessler, the scholar who is himself  a public intellectual of repute, said in his conclusion :

Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance… As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas…Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.

In my humble opinion, my friend and fellow Kedahan, now 80+ years,  embodies the spirit of the great Ulysses  as depicted in the last two stanzas of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem which go like this:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate , but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I know that (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad (I affectionately call  him Pak Kassim) will strive, find and not yield. For him it is a journey of struggle and toil in search the truth. Here is a story of a humble and God respecting man of true grit and unshakeable convictions. –Din Merican

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2014/08/06/kassim-ahmad-the-long-agony-of-malaysias-al-hallaj/

A Tribute to (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad

by Dr Clive Kessler

Part 1  A Seminar on “Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad””

The long, one might say lifelong, agony of Kassim Ahmad continues. The latest episode in this saga of official harassment is now being played out in the courts.

The continuing 2014 episode: A Seminar in Putrajaya

C KesslerEarlier this year, in February, Kassim Ahmad gave a talk, presumably at the invitation of Tun Dr. Mahathir himself, at the former Prime Minister’s Perdana Leadership Foundation Headquarters at the national capital, Putrajaya.

The subject was a restatement of Kassim Ahmad’s well-known and long-standing views: about the primacy of the Quran itself to Islam; its direct accessibility to intelligent interpretation by reasonable Muslims of good faith; the mystification and distortion of the original Quranic message that Kassim (not uniquely) holds has taken place as a result of the often arcane, esoteric, sophistic and exclusionary interpretive efforts of the officially credentialled ulama —— and the consequent emergence within Islam of a powerful clerical elite and a doctrinally dubious, even illicit, clericalism.

Dubious and illicit, since the emergence of such a caste or “estate” of religious “experts” asserting a monopoly upon legitimate exegetic entitlement and religious truth arguably puts in doubt, even question, the core Islamic principle that there may and shall be no intermediaries between the believer and the  Almighty.

Reports of the Perdana Foundation event appeared in the usual media outlets, including Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and The Malay Mail Online.

A powerful response was not long in coming. Officers of the federal religious department JAKIMkassim ahmad1 (or Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia), a division within the Prime Minister’s Department, but not one that is conspicuous for its support for Prime Minister Najib’s “Movement of Global Moderates” initiative!) came to Kassim’s home in Kulim, Kedah in the dark of night, demanded and then made a forcible entry, arrested Kassim and removed him to their own jurisdiction, very far from Kulim, to interrogate him.

That they did, to a physically frail man of over 80 years of age, at considerable length. Kassim, through his lawyers, is contesting their action.On a variety of grounds.

These involve questions of the relation of state and federal jurisdiction, of the relation between the Common Law or civil and Syari’ah law traditions and their implementing bureaucratic authorities and instrumentalities, and also fundamental constitutional questions about the rights of individuals.

The courts, so far, have been prepared to treat questions of disputed jurisdiction. But so long at those matters are being sorted out, they are reluctant to open up and enter into deliberating upon the basic constitutional questions: the wider question of the fundamental rights of citizens in matters of belief, conscience and speech.

As the matter is now publicly understood, Kassim Ahmad faces at least three charges. These in effect involve causing offence to Islam, of questioning and opposing the status and standing of the ulama as duly authorised officials of Islam and as exclusive and definitive arbiters of correct Islamic practice, and also —— a little mysteriously —— what is referred to as one further indictment that remains sealed and must for the meantime remain confidential (though one assumes that its nature and terms must be known to the accused himself, Kassim Ahmad).

What can this be and mean? Only one thing, it would appear. Or so one must surmise. Namely, that a further charge has been prepared against Kassim, on the basis of the specific and substantive views that he expressed.

A charge either of making himself an apostate (murtad) or else of placing himself outside the bounds of proper belief, of kufr —— of an explicit adherence to and the knowing promotion of infidel beliefs and convictions. Those who have prepared this further, still undisclosed charge are in that case probably acting upon the view that it is improper to say or suggest that another Muslim is in effect a kafir (heretic) or murtad (apostate) before such a charge is proven. So it must remain confidential.

This shows some decent sensibility. But there is more to the matter than that.Holding that already prepared charge in readiness, in reserve, would also have the effect of exerting enormous pressure upon the accused to accept some sort of “plea bargain”: to agree, on the two open counts, to a charge of offending Islam and the ulama as a state-organised collective entity —— as the bureaucratic custodians of “correctly understood Islam”, or simply “religious officialdom” —— in order to avoid being formally declared and branded as a heretic and apostate.

With others such a stratagem might work. But not, I expect, with Kassim.Frail though he may be physically, he is a man of enormous will and determination. He is stubborn, meaning by nature and character unyielding in upholding his own pride and dignity. It is hard to see Kassim ever consenting to such a deal.

Meanwhile, as the matter proceeds through the courts, all mention of Kassim’s lecture earlier this year has been removed and expunged from the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s elegant official website.

