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

Why Meet the 21st Century with 20th Century Mindsets?

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial, Penang Monthly March 2018.

We should not forget that in the days before social media and news websites, the flow of information – basically through schools and through daily newspapers, television and radio stations – was highly centralised and easily controlled.

Then came the 1990s, and the internet took over our lives in a big way, and with it a blogging culture began to flourish. For Malaysia, it coincided with the disastrous 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis.

This democratisation of communication – and knowledge – accelerated with the coming of social media. SMSes, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, among other developing technologies, provided everyone with the means to express themselves from below, and to access news sites not controlled by the government.

The search engine revolution has given us immediate access to most facts, sweeping aside the rows of encyclopaedias and dictionaries in our homes.

Hypertext allows us to connect ideas in ways we could not before.

The development of the smartphone only a decade ago has taken the liberating of the individual from his or her immediate surroundings to a whole new level. The preferred apps and the preferred settings on his or her smartphone now decide and define the flow of information and the lines of communication.

We can now choose our own news, our own threads of thought, and our own special collection of “friends” and contacts. And we can now rant and gripe and believe anything that our individual socio-cultural situation, our personal history and our own level of knowledge prone us to do.

This opening of the mind is something strongly positive, no doubt. It empowers people. But as with all mass empowerment, it has led to a fragmentation of collective values and a decentralisation of public discourses – and also to governments losing whatever ability and coercive power over knowledge that it had had to imbue the majority of its citizens with a sense of common causes.

Keeping the World Twittered

How governments and how governing in general adapt to this, is a subject for immediate research. American President Donald Trump’s twisted tweet communication with the world can be understood merely as an old man’s way of awed handling – and retreating from – a world technologically changed beyond his recognition, and holding that changing world hostage in the process.

For Malaysian society at large, what accompanies the excitement over social media and new media is, first off, the mass disillusionment and anger over being tricked and being kept in the dark for decades by the mass media of old, and the governments that controlled them. It has become clear to Malaysians that their sense of their own history had been played with, and their multiple identities warped, categorised and politicised in a slow-boil process beyond recognition.

This realisation has generated a deep cynicism among Malaysians which alternative nascent collective discourses and attempts at opposition politics cannot really bridge. The generational shifts in reality have been moving too fast for that to happen.

What we have ended up with is a country that is in denial over its own fragmentation. No doubt the cultural diversity had always made common causes difficult to reach an agreement on, but the diversity today is greater than and transcends these ethnic and religious divisions.

The present political miscellany in the Malay community, whose majority status increases on a day-to-day basis along with its internal income gap, is a clear sign of this general fragmentation in thought, social and economic orientation.

Put another way, the communications technologies that have brought such profound and disruptive changes to Malaysia’s shores are part and parcel of the new industrialisation tsunami sweeping the world. It is disastrous therefore for a country today to still play power games built on the 19th and 20th century defensive mechanisms we call nationalism and identity politics, and maintain an education system that is still trying to solve problems formulated in the 1950s.

The new world that is upon us is a time of opportunity as well as of disruptions. It all depends on how creatively and light-footedly Malaysians can re-describe themselves as a people of the future, and not of times past.

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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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