Starting a national conversation

  • Business
  • Saturday, 15 Oct 2016

LAST month I raised the analogy of national stability as a three-legged stool – the economic, political and social. Those who are focused on the economics – mostly businessmen and economists – concentrate on raising GDP numbers. But politics is all about trade-offs between different demands from different quarters. Politics involves the power to tackle social demands on imbalances, inequalities and on how the country should be run.

But at a time of grave global uncertainties, when everything seems to change at the same time, it is the time when we all begin either to look inward or look outward. This is all about the meaning of our social contract.

Looking outward, it is easy to blame everyone else for the troubles or uncertainty that we are in. So we blame the Americans, Russians, Chinese, foreigners, immigrants, government, opposition, disbelievers or anyone who is convenient to be blamed.

Looking inwards, we may have to ask very fundamental and disturbing questions – who am I; who are we as a community; what do we hold sacred? These are very tough questions, with no simple answers. Since few are willing to admit that the problems start with self, it is easier to blame others.

No man is an island because we all have to live together in a family, community and nation, sharing common beliefs, values and fates. It is only when we disagree and end up with conflict that families go through divorce, communities fight and nations break up or collapse.

Why is it that we tend to disagree? Human beings are hard-wired to have their own views and beliefs, based on their own DNA make up (genetic inheritance), their socialisation (through schooling, religious and cultural upbringing) and their own personal experience.

Socialisation is why even identical twins think and behave differently. Generation gap is why parents and children cannot communicate, because the young do not have the same life experiences. Different beliefs, sometimes in the same God, are why communities with the same ethnic make-up can engage in civil war. If we are a community, we cannot force our views on others, we need to have shared values.

My fundamental belief is that only God is perfect, and humans are imperfect. If God is perfect, he would have made all human beings equal and alike. But he did not. Therefore there is a divine purpose behind our differences.

If we accept that we each are different, from different sexes, race, colour or creed, we must learn to live with each other’s differences, but must strive to find things and beliefs in common. No community or nation can last without such common beliefs and shared fate.

Because we are different, we all face what is called “elephants in the room”, a term to mean that there are issues that everyone in the room is uncomfortable with, but is not willing to talk about. In New York, you would pay an expensive, qualified psychiatrist to help you identify the angst, ego or whatever is making you uncomfortable. In less sophisticated societies, that is the role of the shaman or guru. They are intermediaries to make differences whole, through the unfolding of a dialogue, first with oneself, then with others and even with one’s foes and enemies.

There is no secret about finding solutions in a complex world of uncertainty. In internet language, it is a process of browsing, search, evaluation, decision, accept or reject and move on.

We “discover” or reveal the unknown through the process of dialogue, followed by action, which then reveals what each party holds to be the acceptable contract. A social contract is made only through the process of dialogue and give and take.

In today’s fast moving world of instant knowledge through social media, we protect our sense of security by hiding ourselves in different enclaves, which make families and societies more fractious and segmented. It is as if we can be living in the same house, same city, but live and work in totally compartmentalised and separate spheres. This gives rise to the walls between rich gated estates and the poor in crowded, abject insecurity.

It is because our differences are growing wider that we need to renew our faith and friendship with each other.

Social cohesion comes from social dialogue – the ability to talk to each other and understand each other’s differences. Conversations are important, because they reveal common space, shared beliefs that are revealed and often discovered through debate and dissension. The more dialogue there is within a family or community, the smaller the “elephants in the room”, the greater the cohesion and willingness to share or suffer together.

Nations and families sustain through mutual tolerance, mutual burden-sharing, be it prosperity or adversity.

The problem with all relationships, family, communal or national, is that we tend to take each other for granted. We forget that we need to work at every relationship, because the relationship – the interchange (of information, money or values) is where the bonding or the breaking occurs.

This is why I support the idea of National Consultative Council (NCC2). Next year will be the 60th anniversary of Merdeka. It is a natural cycle to think through how we as a nation, our communities, rural or urban, rich or poor, of different colour and creed, can engage in dialogues to find the right social compact for the next 60 years.

We are not alone in this existential debate. All over the world, different countries are engaged in similar debates – some even through civil strife. Crises are events that mark change, but the management of change is a process.

That process begins with dialogue, between friends, as well as between foes. Malaysia has always been a diverse nation, proud of its diversity, born out of toleration and moderation. It is time to manage that diversity of opinion through a national consultative process.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng comments on economic, finance and social issues.

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