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What are the roots that clutch?

In this season of violence, war, economic volatility and instability, let us each make a contribution, however small, to the betterment of life for all


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In his poem The Waste Land, TS Eliot gives us a picture of a world devastated by war, greed, urbanisation and social inequality that few other modern poems can capture. Encapsulated in his pithy question: “What are the roots that clutch?” is the cry of loneliness, rootlessness and purposelessness which today echoes all over the world, not only in conflict-ridden areas like the Ukraine and the Middle East. I take Eliot’s poem down from my bookshelf on a quiet evening to help me reflect on and rethink anew the current crisis of humanity.

Dr Johan Saravanamuttu’s recent essay in Aliran offers us an insightful conclusion when he says, “War has become the leitmotif – the dominant and recurring theme – of our so-called ‘civilisation’ (a word which for me has increasingly become a misnomer)”. What a terrifying world we inhabited during the Cold War years when a nuclear Armageddon was the one deterrent to war. It was a balance of terror, not a peace birthed by humane awakening. Up to the present day, Johan adds, nuclear armament in no way prevents war among non-nuclear states, nor does it stop proxy wars started by nuclear powers.

Decades ago, at the time of a massive war, World War One, the British poet Siegfried Sassoon saw very clearly and stated bravely a memorable conclusion: “I believe this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” This is tragically true today in conflict-ridden spots worldwide. Territoriality, geopolitics, realpolitik – it hardly matters how we term it – will operate to send countless soldiers to the battlefield and wreak unspeakable suffering on combatants and civilians.

Is this because we no longer see other people as human when they are opposed to our greed or if they stand in the way of our insatiable appetite for power? Do we then ruthlessly see them as ‘enemies’ not human beings like us? In one of his many pithy poems, Thomas Hardy pens these lines on the meaningless killing of an ‘enemy’:

Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn

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We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a nipperkin

But ranged as infantry,

And staring face to face

I shot at him and he at me

 And killed him in his place.

Two men who could have been friends, who could have shared a few drinks in an ancient inn, now face to face as infantry soldiers, have to kill or be killed. They were just following orders and commands of the powerful who sent them to the battlefronts – so much for patriotism and the various slogans advertising enlistment to save the nation state with words which entice and seduce. In a riveting war poem titled Attack, Siegfried Sassoon captures for us in vivid cinematic power the horror of trench warfare. The poem engages all our five senses to evoke the terror felt by the soldiers:

With bombs and guns and battle gear

Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire

Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear.

Soldiers, many very young, are mowed down like beasts, as they too relentlessly kill in order to survive. How does this dehumanisation happen?

We need to ask ourselves how we are educating our children about difference, diversity, compassion. In addition, we must reflect on how we can inculcate in the young the critical confidence to question the powerful. Is our formal and informal education able to birth in them respect, even love for others and the confidence to defend justice? I came across excellent remarks on education by the American journalist and author, Chris Hedges, which I quote in full:

We have bought into the idea that education is about training and ‘success’ defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

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Success yoked to financial gains, achievements defined only by money earned – is this what we teach our youths? Do we not often hear some parents ask each other how many distinctions their children earned and then, in the next stage of life, ask once more, without any etiquette, “So how much is their salary?”

The gulf between us and others is reinforced by ‘boundaries’, visible and invisible. It is not only in conflict-ridden zones that these barriers exist. They are all around us. We have so-called elite schools, expensive private schools where students may be cocooned, away from the social inequity of society. Their schoolmates probably come from a similar socioeconomic background. Perhaps a few scholarship-funded classmates provide a little diversity; otherwise, there can be unhelpful homogeneity, sameness, uniformity. How can such kids learn about the amazing complexity of the world around them? The irony is that some adults in fact work to shield their kids from the ‘shadows’ like the homeless man without legs, the refugee family shivering in below zero winter weather, the jobless hanging around street corners, hoping for someone to offer them a job, however backbreaking it may be. Perhaps some parents fear that these sad images are ‘infectious’ like a virus and can weaken their children’s combative confidence.

A fierce competitiveness can be ignited in schools which continues to fan the heat of ‘success in’ universities and beyond. “We don’t want our children to grow up weak, soft, afraid cos this is a savage world,” quite a number of parents and guardians will argue. How very ironic that in shielding our children from the shadows, in upping their aggressive combativeness, we add to the savagery we fear. So, we can look forward to more ‘wolves’ of Wall Street, more hungry packs in the exquisitely luxurious and elegant halls of corporate business?

Candid, honest self-scrutiny enriches us all in every season of life. Simply to have youths learn a list of moral values by rote and have them regurgitate this list in exams is a blatant waste of time. Any curriculum worth its many long hours of planning should include room for the young to reflect, voice their doubts, challenge received ideas, not rudely but confidently. In his poem For My Son, the Malaysian poet Ee Tiang Hong conveys the hope that the young will be inspired, taking up the call to clear “the darkly creeping blukar of oppression” and thus “relate on wings/ Of such eloquence, the burden of a dream”. Yes, we need to leave the young a dream of justice, train them to garner the patience and resilience to clear the belukar (bushes) of oppression and violence, even if it seems like an idealistic burden.

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Dogmatic rules and policing by many self-appointed or even appointed religious authorities do little to inspire the young, especially if these authority figures are fundamentalists who have all compassion wrung out of them. Forgetting that we are all limited human beings or ‘manusia kerdil’, such figures have power writ large in every word and action, quite the opposite of deep spirituality.

Relooking at my bookshelf of texts by poets, I find a gem in the selected poems of Latiff Mohidin, lovingly and respectfully translated into English by Salleh Ben Joned. Titled Fables of Dawn, Latiff’s poems give me much tranquillity and joy. Nature for Latiff – even the patterns of bark on a tree trunk, the delicate veins of leaves and the light on an attap (thatched) roof, the music of raindrops – provides the mysterious visible signs of the “transcendent”, the “invisible”. The invisible in the visible returns us to awe, to silence and a new humility. A humble acknowledgement of the “smallness” of mankind, even with huge leaps in technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, encourages us to understand that the roots that clutch reach far into the sacred recess of the human being.

In this season of violence, war, economic volatility and instability, of ominous disasters from climate change, let us each, whatever our race, belief system or creed, make a contribution, however small, to the betterment of life for all.

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
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  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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Dr Wong Soak Koon, an independent researcher, is a longtime member and former executive committee member of Aliran. She gained a first-class honours BA degree and a masters in English literature from the University of Malaya and a doctorate in English literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under a Harvard-Yenching fellowship
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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
20 Nov 2023 1.19am

I totally agree. We are living in a world which has its direction. Capitalism is the sin of this world.

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