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

Learning mutual respect may be easier than we think


By Ooi Kee Beng

Penang Monthly Editorial, January 2017

How does one show respect? How does one show tolerance? How does one show acceptance? These are important questions to answer when the ethnic and religious diversity of modern societies are increasingly considered a persistent problem and not a cultural wealth.

If we wish for greater harmony in daily life among the diversity of peoples we meet every day, perhaps the questions should be phrased another way. How can we train our young – and ourselves – to be respectful, tolerant and accepting of others, whatever their colour, class or creed?

First off, we have to be clear that we are talking about personal conduct, and not collective behaviour. We do know for a fact that it is easier to whip forth hate in a crowd than affection. Mass sentiments follow dynamics that are quite different from those that decide individual instincts.

Training personal conduct – building individual integrity, in fact – is what we should be thinking about.

Let’s start with the young. Training children to be respectful requires that they be treated with respect as well. And that means in school, in the home – and in society in general. Of course this connects with them seeing adults treating each other with respect. Much like other apes, children do as children see.

But I shall here avoid discussing what happens in schools and in homes and instead ponder over how the young can be trained to be respectful on a daily basis, within society.

We interact with others at different levels every day. Between acquaintances, we tend to be more respectful because we are not anonymous, and the repercussions of offence can be quite permanent.

It’s different when we interact as anonymous persons. In such situations, the consequences of being uncivil and biased can be escaped more easily, and except for extreme cases where violence or the police might be involved, we can literally walk – or drive – away. And it is in these situations that respectfulness can be best developed.

To my mind, it is when we interact with strangers, and especially with someone who looks and behaves distinctly differently from us, that we need to consider each other as equals – equals in the sense that whatever I can do to him, he can also do to me. So I can choose to acknowledge his presence, and he is then encouraged to acknowledge mine.

I learned this lesson from the days when I was training in wushu – often sparring with someone equal in size and ability. Treating “the other” as someone equal in ability – meaning as able to hurt you as you are to hurt him – instills caution, apprehension and thus, respectfulness in one.

Basically, sparring partners learn to treat each other as equal animals (as in beings with “anima”, vitality) – with contingent factors stripped away. A man richly dressed may feel it his right to treat a hawker as someone who is not his equal, while the latter may accept his being shouted at to be part of life. Imagine this happening a thousand-fold every day on the streets (and it does) and you have the basis for a disharmonious and uncivil society. Thus, it is on the streets and among strangers that respectfulness must start.

Many of you would have experienced what traffic flow in Asian cities like Hanoi or Phnom Penh is like. In older parts of these places, we see pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, trishaw-riders, vendors, cars, vans and buses maneuver their way around each other with surprisingly few accidents taking place.

I see this scene as a social extension of the wushu sparring arena. Every street user is of consequence because nobody wants an accident, and so due consideration is given to pedestrians by the bus driver just as much as attention is given by the cyclist to the car driver. You watch my space and my direction, and I watch yours.

The issue of who is right and who is wrong does not appear, and no one is there representing any collective. Each is a being with anima, and therefore equal to all others. One thing though – the negotiations can happen only if the traffic is moving quite slowly. Perhaps there, we have the crux of the problem in the first place. We must not be living at high speed if we are to be able to be respectful of our fellow beings.


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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