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Friday, August 12, 2016

Beware of meddling via soft power !

Joining the club - Illustration: Shen Lan/GT

MEDDLING by foreign powers is an established phenomenon for as long as one can remember. They are not limited only to the Muslim countries and communities. For example, last year at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City, President Barack Obama indirectly admitted this when he publicly stated that the days of US interference in the affairs of Latin America were coming to an end. Reportedly, he said, "the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past". Some traced this to as far back as the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries especially after its so-called "discovery" by Columbus. Perhaps, the major difference is that there are many more Latin American leaders and populace who are more "resolute" than their Muslim counterparts in resisting any attempt to meddle.

More generally "colonialism" is one form of meddling that many parts of the world have experienced, and are still suffering from it. Malaysia is no exception, no denying that there are some benefits to be learnt from the process. But where it hits the "mind" is where it is more toxic to the extent that it can debilitate. Even long after achieving independence the "colonised" mindsets are still clearly felt whether at the level of the leadership or the population at large. The post-Merdeka generations are more vulnerable when they are shut out from the larger discourse affecting the future of the nation, ironically due to yet another form of "meddling" that left them disenfranchised. In the days of social media, the impact of this can be phenomenal, what with other contending parties that are more than eager to attract their attention, as we have seen recently.

Social media is an excellent platform for yet another form of meddling – soft power. Coined a few years ago, soft power describes "the ability to attract and co-opt using persuasion (mind-twisting) rather than by coercion, notably by bullying and arm-twisting (hard power). To the disenfranchised, soft power is said to be very appealing especially when "credibility is the scarcest resource", as explained by Joseph Nye, who introduces the concept. In fact more recently, the term has expanded to include "changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful political and non-political organisations."

Of the six factors that are often associated with enhancing soft power, education and culture seem to be pivotal. In other words, meddling can be carried out discreetly using these two dimensions. Indeed, Nye did suggest how higher education leaders might enhance American soft power by increasing international student and cultural exchange programmes. Viewed this way, soft power is a very subtle extension of the colonial process without even realising it. A case in point is when in 2007 the Rand Corporation in the US developed a "road map" for the construction of moderate Muslim networks and institutions "that the US government and its allies need, but thus far have failed, to develop clear criteria for partnerships with authentic moderates". It therefore proposes "the building of moderate Muslim networks an explicit goal of US government programmes".

More explicitly, it listed who the "moderates" are to be targeted according to priority, namely: liberal and secular Muslim academics and intellectuals, young moderate religious scholars, community activists, women's groups engaged in gender equality campaigns, and finally moderate journalists and writers. It argued that "the US should ensure visibility and platforms for these individuals." For example, to ensure that individuals from these groups are "included in congressional visits, making them better known to policymakers and helping to maintain US support and resources for the public diplomacy effort." If these sound like "meddling", it is because it is one – effectively disguised as "soft power". It is without doubt, yet another attempt among many to continuously interfere and manipulate the situation from the perspective of the authors and the sponsoring institution. Despite this it is very sad if Muslims are oblivious to the sleight of hand, and succumb to the form of endless meddling. Only to realise that it causes more confusion and divisiveness among the community.

In the days ahead before Aug 31, it is incumbent upon us to deeply ponder what Merdeka means beyond the routine parade and march-past, flag-raising ceremony and singing the national anthem.

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, theSundaily

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com


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