“I HAVE derived my politics from ethics...It is because I swear by ethics that I find myself in politics,” said Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Sadly, that is not a statement many state leaders or politicians anywhere in the world can make. Not even the candidates vying for the presidency of one of the superpower nations.
When I grilled a couple of journalists and some people-in-the-street types on any Malaysian they thought could echo Gandhi’s words, the consistent answer was – Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, the Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput.
Asked to identify one trait of Gandhi, most people pick his non-violent stance, satyagraha. That’s not surprising; after all even the United Nations declared his birthday Oct 2 as its International Day of Nonviolence.
But Gandhi was more than this, says Universiti Malaya’s former professor of law Gurdial Singh Nijar, who points out: known as Mahatma (great soul), Gandhi also had plenty to say about the environment, corruption, discrimination and education.
It was Gandhi who said, “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to hand over to them at least as it was handed over to us”, and this was recognised as a basis for human survival by the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, Gurdial highlights.
“It called for globally coordinated efforts to increase human well-being and halt the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life. Exactly as Gandhi exhorted.”
But despite serious efforts and numerous treaties, threats subsist against Pachamamma, as the Latin American indigenous communities refer to Mother Earth, notes Gurdial, who is an expert and consultant on environmental and biosafety issues.
According to Gurdial, species are being killed at the level of the so-called fifth extinction – when 75% of the world’s species disappeared.
“Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid hit the earth. It ended the age of the dinosaurs and opened the way for small mammals to develop and evolve. Finally, the evolution to homo sapiens.
“But we, the evolved homo sapiens, are acting in the same way as the asteroid did. Will a defiance of Gandhi’s sustained pronouncements on preserving Mother Earth lead to the sixth extinction?” he asks.
Sadly, as we live out the Anthropocene Age, ethics is missing from almost every aspect of life.
Governments, religious bodies and even financial institutions have not inspired public confidence in many years.
And this year, we hit an all time low when the field of sports was besmirched with allegations of state-sponsored doping.
Said to have been pioneered by East Germany in 1974, state-sponsored doping was supposed to have died following its reunification in 1989 with West Germany.
But reports of state sponsored doping reared its ugly head again - this time, against Russia.
First alleged in 2014 after the Winter Olympics, investigations showed it had been going on in the republic since 2011, leading to the International Paralympic Committee banning the entire Russian team from the recent Rio Paralympics!
Today, we reel from one corruption scandal to the next. Few bother to pay heed to Gandhi’s warning that “there is sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed”.
As Gurdial had noted at the 6th Gandhi Memorial Lecture organised by the Gandhi Memorial Trust at the Royal Selangor Club on Oct 2, the sine qua non (essential condition) of a functioning democracy is clean, uncorrupted governance.
“Rulers lose their right to govern...if they breach this fundamental ethical incorruptibility norm.
“Corruption is a cancer that insidiously nibbles established governance systems and ultimately destroys them irreparably.”
Gurdial’s words that day would reverberate for the audience two days later when news broke of the multimillion ringgit corruption scandal involving the Sabah Water Department.
Malaysians have been all agog as each day brought news of further arrests and the recovery of more than RM190mil in cash, bank accounts, property, cars and valuables. The scale of it is obscene; on Oct 10, three suspects who were being questioned surrendered RM1mil.
Once corruption takes root, it just grows and grows, warns Gurdial, “Corruption can reach such a proportion whereby those in power, the kleptocrats – bent solely on their own enrichment – drive indignant populations to extremes (such as the Taliban, IS, Boko Haram and the like).”
British High Commissioner to Malaysia Vicki Treadell, who also spoke at the memorial lecture, fears Gandhi would be dismayed that while we purportedly live in enlightened times we still confront darkness.
“He said you must be the change that you want to want to see in the world. Let us begin by being the change that we want to see in the world.
“What is our individual responsibility as an ordinary citizen, those of us in leadership and position of influence? Do we have the courage to speak up?”
Lamenting that we still have a long way to go, Treadell hopes everyone can heed Gandhi’s advice that “an ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching”.
She says there are many politicians who just preach, when what we need are senior leaders who walk the talk.
Treadell points out that Gandhiji did not just shape India but inspired Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi to take a nonviolent peaceful path of protest, even when it threatened their personal liberties and freedoms.
Noting mankind still seems inclined to resort to violence in the name of securing peace, Treadell thinks the answer when someone attacks us, is perhaps, “in another great prophet’s words, ‘to turn the other cheek’.”
“How do we use dialogue as a diplomat? Should diplomacy not be the first tool, rather than resorting to violence? Extreme acts only breed extreme acts. If we look at the consequences of failed diplomacy – perhaps the lessons we have learnt in recent decades, the conflation we have seen in the Middle-East, the unresolved issues of Israel and Palestine – this is what has turned so many young men and women against the West. This is a cause for radicalisation and indeed, violence has spread violence, and we have seen the dawn of a new age of young men and women inspired by Daesh (Islamic State).”
If we are to start again, if we want to reach real peace in the world, we have to start with educating children, says Treadell.
“Gandhi said this long before the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals where the right to education for all is a key principle. But he qualified this statement by saying ‘by education, I mean an all round education’.”
Gandhi saw education as a way to mould character and as someone else said, educating the mind alone, without educating the heart, is no education at all, reminds Treadell.
“Without open minds, we do not have open hearts. Without open minds, we will never see creativity and innovation, we will never see the embrace of difference.”
When children learn and play together and are taught mutual understanding and respect, magic can happen, says Treadell.
“When students are exposed to ideas and creative thinking through great literature or through an understanding of history, they gain an understanding of the wider world, of humanity’s great achievements as well as mankind’s frailties.”
She believes when people are confident about who and what they are, understand their own history, express themselves freely and are comfortable with their various identities, “whether as a citizen of a given country or their gender, religious, family or ethnic identities,” only then can their understanding of others be fully achieved.
Treadell, who was born in Malaysia and received her early education in Ipoh, shares this was why her parents were determined for her and her sister to understand who they were and how they ended up a mixed-race family here.
“My mother’s family roots were from China. My father’s family roots were in Germany and by the Dutch-Burgher community in Sri Lanka. I was born in Malaysia as a British. They saw it might be a confusing recipe but they thought that if my sister and I understood, we could stand up in full pride of our wonderful multicultural, multiracial past.
“I think we don’t talk about identity enough. Here in Malaysia, the first truly multiracial, multicultural country that was a role model to the world, that is still your reputation, that is still a huge strength.”
“If we can liberate the minds of the next generation, while we try to make sure the current generation of leaders uphold their hand and stay fast, learning from the mistakes of the past through education in the broader sense, perhaps the future can be closer to the vision that Gandhi held, not just for India but for the world,” she says.