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Articles, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Malaysian Envelopment

By Ooi Kee Beng [Editorial for Penang Monthly, 2012]

How concepts relate to each other is always revealing. A close look at them always arouses new ways of thinking. The same goes for discovering the lost origins of words.

Most of us have feasted ourselves on the connections between “revolution”, “evolution” and even “involution”. Lately, “devolution” has gained great relevance in the discussion about power structures in Malaysia.

Then there is the gold mine of “reform”, “deform”, “inform”, “conform”, “uniform”, “perform”, “transform”, and what have you. Deconstructing these words in one’s head can be as much fun as food-hunting at a buffet; and as nourishing for the mind as the latter is for the body.

One conceptual tie that I recently began frolicking in is that between “develop” and “envelop”. “Development” is of course the key word of our times, along with “Progress”. (Come to think of it, “progress”, “regress”, “degress”, etc, is another lode worth digging into).

Now, “develop” comes from the French “desveloper”, which is built on “des-” or “dis-”, denoting “removal”, “release”, “deprivation” or simply a negation; and “voloper” which is probably of Celtic origin, signifying “to wrap”.

To develop thus means to break forth, to bloom, or to evolve – perhaps in line with some essential and inherent nature, perhaps not. If we think of a child’s development, for example, then the notion, and the controversies involved, become quite clear. A child will change no matter what – it cannot help but “grow”, it has to “develop”. Whether we need to dictate that process or whether that process is merely to be nurtured is the question. Is a growing child being “released” or being given conformity? Do we discover – uncover – a young person’s talents, or do we provide them with form, thus informing his or her energy and curiosity?

Now, “envelop” is a close antonym to “develop”. It comes from the French as well – envoloper, meaning to “wrap”, “enclose”, “conceal” or “obscure”.

Looking at the process of change that new nations in our time go through, one may say that envelopment is the main ambition in the beginning. Borders are tightly secured, institutions centralised along with the army and the bureaucracy, and ethnic diversity discouraged, to say the least. Politics of identity come into play – geographically, symbolically, demographically, and educationally. A degree of political isolationism – even autism – is enforced. This is extreme in some cases, as in Maoist China, North Korea or Cuba. In Malaysia, politics of identity have been strongly ethnocentric, and not class-based.

No doubt the idea did exist that cocooned in defensive envelopment, national development would take place to burst forth later in full cultural and economic brilliance – in some distant year, like 2020. But sad to say, this distrustful stage in the country’s early history has stymied much of the country’s considerable potential. The stage when development simply means blooming and empowerment has yet to come.


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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