Rehabilitating social values

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IT IS SURPRISING how many conferences are actually held in Penang nowadays. We do discuss a lot of things a lot on this island. Don't believe anyone who says otherwise

After all, we were once the educational centre of Malaysia and even for our immediate international environs. Our printing houses were plentiful and our newspaper tradition is the oldest in the region. Fortunately, some of that culture has survived.

One recent conference hosted by Penang had the long title, “Effecting Real Change in Local Governance: Perspectives for Social Democratic Policies”, and was organised by The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, The Olof Palme International Center and Social Democracy in Asia.

While the main themes for discussion transportation and water - clearly reflected the concerns of Penang members of this network, what was more memorable was that the 50 or so attendees actually represented parties and NGOS from places as diverse as Sweden, Germany, Norway, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan.

Social democracy is not exactly a common subject of discussion in this part of the world, especially today. In Europe, leftist parties have been suffering losses even in countries that are traditional homelands of social democracy: the right wing is in power in Sweden and Germany, and in Britain, the party in power is social democratic only in memory.

Parties in Asia with an affinity for social democracy are necessarily small, and inconsequential. Granted, news about the demise of ideology throughout the world is exaggerated, but not by much.

This has been unavoidable. Social democracy, born as compromise between capitalism and socialism after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was necessarily disoriented by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, the recent meeting of this Network of Social Democracy in Asia in our little corner of the world is an excellent reminder that the sentiments captured and expressed by this Third Way are not things that we can neglect.

The search is on for a new ideological home for these sentiments, which can arm them for a contest against those that are now so strongly promoted by market fetish.

Egalitarianism should not remain a dirty word; boundless economic wealth should not be considered healthy or ethical; providing welfare should become the basic duty of the state; class perspectives may be the best antidote we have against racialism and religious divisions; gender equality is more than a matter of political correctness; and redistribution of wealth should not be equated with confiscation.

The fact that opposition parties in the last general elections in Malaysia made impressive headway after finding common ground on issues of poverty, welfare and transparent governance tells me that we have an important role to play in finding a new home for sentiments ignored in the neo-liberal rat race.

Let's bring belief in social fairness, social justice and social generosity back into politics.



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