Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #84

M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law

Society and Individuals

Society and individual may be the two sides of the same coin; nonetheless our attitude or more importantly the attitude of those in power as to which side to be viewed first, involves more than just a simple toss of the coin. The difference between a totalitarian state versus a civil one is that with the former, the individual serves the state; in a civilized society, the state is there for the citizens. This seminal distinction makes all the difference.

The purported supremacy of Asian values that place a premium on societal goals over the dignity of the individual is in reality at best nothing more than a benign manifestation of authoritarian tendencies. It is no surprise that such societies are prone to militaristic and dictatorial tendencies, as demonstrated by Communist China and the Japan of World War II.

Indeed one can guess accurately the state of a nation by seeing how it treats its individual members, especially its intelligentsia and talented members. I see daily reminders of this in America. Visit any prestigious university in the West and you will find brilliant scientists and scholars from the Third World. The more backward the country, the more its citizens are represented. India and China are both backward, but America has an extraordinary number of their talented scholars and scientists.

Many of the “hi-tech” startups in Silicon Valley are the brainchild of Chinese and Indians entrepreneurs. The Egyptian Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (1999), Caltech’s Dr. Ahmad Zewail, did his formative research in America. The Egyptians recognized him only after he made a name for himself. The Pakistani-born 1979 Nobel laureate in physics, Abdus Salaam, too did his pioneering work in the West.

Visit any leading American medical center and you will see many luminaries from such countries as Pakistan, Ecuador, and Ethiopia. While every year America routinely grabs the lion share of Nobel prizes, what is not commonly recognized is that many of these geniuses are foreign born. These talented individuals had to leave their native land to maximize their potential.

When I see how Indonesia treats its gifted writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer, I am saddened not so much for him but for the Indonesians. Here is a talented writer, God’s gift to the Indonesians, and their leaders treat him like a criminal. They fail to respect much less appreciate his precious talent. While eminent American universities like Cornell and Cal Berkeley laud him, back in Indonesia his books are banned. It is instructive that he was nominated by his Malaysian admirers for the prestigious Maysaysay award which he won in1965. Meanwhile back in Indonesia the military rulers were debating whether he should be allowed to leave for Manila to receive the award.

Reading his autobiography, Nyanyi Sunyi Se Orang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), I am struck at how callous and cruel the authorities are towards their citizens. Pramoedya’s fate is in stark contrast to how writers are treated in America. For one, their intellectual property is well protected and they get generous royalty payments. Two, they are honored and rewarded with offers from universities to be their writer-in-residence or such similar program. In Indonesia however, Pramoedya was tortured, his private property and invaluable manuscripts confiscated, and he was banished to a remote island.

What Indonesia is saying to its citizens especially its talented ones is this: We do not respect your skills and ability; and if you become too smart, we will show you who is smarter!

The genius of modern Western civilization is its fine balancing between respecting individual freedom and rights on one hand, and the needs of society on the other. A salient feature of Western democracy is the freedom it affords individuals to pursue and fully develop their talent and abilities. Only modern democratic societies have successfully resolved the continuing dilemma of reconciling the needs of the individual with the claims of society. Totalitarian societies that prize the supremacy of society (or more correctly, the needs of those in power) have repeatedly proven to be disastrous failures. The abject failure of present day Islamic societies is precisely because their rulers have subjugated individual freedoms to the needs of society and its leaders. They have confused obedience to the state and its leaders as being the same thing as obeying God. The one common feature of many Third World countries today is their callous disregard for the dignity of their citizens.

The Golden Age of Islam was attributable to the remarkable freedom afforded to individuals. Such freedom resulted in the intellectual fervent that produced such giants as Imam Ghazali, Ibn Rashid, and Ibn Sinne. Historians now recognize the pivotal contributions of these early Muslim thinkers to the later European Renaissance.

To the extent that modern Islamic reformists would like to bring Islam back to those pristine values of the past, especially the respect and dignity for the individual, I am all for it. But present day Islamic “reformists,” especially those in the Third World as represented by PAS in Malaysia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, would have their citizens be subjugated by the state. They have the supreme arrogance to believe that their state is divinely sanctioned, and thus holds supremacy over the individual. These leaders ought to be reminded that Islam thrives only in an atmosphere of freedom.

An All-Knowing God (Al-Aleem) has also bestowed upon each person an intellect, akal, and with it the capacity to think and reason. This divine gift is unique only to humans; it enables us to decide between good and bad, right and wrong, and whether to believe or not to believe. With this attribute man is also capable of creative knowledge. In short, man is not a robot. This human potential would be stunted if we do not have freedom in the broadest sense of the word. Or as Mahmoud Taha put it, “free from all the dehumanizing influences of poverty, ignorance, and fear.” Today only in Western democracies have these fears been alleviated, and thus only in a democratic system does individuals have the potential to reach their full promise.

Left alone people will do what is best for themselves and their families. The role of the state is to encourage, not thwart, this natural instinct. When individuals progress, so would society.

Next: Personal Liberty in Malaysia