Monday, August 18, 2008

The Paradox of Intellectual Honesty

The ability to consider dispassionately two opposite ideas is a sign of intellectual maturity and honesty. Far be it for a sound-thinking rational person to have no passion about anything. But it is essential for him,/her, when faced with two opposite ideas, two contrasting choices, to consider everything with a cool head and a warm heart.

Aristotle wrote: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

Our country is at a crossroads whereby Malaysians, both in Permatang Pauh and the rest of the rakyat, need to seriously consider several choices that will affect our futures for the next decades. The window of opportunity is very narrow and it is now open thanks to the dramatic shift in the political landscape.

The two issues which we, Malaysians of all races and faiths, need to address are:

(1) What are the real choices we face?

For the voters in Permatang Pauh, is it Anwar versus Arif Shah? Is it Pakatan Rakyat versus Barisan Nasional? Or are the choices facing both citizens and political leaders more complex in Malaysia's multi-cultural and multi-religious dynamics?

For all Malaysians,who may be facing a possible snap election, the choices appear to be between choosing an outright change in government to clean up and reform the entire executive or maintaining the current status quo, which is mired in a stalemate.

In fact, there are two opposing political ideas which Malaysians are struggling with: individualism, which promotes the liberal interest of the individual over the state and statism, which promotes the interest and power of the state over the individual. There is in fact, a third middle way, which is distributism.

According to Wikipedia, "distributism distinguishes itself by its distribution of property. Distributism holds that, while socialism allows no individuals to own productive property (it all being under state, community, or workers' control), and capitalism allows only a few to own it, distributism itself seeks to ensure that most people will become owners of productive property."

(2) How do we make the right choice?

In other words, do we make choices emotionally because we are wired to be communal and will put the interest of our race and religion first? Or should we make decisions with a cool head and a warm heart? Having a warm heart is not a problem for most Malaysians because we are known to be one of the most hospitable, gentle and peace-loving peoples (notwithstanding our bad behaviour behind the wheel).

However, Malaysians are not so blessed with cool heads because they tend to allow their emotions and their cultural habits to colour their thinking and actions. Examples of losing our cool and sanity are the recent protests at the Bar Council forum and emotional reactions to racial issues.

From an intellectual perspective, the two opposing ideas which we need to consider are: on the one hand, a race-based political structure that could lead to further polarisation of Malaysian society but has ruled the country for the past four decades. BN has both elements of statism (where the state interferes with the market economy) and individualistic capitalism (where capital and power is vested by a privileged few).

On the other hand, Pakatan Rakyat offers the alternative political structure of non-racial politics with priority given to the underprivileged and the lower classes who have been left behind by the country's inefficient education system. However, this party also has elements of statism (to the extent the DAP is socialistic and PAS is in favour of a religious state) while promoting democratic rights for all citizens.

The paradox of intellectual honesty is that even the most rational, most sensible political choice should be considered with skepticism because human nature is weak and vulnerable to errors of judgment. Is there a middle way offered by the political philosophy of distributism which enshrines the interests of the family unit rather than the state or the individual?

Politicians should realise that, unless and until there is a middle way which appeals to the common interests and values of all party members, the two main political parties will be inherently unstable. Each faction will be holding on loosely to the coalition for the sake of political expediency and not for a foundational common interest.

As citizens, we must always keep in mind that we are not choosing between good and evil but between two differing types of government and political values. Let us not fall into a moral and intellectual error by choosing to please either our emotions or our reason. Right decisions are invariably made by listening to the voices of the conscience and the reasoning mind.

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