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Literally peaking (PEM Editorial May 2011)

INDEED, becoming literate used to be one of the best career moves anyone could make. In ancient China for example, extended families would concentrate their resources to make the smartest kid amongst them as literate in the classics as he – not she – could be. That way, he might pass the imperial exams, become a mandarin and benefit the whole clan. Becoming literate required a lot of investment from one’s kin. That bit at least has not changed much.

Needless to say, for most societies if not all, keeping literacy exclusive meant keeping knowledge and information restricted to a chosen class. This was also an unbeatable way of spinning divinity around rulers and preserving the status of elite classes. Knowledge and information were as much political tools as anything else. Literacy was a privilege and a gateway to power. Hegemony through discourse generation and control was – and still is – the key to long-term authority.

This control meant deciding what texts to favour before others, from a power-holder’s point of view. This in turn required that unfavoured texts be eclipsed by favoured ones, and in many cases, banned, burned or obliterated by other means along with those who wrote or read them.

Subversive texts came into being, as if with a wave of a wand.

Thanks to subversive inventions like the Printing Press – in China and in the West – rising literacy could not be stopped. More than that, it soon became clear that the more literate a population was, the most powerful their collective power became.

Literacy thus changed the concept and the configuration of power globally. In modern times, governments are obliged to encourage literacy and yet must at the same time favour some discourses over others. Their citizens must be able to read and write—or they would be quite useless in a modern economy and hard to brainwash as well. But what if they choose to read and write things potentially harmful to the collective?

With ICT, the subversiveness of the Printing Press takes a quantum leap. And that’s where we are today. Literacy runs wild in the world on the back of technologies that make insurrections such as Wikileaks possible.

In Malaysia, governments and politicians set up websites, and try to make them as interactive and ‘cool’ as possible. At the same time, we see frequent politically motivated attacks on anti-establishment websites. The frontline, however, is in religious discourse. Malay language Bibles have had trouble getting into the country, not to mention singular words getting banned, not because they are distasteful, but because they are too holy. These disputes are more about the needs of Power than the sanctity of Religion.

It is, more basically, about what creature words actually are. Are they tools of power, tools of personal liberation, bits of information or disinformation, brainwashing detergent, a window into the divine, or shutters on the window into the divine?

More on this next month…

OOI KEE BENG, PEM Editorial May 2011

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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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