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

Dignity is the basic human right

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

The so-called Arab spring that began with the public suicide on 17 December 2010 of a miserable Tunisian vegetable seller whose cart was towed away by the police is often denoted a pro-democracy movement.

That latter term is technically correct, seeing how it quickly led to the fall of dictators and to popular elections in certain Arab countries.

But the easy categorization of these momentous events as a struggle for democracy, besides reducing human yearning into a simple wish to vote, conceals a profound truth about human despair and political coercion.

Surely despairing for a right to vote was not what the Tunisian jobless graduate Mohamed Bouazizi had on his mind when he set fire to himself.

What was he protesting against? What was his despairing about? What was he wishing to draw attention to?

His poverty? His public embarrassment? The loss of his last chance to have some semblance of control over his own life? Certainly.

His was the final weapon of the weak. His loud death ignited uprisings throughout the region, showing how his situation was common to many.

Such spontaneous and dangerous protests carried out by so many in the face of military force tells us something very profound about the human condition, and it should remind us that democracy is a means only, though to a very important end.

That end is human dignity. I venture that it is the loss of dignity that brings the greatest despair.

What enrages any individual most if not an attack on his or her dignity or the dignity of someone close?

At a daily level, it is interesting to note that anyone attacking the dignity of another is most often deemed to be undignified. This tells us how central it is to our sense of propriety and fairness that we possess dignity, but that we respect the dignity of others.

The golden rule that Confucius formulated 2,500 years ago still holds—“Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you”. We value our dignity and therefore should know that such is the case for other human beings as well.

Of course, social relations are always difficult especially across cultural or class lines, and transgressions are made that are not meant. But that is why we have the word “Sorry”.

The struggle by people like Dato Ambiga Sreenevasan (featured this month) is therefore not simply about improving the electoral system of Malaysia. It is about the dignity of the Malaysian voter, and therefore the Malaysian as a human being. It is about the right not to be manipulated.

Bigotry of any kind does not survive in the mind of one person. It exists because a collective that does not see human dignity as a basic social value and the most important human right allows it to exist.

And when collective attitudes like racism constitute the fabric of a society, what you get is a society without a sense of shame.

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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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