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Why philosophy is needed for public policy in Malaysia

It can help fashion political narratives that re-imagine Malaysia's political future


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By Pravin Periasamy

Philosophy has, for centuries, acted as a mechanism which has helped civilisation across the world make sense of the justifications we attribute to important decisions executed in nation-building. 

These justifications were often predicated upon theories often found in political and moral philosophy and were advanced by prominent philosophical thought leaders.

Figures such as Plato in the ancient Greece held that individuals in positions of authority and who have been entrusted with the power of managing public affairs ought to be philosophically inclined. In his book The Republic, he goes so far as to argue that a virtuous leader is one who, through philosophical discussion, crafts the ideals and values necessary to govern a nation justly.

In the ancient Indian text The Arthahastra, it was encouraged that the knowledge of a leader should not only be confined to the tasks of public administration but should also extend to a demonstrated commitment to wisdom in a way that inspires the polity to aspire to noble values and virtues.

Recently, a former DAP MP emphasised the importance of elected representatives – tasked with the oversight of leadership and decision-making in the country – having a better grasp and understanding of public policy, which is indispensable for the development of the country.

The Malaysia Philosophy Society believes that the popularisation of philosophy could significantly benefit the leaders of the country. Salvaging and reviving ancient wisdom and the ways of great thinkers could introduce a much-needed layer of depth and innovation to the leadership approaches adopted in Malaysia.

Introducing philosophy in the scholarship that surrounds public policy is very much a novelty – but it has the potential to revolutionise the field.

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Philosopher Daniel Little, who specialises in social science, argues that there has yet to exist a philosophical discipline dedicated to the “workings of governments as a philosophical subject” and how governments “as extended social entities perform the functions we attribute to them – knowledge gathering, belief formation, policy and priority setting, legislation, regulation and enforcement”.

The synthesising of public policy and philosophy could ignite needed discussions on how to improve the intricate mechanics that guide the motivations which underlie public policy decisions. It is an invitation to perform a meta discussion on political discussion itself. How should we approach political debate? What values ought to guide our legislation? Are there previous values we should discard?

These are the sort of requisite questions our leaders should discuss philosophically prior to discussions that revolve around the policies that should govern the nation and solve moral quandaries.

Malaysia is very much a country in need of philosophical ideals as it is often confronted by the convoluted issues that divide the nation – developing a comprehensive multi-racial identity, sculpting national values and morals, and countering widespread polarisation and social unrest.

These issues go beyond the domain of legal and political analysis as they require getting to the very heart of the country’s foundation – challenging and reframing the conceptual frame through philosophical methods which Malaysia has ideologically subscribed to in its years following independence.

This is because the instruments of discussion that philosophy can provide has the capacity to grapple with the degree of complexity needed to improve the quality of political dialogue.

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The tradition of utopian thinking, for example, found in philosopher Thomas More’s book The Utopia, advocated the need to develop “guiding ideas” that drive behaviours towards desirable virtues. This which bring about a positive cultural transformation and help mould ideals that better shape the trajectory of the country’s development.

Philosophy in public policy can help fashion political narratives that re-imagine Malaysia’s political future.

Pravin Periasamy is the networking and partnership director of the Malaysia Philosophy Society

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Stephen Tan Ban Cheng
Stephen Tan Ban Cheng
12 Jan 2024 9.38pm

This is one of the very rare inputs in nation-building for our comparatively
young nation.

Nation-building needs to develop the philosophical ballast to provide the
requisite stability as we proceed into the future – and proceed with all
the confidence that we need.

This world is just a world of ideas – competing ideas from where the best
is picked. It must ensure and withstand the test of time if we are to
progress in the right direction.

For far too many years, we have flitted from a crop of ideas to that of
competing ones. We have wanted far too much time, I am afraid. Let us
now resolve to find the right crop of philosophical ideas so that we are not
lost in a sea of competing ones.

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