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Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenges for Asian Modernisation

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A talk titled “Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenges for Asian Modernisation” by Prof Michael S H Heng was organised by the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Social and Policy Studies (TCLC) at Sungai Long Campus on 17 March 2017.

Prof Heng’s talk covered four main areas, namely the conceptual basis for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation, the need for a historical project, the major challenges facing Asians, and lastly the important role that Malaysia can play in such a historical process.

“The current rise of Asia has inspired the idea that the 21st century will be the ‘Asian Century’. More than a chance to become economic powerhouses, Asian countries should see this as an opportunity for cultural and intellectual rejuvenation,” Prof Michael said.

Cultural reinvigoration occurs when local cultural resources assimilate with the best of foreign cultural resources to produce something new through creative synthesis.
In asserting that Asia needs a cultural-intellectual reinvigoration, Prof Heng cited Japan as an example.  Through its Meiji Restoration at the end of the 19th century, Japan was able to modernise its military and economy, an endeavour which ended in defeat at the closure of World War II. He likened modernisation to the flight of a bird — it requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing.  The other wing represents sound cultural-intellectual development.

Nevertheless, Prof Heng acknowledged that the project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking that is likely to last for several generations.  He highlighted the challenges of Asians drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, and urged them to discover much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements and cultural traditions.

Prof Heng advocated open-mindedness on the path to an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation. With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems.  He said, “The sensible attitude to learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than to be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernisation, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West. Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.”

“In the process of understanding and tackling societal issues, great thinkers drank from their own cultural wells, ingested ideas from other societies and interwove the different strands to produce schools of original thought,” he said.

Citing the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment as other examples, these periods birthed significant numbers of intellectuals in the fields of philosophy, natural and social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture and literature whose contributions have significantly shaped the character of modern European civilisation.

“Asia can and should be similarly inspired to achieve such goals, something of civilisational significance, to leave behind an enduring and valuable legacy for the world,” he said.

In closing his talk, Prof Heng called on the audience to rise up to the challenges.  He expressed his confidence in the role that Malaysia can play because the four major currents of world civilisations — Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western — co-exist here in everyday life.  If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen, it will lift Asian civilisation to new heights, and in doing so will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilisation.
Prof Michael S H Heng is a retired professor who has held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia. He has published five books and has spent most of his career in teaching and research at various universities.

He also worked as a software engineer at a transnational company, a research scientist at the Dutch research agency TNO, and an associate editor of a business weekly. His teaching and research interests are in business strategy, electronic business, supply chains, globalisation, Asian modernisation and nation building.
The talk was wholly sponsored by the HEAD Foundation, a Singapore-based think tank devoted to research, policy influence and effective implementation of education for development in Asia.

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