Perceiving Worlds

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I recently read a book on perceiving other worlds the book was called just that, Perceiving Other Worlds written by Edward Thumboo.  The basic principle of the book is how a person or several people from one culture writes and lives within another culture and how those cultures may not intertwine or do.  Generally, the premise of the book is about what you would assume the title would imply. I would recommend reading this book only if you are interested in what I equate with as educational dissertations of a very scientific and research format, which at times I am.  While reading there was this one passage that struck me.  It was in the Cross Cultural Influences on the Work of a Singapore Writer, Essay, just one of the many essays within the novel. Within this essay the author quotes Socrates as he comments on Singapore’s folktales.  In short the writer wanted his work to be balanced between both cultural influences but I couldn’t help but think about this passage within the essay referencing the play Trial.

The play is about freedom of speech.  At the hinge, the turning point of the play, Socrates makes his self-defence.  He has been forbidden to utter anything that could be interpreted as seditious.  So he proposes to tell the audience in an innocuous fairy-tale, a local legend, the story of Redhill.  This is one of the very few genuine Singaporean legends, a real piece of our cultural heritage.  It’s the story of how the ancient kingdom of Temasek is attacked by a swordfish, and a bright lad proposes building a fence of banana stems so that the swordfish get stuck.  But the king’s wise men advise him that the smart kid is just too smart, he would soon be a menace to the throne.  The king has the boy executed, and his blood stains the earth red.  This is Socrates’ comment, this is how a bit of ancient Malay legend is brought to bear on where we are now:

“Till this very day beneath the blocks of flats and the community facilities of Redhill Estate, the earth is the colour of blood… The survival of this legend from the days of the royal despotism suggests that even then, men would not let tyranny and oppression pass without remark.  I see the story as an assertion that the earth itself remembers, and protests against, injustice done to one who thought differently from others.”

There are so many thoughts that can be construed from these two paragraphs, I am sure you are already thinking of your own.  One perspective I had was when a somebody asked me a question of which I always thought was quite racist, why did our civilization/culture (referring to the western way of life) excel more quickly than others?  We have to be more advanced than them, right?  I never felt comfortable when posed this question or with my response, which was always a maybe, I guess so, I don’t know.  I tried to be as indefinite in my response as possible but the question was repeated or the thought was stated several times during many conversations.  Still I can’t answer why some cultures remained third world, I do know some cultures want to keep their traditional ways, though as a result look third world but really they are a true hunter gatherer society compared to the technology infused first world environment we encounter today.  First world societies may have began the industrial revolution but in no way does it make us more intelligent than others as we all know and if in doubt it has been proven that intelligence can be measured in a variety of ways.

As I read this passage this conversation came to mind as well as some other thoughts.  I thought about the king and his people being happy, satisfied with their world and didn’t want to change anything.  Then I reread the passage and thought of how I have heard from people using different vernacular though the idea remains the same that we as Americans are sometimes referred to by Europeans as the sweepings they didn’t want.   Then I think as an American we are descendants of people who didn’t conform to the norm of that era.  Think about it most cultural changes came from someone who wanted a machine to improve their life or decrease lives in the thought of war, taking down royalty to live with a voice in government.  Every moment in history when a ruler wanted to take or make a society or culture in their way or was extremely oppressive to the general masses that ruler became over thrown.  However only cultures even in hunter gatherer societies where people felt free even under rule have remained that way for centuries.  In these instances the people may have not technically been free for they had kings, queens or other types leaders but the citizens felt provided for and comforted.  It is astonishing the extent of how much a person will volunteer their time and money even put up with hunger when they feel it is for the right cause.

However the passage above implies the complete opposite, it implies that those that can improve the state of the culture, even save the lives of its people being discarded as unintelligent castaways, the sweepings that no one wanted.  I then ask, are the people who migrated from their homeland sweepings just the same or are they free thinkers who envision the next computer or that the earth maybe round.  What traditions are upheld and what others do we open our mind to and begin.  The entire musical Fiddler on the Roof was based on this concept, heck we have had and are having religious wars over who is the real God and how to worship this deity.  I think years of debates have occurred over progress versus tradition even within a world of several cultures and sub-cultures.  Today, now that we are in the technology age we are able to interact with any cultures or multitudes ways of life.  As a result, I think this passage is more relevant to our global society than it ever was.  As there are countries all over the world interacting simultaneously with a variety of cultures and societies. It brings up the question, how does a blossoming global culture built on free thinkers interact with some other cultures who may punish those who have other thoughts that do not match the present authority?

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