Must we stay victims of past strategies?

From August 2, 2011, the name of the research centre that produces this magazine is changed from SERI to Penang Institute.

While there are several reasons for this evolution, the change that it signals most strongly is the realisation that social research in Penang and Malaysia – be this in policy making, city planning, governance and democracy, economics, the environment or history must embrace the increasingly regionalised character of the arena within which the state and the country function. This is as true where knowledge creation and education are involved, as it is in the areas of labour migration and investment.

Now, the freedom and prosperity that independence from colonialism promised Asians following the Second World War did not come simultaneously or equally to all the countries or individuals concerned. Looking back, we see that Asian prosperity on a wide scale could not really occur as long as China and India did not lead the way.

For half a century, National Growth corresponded closely to Income Inequality. In the extreme opposite case of China, policies aimed at extreme egalitarianism mainly only meant parity in poverty.

As long as the two giant countries tarried in economic development, each mired in its own ideological constraints; smaller countries in the neighbourhood had to make do with what they had. Nationalism was adopted as the noblest of human sentiments in all cases. But all knew, as Napoleon Bonaparte did two centuries earlier, that once China and India awoke, the playing field would change beyond recognition.

That has happened in our time, and since both the behemoths are stirring simultaneously, the Asian Drama that now unfolds is greater than anyone including Napoleon could have anticipated. Nationalism must now adapt to the realities of Regionalism.

The most difficult part of this change is in the public mindset, informed as it often is by notions fuelled by the fears and insecurities that necessarily accompanied sudden nationhood. Soul searching among Asians in the wake of global financial crisis following global financial crisis in recent times must, to be effective, question the very structure and concepts of their post-independent strategies.

Without such soul searching, we are doomed to be victims of history’s pendulum swing.

The existential worries that informed the first faltering decades of national being need to be replaced by dialogue about the relationship between political stability and wealth distribution; high growth and environmental degradation; economic development and human dignity; cities and their broader hinterland; man and nature; men and women; individual and individual.

And behind all these issues lurks one big question. Early nation building tended to limit the freedom of speech. In this time of global shifts, we have to ask ourselves; why Independence if it continues to be at the cost of our right to think and speak freely? For without freedom of speech and freedom to public information, modern Asians must remain mediocre where original thought is concerned.

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