This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 13 - 19, 2016.
“When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy; when God changes your mind, that’s faith, and when facts change your mind, that’s science. So what have you changed your mind about?” — John Brockman, American publisher and editor
Steven Covey’s seminal work, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced the world at large to the term “universal values and principles” that work with equal effectiveness in environments as diverse as the teeming metropolis that is New York and in the deep hinterland of the Amazon. This most influential book has made the author a ton of money and is currently in its umpteenth reprint in as many languages.
I pondered the question Brockman asked above and concluded that while I have changed my mind time and again in my life, one belief I still hold is that the world operates within a set of universal principles and laws that are irrefutable.
This belief began as a result of spending my undergraduate years in the verdant midlands of Bangi and its quiet nights, reading and trying to make sense of the world.
Though an economics major, I hung around with friends who studied mathematics, mass communications, physics and political science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. I learnt that we live in an ordered universe and that the natural world is governed by certain principles.
To survive and prosper, people must understand and respect those principles. For example, Newton’s third law is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We ignore Newton’s law at our peril.
As I entered adulthood, I began to wonder if there were, likewise, principles that determine societal, and by extension, corporate well-being. I sought to read everything I could find on the subject from every relevant discipline, including philosophy, history, science and anthropology.
What these disciplines had in common, I found, was that each explained how different social and organisational systems enhanced or diminished people’s well-being.
To make further sense of it, I studied the ancient civilisations of Rome and India (still my favourite subject), Constantinople’s golden age of scholarship, the medieval Dutch’s successful experiment with freedom, the British Empire and other major human conurbations. As in the physical sciences, it became obvious that humans ignore at their own peril the fundamental principles of how best to live and work together.
The more books I read, the more passionately I embraced the truth that widespread human well-being demands a system that clearly defines and protects private property rights, allows people to speak freely without intimidation or legal repercussions, refrains from interference with private parties’ agreements and exchanges, and allows human action to guide prices in the market place — the basis of the concept of willing buyer, willing seller.
Allowing people the freedom to pursue their own interests is, to my mind, the best and only sustainable way to achieve societal progress. For individuals to develop and have a chance at happiness, they must be free to make their own choices and mistakes, rather than be forced to accept choices made by others for them.
Recent developments within our borders have drawn me to the conclusion that we are slowly losing sight of the above. We have allowed a minority to impose their myopic values on the majority, by being silent on the possible repercussions. This can only be bad for a multicultural nation such as ours.
We have allowed a small coterie of people to sow seeds of distrust and cleave the bonds between brothers. We seriously need to take stock of our present position and make a U-turn to claim what is inherently ours, enshrined in our Constitution.
Free societies, which are based on respect for irrefutable universal values, enjoy the greatest dividends from these principles. Prosperous countries such as New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, while not perfect, secure individual freedom for all. They allow everyone to express ideas and markets to function freely — better than the majority of the world’s economies.
Societies that do not embrace these values and principles wind up with the least prosperity. For instance, many know that Venezuela is a country rich in natural resources and which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, yet, after just 15 years under an inept socialistic government, it now rations food, electricity, water and other staples.
From antiquity to today, the best societies have been the ones with a framework of freedom in which individuals can improve their lives by improving the lives of others. This freedom enables entrepreneurs to discover how best to use resources to satisfy what people value through economic means.
When economic signals are allowed to direct actions, people gain the knowledge of what is valuable to others, and the magnitude of that value. They are then motivated to replace old systems with new ones that improve people’s lives.
This is why the world went from mainframe computers to laptops and tablets, not because of some government subsidy or mandate, but because consumers show they value technological changes arising from free enterprise more than a government that is slow to adapt to economic and political changes.
Zakie Shariff sits on the board of two local universities and has a deep interest in developing strong corporate leaders