My Say: Are we a progressive society, living in the best of times?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 9, 2019 - September 15, 2019.
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Internet connectivity has made everything faster and easier today. It has made everything so easily accessible that we cannot imagine a life without it now. It is one of many advancements in science and technology, which are two common factors used to define a progressive society.

World bodies, such as the United Nations, also measure the progress of countries by economic wealth and success as well as social progress.

Often, physical superlatives — nations that have the world’s tallest building, the longest bridge or the largest airport — tend to give the impression that these nations have achieved much progress. Technology penetration has also become one of the barometers to measure progress. I personally believe in technology so much that it has become one of my main investment agendas. I will not invest in a company that has no technology component that can either disrupt or promise sustainability.

But the question remains, despite the advances in technology, economy and other supposed measures of progress, are we truly a progressive society as a result of those factors, and are we truly living in the best of times?

Before I go any further, I would like to go back to when the UN was formed 74 years ago in 1945, after World War II. Since then, countries have been labelled developed (countries with a high per capita income and gross domestic product), developing (countries that are about to begin industrialisation) and undeveloped (poorer nations). The UN says this categorisation was only for “statistical convenience” and if poorer nations say they are developing, the UN has no problems with that.

The design of the world body since its inception has not changed much. It also leaves much to be desired, with the five permanent members of the Security Council having absolute power to decide on, or veto, proposals with the rest of the member countries relegated to the General Assembly, rendering them, well, generally toothless.

As a side topic, I never understood until today how sovereign nations other than the five countries in the Security Council never questioned this arrangement. It is probably timely that I am reminded of this since we recently celebrated our nation’s 62 years of independence and sovereignty.

The UN has come out with many policies that are not necessarily good for all nations. It has also created “brands”, including the categorisation of countries. And many in the world echo this labelling that seems to justify their existence. Even Malaysia concedes to the developing nation label and calls poorer nations, which are considered not to have progressed, as third world countries.

It is the kind of labelling to denote progress that people parrot without thinking and questioning. For example, when some Malaysians behave crudely, many of us are quick to label them as having a “third-world mentality”. Then we start comparing their manners with those of people in developed countries.

Do people in poorer nations really have such a mentality? What exactly is a third-world mentality? It seems to suggest that people in poorer nations are crude and have no manners. If in a country so poor — such as Haiti where the people had to eat sun-baked earth and clay to survive in the face of hunger and death — can we say they have a third-world mentality? And that those who are rich with huge estates standing next to bridges under which the poor sleep, do they have a developed-nation mentality?

We see this contrasting picture of the poor and the rich everywhere — in the streets of Jakarta and Chennai or in the back lanes of London and Paris.

This brings me to what I think progress should be based on. It should not be measured by the skyscrapers or the colossal infrastructure or the bulging defence budget — especially when the people are deprived of the basic necessities to live. That is the brand sold to us and we bought into it.

Progress should be measured by whether we have collectively improved as a society in furthering humanity, moral standards and life values. The higher we are in being humane — in our ability to love, care for and have compassion for one another — the more progressive we are as a society. Humanity will then prevail and, therefore, remain sustainable.

To me, progress is also when someone lives a full life and is continually reaching out for newer, richer and self-fulfilling experiences. The fulfilment has nothing to do with one’s income or what one does for a living or materialistic things.

The values that we choose to live by guide us to being good, not only to our family, friends, neighbours and other people but also to ourselves. When we become exemplary in our behaviour, we become role models others can emulate.

We can see a truly harmonious progressive community when we observe the way they live, how they care for one another and how concerned they are for their neighbourhood. It can be seen from both the physical aspects such as cleanliness and orderliness, as well as in the spirit of things — of cooperation and compassion for the well-being of the members of the community.

In a community in which no one cares, we often see dilapidated conditions and, worse, social decay with broken social support systems that bring that community to a regressive state instead of a progressive one. The regression of society is also rampant in the so-called developed nations.

Unaddressed, social decay can eat away at the foundations of any society. I am not just talking about decay marked by crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, incest and such but also detestable behaviour on the streets and in prestigious homes and boardrooms where decisions are made. Presently, we can see random shootings in the US, mindless aggression against the old in Hong Kong, the senseless killing of women and children in Palestine and Syria and many more examples.

Mountains of money cannot solve the problems of social decay. Money cannot make a society progressive.

The truth is, we must take a good, long look at ourselves in the mirror because we need to build our nation together to make it truly progressive. The symptoms of the decay of our society are all around us. We just have to be willing to look hard at them, not with only our physical eye but, in equal measure, with our spiritual eye.

I believe it is only then that we will see many of the things happening around us for what they truly are. Then, we may realise that this is not the best of times. In fact, we are living in the most challenging of times with social decay, misplaced trust and distorted thinking.

Have a thought and prayer for our nation, which has just marked her 62nd Independence Day. She will truly appreciate it.

Datuk Azrin Mohd Noor is the founder of Sedania Group, an innovator, author and IP expert

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