Learning from the past

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
March 12, 2019

AS we “celebrate” International Women’s Day this week, I cannot help but reflect on the past when I was first exposed to the importance of this event. Today as we talk about the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR), there can be no better time than to talk about it in the hope that it brings about new awareness beyond the ordinary.

Let me start by recalling my days as a student in Universiti Sains Malaysia in the early 70s. Then it was at the height of the 3rd IR in Malaysia where Penang was to be the manufacturing hub for computer technology especially the production of the new marvel called microchips.

Before that Penang was better known as Pulau Mutiara – Pearl of the Orient, made famous by its scenic views of pristine nature. I thought the “pearl” brand was anytime better than the “microchip” which was hardly in anyone’s vocabulary. It seems I was mistaken for not taking into account the word “Revolution” in the 3IR. It was a word that made a difference not only in terms of future jobs (as we see today) but more so in terms of social and environment transformation (read dislocations) like all IRs did since the very first day of the steam engine some 250 years ago. Most of them stayed on for better or worse.

In the case of Penang, the social dislocations were not less severe. Words like “Minah Karan” (and also “Mat Spanar” for the men who were equally exploited) were coined as derogatory terms to describe the newly minted factory workers. They were in the thousands, uprooted from their native environment to be fed the mesmerising bright lights of the island of Penang that housed factories where rice fields once stood. The change was no doubt transformational, if not permanent, and so were the new jobs of the “future” that made Penang what it is today. The world renowned “microchip” maker supplying much of the electronic devices the world over today. We proudly take credit for this especially politicians and businesses. Less so the people on the ground because they are still inundated with the memories of the past that the jet-setting businessmen and ambitious politicians have forgotten. Or at least selectively so.

What are these? There are plenty to cite. Let me recount a few from memory. Top of the list includes: unwanted pregnancies, sexual harassment, sleep disorders, depression, suicide attempts to name a few which were collectively summed up as very “dehumanising” – which is common to all IRs (including the 4IR) that many would love to ignore, thanks to the glamorous pull of technology – now better known as STEM.

One illustration of such “dehumanising” conditions is a vivid memory of a semi-detached house meant for a family of 10 at the most, but rented out to no fewer than 30 female workers for them to stay not too far from their workplace. That is, 20 were “kept” to 10 double decker beds, while the other 10 worked out on a shift. And they rotated on three cycles a day including the graveyard shift seven days a week.

Why so? Because the IR is “dehumanising” as a means of production under the premise of the human capital model. And if this is followed to the ultimate logic across the board including education, it too will be equally “dehumanising” as another production system or mere assemblyline for human capital.

This alone is sufficient to prick our conscience as Malaysians regardless of gender urgently demanding we do something about it at that point in time. There was much that could have been done depending on how conscience-able we were as citizens who cared. For this we may need to go back to the days of the Renaissance and the European “dark ages” if we really want to deeply understand why this is so. But suffice to say that this coincided with the time when science got reduced from “natural philosophy” to the “modern sciences” of today. STEM is a mere subset of this taking more of the utilitarian dimension again in line with the economic imperative since science and STEM-based education per se were rendered “soulless”. The only human dimension that can be understood is that of the homo economicus, (namely, “to maximise utility as a consumer and economic profit as a producer”), not even that of homo sapiens – the wise one. This narrative is gradually fleshed out as the IRs continue to evolve into what it is today which is full of uncertainties as voiced out during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos in January. What is sure is that by the time the 4IR takes root, the 3IR experiences will be child’s play to those who are oblivious of the experiences of the past. So as we revisit International Women’s Day do spare some thought for those who have been made sacrificial lambs just so that we can move into the next IR – in the hope it would be not as “dehumanising” and painful as before.