Learning from those around us
AUG 7 — While reading Martin Jacques’s book “When China Rules The World”, I was struck by some of the points he made. Having studied for three years in the UK and lived my whole life permeated by Western ideals, to say that I am at least partially Western-centric would probably be an understatement. It is a given, at least to me, that certain ideals which have been typically regarded as “Western” are always regarded as good, regardless of the context.
Democracy, freedom, liberty and the free market economy are some of the ideals that are practically worshipped in the West. Any attempt at introducing these ideals — even if it involves a fair amount of coercion and force — is arguably justified. Having read the book, however, I have come to the realisation that we need to have greater dialogue with the different civilisations in the world to come to a more nuanced, effective and less-ideologue framework that is uniquely Malaysian.
At Projek Amanat Negara in February this year, I posed a question to Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir regarding the Banjul Charter Human and People’s Rights. She seemed quite perplexed, and admitted that she had never heard of such a charter. The only reply that she could muster was the adamant answer of the primacy of universalist interpretation of human rights, as opposed to a culturally-sensitive interpretation of human rights, without giving concrete evidence to support her proposition.
A universalist interpretation of the human rights framework suggests that the international human rights instrument is universally applicable in all countries without any possibility of local cultural norms affecting its interpretation. As one would expect, contrary to the universalist approach, the culturally-sensitive interpretation of human rights sought to interpose the local norms and culture which might include religion, culture, and specific history of the country into the international human rights instrument.
I must say I was disappointed with her answer. I expected more from a human rights activist. It would be understandable for a common person not to have heard of the Banjul Charter. But a well-known human rights activist must surely have a good grasp of the subject matter of what she is advocating for, and that includes any competing human rights framework.
I have great respect for Marina but I think that she, like many others (including me), have fallen victim to what I call the biased outlook.
Our lives are permeated with certain cultures and outlooks, which would inevitably influence what we consider normal, good and appropriate. Unfortunately, this entails the possibility that we would close our minds off from learning about other different cultures and ideologies.
Danger of ideologues
This applies to everyone (me included), not just the Western ideologues. Some of us have a biased outlook towards anything that is described as Islamic. Without knowledge of the policies that are supported by the party in question, I have known people who support PAS simply because the party has “Islam” as part of its name.
Others have a biased outlook in terms of culture. Some have a politically- or economically-based biased outlook. One simply needs to look at American politics for evidence of this. The Republicans in America, for example, are predictably pro-life, pro-free market and are knee-jerk supporters of Israel.
But let us admit it: many of us are knee-jerk supporters of Palestinians. Any relation, even if simply imagined or perceived, with the country (not even the government!) of Israel and the Jewish people is abhorrent. In Malaysian politics, one of the most powerful insults is that one is a supporter of the Jews or Israel.
When I told my parents that I studied with a friend of mine who just happened to be Jewish in the Jewish prayer room back in my university, they sounded quite worried. It would be a shame if we were to disallow ourselves the opportunity of learning about a respectable culture such as Israel’s. For instance, I am sure not many people know of this fact — Israel has one of the highest number of patent filings per capita in the world.
I am a huge supporter of Palestinian rights but can we not support the Palestinians whilst simultaneously learning about the Jewish culture and nation of Israel. (It would also be interesting to see how much hate-mail and comments I get after this suggestion, thus possibly supporting my point about biased outlooks.)
Regardless of the strain of this disease of having a biased outlook, it must be extinguished.
Learning from different cultures, ideologies and outlooks
Beyond respect and tolerance, I advocate that we learn from different cultures, traditions, religions and outlooks that we have in the world converging in Malaysia thanks to a smart policy (e.g. sending students overseas to many different countries) and strategic location. I believe that we should engage in a dialogue on multiple levels between the different civilisations already prevalent in our beloved country.
Some of you might retort by saying that we did have the Look East Policy propagated by the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. But the policy was restricted to the Eastern culture and way of life, specifically the Japanese. It excluded Western culture, which has a lot to offer.
It is my opinion that Malaysia is at a particular advantage. We have always been at ideological crossroads. We were never big enough or powerful enough to influence others.
We had to assimilate other cultures with their own belief systems, writing systems (historically, Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia used Jawi, adapted from the Arabic writing system and now we use the Roman system), faith (Hinduism and Buddhism from India were the main religions before the coming of Islam which came from the Arabs), ideology, prejudices and political belief .
Look at our citizens: to those who are lucky enough to study overseas... some go to the Middle East, others to the West. Some are sent to certain parts of East and South Asia such as Japan, South Korea, China, India and Indonesia. And when these students converge in our nation, we have a rich melting pot of intellectual curiosities. We have a distinct inter-civilisational country.
In Malaysian tourism advertisements, we try our very best to portray ourselves as multi-cultural and multi-religious. It is high time that we lived like the actors in those ads.
In these tumultuous times of important shifts in geopolitical influence, we are at an advantage. We can be the perfect mediator for the dialogue between the East and the West.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.