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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, Uncategorized

Urban parochialism, rural cosmopolitanism

Editorial for December 2011

By Ooi Kee Beng,

Something that increasingly troubles me is the received supposition that urbanites are cosmopolitan by virtue of being urbanites. Not only does that bias attribute what in modern eyes is a morally desirable quality to the mere experience of living in densely populated areas, it also assigns the negative quality of parochialism to non-urbanites.

Why this is a growing annoyance to me has to do with the fact that the line between urban and rural is no longer as clear as before, and therefore the association between urbanity and cosmopolitanism – a tie that has been shaky from the start in any case – becomes ever more tenuous.

This overstaying of associative logic is common enough.

Assumptions that were once reasonable can over time become biases as the conditions that gave birth to them change unnoticed.

The connection between urban living and a cosmopolitan mindset was certainly stronger in the old days when city living was clearly separate from rural living that the need. The need to cognitively handle and socially tolerate cultural, ethnic and class differences was much greater in the former than the latter.

But then again, is that all we mean by “cosmopolitan”?

To start from basics, the term combines the Greek words, cosmos and polis. The first signifies the universe, considered as a harmonious and orderly system, while the second denotes the Greek city-state.

The Order of Nature and the Order of Man are necessarily coined at the same time in dialectic relation to each other. And so, the Cosmopolis is born.

Generically, this is the genesis of civilisation. Much of human knowledge derives from this nexus. Those who constructed these two orders were the learned – the administrators, oracles/prophets and astrologers of old. They were the creators of scripts, calendars and philosophy, whose creation in turn endowed its creators with power.

Together with aristocrats who benefited from their services, these men – for they always tended to be men – formed the nucleus of what was the original urban life. In fact, they defined “rationality”.

This was as obvious in the Egyptian or Greek tradition as it was in Indic or Sinic thought. Interestingly, the present Malay term for “country” – negara – is derived from the Sanskrit word nagara that refers to “township” or “being a citizen”.

Apparently, an urbanite of old was cosmopolitan by definition.

But what we mean today by cosmopolitanism is something quite different. Ideally, a cosmopolitan today is a sophisticated person who feels at home in most places and is not bound by local and national habits and prejudices.

Nowadays, we do differentiate between cities on that front. We assume that trading ports house the modern cosmopolitan spirit more happily than other types of cities do, especially administrative hubs. That is paradoxical, for these latter cities were centres of cosmopolitanism understood in the old way.

Adaptation is a high virtue in cities that are not administrative centres, while regimentation and standardization are a major concern at those that are.

Not only are cities different from each other, but with the rise of suburbia and satellite townships, not to mention the advent of easy travel, information technology and popular education, most of us are no longer clear about our urbanity or rurality.

In this chaotic situation, social phenomena spread, some of which are best described as urban parochialism and some as rural cosmopolitanism – however paradoxical this may at first seem to be.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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