Socrates, thinking critically, and the 1MDB debate

The ability to think critically and analyse the reality of the day is, perhaps, the starting point on the road to wisdom and understanding.

Nov 06, 2015

By Anil Netto
The ability to think critically and analyse the reality of the day is, perhaps, the starting point on the road to wisdom and understanding.

That is why we should ask and seek answers to the hard questions of the day — in the public realm, to promote critical thinking and stimulate new insights. Along with that, we should be aware that we do not know all the answers and, instead, understand the limits of our knowledge. This approach can be traced to the Greek philosopher Socrates, some 2,500 years ago. The more we question, the more we learn from the answers, or the lack of them.

That is why the proposed televised debate between opposition MP Tony Pua and 1MDB chief executive Arul Kanda Kandasamy can only be a good thing. One hopes that what emerges would shed more light on what has transpired. Of course, much will depend on what language is used, what time the debate is telecast and the rules of the debate itself.

This single issue of 1MDB, at a time when many are feeling the pain of GST and the rising cost of living, has caused so much angst and concern among many Malaysians. Unresolved, it has contributed to the lack of confidence and credibility of some of our key institutions of government responsible for checks and balances in the system.

Having a strong faith should not lead us to suspend our faculty for critical thinking of the established order, even if it involves our own religious institutions or heritage.

If anything, our faith should lead us to question and analyse the existing order or institutions to gauge to what extent it conforms to universal values such as justice, freedom, truth, and solidarity with the poor and the marginalised.

In every age, there are intellectuals who support the status quo and the entrenched system of power in place. Renowned scholar Noam Chomsky refers to these as “false prophets” who work for the specific interests of those in power — not for society as a whole.

Then there are the dissident intellectuals who question the status quo, especially systems of domination (including religious domination) which result in injustice and repression. In ancient times, Chomsky notes that many of them became known as “prophets.” They were marginalised, persecuted and even tortured.

Not much has changed to this day.

Those who speak truth to power, the whistleblowers, those who express solidarity with the poor are, themselves, often persecuted.

Or they are often pushed to the periphery. How many of us have heard of Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian bishop who championed the cause of the poor? You won't find his words in the newspapers; hardly anyone outside of Latin America would have heard of him.

People like St Francis of Assisi renounced his wealthy family and chose to live out an alternative lifestyle that was more in keeping with the values of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, in stark contrast to the violent and oppressive system of his time.

Stung by the violence of war, Francis renounced his comfortable family textile business and chose to live in solidarity with the poor, establishing a community of individuals who also lived in harmony with Nature.

Socrates himself questioned the thinking that “might makes right” that was prevalent during his time — and continues, even to this day when the actions of superpowers somehow are perceived to make them “right.”

Socrates’ student Plato referred to Socrates as a gadfly, a major irritant that stung the Athenians of his day by his pursuit of questions pertaining to justice and goodness.

Alarmed by Socrates’ ability to draw even the aristocratic youth to his way of thinking, the powers that be held a trial and, ultimately, he was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. That is the price we may have to pay for living up to our convictions.

Yes, the cost of standing up for our beliefs and convictions may be heavy, but if we are to be true to our convictions and our commitment to the values of the kingdom of God, it is a choice that must be made. May we always retain the faculty of critical and independent thinking so that we know how far we fall short of those values and ideals.

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