The International Conference on Jose Rizal, Kuala Lumpur, 3 October 1995
In 1886, a young Asian medical student wrote the following lines dedicated to his country: "Recorded in the history of human suffering is a cancer so malignant that the least touch irritates it and awakens such agonizing pains." Alone and faraway in Europe, Rizal tried to invoke the memory of his country or to compare it with countries he had seen. But, "each time," he added, "your beloved image appeared to me with a similar social cancer."
Thus Rizal fomented a critical consciousness of the fundamental problem of a colonial society of his times, specifically in the Philippines, but no less applicable to the rest of Asia. The task he assigned to himself was that of a healer, and healing must be preceded by an honest diagnosis. "I will try to reproduce faithfully your condition without any indulgence, I will lift part of the veil that conceals the evil, sacrificing all to the truth, even my own pride, for, as your son, I also suffer from your defects and weaknesses." But in a closed society, such as that of the colonial period, social diagnosis was not only breaking a taboo but was tantamount to political subversion.
To my mind, to commemorate Rizal is to celebrate his central ideas. He worked in what is today called the realm of politics. But to do justice to him, he was certainly far larger than the world of politics as we understand it. He was first and foremost a humanist and a Renaissance man. In the Islamic cultural tradition he would be regarded as a mutafannin, that is, a multifaceted man. He is the kind of man whose life is intoxicated, if one may use the expression, with the idea of the universal man -- homo universalis: a man who can soar to the realm of pure ideas, living a life devoted to beauty and goodness, a man who strives to free himself of the prejudices of race, culture and religion, a man who seeks to cultivate the noblest elements in his inner being -- justice, virtue and compassion.
We are told by his biographers that during his sojourn in Italy Rizal went to see the staging of Hamlet and was so moved by the play that he immediately took up fencing. But more importantly Hamlet was the vehicle for Shakespeare to articulate the idea of the dignity of man in its unsurpassed beauty. Rizal must have been in ecstasy on hearing Hamlet's soliloquy:
"What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals."
This idea of the dignity of man left an indelible mark on Rizal and became a major theme in his writings. That idea also runs deep in Asian culture and a recurring theme in the works of great Asian philosophers. It is indeed sad to note that some Asians, wearied by aggressive pontification on human rights by Westerners, and disgusted by the glaring contradictions between their sermons and their practices, sometimes over-react by denouncing the very idea of human rights, as if that notion is totally alien from their own tradition. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is certainly a betrayal to ideals of Asian freedom fighters such as Rizal. In the case of the Muslims, those who seek to exonerate tyrants and violators of human rights would do well to remember the Last Sermon of the Prophet, in which he declared that the life of man and his property is inviolable and sacred till the end of the world.
Life and property are the foundations of liberty. When John Locke launched a revolution in political thought in the 17th century to emancipate man from political tyranny, at the core of his thought, as contained in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, is also the idea of the inviolability of human life and property. Thus let us be reminded that, in our xenophobic obsession to denounce alien ideas, we may end up by denouncing the fundamental values and ideals of our own traditions. Those ideas and humanitarian ideals are universal, they belong to all, and is a monopoly of no one.
We associate Rizal and his likes such as Muhammad Iqbal and Rabindranath Tagore with the Asian Renaissance because we see them as transmitters par excellence of the humanistic tradition. They not only fought for humanitarian ideals but also cultivated in their persons the life of the mind, the arts and imagination. They have been able to transcend cultural specificity, to inhabit the realm of universal ideas. They sought to reinvigorate the Asian self, fractured and deformed by colonialism.
Thus, to be true to Rizal's legacy, the Asian Renaissance must not be about cultural jingoism but rather about cultural rebirth and empowerment. Jingoism presupposes a prior sense of superiority of one's own culture over others, and with it the connotation that others are less civilized than ourselves. The natural offshoot of cultural jingoism is cultural imperialism. On the other hand, to seek cultural empowerment is to bring ourselves up to a level of parity with other more self-confident cultures. It involves rediscovery of what had been forgotten through ages of weakness and decay, it involves renewal and reflowering. And it must inevitably involve a synthesis with other cultures, including those from the West. Genuine renaissance would not be possible without our rediscovery, reaffirmation and renewed commitment with the universals within our culture, that is the idea of human dignity founded upon spiritual substance, moral being and noble sensibility. Human dignity must be promoted in society through justice, virtue and compassion. These to my mind transcend cultural and political boundaries. They belong to all, East and West, North and South.
