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

Having had So Much Time to Think Recently, We Should Now Be Able to Act Smarter

By Ooi Kee Beng. Editorial in Penang Monthly, October 2021

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WISDOM COMES MOST easily to the recluse; that’s a process long been recognised and advocated throughout human history, and in most societies and civilisations. But that epiphanic effect, by its very nature, is not for sharing with the rest of society, and cannot but befall more than a few lucky people. It is a therapeutic trip, exemplified by the singular Sufi mystic, Zen hermit and Hindu eremite, or the odd Christian ascetic, Daoist eccentric and Buddhist sage.

But what happens when isolation has to be generally observed? What happens then? What, for example, are the long-term psychological and sociological effects of Covid-19 on all of us, involuntarily restrained from the excesses of global living and obliged to rethink our common values and ambitions? With more people isolated, and for an unrelenting period, will more people emerge wiser?

With the present viral pandemic, seclusion has sought out the individual in their congested habitat; the individual has not needed to leave the crowd to find seclusion. Is this strange situation a tipping point for humanity? And if so, what is it tipping us into?

Easy to be Wise in a Critical Situation

The next question to ask is, in what way or ways will people become wiser? This is strangely an easy one to answer, given the level of insanity humanity had been living at when the pandemic hit. We knew before 2020 that we could not continue living the way we did, but doing something about it was also something we deep in our hearts considered to be beyond us. We were pressing Mother Nature to her outer limits and we were prepared to launch cataclysmic wars; we were turning our children into self-centred consumers and we planned our days as if we were running out of time, we had turned knowledge into disjointed bits of information and social intercourse into video snippets.

We are still doing all this, but given the lessons that are there to learn from the health and economic crisis, and the changes in lifestyle and mentality in many among us, there is a heightened chance that many of us will wish to develop new ways of getting along which does not threaten the existence of our grandchildren.

Climate Change events are merely the deep dynamics of our insanity amplified at planetary level. Reversing environmental damage requires us to look our insanity in the face. For most of humanity to have suffered seclusion together for a couple of years, and to have old ambitions put on hold or rendered vain, should make most of us ponder over those ambitions, what they were good for, and how they contribute to the disasters awaiting humankind this century.

To me then, fathoming what “Sustainability” actually means, and why we need to think in that direction, has to be one of the wisdoms that Covid-19, coming at this critical point in human time, can offer us. Related to that is the term “Resilience”; but the latter merely enunciates the attitude we will need while getting to a point where Sustainability has been attained.

The Buck Stops with You

At the theoretical level, these and other poignant terms have been coined by wise ones among us over recent decades to combat Modern Man’s insanity. In practice, rejecting our path to self-destruction has to start with the individual and their understanding of their role in that process. Therein lies the potential for collective enlightenment among Covid-19 recluses.

As the Greek mathematician Archimedes was famously known to proclaim: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth.” Given how serious humanity’s situation is today, I would say the time is now, and the place is wherever you happen to be.

In a phrase, our present situation should push us to “localise our thoughts, embrace each moment and acclaim our immediate surroundings”.


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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