Who is Kassim Ahmad?

Kassim Ahmad arrested by JAKIMHardly anybody these days knows, or any more remembers, who Kassim Ahmad is. Press reports on his official travails and difficulties always repeat the same lazy typification: bekas aktvis sosial, “former social activist”. The man is much more than that, and deserves to be known and acknowledged, even honoured, for who he is and what he has done.

Born in 1933, Kassim Ahmad began his “public” life and career as a student activist at the old University of Malaya in Singapore, where in the 1950s he was one of the young “progressives” who called for a revision and opening up of the existing, derivatively colonial curriculum.

But he was not merely a campus activist.He was also a scholar of prodigious talent and ability.For example, when I was working in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the evolution of Kelantan political society in the nineteenth century, I found much that was of value to me in Kassim Ahmad’s MA thesis. This was a critical annotated edition of the Sha’er Musoh Kelantan [= “Epic of the Kelantan War”] that Kassim had submitted in 1961.

That was the beginning. From there Kassim went on to become a lecturer in Malay Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. But always the activist, the engaged thinker, and as a man rooted in the culture of the Alam Melayu or wider Malay world and its evolving political dynamics, Kassim found the idea of the expansion of Malaysia into the new Federation of Malaysia questionable —— and said so, emphatically.

He was soon branded as a Sukarnoist, an apologist for Indonesian Konfrontasi, or “Confrontation” against Malaysia, and identified as an enemy to the nation and a threat to national security.

He returned to Malaysia, and though the pool of talented and qualified people was not large, he was considered unacceptable for a university appointment. For while he was found work, by old friends, as a research officer at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, where he produced an elegant, meticulously edited and prepared edition of the Hikayat Hang Tuah.

But for him, literature was not just dead words on a page. He became one of the central protagonists in one of the great literary debates and cultural polemics of the 1960s: over the question whether Hang Tuah, who, out of conventional loyalty, had been ready to kill his friend Hang Jebat because of the ill-founded envy of the ruler, was still to be treated as a model for emulation by modern, progressive young Malays —— or whether Hang Jebat, with his doomed personal loyalty to his best friend, was more worthy of admiration.

The question became the subject at the time of a learned article in the famous Dutch academic journal, the so-called Bijdragen voor de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde [Transactions in Linguistic, Geographical and Ethnographic Knowledge], produced by the Royal Dutch Institute in Leiden. Under the heading of “The Rise and Fall of a National Hero”, the noted Professor P. E. de Josselin de Jong traced the eclipse, on a course charted by Kassim Ahmad, of Hang Tuah’s reputation in those important debates and polemics.

During a large part of the 1960s and 1970s Kassim pursued a modest livelihood as a school-Kassim Ahmadteacher. But his life, as a man of ideas and commitment and action, was centred upon, and within, the old Parti Raykat or (at times) Parti Sosialis Rakyat, with all its internal controversies about doctrine and ideology, direction and strategy.

That remained the case until, in the great round-up of those deemed a radical threat to the nation after the death of Tun Razak, Kassim was detained under the notorious ISA: Internal Security Act.

Of the many who were detained at the time, few, it seems, took it harder, and found the experience more corrosive of their former confidence, than Kassim. Others were, by nature, more flexible, and so could accommodate better to the humiliating conditions. Not Kassim.

He was too proud to be flexible, and too much the master of his own mind and thinking to be able to pretend that he thought what he did not. He has written of those years in his prison memoir Universiti Kedua/A Second University (both Malay and English-language editions, 1983).

During his detention, Kassim became seriously interested in Islam, Islamic thought and intellectual history, Islamic philosophy, and the explicit and also implied or “immanent” social and cultural theory offered by Islam. He wrote a book on the subject: Teori Sosial Moden Islam, Fajar Bakti, 1984.

This was followed, in a course of developments that is traced below in the essay entitled “Milestones”, by two more specific works in this area: Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula [= Hadith: A Revaluation], 1986 and Hadis: Jawapan Kepada Pengkritik [= Hadith: A Reply to My Critics], 1992.

Kassim’s detention came to an end with the accession of Dr. Mahathir to the prime ministership.This was no special favour. Few people these days recall the great optimism, enthusiasm and sense of reforming zeal, and the hope of opening up long-blocked possibilities, that accompanied Dr. Mahathir’s assumption of national leadership.

As part of that “new liberating spirit”, Dr. Mahathir released a very large number of ISA political detainees. But, among them, it might be said —— in a way that will later become clear in “Milestones” —— that there was a special affinity or congruence between the ideas of Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad.

Kassim Ahmad's BookBoth were strong believers in the idea that Muslims, all Muslims who could do so, had the obligation to educate themselves, both generally and in matters of religion. That all who did so had the right, the ability and also the duty —— once they had begun to educate and emancipate themselves as Muslims —— to decide many religious matters for themselves. By thinking things through for themselves.

