I was talking to my father over the weekend when our conversation turned cosmic. We were talking about current events when we veered into history, of man and the cosmos — natural history. Scientists have estimated the planet Earth to be some 4.5 billion years old. The Milky Way galaxy that contains our solar system is almost three times older, estimated to be 13.2 billion years old.
So, Earth is quite a young planet in the galaxy and human beings have only been around recently on this young planet. According to geneticist-anthropologist Spencer Wells, who wrote The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, the first man from whom all of us descended lived in Africa 60,000 years ago. A long time ago in human terms but in the blink of an eye compared with the cosmos or Earth.
Even the now-extinct dinosaur family spent a very short time on Earth; they lived “only” 135 million years on Earth before becoming extinct. Most species become extinct after about a million years. As a species, we would be fortunate to be around that long. There is one certainty though: we will disappear from Earth as a species at some point in the future. An obvious corollary to that is that all of us will die.
The point of this digression into natural history was my father’s reminder of man’s insignificance and how that should imbue a sense of humility in us — that human existence on Earth is a minute fraction of Earth’s very existence and that Earth itself is a speck of dust in the universe that is God’s creation. But the tiny specks of dust that we are will be judged, and for believers in Judgement Day, we will be made accountable for how we lived our lives, and most of it has to do with how we deal with other humans and the natural world.
Of course, (the very short) human history is replete with examples of greed, gluttony, injustices and atrocities committed by man. But history has also shown that the human spirit is indomitable. There is basic goodness and this resilience of the human spirit will prevail and achieve civilisational greatness. But human frailties will also see rises and declines in this balance of good and evil — hence the cycles in history.
Even at the individual level, we will all be judged by history. Of course, the extent of that historical judgement is proportional to the stations we find ourselves in. We will, of course, be judged in the familial and personal relationships that we find ourselves in. Beyond that, those who hold public office will be judged by how they discharge the trust they shoulder.
Government is a public enterprise. Officialdom, in all its forms, from the judiciary and civil service to law enforcement, exists to serve the public interest or the common good. Whatever authority or executive power one has is held in trust and for a fixed tenure. The civil service should be neutral and professional in enforcing the laws of the land and implementing policies decided by the government of the day.
Politics is more temporal than a career in the civil service and it too should be coloured by professionalism. Of course, politics is about the contest of ideals and philosophies and such a discourse, if not accompanied by a high degree of civility and constrained by constitutional and statutory constructs, can easily deteriorate into abuse and abusiveness.
And if political life is not seen as a period to serve the public good, political contests — getting power, using it and eventually losing power — become problematic. Much of politics will be about getting power and holding on to it, not losing it, as opposed to the real aim of public life, which is to exercise the power for the greater good as dictated by whatever political ideals or philosophy one brings to public life.
Political life can be hazardous, though. Political exits as an example, like the judgement of history, are largely out of the control of most politicians. What they can control is what they do when holding office with the power entrusted to them. When the electorate votes you out, it all ends.
I had a chance to sit at the same table as the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu a couple of years before he passed away. I had the chance to speak to the man — a King’s scholar who graduated in medicine and whose political exploits and statesmanship are legendary. That was in 2008, 18 years after he lost his seat in 1990.
I asked him if he was writing his memoirs. He said no. All he wanted to do in his life was to give his time and energy to serve the public and he has done that, he said. When his own constituency voted him out, he left active politics without looking back, content with his record of service. He did not even reminisce, as I am doing now.
My father is 11 years younger than Chong Eu. He celebrates his 85th birthday later this year. He bought me my first coffee table book when I could read many, many years ago. It was on natural history — the topic of our recent conversation. There were to be many more books after that, including a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I am, therefore, a very lucky person and cherish the moments when we talk about topics such as man’s place in God’s creation.
A self-taught man — my father went to school only for a couple of years — who went on to obtain all kinds of qualifications throughout his life, he strongly believes in principles, of being proper and serving the public interest. That was what he did; he was a civil servant — with Customs and the Anti-Corruption Agency, among others — and as unlikely as it sounds, he did a stint in politics, thinking that it would provide a broader platform to serve the public interest. So did I.
So, we were both government servants who stood for elections and became elected representatives. My father was in the Penang state exco when Chong Eu was chief minister in the late 1970s. Although we are now both out of active politics — for some time now, like Chong Eu, we have moved on to other things — we remain passionate about what made us enter politics in the first place.
I was taught very early in life about public service and about how I should always “give out from what I have been provided”. Politics and, more generally, communal life is really about that — a means to serve the public interest. There are other means, governmental and non-governmental, to contribute to society.
We ended our conversation by talking about the current state of affairs, especially of the state of public institutions and public service, specifically in the light of the challenging times. And just like many other Malaysians, we both felt sad that things were in such a sorry state. Many things have actually got worse, so much so that whatever we two tiny specks of dust tried to contribute seems to have made no difference. Are we irrelevant?
My father reminded me again that we are insignificant but relevant. Insignificant in shaping the trajectory of human destiny but each one of us is relevant as we will be individually accountable for our actions. Therefore, at that individual level, it is never about how much you achieve but always about how you do things — doing the right things the right way. We cannot escape either the Day of Judgement nor man’s judgement in history books, what’s more idle chatter or Facebook postings.
Those with the responsibility to uphold the law, those shouldering public trust, public officials generally and even the brazen sycophants must be cognisant of history’s, if not God’s, judgement. At the very least, they should make sense in the here and now even if they are impervious to such judgements. You only live once and judgement is inevitable.
In his speech before proclaiming Merdeka in 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman appealed to the new nation. He said: “At this solemn moment, therefore, I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya: to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty — a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world.”
Fifty-eight years later, the world is still disturbed and distracted but have we fulfilled the promise of a nation inspired by liberty and justice? Are we a beacon of light?
Something to think about. Merdeka!
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 Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on August 31 - September 1, 2015.