Who am I? A simple question to ask oneself, and yet, no simple answer suggests itself. As long as the issue is about the singular person, it appears to be but a psychological and philosophical quandary.
Ask it in the plural, and we approach what may be the key question of our times. It becomes a scrutiny of the human situation today. It becomes sociological, and it becomes highly political.
Who are we? Now, the “we” is the issue. In both cases, the answer can never be adequate. Much must be left out. A life is always unimaginably more than a biography can be.
In inquiring about myself, I would try to include as much as possible in my answer and, in effect, I end by leaving the answer purposefully unfinished and properly tentative.
When the query is about the collective — “who are X?”; “who are the Chinese?”, “who are men?”, “who are Malaysians?”, “who are human beings?” — one is immediately drawn to seek a neat answer that captures the essence of the collective.
This latter cognitive habit is a serious problem, and whatever its roots, the fateful fault lies in mistaking denotations for connotations.
When answering the self-query, I imagine different streams of experience from my past, always too many and disparate to mention. But in answering what collectives I presumably belong to, I seek to simplify instead, and try to give as basic and as diminished a definition as possible.
Giving tentative — and even poetic — answers to questions about identity seems to me to be the only rational way to go. After all, is a Chinese today what a Chinese was a century ago? Is being a man today the same in Malaysia as in Thailand? Is being a man today the same as being one in 1943, or even tomorrow?
Should one expect an answer about identity to be anything other than an exploratory one, then one is seeking power, and is propounding and prescribing definitions that are self-serving.
Let me illustrate this cognitive flaw — or cunning — another way. When we marry, we join fortunes with more than just a person. Whenever we make a friend, we connect with more than just an individual. This is true whether the other person belongs to our collective or not.
Whenever we think of ourselves, we explore more than just one life. Whenever we have a thought, we continue the thinking of others.
Again, the point here is that there is no clear line between the internal person and the external influences he or she continuously lives within. And since these influences and the responses to them are different for everyone, no collective identity is possible beyond the superficial. That is why we can dislike people of our own group more than we dislike members of another. That is why we can often like people of other collectives more than members of our own supposed collectives.
It is when we are encouraged to, and cowed into, embracing our most superficial identities through the arousal of individual fears that we forget how we are happily and necessarily different from each other.
Now, logically, limiting such fears would be the best way for a society to avoid populism, extremism and fascism. That is perhaps the best way open to us to judge if a politician is acting in his own interest or for the good of the society he claims to represent.
What seems to characterise most developed countries is in fact the struggle to have socio-
economic considerations, and not identity issues, decide public policies and public discourses. Being mired in identity politics is the sign of a failing society.
Let me finish with a third way of illustrating my point. Identity politics is nothing new. This is because fear is nothing new. But when fear is allowed to run wild, as did happen in Europe in the 1930s, the paramountcy of identity politics led to some of the most unimaginable crimes being committed on those classified as essential cultural outsiders.
In fact, the shock of that period, which in effect was the culmination of centuries of the cognitive cunning that I mentioned being exercised on a global scale, was what led to the swift formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948.
The first sentence of the first article of the Declaration states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. It is a good line, simple and generic, and it intimates the
despondency, the loss for words that had to follow the global human catastrophes of the decades and the centuries that preceded our times. Down to basics. A human being is a human being is a human being. Forget the rest. That is the suggested message.
Still, the cruel infancy of globalisation, the early years of quasi-social science, remain part of the world’s painful legacy. So, the next time we are asked “Who are we?”, we would do well to answer as tentatively as we can, if we answer at all. We would do well to ask back, “Why? Who wants to know?” Who is it who seeks to diminish each of us?
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges and Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016).