Europe was uncontested center of the world during the periods leading up to the 20th century. It was the fountainhead of human civilization. Their progress allowed them to become the foremost colonial powers of the world. The British Empire itself was so vast that as the saying goes, the sun never sets on it.

European achievements created significant inequality in the world. It was an inequality between peoples. It was the modern world versus the primitive world. It was the world of steam engines against the bullock carts.

That inequality later introduced one strong justification for European colonialism across the world. It was the white’s man burden: it was the responsibility of the white people to civilize mankind as a whole.

The world has changed since then. Almost all countries belonging to the Western world are now mired in economic turmoil while many countries of formerly colonized peoples are now actively lobbying to become the new center of the world.

But the idea of the colonialist’s burden never truly died long after the age of colonialism. Underneath what appears a racist idea is the assumption that all of us must live in a certain way. All of us must want the convenience of modern life. That convenience ranges from clean running water and stable electricity supply to good education and health services. We must strive for a minimum level of modern standard of living. We want and need development, as the assumption goes.

To put the idea in a less racist connotation, the white’s man burden was really a forced technology transfer that was meant to raise the recipients’ standard of living to one which the givers’ deemed as acceptable. The modern society looks at its primitive counterparts and decides, ”We can improve their welfare if we educate them.”

It is a narrative the group with the significant advantage says to the less well-off one in the style of a father telling his child, ”I know what is best for you.”

The colonial masters are no more but the paternalistic idea of spreading the light, so-to-speak, remains. In modern Malaysia, it comes in the fashion of the center developing the periphery. It is about those in the Klang Valley and other urban areas civilizing those far at the edge of enlightenment.

Development agenda in Malaysia, after all, has mostly been dictated from the seat of power. The many five-year plans over the years are some of the proof on how centrally-driven the Malaysian development process has been.

This is not so much a condemnation of those plans. Clearly many aspects developments require considerable centralization. But that does not negate the paternalism goes along with the developmental dictation.

Consider also the rhetoric surrounding the idea of gratefulness by those in power: all of us should be grateful to the bringer of development. Whether or not the rhetoric is reasonable, it highlights how strong the assumption that we all want and need development is.

But it is hard for the beneficiaries of progress to be grateful when they stand apart from that assumption on development. There are those who do not want development even if it improves their welfare.

Take for instance a hypothetically significantly isolated village in the Malaysian interior far from the smallest of towns. Perhaps a hypothetical Malaysian example does not quite make it. Imagine instead real indigenous communities in the inaccessible interior of Brazil and Papua New Guinea whose lifestyle has not changed by much for over thousands of years.

An earnest development push will see roads snaking into the interior to reach these communities. A tarred road will come. Next, a constant electricity supply. Soon, telephone line and maybe not long after that, the internet if there is no mobile coverage to start with. All of that will bring the community closer to the mainstream modern world and threaten to make the old way of life into something that fits the exhibition requirement of a museum. The mainstream culture can swallow whole most ferociously.

If certain communities refuse progress, should the modern society leave the indigenous society alone? Or should the modern society take up the old white man’s burden as theirs — ours — to carry?

Agreeing to the communities and leaving them largely alone does not seem very humane in the long run. The inequality between the modern society and the isolated communities, which is already big, will widen. That inequality will if it has not yet, disfranchised the communities. They will lose their voice among the noisy and sophisticated modern society. The danger is that when they scream, nobody can hear them.

But to bring in progress to them regardless of their wish is the height of arrogance. It is a very authoritarian idea that outsiders know what is best for those communities and that the outsiders should dictate the course of those communities.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in the Selangor Times on April 12 2013.

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