THE OPENING OF THE CLUB OF ROME CONFERENCE KUALA LUMPUR 16 NOVEMBER, 1992
It was some twenty years ago that I had my first encounter with the ideas of the Club of Rome. Together with a small group of young intellectuals, activists and poets in Southeast Asia, I had the privilege to participate in a series of informal discussions where we examined issues of concern in our fragile civil societies. On one occasion, the late Soedjatmoko of Indonesia, gave an engaging discourse on the "Limits to Growth." It was the time of development and growth mania, growth as a panacea, devoid of concern for its social, cultural and environmental consequences. "The Limits to Growth" was a devastating critique to that conventional wisdom. We were aware, and even critical , of the limitations of the report in its applicability to developing economies. For while the industrialized countries suffered from excessive growth, we in the developing world bore the burden of insufficient growth or even stagnating economies.
Although, we being young idealists, the articulation of our views lacked sophistication and rigour, nevertheless I think we did grasp the fundamental issues and problems confronting our societies. We sensed and witnessed the rampant corruption and moral decadence within the established order, and the profound disillusionment among the youth that the system engendered. Economic inequities and social disparities were everywhere evident, but the discourse on these problems lacked profundity due to the strangulating intellectual malaise. We discerned that the revolution of rising expectations accompanying the lopsided emphasis on material development had given rise to a state of affairs we characterized as "the revolution of increasing frustration."
We became aware that too exclusive a preoccupation with growth per se would lead to a rapid increase of social disparities. Especially in ethnically and culturally pluralistic societies, this could easily undermine social cohesion. Tremendous social and political tensions threatening the viability of the nation would be inevitable. We became convinced of the necessity to integrate the principles of social justice, equitable distribution of income, as well as balanced development, within the overall strategy. Indeed, it is a matter of great satisfaction on my part to have been able to incorporate these ideas in formulating Malaysia's Annual Budget for two years now. Sustainability has become the focal point of our economic management and the idea of development has taken a wide meaning to encompass moral values and culture. While we give great emphasis to the role of the private sector and to privatizing our state enterprises, we lay stress on the principle of profitability linked to social responsibility.
To my mind, the strength of the Club of Rome is its ability to articulate with freshness and vigour the enduring problems of our times. Thus, I could do no better to express my convictions on the manifold problems of humanity during my inaugural speech as president of the general conference of Unesco two years ago than by making direct reference to "The First Global Revolution." This particular report, and "Beyond the Limits," have been able to transcend the inadequacies their predecessors. I find within it a strong moral voice, and its multicultural approach is most gratifying.
As you rightly put it: "History is unlikely to provide another opportunity as open and promising as today's and it is essential for humanity to find the wisdom to exploit it." History has not come to an end, but neither has the past disappeared from our consciousness. As we embark on the task of shaping the 21st century, the predicament in which we find ourselves today is, in many respects, unprecedented.
The historic voyages across the Atlantic in 1492 did not merely discover the New World but became the point of departure for the dominant world view of modernity. According to that world view, all the world that was not Europe has had only a passive role in the development of the modern world. The non-Western would must first be discovered by the West, before it could be beneficially put under the Western scheme of things. Otherwise it could be conveniently forgotten or relegated to the discipline of anthropology. We all suffer today from the limitation of possibilities out of this constructive ignorance. This version of history must undergo fundamental re-conceptualization.
Thus, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America offers us a rare opportunity to redirect our historical imagination. For us, the European enterprise in search of the East Indies which eventually resulted in the domination of the globe by the West, has a very different meaning. 500 years ago, Malacca was one of the world's greatest ports. It was not only the strategic centre of a vast trading network that ensured the supply luxuries and necessities to Europe, but also a vital link in a multicultural web of interaction and coexistence, a prominent part of a system that had its own vision of balance and interdependence.
The vision of Columbian globalization is inadequate. How the world beyond Europe was ordered in 1492 is still one of those deliberate oversights of history books. By such omissions, alternative interpretations of world history is a remote possibility. We must have the humility and courage to explore other possible interpretations.
Our agenda today must be to make possible a creative and mutually enriching encounter between cultures. That is precisely what did not happen in 1492. That possibility was never to be realized because right from the beginning globalization proceeded with hatred and the brutal extermination of other cultures. The economic system that later emerged thrived on monopoly over vital resources, and trade controlled and restricted to serve the overriding interests of the dominant nations.
A genuine plural encounter between cultures does not begin with polite condescension. Genuine plurality means honestly embracing differences and diversity within a broad framework of shared universal values. We are not asking for the kind of eclectic multiculturalism that post-modernism is making fashionable. It offers multiculturalism as a self-indulgence, a leisure activity for the over-affluent. Nor do we mean the tokenism that makes multiculturalism a benign indifference, the tokenism of letting the rest do their own thing while the status quo carries on regardless. For a plural future, benign indifference to multiculturalism is no better than intolerance. Genuine multiculturalism is a profound new world we have to discover. It is a new moral universe we have to navigate, a new ethic we all have to acquire.
The global trading system brought about by the Columbian enterprise is disintegrating. In the last decade or so, East Asia, while very much integrated into the global network, has at the same time managed to transform itself into a viable and autonomous centre. The deepening of intra-regional trade and economic cooperation has spurred growth in the region. Three decades ago, the combined GDP of all northeast and southeast Asia was one third the size of Western Europe. Today, East Asia is half the size of Western Europe. If we all continue to perform as well as we did in the 1980's, East Asia's regional GDP will overtake that of Western Europe by the year 2005; and the combined GDP of the region will exceed that of the Nafta bloc by the year 2022. However, if the performance of the last five years alone is projected, these rapid changes in global economic weights will occur even sooner. We in East Asia believe in open regionalism, not in trade or economic blocs. This was precisely the system in Malacca before it was swept away under the wave of European expansionism.
In the area of economics as well as in other areas, we do not want the Columbian legacy to be repeated under new garbs. For example, the quantitative burden for environmental degradation lies with the West and we should not be compelled to bear the guilt. Similarly, aid to developing nations should not be trivialized by the enforcement of pre-defined human rights when pervasive racism and the violation of minority rights is on the rise in the west. In the name of freedom and democracy, we should not merely be expected to be conformist to the dominant order. It is in fact distressing to note that even the new liberal democracies, liberated from the clutches of Communism, have not be able to attain the professed cherished ideals. Together with a growing number of countries they exhibit an excessive restrain or even timidity apparently pleasing to their new masters. These contradictions can be attributed to their dependence in military and economic matters, but more than that to the excesses within their own societies. A country plagued by poverty, illiteracy, corruption, human rights violation, and intellectual malaise cannot be expected to have the courage to articulate without restrain. Those of us who choose to value the genuine essence of freedom must not be inhibited by the culture of fear. They must accept it as the moral imperative and the voice of freedom.
That global affairs be conducted in a more humane and ethical manner is necessitated by the mere fact that political expediency and narrow economic interests continue to override broader human concerns. A comparative look at recent events, for instance, reveals stark contradictions in our behaviour. While we have liberated Kuwait, to this day we remain unable to assume the same moral responsibility for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and for the suffering of millions in Somalia.
In a world torn by domination, conflicts, and conflicting ideologies, our best hopes lie in the liberating power of truth and moral ideals. We must relearn to cherish the idea, in the words of Vaclav Havel, that the force of truth, the power of a truthful word, the strength of a free spirit, conscience and responsibility, can actually transform the world. This is not a naive idea but rooted, though often forgotten, in the deepest core of human nature.