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

All the World’s a Stage, and Who Else but We are Responsible for the Upkeep of the Theatre


Penang Monthly Editorial July, 2018

All things change. We can all agree on that. But what the density and swiftness of change in modern living have taught us is that there are harsh limits.

We are not passive beings in the big scheme of things; and we are not unconditionally surviving. We cannot be as many as we like, we cannot pollute the environment as much as we like, we cannot take from the Earth as much as we like, and we are not mere observers. We are responsible for much of the changes.

There are extant balances to be kept and natural processes to be respected if we as a species are to continue existing comfortably, meaningfully and responsibly.

It has always fascinated me that I was born into a time and place that was already in existence. I happened to drop in.

And such is the case, and such are the conditions of living, for everyone I have met, am meeting and will meet. They have all dropped in at one time or another – keeping to cue or by accident does not matter – into the middle of a scene in which there was already a deep dialogue in progress and the fellow actors already on stage. Each had their own private little narrative going on in their heads; each uneasily suspecting that they are not the main actor in a complex and heavily populated series of scenes.

I had to accept that I am just an extra, not the main character, in an ongoing and never-ending movie shoot where the location keeps evolving, and locations keep changing. And then I had to realise that there are really no main characters, which means that everyone is a main character in his world, and everyone is – or can be – the main maker of the narrative he inhabits and acts within.

Heritage is a Collective Good

That is a wonderful insight. We are not so much born equal in that basic existential sense as we are born unique. But we do appear on the same stage, and that is where the preservation of our cultural and natural heritage is so important. Those are the props that populate our period on stage.

If the props on our stage are changed too quickly and too haphazardly, we lose our sense of place; and that means we lose our cue, we lose our lines and we risk losing our sense of purpose. We are as much the actors on stage as well as the backstage staff carefully moving props around.

The moral issue in life for all of us then, is really this: While taking part in the life-roles we are allocated, our acting impact boils down to decisions about what to change, what to leave unchanged, and about knowing what is beyond our ability to decide upon.

And as with every undertaking, we should acquire the background knowledge about the play before we act. So what is the background knowledge needed before we act upon the world we are cast into; before we act out the roles we are cast in but try endlessly to alter?

To start with, we need a sense of local history, facts about our immediate surroundings. But of course, local history is not detached from global history. So, to cut it short, History should be a subject that all schoolchildren should be introduced to from an early age, and not so much in learning facts as in seeing their place in time. That way, they will know their lines better, and they can be confident in adlibbing those lines as well.

Secondly, some proficiency in the Earth Sciences would be good. We do want to know what weight the stage we act on can bear, what the props are made of, and whether the theatre is in need of an upgrade or not.

Thirdly, knowledge about the Biosciences would be a good device to have in the toolbox. Knowing how living things function and knowing the preconditions for life would afford us with the ability to evaluate life and value ourselves and also all living things around us much better – even the things we domesticate and cultivate to eat every day.

Lastly, knowing ourselves as psychological and sociological beings would provide us with self-understanding and with a self-confidence that makes self-criticism a natural skill – and that makes us less prone to knee-jerk self-defence and to aggression at every turn and twist in our lives. To round off, to know ourselves as humans will also require that we develop a philosophical mindset and a love for literature as well, for that is where much of human history and much of our best lines are jotted down.


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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