Tuesday, 5 February 2008

These Are Things That Matter

Brave New World (The Star)
9 August 2007

"There are certain things that may not impact our lives directly, and yet are still important enough to preserve and protect."


ow many of us have visited the National Library? Or the National Art Gallery? Or the Islamic Art Gallery?

I have to admit that of the three places mentioned, I’ve only ever been to the Islamic Art Gallery. And even then, it was more to enjoy the excellent Middle Eastern restaurant that they have there and not to actually peruse the works of art on display.

Be that as it may, I would be most unhappy if any of these places were closed down because they did not get enough visitors to justify their existence. Not to suggest that this is the case.

The point that I am trying to make here is that there are certain things that may not impact our lives directly,
and yet are still important enough to preserve and protect.

Libraries and museums are depositories of knowledge, history and culture. Without them, we will lose an
integral part of our identity. They are the preserves of something higher than the everyday.

And even if we never visit them in our entire lifetimes, it is still a comfort and a source of pride to know that they are there.

Even when desecrations of such places happen far away, like the looting of the Baghdad museums; or in the distant past, like the Nazi (and later Soviet) burning of books in the Berlin University; or even in the ancient past, like the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the sense of loss is strong.

Closer to home, in his book The Mute’s Soliloquy, Pramoedya Ananta Toer describes the burning of his personal library by Suharto’s goons with far more pain and heartbreaking sadness than the descriptions of his cruel imprisonment on Buru Island.

Knowledge, in whatever form, be it art or literature or historical documents, may not be the flesh and blood of our existence. They may not invoke the same kind of urgency as whether the next pay cheque is going to be enough, or whether petrol prices are going to go up again.

But they are, if you can forgive the purpleness of my prose, the soul of a community.

The same can be said for human rights. By and large, most of us live our simple lives without much thought to such lofty ideals. Why should we?

The freedom of speech is not of much use when buying vegetables at the pasar tani, except perhaps to tell the vegetable man where he can stuff his aubergines when he charges you too much.

And really, honestly, how many of us have ever been threatened by the Internal Security Act, or even personally know people who were? Very few, I would wager. Why get emotional about detention without trial then?

It is also highly probable that we will live our lives without being touched by the emotionally wrenching desire to leave our religion of birth. So, who cares about freedom of religion?

But, like the quiet stacks of books in the National Library, or the lonely paintings in our museums, these values, these ideals, are what define us.

Although they are unlikely to affect our day-to-day lives, civil liberties, human rights, the rule of law are principles that we as a society adhere to and aspire towards. They are what makes us civilised.

A recent survey conducted by the Merdeka Centre shows that people are concerned mainly about crime rates and economic resilience.

There is nothing wrong with that, and it is not particularly surprising. These are the problems that face people every day; we should be concerned about them.

But although issues such as fundamental freedoms appear low in the list of concerns in the survey, this must not be taken to mean that they do not matter.

On the contrary, they must be preserved even if they, like our archives and collections of ancient pottery, are not visited by the citizens in large numbers.

For the material – the immediate and the tangible – is not everything. And the moment we deem it is, then we have lost that precious quality which gives us our humanity.

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