My Say: Bid to impose uniformity is the antithesis of learning

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IN THEIR most recent book, Creating a Learning Society, economics Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and his Columbia University colleague, Bruce Greenwald, continued the argument of modern growth theories by emphasising intangibles as primary factors that foster economic growth, in contrast to classical growth theory that emphasises the generation and accumulation of surplus capital.

The “new” endogenous growth theory posits that economic growth is primarily the result of endogenous dynamics — it is what happens within the system that matters, as opposed to what external shocks or changes the system is subjected to. The theory holds that investments in human capital, innovation and knowledge — intangibles — are the significant contributors to economic growth as they create good dynamics.

This paradigm of how economies and communities can develop is also a liberating one as it moves away from an endowment-based and therefore feudal notion of upward mobility, one that depends on who you are born to and what your parents leave behind. Land and capital matter less than the knowledge that you can acquire and your own creativity and innovativeness. Theoretically, therefore, there is the possibility of upward mobility for everyone regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Those who are competitive are those who have surplus knowledge, not necessarily of land, labour or capital.

Stiglitz and Greenwald moved further upstream in this knowledge to development spectrum – they concentrated on the process of learning, of acquiring knowledge, managing the positive externalities of knowledge and linking that to development. The subtitle of their book, “A new approach to growth, development and social progress”, suggests the breadth of their analysis.

The authors looked at both governments and firms as key actors in this formation of a learning society; the former influence through their policies and regulatory stances, the latter represent the key economic actor in any economy.

Central to learning is the process of inquiry — of the mental wonder and physical wander, so to speak. The education process is, in fact, about learning — we go to school to learn about the language and tools of learning. We study how people learn — theories of learning and the nature of knowledge, and how thinking can be taught — learning how to learn.

If we believe in the primacy of knowledge as an imperative for national economic growth or even for personal growth at the individual level, we must encourage and value inquiry, the departure point of learning. Even in our personal relationship with God, there would be no belief without learning, the removal of doubt in the process of believing. There can only be imitation and herd’s instincts, otherwise. The debate, and there should be vigorous debate, should be about methodologies and epistemology — how we frame and conduct our inquiry. We would have missed this point if the debate we face is about having the debate itself.

Unfortunately, recent developments suggest we are moving in that direction. Quite frankly, and this is rather depressing for me personally, we seem to have become intolerant of differences and bigoted in our outlook. We have turned into a society deluded by a false sense of self-importance that is insisting that there is only one way in a conversation — our way. We then believe we dominate the conversation but people are just ignoring our ignorance. Sometimes, when we do not like the conversation, we silence the speaker, but that is akin to what the Chinese proverb says: Stuff your ears and steal the bell. Self-deception is simply delusional, and group self-deception can be debilitating and to some extent, we may have been suffering from this.

How is it that liberalism — if by that we mean the idea that all man are endowed with certain civil liberties and freedoms — is cast in a bad light, castigated as deviationist and a threat to national security? These notions of civil liberty, freedoms and self-determination are at the very heart of what Merdeka means.

That is why they are enshrined in the Constitution as our fundamental liberties and mentioned in the Rukunegara. And pluralism — the very characteristic of who we are as Malaysians — is also relegated as a bad word. Such is the search for and propagation of uniformity and conformity? The only monolith we have as Malaysians is the Federal Constitution. Why must there be a monolithic definition of anything else? Who decides and by whose standards? Islam itself has a tradition of plurality in ideas and fostering of debate.

These attempts at imposing uniformity are the antithesis of learning. If we suppress and punish thinking and debate, advocate uniformity and insist on a single view of everything, we are effectively nurturing closed, unimaginative minds. We will be on the slippery slope downhill.

It is obvious that there will never be progress for societies that do not learn. They will be trapped by superstitions, myths and loose thinking. Most of all, a society that does not open up the space for inquiry will be dominated by the thinking of a minority group, an autocracy of ideas which, by definition, is feeble. It makes for an inferior society. It is also highly condescending for those in positions of authority to conclude that the masses cannot handle freedom to develop themselves, that they have to be protected from themselves. As Amartya Sen puts it — development is about freedom. Poverty, in material terms and of the mind, is the bondage that development frees. People are at their best when they are free. That is the point of development.

Among the many transformation agendas propounded and implemented by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the one that, in my view, history will record as truly transformational was contained in his 2011 Malaysia Day speech. That was when he announced the repeal of the Internal Security Act and several other colonial-era laws. By doing so, he became the first Malaysian prime minister who changed the Malaysian model after over half a century of Merdeka — to trust Malaysians that they are mature enough and love the country enough to decide what is best for their future.

In the speech, he asked, “The question is, are we capable of surpassing and challenging the common suspicion that Malaysians with their diverse backgrounds, varying socioeconomic statuses and political understandings which are typical of human nature, can arrive at a consensus to not bow or surrender to the trappings of hate and distrust which would certainly drag us down into a valley of disgrace?” He answered, “Be confident that it is a strength and not a weakness for us to place our trust in the Malaysian people’s intelligence to make decisions that will shape the path of their own future. If we perceive it as a mistake, then what is the use of us planning our national development so meticulously since Independence?” And yet, today we hear voices who wish to preserve the old paradigm of fear and control.

What is needed to allay any fears of any possibilities of the tyranny of either the minority or the majority is to ensure that democratic principles and institutions are protected and function as they should.

There is a Malay word that illustrates a Malay concept — maruah — which literally means “the price of your self”, a universal concept really. My late mother taught me well on this: Never be proud of yourself but never bow down your head either. Never take what is not yours and always give away what you can give away. It is always better to give than to receive and one must strive hard to be able to give. The price of your self is in that balance between the giving and receiving, be it time, kindness, wealth or knowledge. This simple philosophy has worked fine for me. I do not need to feel that I lord over people nor do I need to feel subservient to anyone. Maybe we do not believe in this sort of thing anymore. We may have been consumed by misplaced pride, twisted by bad reasoning and therefore, display inappropriate behaviour.

We must not allow this aversion to thinking and reasoning to gain a stranglehold on Malaysian minds and institutions. Our diversity, plurality and openness are our unique features as a country — our real comparative and competitive advantage in the community of nations. And the only way we can live together peacefully and realise that potential is by being liberal in that we recognise that everyone has rights and freedoms. The alternative would either be chaos or a life of subjugation. Both are anti-development.

Dr Nungsari Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 1 - 7, 2014.