Both were, in that sense, de facto “protestants” in a religious tradition that had not experienced a fully developed protestant challenge or “reformation”. Both believe in the sovereignty of the intellect and conscience of the educated Muslim of good faith. Both felt and said that Muslims of this radically individualistic intellectual orientation did not really need the ulama, or any self-protecting clerical “estate”, to tell them what or how to think or to resolve all difficult religious questions for them. Both took the view that, once the ulama as a group had come into being and consolidated their own position, their interests and outlook often became those of the exclusive social group of which they were members —— and not necessarily the proper or correct or best-advised outlook for Islam as a whole, for Muslims generally.

Both became, in that sense, in some measure “anti-clericalist Muslims”: Muslims for whom the ulama, with their often casuistic reasoning and ways, were not always, or perhaps ever, the best exemplars or defenders of Islam. Nor even, for the both of them, were the ulama always right. Often they were not. And their fallibility had to be kept in kind, both men held, especially when the ulama called for near automatic deference and unquestioning assent.

That said, Dr. Mahathir had a full, varied and richly diverse life, especially after 1981. In a world of power. The powerless Kassim’s life after his release from detention in 1981 was more bounded and closely focused, largely upon his religious ideas.He promoted those ideas, sometimes with Dr. Mahathir’s encouragement and support, and was also made to suffer for them.

So, while one may liken both Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad to Islamic “protestants”, their fates have been very different. In his own passionate “witnessing” of his beliefs, in his public struggle to promote, uphold and defend them, Kassim has been turned into a modern-day Malaysian al-Hallaj.

Thinks, says MahathirThe great thinker al-Hallaj was hounded for years and in the end (in 922CE/309AH) gruesomely put to death for his commitment to the idea “ana al-haqq”: meaning, not as the punitive conservatives interpret it “I am the truth” or God incarnate (in some quasi-Christian fashion), but rather, “the truth is within me, it is to be found within my own thinking self, my own free mind”.

Let us hope that Kassim’s public career concludes not cruelly, as did al-Hallaj’s, but with the belated and overdue bestowal of some generous part of the recognition and honour that he is owed, that his contributions have amply earned for him.

 Part 2: Milestones

I have been following the tribulations of Kassim Ahmad for some time now .Ever since I came as a Visiting Professor to UKM: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in late 1985 and was told of some remarkable but disquieting recent developments there.

The university, upon the recommendation of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (some of whose members had long been sympathetic to the man and his ideas), had been persuaded to award Kassim an honorary doctorate. (It is on that basis that he is often referred to as Dr. Kassim Ahmad.)

But it had been a fraught event.His academic sponsors at UKM had also wanted to hold a public seminar to discuss Kassim’s ideas about and proposals for a “revaluation of the hadith”: the often casual sayings that in the Sunnah are attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and which have subsequently been routinely invoked in developing Islamic law, to clarify and amplify the meaning of the Quran.

But, after much action and counteraction, intervention and counter-intervention, the seminar had to be cancelled —- though Kassim was allowed to speak at the ceremony at which his doctorate was conferred.

He elaborated briefly upon the Latin Poet Horace’s and then Kant’s idea, or slogan, Sapere aude! Dare to know. Use your mind! Think!

Kassim Ahmad's BookI first wrote about the confrontation at UKM over Kassim’s proposed hadith revaluation seminar in a paper for a Conference on Malay Civilization held in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1980s.

In it, and long before the idea of “culture wars” has been made popular as a conservative catch-cry in the USA, I drew upon Bismarck’s struggles for political domination in late nineteenth century Germany to characterise what had gone on at UKM, and was beginning to occur throughout Malaysia, as a Kulturkampf: as a war of and about and within culture, as a deep conflict about national cultural form and identity and direction under the impact of the new, post-1970s neo-traditionalist (and clericalist) Islamisation.

Later I returned to the subject, in an essay (ironically!) entitled “Milestones”. The remainder of this series about Kassim Ahmad and his fate consists largely of the text of that essay, in its revised form of about 2007.

“Milestones”? The name is an ironic reference to the work of the emblematic Islamist thinker and martyr-figure Syed Qutb, Ma’alim fi’l-Tariq [= Signposts or Milestones along the Road].

Towards desecularisation: a notable milestone along the way

There are milestones along the road, but we do not always heed them adequately in the course of our journey. We are speeding along, to where we don’t at time much care, so long as we are, or seem to be, making “good progress” …

I have written elsewhere about Malaysia’s “long march to desecularisation”, about the half-century-long struggle, ever since merdeka in 1957, to negate the expectations and reverse the achievement of those who designed the so-called Merdeka Constitution of 1957.

That constitution rested upon the assumption that the country was launched on an evolutionary trajectory towards becoming a largely secular, modern and democratic society, since this was the destination to which those engaging with modernity (and what other basis for national politics might there possibly be?) were headed.

The conviction informing the political negotiations and constitution-making that were the basis for the country’s independence was that its interests, and those of its culturally diverse and religiously pluralistic people, would be best served —— and indeed might only be safeguarded —— by such a course of national evolution.

