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

Let’s Globalize Wisely

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By OOI KEE BENG

Editorial in Penang Monthly, September 2014

There is much to worry about in the world today, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ewhich should give us reason to pause and consider what the long-term, persistent and negative consequences of the cultural shrinking of the world actually are.

Politically, the assumption has been that more contact between peoples, more connectivity between governments, and more convergence between civilizations, are not only unavoidable but also beneficial for humanity.

The present fear of the Ebola virus, just as with the SARS virus several years ago, stems from the stark reminder of the modern vulnerability that diseases that would have stayed where they were in the old days, now threaten the world because contacts between individuals from opposite ends of the world happen so readily, and easy travel allows diseases to traverse the globe within hours.

On that much, most people would agree. What is harder to identify as a profound and persistent result of globalization is in the political realm. Clashes of civilizations may be bad in themselves, but we have learnt to think of them as a necessary price for the world to become one large community—nations should unite, cultures should converge and economies should integrate.

What is happening in northern Iraq today, and the immediate fear of contamination in Muslim countries as far away as Malaysia and Indonesia, forces us all today to seek understanding not only about the process of globalization over the last 500 years and how painful and perpetual some of its major effects are; but also how delicate and violent the organization of humanity has always been.

Humanity has lived in relative peace and fragile harmony only on for short periods at a time, and wallow in brutal war and social chaos by default. The dream of globalization is of course that somehow, despite evidence to the contrary, we are moving towards better a understanding of Nature and of ourselves, and therefore towards the possibility of prolonged peace and progress.

We do know the secrets of Mother Nature better than ever before, but surely we have never been as good at damaging her as now. We also know humanity better now than ever before, but this has only led us compete with each other more than ever before. Gaining material advantage through financial control is one thing, but gaining ideological advantage through racism and religion is something much worse, and much harder to control.

The fall of empires is never a pretty sight. And in the early 20th Century, many fell all at once. The lasting effects ran deep and many of these are still with us. The territories that belonged to European empires that fell back then are finally managing to unite into a relatively peaceful continent, China has after 150 years of confusion finally reached a level of unity that allows it to become an economic superpower, and in response, the USA is learning to live with its new role as a limited hegemon. Russia and India are other significant cases where internal unity is not a big issue. The largest problem is found in the territories of the Ottoman Empire. Ruled loosely for centuries, its many territories have remained loosely united. Today, chaos spreads there.

The situation in much of the Middle East today, and the adject poverty in Africa are a stark reminder to the rest of the world that much work is still needed before globalization can be considered to be for the good of all mankind.

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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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