Universal values, not just globalisation

25 February 2017
As appeared in The Star Online

THE gravest threat of the rise of nationalist populism is to the universal values and practices of a civilised world which took several decades to develop. It is this that modern tribalism in Europe and America seeks to cannibalise.

We have been so obsessed – and this is a failing – by the economics of globalisation, the trade and finance and free movement of labour, that we do not give higher value to the fundamental human values and intercourse that are at risk.

The world has become more possessed by economics than even Marx could have predicted. The disparity of income and wealth is as wide as he saw in post-industrial revolution Europe.

The political turmoil of Leninism, the rise of fascism, the Gulag and the Holocaust – and war – were some of the worst outcomes that followed.

We must recognise this looming threat. We will not get there unless we first recognise the main failing of globalisation, this obsession with economics.

Economic and financial benefit – however ill-distributed – was its driving force, mainly through trade, free movement of capital and labour. Such benefit did not become self-evident truth, however, as too many were left behind for too long.

Would it have made a difference had such benefit been better distributed? It would seem unlikely as non-economic values in the nation-state were disturbed as much as production and income structures were overturned.

“Give us our country back”, is more than about economics. It is about the deemed imposition of global values and the perceived dilution of national character.

The appeal to nationalist populism, which last year saw the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as United States president, was primarily occasioned by globalised economic and financial supercharge which isolated the low income and divided societies while the top earners spirited away with handsome benefits, but the potent response came from nationalist reassertion against foreign threat.

Against loss of jobs to….Against loss of country to….Against loss of control because of….All because of globalisation. Global is foreign.

Universal values and international behavioural practices got to be associated with the ills of globalisation. This is the most dangerous threat to civilised world order.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however extant its violation, for instance, well preceded the wave of globalisation. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines the rights of refugees and the obligations of states towards them which are now part of customary international law.

What might now seem mundane, the Universal Postal Union, was established in 1874, and now has 192 members as it serves a universal communication need. There are many others of this ilk.

Cross-border immigration took place to fill up jobs locals would not or could not do. The world was enriched by these kinds of common necessities, not by an enforcement of globalisation.

The point is universal and international necessities were and are way ahead of the globalisation against which there is such massive revolt. Their values, standards and practices are in dire threat of being sacrificed on the altar of narrow populism.

We can talk too much about globalisation. It is far better now to talk less and do more – and not to use the term globalisation ad nauseam.

The kinds of demonstrations for the values of good society and nationhood across America and Europe that we have seen in response to rules of dictatorship, rules of violation of rights and universal values, against racism and acts of inhumanity, are significant signs that civilised standards of life will not be allowed to be trampled on and to die.

On the other hand, we must also do more “for” things, before we have to demonstrate for them.

The good earth has been so much abused. We now talk about climate change and environmental protection. We need to look at the big picture of course, but we should also do more and more, and highlight more and more significant efforts that can and are being made to save the planet – for the good of mankind.

I know, as a significant example, of a documentary feature, Great Green Wall, being produced by acclaimed Oscar-nominated film-maker Fernando Meirelles, which proposes to tell the story of one of the most ambitious endeavours taking place on the edge of the Sahara desert: “A dream to grow a wall of trees and plants across the entire width of Africa, and stop the ravages of climate change firmly in its tracks.”

I know one of the persons involved at the start of the project in 2007 which when completed in 2030 will make the Great Green Wall the largest living structure on planet earth – three times the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

Businesses and governments should support and get involved in these kinds of global efforts to deliver goods that make and realise the point of universal values that are so much under attack from modern tribalism in the contemporary world.

There is no reason why the government and companies in China which so want to show global leadership cannot support projects such as the Great Green Wall or, indeed, embark on their own projects, such as to reclaim the Gobi desert.

There must in the world – especially among business corporations – be a greater realisation that value-at-risk is not just about dollars and cents. Yes, the good will ultimately come to the economy. But do not talk too much about it as if that is all there is.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.