This was the underlying basis of the not unreasonable hopes then held that the new nation would make “good progress” and thereby make good the promise of “progress” itself. Yet things were not to prove so simple.

The undoing of those “progressivist” assumptions and, more deeply, of popular confidence in their apparent obviousness, “naturalness” and seeming inevitability, has been the work of several political generations: those of the 1957-1969 “liberal era”, especially the leaders of PAS with their then “trinitarian” emphasis on the safeguarding of “religion, people and homeland” and, with them, the distinctive identity and political future of the nation’s core Malay people; of the early NEP champions of the 1970s who sought to undercut and co-opt PAS support by adopting the presuppositions of PAS’s critique of the pre-1970s UMNO as the basis for a new UMNO and national politics;  of the new, and often decidedly “shari’ah-minded” Islamists emerging from ABIM in the 1970s and asserting themselves within and through PAS from the 1980s; of those involved, on both sides of the barricades, of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s ambitious but in many ways ungrounded modernist or anticlericalist “counter-Islamisation” of the 1990s; and of the new generation Malay Islamists, essentially children of the NEP, many of whom came to political maturity in the context of the post-1997 Reformasi upheavals and who have since become the pioneers of a “new generation” of distinctively middle-class and professional Islamic activists.

This shift, not simply of political direction but in the basic underlying assumptions about national Author Kassim Ahmadpolitics and its possibilities, has been the outcome of what has been a central, perhaps even dominant, dynamic of post-independence politics: the fifty-year “Islamisation policy auction”, in which (until it joined the Pakatan Rakyat anti-UMNO-BN opposition coalition) PAS always, and with great tactical acuity, sought to target UMNO ambivalences and weaknesses in its policy towards Islam and so to portray, even highlight, them as evidence of UMNO “insincerity” and “hypocrisy” in matters Islamic.

In response, the UMNO always scrambled to cover up and catch up, to ensure that it was not “left behind” floundering in PAS’s wake, so that it might appear not less but only differently committed to a politics (what it held was, unlike PAS’s, a feasible politics) of Malaysian Islamisation.

But whenever the UMNO seemed to have closed the gap, and often as the electoral cycle was about to enter a new round or was ready to move to new ground, PAS would simply “raise the stakes”, so to speak, by suddenly (and usually quite decisively) making explicit what, to that stage, had been only a tacit component or implicit basis of its Islamist political agenda.

With that, the UMNO would again be left grasping politically at thin air as Islamic parity with PAS again escaped its hands. It would find itself holding to, trusting in, and committed to “marketing” a “religious product” that was not only less substantial than PAS’s but also less compelling, since its appeared to have been fashioned out of cornered expediency and desperate opportunism rather than genuine conviction.

The UMNO always claimed —— as it sought to minimise the political and ideological gap, to neutralise its religious disadvantage —— that it wanted basically the same things that PAS was seeking and, to great and enthusiastic popular acclaim, trumpeting, but that it believed in proceeding (and believed it more effective to proceed) gradually and by indirect measures rather than openly, explicitly, and by the most direct route and confronting means.

Its stance often resembled that of St. Augustine who, as he began to reconsider his ways, famously pleaded for chastity “but not quite yet” —— gradualist, patiently incremental, and often given to reluctance and foot-dragging. UMNO, like PAS, wanted an Islamised state and Islamised law —— but not just yet, not quite so fast!

It was a politics in which the UMNO could never catch up, because even when it matched the measures PAS had been urging, it could never promote them, and therefore itself on that basis, with the same conviction, plausibility and apparent Islamic authenticity.

Not merely a reluctant and unenthusiastic Islamiser, UMNO was often left looking hypocritical and, much worse, seemingly lacking in any understanding of the difference between commitment and hypocrisy —— a major, even disabling, disadvantage within an Islamic framework of moral and political discourse that so prizes sincerity and roundly deplores expedient “lip-service” lacking in support from  heart and hands. He who is suspected, and widely regarded as guilty, of hypocrisy can never successfully plead his own sincerity.

This has been the fate, in all its various successive incarnations, of the UMNO’s Islamic politics. It is the problem that the UMNO, with a conspicuous lack of success, has been wrestling with as long as anyone can remember.

The UKM confrontation

Kassim AhmadAlong the long journey towards the desecularisation, or undoing and reversing the assumption of the seeming “naturalness” of the secularisation, of Malaysian society there were, I imagine, quite a number of significant milestones. One of them occurred in late 1985 when the noted Malay writer, controversialist and critic Kassim Ahmad, at the time when he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), proposed to offer a seminar or series of lectures on the question of “Revaluing the Hadith”.

I arrived as an academic visitor at UKM a little later and heard much at the time about what had happened. Kassim proposed to look historically at the hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, as part of the sunnah or record of his sayings and doings that can be employed as sources for interpreting, clarifying or elaborating Islamic law), at the wider hadith literature, and at their status as a source of law —— and in that way to encourage a historically informed critical understanding of the nature and growth of Islamic law, culture and society.