Our guiding principle is as set out by the celebrated humanist of the Italian Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola:
We shall live for ever, not in the schools of word-catchers, but in the circle of the wise where they talk of the deeper causes of things human and divine; he who looks closely will see that even the barbarians had intelligence, not on the tongue but in the breast.
What it amounts to is that we shall pursue our renaissance with the curiosity of a child but with the humility of a sage. For that reason, we have to take stock of the experiences of the West. One of the tragedies of that great civilization is the narrowing of its perspective after the outpouring of intellectual and cultural energy during the Renaissance. With Enlightenment, arrogance began to creep in. Europe no longer wanted to live in the "circle of the wise" but proclaimed that others have to be like them in order to be wise. Contrary to Pico della Mirandola who argued that barbarians also had intelligence, the Enlightenment Philosophers think they are the personification of intelligence while the rest are barbarians fit only to be conquered.
Rizal had no patience for this sense of cultural arrogance. In his famous Brindish speech he declared: "Genius has no country; genius bursts forth everywhere; genius is like art and air, the patrimony of all: cosmopolitan as space, as life, as God." He was the first to effectively debunk the myth that was perpetuated by the colonial masters about the inferiority of the Indios, the brown-skinned natives.
Humility in cultural terms means we have to take a multicultural approach and our quest towards such as approach in cultural renewal has indeed been exemplified by the lives of Asian renaissance men such as Rizal, Iqbal and Tagore. Their cultural heritage bears testimony to a new Asian self-confidence and has been enriched by cross-fertilization of ideas from various cultures. Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, even dared us to acquaint ourselves with Western philosophers who were even looked upon with suspicion among the Western intelligentsia, such as the German philosopher Nietzsche.
After completing his philosophical masterpiece, Nietzsche became insane until the end of his life. In one of his great poetic works, Iqbal recounts his spiritual and intellectual journey guided by his mentor Jalaluddin Rumi, as Dante was guided by Virgil in the Divine Comedy. In their encounter with Nietzsche, Iqbal asked his Rumi: "Master, who is this madman?" to which his mentor replied: "No! This is the wise man from Germany." Nonetheless, I would hasten to add: we should absorb his philosophy, not his madness. (Although others may well say, there is method in his madness.)
Our emphasis and focus on the cultural dimension must never be interpreted as an atttempt at belittling the role of economic prosperity and political stability. Economic well-being and stable political conditions are pivotal, otherwise we would not be able to talk of the very idea of an Asian renaissance. Intellectual pursuits and inducement for cultural creativity and expressions can only take place in the context of economic prosperity and political stability.
Asian countries must have the political will to continue with economic reforms to sustain growth. Political stability must be utilized to widen the practice of democracy and to enhance the institutions of civil society. In fact the pursuit of economic prosperity cannot be separated from the quest for democracy and civil society. Only a vibrant and functioning civil society can minimise if not totally eliminate excesses, be it related to power or wealth, and provide the framework for a continuous battle against abuse of power, corruption and moral decay. The "social cancer", as diagnosed by Rizal, is still very much with us, albeit different in form and gravity. They, be it in the form of social injustices, abuse of power, cannot be condoned. The meaning of Rizal in the political and economic domains is that the exercise of power must be guided by moral ideals and the economic system should be humanized by tempering growth with equitable distribution of wealth.
The discourse on an Asian Renaissance should lead us eventually, to be truly meaningful, to cross geo-political barriers between societies and nations and to create political structures to promote the "intertraffique of the mind". Even the barrier between East and West will have to be breached. Rizal wrote in 1891: "Within a few centuries, when humanity has become redeemed and enlightened, when there are no races, when all peoples are free, when they are neither tyrants nor slaves, colonies nor mother countries, when justice rules and man is a citizen of the world, the pursuit of science alone will remain....." While Rizal had a vision, he lacked the means to bring it to fruition. We have the means and the capability, if only we have the political will and resolve.