“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Those were the famous words from John F. Kennedy’s immortal inauguration speech. The next line is perhaps less familiar: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” And the subsequent closing lines probably even less well-known: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, …”
It is that spirit of aspiring to the highest echelons and aspiring to give of ourselves for the greater good that I share in. No doubt these statements are political rhetoric of the highest order. But they are also outstanding objectives anyone would do well to adopt.
Ambition has certainly been a significant contributing factor behind humanity’s rapid advancements, be it for agendas personal or public, whether for purposes destructive or constructive in nature. Hitler’s designs on the world were irrefutably a powerful motive for him to initiate on a conflict of astronomical proportions that included anywhere between 50 and 72 million fatalities in addition to countless unspeakable crimes against humanity. For all the horrors of World War II, it proved the catalyst for one of the greatest periods of human scientific development. The global war accelerated our technology immensely, with breakthroughs (in penicillin usage and aircraft efficiency for instance) that would have been impossible otherwise (in the pre-war and during-the-war periods at least), though all the improvements in the people-killing businesses might do more than just negate these gains in the big picture. However, despite the potential gains potent ambitions possess, it is not good enough to be ambitious. We have to be better.
To be better men and women than our critics and enemies, to go above and beyond the call of duty and surpass the benchmarks set for us, to be better than our best. That is my sincere hope, that people seek to be better people. One day, at the twilight of our existence, we will have to look back on our lives. When that retrospection arrives, will you have earned your share of ‘good conscience’? Will you be proud of what you’ve done? Will your memory be dead and gone?
Animals are driven by their instincts of self-preservation and self-interest, and as you could probably say, so are human beings. But what then, would the difference be between us and them? We are endowed with sentience – the ability to perceive and discern. Being sentient beings, we are granted the capacity for logic and reason, which allows us to develop more sophisticated means to achieve our ends (versus say, a cheetah’s stalk-chase-kill MO) and that has enabled us to rise to the top of the food chain, as well as the pinnacle of all life on planet Earth. What makes us superior to the non-sentients we share this world with however, is compassion. Man’s ability to choose not to act out of unadulterated self-interest is what sets us apart from other creatures that are governed by their impulses, and it is for this very reason that greed cannot be the underlying motivation driving a person. “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” Compassion is what defines humanity, and if our actions do not reflect our superiority as beings capable of empathy and sympathy, that makes us no more than the mere matter that constitutes our bodies. We are but flesh and blood. But what the hell are we?
My struggle is not one of bullets and bombs, ballots or boxes. It’s one of hearts and minds. What can we as fellow Malaysians do for our once-great, now deteriorating, but still much-beloved country? Well, as consumers, we can choose to spend conscientiously; as voters, we can choose to vote wisely; as leaders, we can choose to lead with compassion; as citizens, we can choose to identify and be identified as citizens instead of members of certain ethnic groups; as civilized people, we can choose to accord respect to one another; and as beings capable of reason, we can choose to judge others by the weight of their opinions and actions and not dismiss and even denigrate them solely on the basis of other irrelevant beliefs they may hold. Saul Alinsky, who has been called the ‘father of modern community organization’, wrote in his legendary book Rules for Radicals: “Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.” It recently occurred to me after the CSL-LGE debate fiasco that a similar trend exists in every political scene around the globe. Politicians and even voters everywhere push Alinsky’s theory/the ad hominem fallacy to the limit, seeking to trample roughshod over valid arguments by way of highlighting the undesirable attributes of the person supporting it. It is appalling that such measures are actually effective methods of gaining political traction, and it points to the failure of the majority of voters to reject the underhanded scheming that has become so prevalent as to be the bread and butter of politics. It would appear that the bulk of political effort is devoted to undermining the opposition instead of figuring out ways to produce progress, which is a tremendous waste of public funds, considering the amount of time and energy expended in all the bickering and backstabbing. This is the regrettable truth about politics; it is largely a dig-your-opponent’s-trench contest instead of a build-your-own-mountain one, when in reality, it should be the other way around. Here is where change is needed.
John Locke, an eminent Age of Enlightenment thinker, purported in his revolutionary Second Treatise of Government that society and government exist for the sole purpose of defending mankind’s life, liberty and property. He continued that since the state’s legitimacy arises because we – as citizens – “give up our right to ourselves exact retribution for crimes in return for impartial justice backed by overwhelming force”, citizens have the inherent and inalienable right to revolution if they deem the incumbent government incapable of fulfilling its role as the ultimate upholder of justice. These writings greatly influenced the founders of the United States of America, who implemented a process by which nonviolent revolutions and transitions in government could occur, thus giving birth to modern day democracy. Obviously, democracy as a political system serves other functions besides protecting life, liberty and property, but the authority of the state remains very much dependent on the will of the citizens. Elections are opportunities for us to decide who we want to lead our nation forward, but sometimes it is extremely difficult for the masses to sort through the near-tsunami of political banter, analysis, fear-mongering and all-round bullshit that’s sloshing around our political and communication channels. This is an appeal to citizens everywhere to – in President Obama’s words – choose “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”.
Politics is a dirty business. Just imagine if we had leaders who became leaders not for the sake of power or prestige, but for a desire to see Malaysia become something Malaysians can be proud of (a desire I suspect is shared by many, many Malaysians from all walks of life). It may be too much to ask for, but it is my genuine hope. Failing that, I don’t care if our leaders are of the attention-grabbing, promiscuous variety, I don’t even care if they’re little green men from Mars, only that they can do the job and do it well. Look at Jose Mourinho. He’s a magnet for controversy, but ultimately he will be remembered more for the success he helped bring to the different football clubs that hired him.
We can demand excellence from others all we like, but if we are not earnestly committed to rigorous self-improvement, no amount of wishful wishing will effect substantial change in the hearts and minds of others. We must change. We must be better and we must always want to be better, if for no reward other than a happy life and a happy death. Because these are the things that make us better than monkeys, dogs and cats. These are the things that make us human. As they say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Social revolution is a gradual process, but all it takes is an individual to snowball an avalanche. You.
Thinking big and kicking ass since ’93.
Image taken from here