His plan, as it was explained to me, had been not only to look at the hadith themselves as products of time and circumstance; after all, the traditional hadith scholarship which he intended to review and contest did just that. This was the method and methodology of hadith studies in Islamic historical jurisprudence as practised by Muslim scholars, the ulama.

Kassim intended further to consider, in a modern historically and sociologically informed way that went beyond and even challenged the approach of the ulama to these questions, how the hadith became a source of law, a basis of shari’ah and fiqh; and, beyond that, to examine how a form of legal reasoning, scholarship and culture had emerged from the study of hadith and their evaluation as the exclusive expertise —— one might even say as an intellectual monopoly —— of in effect a clerical “class” or specialised “estate” in Islamic society and civilization, the ulama, with their own special concerns, approach and interests (interests based within, but which might routinely differ from, those of the ummah as a whole).

There is, of course, nothing terribly radical per se in any such “historicising” intention or project; it is the approach of modern historical scholarship itself including research into Islamic civilization by noted Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. But there was a concern, even fear, among some at UKM and beyond of Kassim’s individual nature and reputation as a “fiery radical”; more, there was a concern among those who consider themselves the modern-day successors and inheritors of the classical ulama (and, ultimately, of the Prophet Muhammad himself, since they asserted that the ulama are the pewaris Nabi) that others outside their circles —— people lacking their own special and custom-hallowed expertise, and also invoking new kinds of expert knowledge of possibly dubious standing and appropriateness —— might intrude into this field.

They feared, it seems, being personally exposed and challenged; they feared, no less genuinely, Kassim Ahmadthat new forms of scholarship of dubious propriety might be deployed to impugn and undermine their own standing and thereby that of traditional Islamic scholarship itself; and, as always happens when the ulama and their clericalist allies are challenged, they feared —— both self-interestedly and on grounds of protecting the “general good” as they understand it —— the “confusion” that might be created among the believing multitudes if their own authority were to be questioned.

The consequence that they sincerely fear, from such questioning and from any opening the debate to new participants commanding new forms of knowledge, is that orthodox and conventional religious scholarship —— which has hitherto been able to set its own terms for all the debates and controversies in which its exponents agree to engage —— will be contextualised, even “relativised” and marginalised, should its custodians, the ulama, choose or consent to become involved in these new kinds of disputation; and that, in their eyes at least, the status of Islam itself will consequently be endangered.

So, while, in modern economic theory, the idea of the “invisible hand” enables people to argue that they can serve, and may best and indeed can only serve, others by serving their own self-interest, the ulama work by a different or opposite logic: one that impels them to want to defend Islam with unimpeachable sincerity and the purest of altruism but which, while they are doing so, enables them, with that same compelling sincerity and the authority that it bestows, to protect, as part of that general and overwhelmingly desirable objective, their own special position within Islam and their privileges of religious status, including the rights of authoritative intellectual monopoly grounded in it.

To make a long story short, members of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at UKM, with someKassim Ahmad's Hang TuahDr powerful outside backing, protested against the holding of Kassim Ahmad’s seminar and lectures and demanded their cancellation. The ensuing dispute rose up through and from the university to the Ministry and ultimately to Cabinet, where the then Minister for Education (and later Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) defended, and persuaded the government to uphold, the right of the university and its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to hold such scholarly discussions, seminars and lectures, even if the subject or the occurrence was distasteful to the leadership of the Faculty of Islamic Studies.

But victory was not so easily assured. Those who wished to block the event had a final card to play. That of state, not federal, authority, and of royal prerogative. The mosque at UKM, its management committee and its surrounding parish do not fall, it was suggested, within the normal “grid” of local religious administration under the UMNO-led state government but under the personal authority, as royal head of the Islamic religion in his state, of the Sultan of Selangor. An appeal was made to the palace bureaucracy of the Sultan who upheld the complaints of those opposed to Kassim Ahmad, his seminar and lectures and his wider intellectual agenda. The event was cancelled, the seminar and lectures were never held.

The upshot was that Kassim Ahmad then wrote a book on the revaluation of the hadith, quite a well-written, serious and plausible effort in many ways: a book of some novelty and with a hint of “scandal” in the Malaysian context, and certainly a more impressive scholarly exercise that much of what is published by the majority of Malaysian academics in the various fields of “humane studies” and by the nation’s most prominent religious scholars, but hardly of any great originality or unorthodoxy in the wider world of Islamic legal scholarship or the modern historical study of Islamic civilization.

At that point the debate fell silent for a while. Kassim was awarded his honorary doctorate anyway and he went on to publish his book, his first book as things turned out, on the hadith issue. Always one to take a strong position, especially when under attack, he then made what proved a damaging move.

