Malaysian civilisation and high culture

WHEN one talks of civilisation, certain meanings come to mind. The concept of "civilisation" is commonly used to describe human societies with a commendable cultural and technological development.

A definition I googled is: an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry and government has been reached for a specific place, time or group.

Here one must be strictly reminded of the temporal and spatial elements connected with a civilisation, besides the particular socio-cultural contexts of these developments.

In other words, the development of culture and technology is constrained by time, space and the societal variables.

A few civilisations are outstanding in history. We read and see images of the glory of civilisations such as Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, European, Hindu and Chinese which were defined and developed by the people living in those eras.

The magnificence of the civilisations is in direct proportion to the mental attitudes, intellectual prowess, skills and expertise of the people who inhabited the areas.

Much of the description of these civilisations is found in the languages of the people which is then translated into the languages of the researchers and scholars who write about them.

In archives and museums around the world, precious ancient manuscripts and artefacts are meticulously kept; and in libraries valuable books, documents and documentaries are stored and painstakingly catalogued.

Today, modern civilisations are no less prolific in charting their multifarious developments in technically and technologically sophisticated ways.

On the other hand, there are cries for the preservation of traditional methods, especially in the arts.

The fine arts, craft, music, dance and other performing arts are tangible, visible, quantifiable aspects of culture. Their sustainable growth marks the society as cultured as they are globally marketable and marketed.

The same can be said of scientific, technical and technological progress.

The answer begging questions are:

Do tangible cultural elements alone suffice in determining the advancement of a civilisation?

Is it necessary to quantify cultural achievements in the arts to boast of their high standard of excellence?

Can we say that modern European or Chinese civilisations are "high civilisations" because their classical genres such as music and opera are well developed?

In the West for instance, the sophisticated artistic pursuit of cultural products such as the fine arts, classical music and theatre performance is considered as high culture which the elite enjoy.

So closer to home these questions are relevant:

» Does appreciation of Malay traditional forms such as makyong or bangsawan constitute high culture?

» Can dangdut and Malay pop music, teledramas and comedies be considered representations of Malay culture?

These questions are relevant to any discussion on Malaysian and Malay culture and civilisation.

Among the main issues to be addressed at Kongres Budaya on Saturday is what constitutes or should constitute high culture in the context of Malaysian culture, in particular Malay culture.

We can only hope to leave behind the legacy of a fine civilisation if the culture of our society and its people is developed in the finest possible ways.

Can we do this? Which elements need to be prioritised? Can we come up with a definition of "high culture" in the Malaysian mould?

The multicultural variables in the lives of Malaysians will determine to some extent the influences in their cultural development which will, in turn, realistically and pragmatically define the national civilisation.

Relevant questions to pose are:

» Is there a framework for an authentic Malaysian culture that can define the Malaysian identity?

» What would be the most outstanding marker of the Malaysian identity?

» Is the national language Bahasa Malaysia a strong marker of the Malaysian identity?

» Are there authentic or pure elements in Malay culture, Chinese culture or Indian culture in the Malaysian context?

» How can the historical development of Malaya/ Malaysia and its peoples contribute to a fair and balanced national narrative?

» How should the pursuit of national harmony and interethnic integration be best represented in developing a high culture and a fine Malaysian civilization?

For any civilisation to fully mature, the languages of its people play an important role in developing thought and reasoning.

In order to stand astride other outstanding civilisations, the languages must be able to define and describe its highest developments to be translated into international languages if and when necessary.

Only then can its products – socio-cultural, scientific, technical and technological – be globally disseminated, evaluated and appreciated.

Malaysia has a long way to go in consolidating its interlocking cultures and developing a fine Malaysian civilisation.

A good starting point is not the tangible cultural products such as song and dance, but the shared ethical and moral values of its people.

Starting with the Islamic concept of mizan (balance), one can move into the Malay concepts of budi bahasa (polite language), sopan santun (good behaviour), akal (thought and reason) and adab (ethics) and restore Malay culture to the zenith of high civilisation.

All this is achievable through sustainable educational experiences!

Datuk Halimah Mohd Said is president of the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE). Comments: letters@thesundaily.com