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

Manufacturing a Social Harmony that Lasts


By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for PENANG MONTHLY, January 2014

We have just entered a new year—again—so allow me to kick off this magazine’s fifth year in its present form with some observations about the central importance of narratives—of stories, if you like—to every individual human being.

We all have a large schemata in our heads within which we locate our own experiences and aspirations, and our life as a whole. In different minds, this narrative conflation may range in exactness from the precision of an architect’s plan to the evocations of an epic poem; or it can be mixture of diverse head maps that are multi-dimensionally intertwined.

To be sure, such a Grand Narration can be very untidy, because we reinterpret and edit it throughout our lives—and on the run, as it were. But from it, we eagerly draw meaning, solace, guidance—and perhaps most important of all, excuses.

Much of this is inherited from our surroundings, especially from our parents; from school; and from adopted peers. But over time, we do develop some unique structure over which we have a strong sense of ownership—and of faith. This can take the form of an ideology, religion, culture, or other forms of habitual thought.

Being the big-brained animal that we are, who function by reconsidering the past, the present and the future, all at the same time, confusion always is our default state of mind from which we seek refuge. We juggle descriptions of our own existence in time and space, to minimize rational, ethical and existential dissonance in our heads.

When we fail, which happens more often than we wish to admit, we take to drugs, we run amok, we go on holiday, we go for therapy, or we do religion—if we don’t happen to kill ourselves first, that is.

Needless to say then, the poetically capable among us, the articulate among us, the humorous among us, the ones who master language best—and are not instead mastered by concepts—will in all likelihood manage best dissolving dissonances.
But the main point I wish to make in bringing all this up is this: While we as individuals may feel a power of choice and a sense of participation in the development of an acceptable self-depiction—helped no doubt by the collaborating memories of acquaintances, friends and relations—we all suffer the fate of being portrayed by distant others as members of collective identities that are strictly not of our own creation.

We all juggle with identities, but when we are categorized—included or excluded—into collectives without our own input, i.e. when we are assigned or denied character traits and roles by others without our consent, that is when social disharmony becomes a serious and insoluble problem.

In Malaysian national discourses over the last 50 years, we have seen how the game of inclusion and exclusion along racial and religious lines has been cynically played for political gains. It is from this narrative divisiveness that social disharmony—and individual dissonance—are perpetuated.


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.


One thought on “Manufacturing a Social Harmony that Lasts

  1. Dear Dr Ooi, I am a fan of your articles and I have high regard for all your thoughts. If you don’t mind, could I kindly seek your thoughts (a brief one) on the Malaysian Government’s plan to build 2 nuclear power plants to prepare for shortage of gas and coal as main sources of energy supply? I’m working in a communications company and am doing a short internal research on what key opinion leaders think and it would be really great if you could share. Thank you and kind regards!


    Posted by Joslynn Ong | January 8, 2014, 11:54 am

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