In his eagerness to assert that the Quran makes sense by itself, and can do so to everyday believers so long as they use their reason and good sense (and so, by implication, don’t need the added resource of the hadith as a guide or basis for interpretation, or the intermediary assistance and authority of the ulama to “know and show” how to use the hadith to make sense of the divine message of the Quran), Kassim became an enthusiastic follower of one Rashad Khalifa: an Egyptian computer engineer who had taken up residence in Tucson, Arizona in the USA where he also served as imam in a local mosque.

Rashad Khalifa claimed to have used computers to show that the Quran is constructed around an invariable but hitherto unrecognised structure based on the number 19. If this were so it was a discovery with amazing implications.

It would have shown that “the miracle of the Quran” [mu’jizat al-Qur’an] was an even greater miracle than anybody had previously suspected or ever been able to imagine. It would have provided proof of an unprecedented and perhaps irrefutable kind of the foundational Muslim claim that the Quran as it had come down to today’s believers and now exists is not only perfect in its origins but also perfect, perfectly uncorrupted and preserved, in its human transmission over the centuries since Allah launched it, via the Archangel Gabriel and through the Prophet Muhammad, into human history.

And it would have shown that, with foresight of truly staggering implications, Allah had placed or encoded in the Quran itself a hidden, embedded, arcane key that could only be detected, after they had in due course been humanly discovered and invented, by modern computers; and which, yet further, by becoming detectable in this way, was now accessible to all Muslims of good conscience and reason and modern intellect but which was not accessible to the ulama, locked away as they long were and still are in their traditional world of classical Quranic and hadith scholarship and its familiar techniques and narrow intellectual horizons.

So much for the ulama, then.Rashad Khalifa’s work showed, or so its devotees such as Kassim Ahmad maintained, that the ulama had not only been “overtaken by history” and modern scholarship but were now —— and had been demonstrably made by Rashad Khalifa’s work —— “objectively irrelevant”. Who needed them any more? They had no legitimate role, and if they ever had then certainly no longer; the claims on which such a role were conventionally based had been exploded …

The problems that soon followed were twofold. First, some telling criticisms of Rashad Khalifa’s work, approach and conclusions were made by computer-literate scholars who wanted to affirm more orthodox opinion and to back those whose position within the ummah of the Muslim faithful whom orthodox opinion sustained and upheld. Second, awestruck by the far-reaching implications of his own ideas and apparent discoveries, Rashad Khalifa began to believe some things about himself and his role and status in Islamic history that verged upon, even succumbed to, the heretical.

Angered by these implications, a devout Muslim of orthodox commitments and loyalty approached Rashad Khalifa in his mosque and stabbed him. With his death his astounding ideas lost not only their great proponent and publicist but also much of their remaining credibility. With that the debate in Malaysia too fell silent, for a while.

Part 3: “Milestones”

An Evening at IKIM

But, despite the collapse of Rashad Khalifa’s position and the ignominious murder of its author, it was not quite the end of the matter.

Several years later, some time in the early 1990s, Kassim Ahmad received some high-level encouragement to open up once more the debate about hadith and, by implication, the role, including the special position and claims to special authority, of the ulama as a group or “clerical estate” in Islam generally and specifically in modernising Muslim societies such as Malaysia.

The congruence or “fit” between these ideas, if they were sustainable, and those of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir is obvious. Dr. Mahathir’s core initiative was to emphasise Islam, modernisation, and, as part of the same overall cultural complex or “package”, modern understandings of Islam. If the resistance to him and his, and the UMNO’s, religious “project” came from the religious traditionalists and their allies, deeply entrenched not only within PAS but also the UMNO itself, then an argument that might decisively defeat and delegitimise that clericalist opposition was, it seems, worth considering.

Anything that would put his traditionalist and traditionalising Islamist adversaries on the defensive, and possibly seize the political initiative from them, was worth a try. So the hadith controversy had, was allowed, a brief second life.

At a political moment when these issues were very much in the air, and prominent in the minds ofkassim-ahmad on Hadis some leading Malaysians, it was decided that the hadith question with its related, and to some very troubling, implications about “the special position of the ulama in Islam” might have a another hearing: not the trench and guerrilla warfare of the original UKM confrontation but something more dignified and also controlled —— from above, rather than by unruly dissenting academics.

Accordingly it was arranged that a public forum would be held under impeccable auspices, and that it would be taped for later broadcasting, in edited form, via national television on RTM1’s long-running and very popular Thursday evening religious programme Forum Perdana Hal Ehwal Islam.

The event itself was staged in the elegant public auditorium of the then quite newly established and salubriously housed government entity IKIM: Institut Kefahaman Islam or Institute of Islamic Understanding.

A so-called “think-tank”, it was yet another of those handsomely funded institutions that Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir created to develop an alternative Islamic agenda and project a rival Islamic worldview to those of PAS and the clericalist traditionalists —— but which in the end, because they were placed under the leadership of people who simply did not understand with sufficient cultural and historical depth what the task and challenge facing them were, never had any possibility of addressing them successfully.

