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Articles, Commentaries

Must we stay victims of past strategies?

By Ooi Kee Beng [PEM September 2011 Editorial]

From August 2, 2011, the name of the research centre that produces this magazine is changed from seri to Penang Institute.

While there are several reasons for this evolution, the change that it signals most strongly is the realisation that social research in Penang and Malaysia – be this in policy making, city planning, governance and democracy, economics, the environment or history – must embrace the increasingly regionalised character of the arena within which the state and the country function. This is as true where knowledge creation and education are involved, as it is in the areas of labour migration and investment.

Now, the freedom and prosperity that independence from colonialism promised Asians following the Second World War did not come simultaneously or equally to all the countries or individuals concerned. Looking back, we see that Asian prosperity on a wide scale could not really occur as long as China and India did not lead the way.

For half a century, National Growth corresponded closely to Income Inequality. In the extreme opposite case of China, policies aimed at extreme egalitarianism mainly only meant parity in poverty.


As long as the two giant countries tarried in economic development, each mired in its own ideological constraints; smaller countries in the neighbourhood had to make do with what they had. Nationalism was adopted as the noblest of human sentiments in all cases. But all knew, as Napoleon Bonaparte did two centuries earlier, that once China – and India – awoke, the playing fi eld would change beyond recognition.

That has happened in our time, and since both the behemoths are stirring simultaneously, the Asian Drama that now unfolds is greater than anyone – including Napoleon – could have anticipated. Nationalism must now adapt to the realities of Regionalism.

The most difficult part of this change is in the public mindset, informed as it oft en is by notions fuelled by the fears and insecurities that necessarily accompanied sudden nationhood. Soul-searching among Asians in the wake of global fi nancial crisis following global financial crisis in recent times must, to be eff ective, question the very structure and concepts of their postindependent strategies.


Without such soul-searching, we are doomed to be victims of history’s pendulum swing. The existential worries that informed the fi rst faltering decades of national being need to be replaced by dialogue about the relationship between political stability and wealth distribution; high growth and environmental degradation; economic development and human dignity; cities and their broader hinterland; man and nature; men and women; individual and individual.

And behind all these issues lurks one big question. Early nation-building tended to limit the freedom of speech. In this time of global shift s, we have to ask ourselves; why Independence if it continues to be at the cost of our right to think and speak freely? For without freedom of speech and freedom to public information, modern Asians must remain mediocre where original thought is concerned.


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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