Address by Anwar Ibrahim, at Oxford University 4 February 1993
I am mindful of the great history of Oxford, which for centuries have stood for all that is praiseworthy and meritorious in the realm of knowledge and ideas. Therefore I feel singularly honoured for the opportunity to address this gathering of scholars this evening, I am only too aware of the pivotal role of universities in the shaping of great ideas which rule the world. Ideas, as Lord Keynes told us, whether they are right or wrong, are indeed very powerful. Once an idea has taken root in the mind of the people, its social, economic and political ramifications are more or less predictable.
Thus one can understand why politicians and practical men look at the man of ideas with some measure of envy. At any point of time, practical men outnumber men of ideas but the latter have greater claim to immortality. Even if Plato the philosopher had at the same time been a king, that, to my mind, would not in any way enhance his stature for all posterity.
The world today is very much confused by a plethora of competing ideas. Some will withstand the test of time while others will fade into oblivion. The idea of democracy has survived preeminently because it has been a great liberating force in human history. Since the experiment of the Greek city states, despite severe limitations from the perspective of modern times, mankind has found a mode of political organisation where power is more distributed and power transitions can be effected without recourse to violence.
Many developing societies started their journey as modern nations with the expressed intention of joining the ranks of democratic societies. But democracy cannot easily be transplanted into a society that had for centuries suffered from the strangulating effects of decay and stagnation. The hold of authoritarianism and retrogressive feudal practices are sometimes too deep to allow democratic values and institutions to take root. Thus many, after an initial democratic start, lapsed into various forms of authoritarian rule. In some cases, the indigenous government is capable of inflicting greater britality and suffering to their own people than their former colonial master. Like in the finals days of Simon Bolivar, movingly retold by Garcia Marquez in his The General in His Labyrinth, many a society have had to witness the betrayal of the noble and courageous struggle of the earlier freedom fighters.
The frequent outburst of violence in these societies is testimony to the fact that the effort to evolve a stable and enduring civil society is an onerous and formidable task. Those societies which succeeded in becoming democratic modern nations with some measure of predictability could only have done so by a combination of patience and ingenuity among the leadership and common sense and realism of the population.
The political convulsions of developing nations are further compounded by the gravity of their economic problems. There have been notable successes in some regions, but grinding poverty and destitution is still a common sight. The birth of megacities added a new dimension to these maladies. Economic hardship accelerates social decay, moral decadence and even erodes family values.
It is in this regard that developing societies stand in dire need of reforms. It was Edmund Burke who said that a nation without the means of reforms is without the means of its own survival. The death of many monarchies in the world is because they refused or were incapable of reforming themselves. Not only were they oblivious and utterly insensitive to the changing times but persisted in their extravagant, reckless and morally decadent lifestyles. Other types of government hardened into corrupt and totalitarian regimes which their people could only change through violent means.
The West, especially the Americans, have taken it upon themselves with almost religious duty to bring the rest of the world to the democratic fold. Despite the many constraints imposed by democracy on effective governance, we have not become disillusioned with it, as is the case of men like Vaclav Havel, who was overwhelmed by a combination by forces of such magnitude at a time of historical reversal, and caught in a dilemma of loyalty to his ideals and the stark reality of contending forces. But the experiences of some developing countries have taught us to view the present sudden preoccupation of the West to propagate democracy with some suspicion. Covert actions by Western powers to topple elected governments are too well known to students of diplomacy and international affairs. Why are the condemnations of Tiananmen so unqualified, yet at the same time, the Western leadership actually welcomed the military crackdown of the nascent democratic movement in Algeria. The developing societies not only have to exercise courage in dealing with their intractable internal problems but also have constantly to be on their guard in their relations with the big Western powers, for there it seems principles and cherished ideals are less operative than their so-called "vital interests."
Similar duplicity is no less evident in the economic sphere. Free trade is now more of a slogan. Blocs and groupings seem to be the order of the day. Some countries of the North have succumbed to pressures to be inward looking and to protect their declining international competitiveness. But while they claim the right to respond to the new global realities, by forming blocs like NAFTA and the EC, lesser nations are told not to violate free trade rules unless they dare face the consequences.
Developing countries have also had to contend with the patronising attitude of international organisations, non-governmental as well as multilateral bodies. We have often been subject to pressures, subtle or otherwise, to tailor our policies according to what is deemed good for us by their experts. Admittedly, some had been motivated by altruism and a concern for our well-being. But we are also wary of those who merely masquerade as our saviours. They are more concerned with promoting their narrow interests to be genuinely heedful of our real needs and ultimate welfare. Even the most well-intentioned altruists themselves -- including those from universities in the West -- have often, in their zeal, prescribed policies which have ultimately been ruinous to many of the societies they sought to assist. We have witnessed the disastrous consequences of the ideas of both the anti-market ideologues and the extreme free-marketeers, ideas propagated by universities in the West. In the case of some multilateral institutions, their oscillating between positions and prescribing conflicting advice at different times have often left policy makers in developing countries bewildered. In Malaysia, we continue to solicit advice from international expert organisations but we have been able to avoid those consequences because we exercise care and cicumspection in taking policy advice from foreign institutions.
We know from experience that the free market is an efficient mode of allocating economic resources. But at the same time, almost four decades of development have convinced us of the necessity of affirmative action, that is, judicious intervention by the state to redress poverty and reduce social and economic imbalances. When we go for greater liberalisation of the economy, we do so not in order to abdicate our social responsibility but, on the contrary, to concentrate the state's resources to more crucial areas, such as eliminating pockets of hardcore poverty and modernising the infrastructure. Even in our derive to privatise state enterprises and public utilities, our basic philosophy is profitability with social responsibility.
The multiple shifts and manifold transformations of the global political and economic map have filled the last years of this century with unprecedented challenges. While we must summon our courage, ingenuity and noble virtues to disentangle ourselves from this predicament, we must not allow our confidence and righteousness to border arrogance. Indeed we must relearn the virtue of humility. In the realm of ideas, one must have the virtue to acknowledge one's limitations. The world has not only suffered from the arrogance of power but also the tyranny of harmful ideas.
The shrinking of the world into a global village must be accompanied by a parallel expansion of our cultural vision. Indeed, with globalisation, there is the danger of the emergence of a single cultural hegemony. Five centuries after Columbus, we have yet to reach a point where genuine multiculturalism can be made possible. The kind of multiculturalism we mean is neither the shallow eclecticism of the over-affluent, nor the politics recognition of peripheral groups. We have to endeavour towards genuine creative interactions of cultures within a framework of shared universal moral values. Gemuine multiculturalism would not be possible without a paradigmatic shift to enable one to see beyond the confines of ones cultural boundaries, to see truth, beauty and greatness in others.
The immense possibility of this century has been lost because man's baser instincts and madness for power has left moral scruples inoperative. It is as if the pagan gods of this century -- already responsible for the bloodletting in two world wars and the racial megalomania that produced Auschwitz -- must be reborn in Bosnia. It was in this century that the great and powerful nations could really, as Shakespeare put it, "bestride the narrow would like a colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves."
No previous century had witnessed greater devastation and human suffering than under the regimes of realpolitik so prevalent in our times. Perhaps, with the dawn of a new century, we are entitled to hope for a change from realpolitik, to something more moral and humane. The next century will not be made safe for our children unless we reaffirm and again live by moral ideals and ideas that could liberate us from parochialism, pernicious racism and arrogant self-righteousness. The challenge facing men of ideas, the teachers of humanity, is to inspire and nurture a new breed of practical men, and women, of affairs. To paraphrase Havel, we need to teach ourselves and others that politics, international politics, should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of mankind.