The people placed in charge of these wondrous new creations were simply intellectually inadequate to the challenge they faced, they lacked the deeply grounded knowledge even to grasp what was involved, let alone take on that challenge and see the task through to successful completion.

They never knew and understood what they had to know and understand if they were to accomplish, or even plausibly begin, the historic task that was expected of them, So, in the end, these institutions, including the Islamic University [UIA/IIU] and others too, fell by default into other hands. They ended up being “gifted” by Dr. Mahathir’s government as resources to the very forces that their creation had been intended to oppose and contest.

Yet these were early days for IKIM and for Dr. Mahathir’s hopes of it. The forum was organised. Kassim Ahmad had the chance to state his case, as did two notable and knowledgeable opponents. After their presentations and some direct exchanges, amounting to a tough and quite hostile cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad by his critics, the forum was opened up, in accordance with the Forum Perdana Islam format, to questions and comments from the floor.

Eventually I took the opportunity to make a point. I decided to refer to and then quote some lines from the work of the great Pakistani-Canadian Islamic scholar, the late Professor Fazlur Rahman who, perhaps more than any other individual in the twentieth century, had sought, with some considerable success, to bridge, as a pious Muslim, the worlds of classical Islamic scholarship and the modern academic study of the Islamic tradition.

By doing so I sought, after the torrid cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad, to restate the same position in different words, now with the backing, prestige and authority, grounded within the Islamic tradition, of a truly great scholar and moral leader.

I referred to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s Islamic Methodology in History (1965) and then to his Islam and Modernity:  Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (1982).

These are two landmark studies —— milestones, one might even say, or perhaps better, benchmarks —— of Islamic modernism and modernist Islam at their highest point. In the latter work, Fazlur Rahman remarks that the

“proliferation of hadiths resulted in the cessation of an orderly growth in legal thought in particular and in religious thought in general” [26]; as a result, “it came to pass that a vibrant and revolutionary religious document like the Qur’an was buried under the debris of grammar and rhetoric. Ironically, the Qur’an was never taught by itself, most probably through the fear that a meaningful study of the Qur’an by itself might upset the status quo, not only educational and theological, but social as well” [36].

 To help, or rather begin, addressing the problems created by this proliferation of often dubious hadith and the effect that a long traditions of sophistic hadith scholarship had had for the study of the Qur’an itself, Prof. Fazlur averred that

“the first essential step … is for the Muslim to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam [141]. To do so, “we must make a thorough study, a historically systematic study, of the development of Islamic disciplines. This has to be primarily a critical study that will show us … the career of Islam at the hands of Muslims … the need for a critical study of our intellectual Islamic past is ever more urgent because, owing to a peculiar psychological complex we have developed vis-à-vis the West, we have come to defend that past as though it were our God.  Our sensitivities to the various parts or aspects of this past, of course, differ, although almost all of it has become generally sacred to us. The greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam” [147].

“A historical critique of theological developments in Islam,” Prof. Fazlur added, “is the first step towards a reconstruction of Islamic theology [151]. This critique … should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the world view of the Qur’an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way to a new theology” [151-152].

 Having alluded generally to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s career and ideas, I cited explicitly his words that “the greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam.” I then posed the question to the more outspoken of Kassim Ahmad’s two critical interlocutors on the Forum Perdana panel how he responded, in this present context, to Prof. Fazlur’s principled and informed position.

When challenged to address himself to these words from Fazlur Rahman (which in essence, if far more diplomatically, stated a position similar to that of Kassim Ahmad), Dr. Othman al-Muhammady responded very precisely that, in his view, “Fazlur Rahman had been a great man in the history of Islam, but his aqidah [the integrity of his faith] was questionable and his influence had been damaging and remained dangerous”.

Aftermath

It remains only to note three things. First, that Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was one of the featured speakers, perhaps the central speaker, at the Muslim Professional Forum’s symposium in September 2005 that targeted “Liberal Islam:  A Clear and Present Danger”.

Second, that, with those legally resonant words in that subtitle, the symposium was branding modernist Muslims and the proponents of Islamic modernism as promoters of sedition and treason.

And third, that at the same time when Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was acting as the guiding spirit and prime mover of the onslaught upon liberal Islam as “a clear and present danger”, he was appointed to serve as a Commissioner of Suhakam, the official, statutory Malaysian Human Rights Commission of the government of Malaysia.

What are people, including those of the Fazlur Rahman intellectual “lineage” and scholarly tradition in Islam, to make of this bizarre appointment and the thinking behind it? Who knows? Many may simply remark, in a formula of conventional piety, “WaAllahu’alam …”, that only God truly knows, knows the truth. The Truth is ever with Allah.

Here on earth, meanwhile, one may suggest that the brutal verdict which Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was happy to place upon Fazlur Rahman —— against the integrity and grounding of his faith, and scorning his influence upon and place in modern Islamic intellectual history —— offers a very telling insight into the meanness, the vindictive nature, of the emblematic leaders of the “new Islamism” when they find themselves cornered and effectively challenged.

