Friday, August 15, 2014

To Think or Be Anti-Thinking

A thought-provoking article written by Dr Nungsari Radhi in the Edge April 28 - May 4, 2014. Dr Nungsari is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.


A writer, unlike a speaker, does not have to face his audience directly and in real time. A writer is shielded from having to look into the eyes of those in front of him and observing their body language – reactions that may influence a speaker’s train of thought and delivery.

A writer just struggles with himself to fully organize his thoughts, realizing that while the audience is not there in real time, the words he strings together and the stories he tells have a certain performance spoken words do not.

I first started writing for this weekly 15 years ago, I have aged in the process and as an observer, I have noticed that things have changed as well.  On many fronts, I notice things have deteriorated, for example, how I struggle every time I write, how to think clearly and organize my thoughts in a way that is clear to others.

I have found that thinking clearly and thinking things through is not easy.  That, and having common sense.  It is from this vantage point that I feel disturbed by some of the things I have read and heard recently.  They seem to be ‘anti-thinking’.

I recall the time when I was an economics lecturer at a local university almost 30 years ago.  Teaching undergraduates is challenging because there are two main objectives: apart from imparting the concepts and theoretical framework of economic analysis, the bigger challenge is to develop the mind to think – critically, analytically and even strategically.

Of course, all these can be so convoluted that not much is learned and the mind remains undeveloped.  Effective teaching is always about clear thinking on the part of the teacher.  The students’ capability to learn depends very much on whether they acquire the skills to think clearly.  Without clear thinking, all forms of communication can be gibberish.

It was French philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes who said, “Je pense, done je suis”, or “I think, therefore I am.”  He is saying that the mere act of thinking of one’s existence is proof that one exists.  Thinking, therefore, is central to one’s very existence: it’s not just about learning.  Thinking is quite simply using the mind. Being without thinking is probably just a waste of space on the earth.

The consequences of thinking can possibly be noisy and difficult to manage at the aggregate level. Thinking will result in a wide range of views and ideas – opposing views from many dimensions, views outside mainstream thinking, and consequently, a lot of debate, some of it healthy, others not.

This competition of ideas, noisy as it is sometimes, however, will induce creativity and result in innovations.  We then have technological progress that hopefully makes life better.  Technological progress can be economically destructive, but economic progress and growth depend on the continuous supply of such technological innovations.

The underlying concept in the competition of ideas is the challenge process – an idea prevails until it si defeated by a better idea.  We elevate ourselves as a result by resorting to cerebral means, the use of the mind, befitting the supposedly elevated status of Man, as opposed to physical  means to resolve differences.

Consider the opposite, however – there is no thinking or thinking is monopolized by a minority while the majority follows obligingly.  This is a world that goes against the spirit of this verse from the Quran: “ O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other.  Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you.” (49:13, Yusuf Ali translation).  We have to be true to ourselves but be humble enough to learn from others.

But if we want to progress and grow – as individuals, as a society and as a country – we have no choice but to encourage thinking and manage the noise that comes with it. We cannot grow as individuals without thinking and we cannot progress without harnessing the minds of everyone through this contest of ideas.  We certainly cannot prosecute those who think differently.  Such persecution has a long bloody history of failure.

It was the playwright and Nobel Laureate in Literature, George Bernard Shaw, who famously said, “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”  We have to at least be the type of people Shaw juxtaposed, for we certainly cannot be those who see things and do not feel the need to ask anything at all.  Worse, we do not want to be those who do not see things at all. 

People running institutions, whatever the institution, are their custodians. For them, professionalism must reign supreme.  There should also be common sense – they should never miss the forest for the trees.  Of worse, miss the forest for the bush or even the undergrowth.

The sad thing, personally and as a citizen of a country I love, is that I realize that my freedom can be taken away if I think too much, and that we live in fear of thinking.  So, we say something different from what we think.

To quote Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, “We become morally ill.” Consequently,  “We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves.”