I WISH to raise the issue of what I term “the dignity deficit” in our society. I have had experiences with this as a university professor and as a civil society member in Malaysia.
We face so much mistrust and tension over race and religion that Malaysia seems to be slipping into quicksand.
On the one hand, we have to look at our young people, who use a lot of smart technology but have a terribly poor sense of basic human values, even when they are taught these values in universities. On the other hand, we have leaders in society and politics who also fail to appreciate the simple concept of giving dignity to others.
Despite the advances we enjoy in modern life, we are nowhere and are regressing quickly to the point where we risk being sidelined by real social, economic and spiritual development.
When the semester at my university began two weeks ago, I was tasked with teaching undergraduate two architecture courses: Research Inquiry and History and Theory of Architecture 1.
While I was delivering my first Research Inquiry lecture, a foreign male student was busy texting as if I were not there, although he was sitting less than 2m away. I continued talking while maintaining my gaze on the student to see if he would notice it and stop. He did not.
When he did finally stop, I looked at him and asked a question from a point in the lecture that I was sure he had not heard. He could not answer and just shrugged his shoulders in a “I don’t really care” fashion.
I just thought then that luckily he was not a Malaysian. But the thing that concerned me was the manner of his texting and I could see a few other Malaysian students texting while I was talking. I held my peace and let it go.
The next occasion was a week later in my other course of History and Theory of Architecture 1. When I saw about 10 of the 65 students texting intently, I decided to take action. They had crossed a line.
I stopped talking and stared at the students who were texting. The class suddenly became ominously silent. Some of the students realised that I was looking directly at them and they finally stopped.
These were all Malaysians. I decided to say something about it. My speech went something as follows:
“For all of you, I could be your father because this Chinese New Year, on Jan 25, I will turn 58. I married at 22 and had the first of my five children at 24. Many of you are older than that.
“I wish to offer some simple advice that would not only help in your social life, but would also save you in your professional career and support you in spiritual faith.
“The simple advice is give the dignity of full attention to whoever you are listening to at any one time.
“I do not know if your parents or your religion taught you this simple act of courtesy. I have found that this act of simply giving time and attention is a powerful social, political, professional and even spiritual force.
“In a project briefing with a client, if you act the way you just did, your texting can cost your firm a huge consultancy fee, and I would be surprised if you were not fired immediately after the meeting. If you do not give full attention to your future spouse or partner, the relationship will never last.
“Finally, if you do not honour others with the simple dignity of attention, God will probably not honour you with His attention in your prayers.
‘Such is the strength of this simple lesson of according dignity to others that the Prophet Muhammad himself was reprimanded by God when he turned his back on a blind man asking some questions on Islam. The Quran records his mistake and the Prophet was diligent after that in listening to all that came to him with questions.
“Once when he was conferring with an important tribal chieftain, an old woman asked him questions and the Prophet stopped midway to give full attention to her. He never wanted to be rebuked by God again.
“The great Buddhist monk, Ajahm Brahm, taught me in his lectures that if you can answer the question of ‘Who is the most important person in your life?’, you would have the key to spirituality. The answer was: ‘The one in front of you.’ This lesson means that according dignity to others by giving our full and undivided attention is the doorway to greater spiritual awakening.”
In our politics of mistrust, distrust and miscommunication, we too have failed to accord dignity by warring through WhatsApp messages and media statements, and by not lending an ear and having an open heart for the other side of the story.
When I attended a meeting on the Jawi issue with Chinese, Indian, Sarawak, Sabah and Malay groups called by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy at his office, I saw one of the greatest examples of according dignity to others.
I was there as the sole Malay in support of the non-Malay NGOs. The minister allowed every individual to speak up and he himself diligently took notes and acted as a secretary. He only asked questions to clarify the messages and concerns, and summarised the issues in a professional manner.
His act of according dignity to all the concerned parties won my admiration. The meeting ended without any verbal abuse or derogatory remarks. It was the first meeting in my entire professional and academic career where I did not utter a single word in explanation or defence.
The example of the minister should be an emblem of governance to all leaders as well as NGOs. If we stop to give full and uninterrupted attention to the other side, we will be blessed with many social, political and spiritual rewards.
In 2020, we should start the year by reducing the deficit in according dignity to all “others” in our life so that we can rebuild a better Malaysia.
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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