Meanwhile, though the Truth may be with God alone, as mere humans those of that modernist tradition may and should endeavour —— since it is a truly wondrous and wonderful part of their fitrah or divinely created human ontology —— to use in good faith their human power of reason, always, of course, in well-guided ways.

What does well-guided mean? The question is whether people may, in good faith and reason, seek out and seek to combine wisdom from a variety of sources. Or whether, when matters are contested —— which is when they truly matter —— there is one sole and unique source of guidance to which believers must turn and whose admonitions, almost always of a restrictive nature and intention, all must accept as authoritative: the guidance ever so insistently proffered by the exclusivist and exclusionary clericalist monopoly.

Which choice people should make is not for me to say. I simply note that the choice is theirs and that it is there. Of those who would deny that fact, and seek to deny others that choice, one may simply, and legitimately, ask that they clarify their motives and intended agenda.

Postscript

For the record, Dr. Othman al-Muhammady died in early 2013. But his ideas and influence are far from dead. Very recently I saw in the Malay press a column praising him and his work that was written by Senator Dato Dr. Mashitah Ibrahim, an Islamic International University doctoral graduate in Islamic Studies who is a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. In the context of delivering her praise, she noted that a book honouring Dr. Othman al-Muhammady and his work has recently been launched by the Deputy Prime Minister (“Inteligensia Muslim kontemporari,” Sinar Harian, 1 August 2014).[1]

And meanwhile, as Kassim Ahmad is dragged out of his house and into police stations in the dark morning hours and dragged through the courts, it is clear that even in the year 2014 his story is not yet over. So long as he lives, as his will lives, I dare say, he will not let it end.

Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance.

As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas.

Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.

 

Vision 2020 in the hands of Village Universities


May 7, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Vision  2020 in the hands of Village Universities

by Scott Ng@www.freemalaysiatoday

The prevalence of backward thinking makes Mahathir’s project seem like an impossible dream.

I can think of a lot of things to do with RM9,000. Take a week-long vacation in Boracay or some other exotic island and live like some king of a long gone age. Perhaps donate half to charity and save the rest. Or even take the parents out for a first class feast, and maybe even spruce up my work area with memorabilia, as I’ve had my eye on the Hot Toys figurines released in conjunction with the new Avengers movie. Admit it, they are pretty, even if the price tag is daunting.

Perhaps you can think of some better uses for that kind of money, and I’m sure you’ll let me know.. But what you and I can agree on is that it will be silly to spend RM9,000 on a anti-hysteria kit composed of, among other things, chopsticks, salt, vinegar, pepper spray, and formic acid. I don’t know about you, but I can think of some excellent dishes I could make with the ingredients, though pepper spray is largely unproven as a condiment. Sure, you receive some sort of training to use the kit as part of the package, but all in all, the very idea appears to be ridiculous to most sane Malaysians.

Uinversiti Malaysia PahangMost of us know that hysteria is a medical condition that can be treated, and indeed, there are many accredited and established treatments out there that provide the treatment. Best of all, they won’t charge nearly as much as Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP) is asking for its anti-hysteria kit. If nothing else, the kit and its ingredients seem deeply rooted in superstition, but we’ll leave the experts at UMP to regale us with tales of how their kit is rooted in solid medical practice and born of many, many experiments to find the best approach to treating hysteria.

Indeed, if it works, the researchers at UMP must be commended. Give them the full works. The ticker tape parade, national advertising on TV, interviews with the foreign press to prove that our Malaysian universities can indeed make an impact with their research. In fact, be sure to make them datuks, at the very least. All on their own, with easily obtained items, they have made a breakthrough in medical science.

If it works, that is.

Now, in the spirit of the utmost fairness, I will not condemn the kit as a failure. After all, I have not had the chance to sample the kit and the training that comes with it, being a reasonably sane human being who has never had a hysteria attack before. However, I am very much inclined to believe that it is a placebo to replace legitimate medical treatment and counselling. After all, human belief may be one of the most powerful forces in the world.

However, that a public university like UMP can come out and endorse a kit such as this and demand such a price for it makes me lose all hope in the bright and glorious future promised to us in Vision 2020. If anything, we are straying so far from it ideologically and spiritually that we may as well go back to the dark ages and live in hovels, looking to so-called spiritualists to treat ailments of the mind and body with so much snake oil.

Perhaps some people don’t want to have a First World mentality. Maybe they’re content to be scared of shadows, to imagine demons around every corner, playing with our minds and afflicting us with illness and disorder. Perhaps they may be right. There are, after all, more things in heaven and on earth than we can possibly imagine, but this is certainly not a right step in either direction.

It is this kind of thinking that we must cast off, that Mahathir rejected when he dreamt of Vision 2020, of a modern Malaysia where we live in prosperity and harmony. That dream seems so far away now, and as long as we allow the likes of this to poison our minds, perhaps we may never develop ourselves into First World citizens.