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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Individual freedom is a matter of national survival

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, Feb 26 – Mar 4, 2018

A new era is upon us. This is no longer a controversial statement as far as I can gather. Indeed, it is a boring truism by now. A new page in our already speedy times has been turned, and it is defined geo-economically by the rise of China and of India and it is noted in how different societies are elbowing their way to get ahead in the queue.

More concretely put, it is the sum of the exponentially-driven consequences of electronic innovations that began not very long ago. And, as with all new eras, we were already mired in it before we noticed it. As has often been remarked upon, the smartphone as we know it today, which now controls our day, is only 11 years old. WhatsApp, with which you organise your contact network, is nine years old, as is Airbnb. And yes, the ride-hailing app Uber is eight years old, and Malaysia’s incredibly successful Grab app is only two years younger.

Your children’s current favourite app, Instagram, may have taken a while to take off properly but it is, nevertheless, only seven or eight years old.

In this company, Facebook is really old, launched as it was in February 2004. Twitter isn’t much younger. Its first proper prototype began working in the spring of 2006. You can see why teenagers consider Facebook and Twitter apps for the old. And Skype … I haven’t heard that platform mentioned in quite a while, but that could be because it is even older than Facebook — by a whole year.

What all this tells us is that the disorientation you currently feel in your daily life is totally rational. You should feel that way and you have every right to feel that way. In fact, you can take comfort in the fact that your younger peers, who boast of their prowess in handling communication devices and apps today, will soon feel the way you do right now. They will also be bypassed.

The pace of IT development today is exponentially increasing, while our human ability to sync to it individually is highly limited, often restricted by the socio-political culture, educational exposure and, of course, the communicative habits of the society we live in.

Despite Malaysia’s once-glorious stature as one of Asia’s flying geese, it is today more like a floundering duck. 2020 is only two years away and Malaysians definitely do not feel any uplifting wind beneath their wings.

Any business consultant today will tell you that technical innovativeness, outside-the-box thinking and mental bravado are what you need to stay competitive — all that seems reasonable enough advice to an individual. Be brave, be smart, be receptive. But individuals need collective conditions to excel, and that is what we should be looking at.

Science and technology have reached a point where their impact has gone ballistic. That is one way of describing Industrialisation 4.0. Which societies seem to be answering the call to be IT-smart and confident well? If you ask me, one of them is definitely Sweden.

Several points are worth noting about a small advanced country like Sweden in this context. Its welfare system was developed in the shadow of Western capitalism on one side and communism on the other. With the end of the Cold War, this country of nine million people — with winters that last half a year — had to re-orientate itself politically and economically, though no doubt leveraging certain aspects of its earlier accomplishments. It is now a leader in globally relevant technical innovations.

First, the scientific rationality of Swedish society is a higher valued good and their children are taught to think scientifically on all matters. Second, the welfare system, though curbed since the days of the Cold War, has created a mentality that considers keeping the income gap small to be a prerequisite for social harmony, and as a matter of justice.

Third, unlike Malaysia, where class analyses have been discouraged since the 1950s, Sweden has in post-war times preferred to use concepts of class instead of race and religion in its political contestations. Fourth, its democratic culture has not feared freedom of speech the way most Asian societies do. Freedom of the press, which over time has developed a relatively high standard of journalism, has kept fear of arbitrary power — which is the common condition of tyranny — at bay.

And fifth, feminism is an evidently empowering force in Swedish society. If half the population feels suppressed, then one should not expect society itself to feel free.

In the end, the point I am making is that we need to think of individual freedom as a socially created condition. A person cannot be free if his fellows are not. Freedom is a collective condition.

But I am really not talking about political philosophy. I am really talking about modern economics. If innovativeness is what will save a society, then individual freedom on a national scale is the best way to generate that. Embracing technological developments and reacting effectively to them, especially now when innovations happen at lightning speed, will require a society that produces bold, confident and scientifically minded young people, of all genders.

Freedom from fear is the strategy for survival.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent works include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS, 2016).


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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