Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 - The Middle Path, Our Shared Value

The path of moderation is, in and of itself, a shared value of all our major beliefs. Let’s make it our resolve for 2012.

The Buddha described the path of wisdom as ‘the middle path’ and taught about moderation in thought, speech, and conduct. Hinduism speaks of a middle path of salvation based on the principles of balance for holistic growth in body, mind and spirit. The Bible talks about temperate behavior between the things that are permissible and the things that are beneficial. Islam promotes ‘wasatiyyah’, the persuasion that the best of works are those done in moderation. Our faiths emphasize the middle path in personal growth and social harmony; in the holistic growth of mind, body and spirit, in our conduct and in our dealings with one another.

“Avoiding both these extremes, the Perfect One has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment …” - Buddha

The middle path must become a more and more pertinent platform today in a world which is rapidly globalizing. The challenge of dealing with diversity will be most clearly felt in businesses, in education and in social administration, where policies affect a wide range of people. Any decision made must consider the diverse values and needs of those involved, especially in inter-cultural and inter-religious contexts.

A partisan framework cannot serve a diverse environment well. Partisanship pushes people to choose sides and overlooks the many varying degrees of different stands which people can take. But in a global setting where we can no longer overlook diversity, we have to allocate space for the negotiation of different values, needs and hopes from all sides. In today’s diverse society, unity in diversity is a pragmatic matter.

“And [they are] those who, when they spend, do so not excessively or sparingly but are ever, between that, [justly] moderate” – Quran 25:67

As a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society which has managed to firmly progress as one nation, Malaysia is a good example of unity in diversity in a nation that follows the path of moderation. This can be seen in the example of its 1957 Federal Constitution, which found a formula for people of different cultures, religions and languages to go to school, grow up, work and live alongside each other while maintaining their own cultural uniqueness.

The inhabitants of Malaya at that point were made up of the natives and a significant Diaspora of Chinese and Indian ethnic groups. A more partisan stance could have either refused citizenship to the non-natives, or taken an approach of assimilation - absorbing the race, religion and language of the minority into an all-enveloping majority. But the negotiations between the different parties involved - the Malays and non-Malays, the Rulers and the people, the Malayans and the British - were guided by a middle path principle which assumed that all communities should have due position in the land.

To allow for this unity in diversity, they looked for the right balance between the needs, hopes and fears of the Malay and indigenous majority and the non-Malay - the Chinese and Indian - minorities. There must have been significant pressure – for the Malay majority, the pressure could have been to take a more extreme stance in order to have full economic and political power; for the Chinese and the Indians, the pressure could have been to put the needs of their own communities first even if it meant denying the rights of others.

But what is most striking about the Malaysian 1957 Constitution is that great care had been taken to ensure that all parties could get what they wanted only in the measure that it could balance out with what other parties wanted. In other words, all had to give up something, so that all could have a part in everything.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” 1 Corinthians 10:23-24

On the economic front, Malaysia’s policies also favored the middle path. To solve the problem of economic disparity between ethnic groups, with the majority Malay being in the lowest rungs, it did not take more extreme measures of nationalizing wealth or taking the wealth of one community to resolve the poverty of another. Instead, it took a moderate path by combining two elements:

(1) the implementation of affirmative action and the redistribution of wealth; and

(2) the shared value of working hard to increase the nation’s per capita income.

The goal was to expand the economic pie so that the poor could be alleviated without taking away the wealth of the others. While its implementation may not have been the most ideal, once again it was workable and has proven effective. Absolute poverty in Malaysia has been reduced from about 50 – 60% to about 3% today. It has served a big part in bringing significant development to the general population as a whole without major divisive conflicts.

“But Yoga becomes the discipline for the destruction of sorrow for him who moderate in eating and recreation, moderate in work and sleep and walking.” – Bhagavad Gita

While the policies I’ve cited may not be perfect, I see that they are good examples of middle path solutions which also seem to indicate a notable point – the middle path works. Malaysia as an entity of different cultures, religions and languages is a microcosm of our global setting which is becoming increasingly cross-cultural. Its experiences finding solutions for a diverse society can be a model of intercultural negotiations and finding unity in diversity.

The key is that the middle path is itself a shared value of most major traditions in the world. It provides a common ground for diverse peoples to meet and negotiate shared values and differences. It presents a common point of departure, guided by the same moderate and temperate behavior that is called for in most cultural value systems, thereby allowing for non-exclusive and non-divisive solutions. It provides the best chances towards solutions that can avoid intercultural conflict.

As the path of our shared values, it is our answer to unity in diversity. Have a meaningful 2012.

Anas Zubedy

Kuala Lumpur

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