Conscience as the heart of the matter – a Malaysia Day reflection

It’s at the “heart of the matter” – the root and source of all our problems we face as a nation and society.

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Published in Astro Awani and Business Today, image by Astro Awani.

In reflecting about Malaysia Day 2022, perhaps it is good to go back to basics and talk about the “conscience”. 

Why conscience?

It’s simply as being at the “heart of the matter” – the root and source of all our problems we face as a nation and society. 

Conscience, as we all know, is the “inner voice” in all of us as human beings or mere mortals – that which either judges/condemns or justifies/approves our thoughts, words and deeds – as a basic and fundamental definition.

Like the concept of space (as per Kant – when formulating his critique of empiricism on the one hand and of rationalism on the other hand – so that it isn’t understood as pure receptivity of the externals but instead should be conceived as an outer projection of one’s intuition or the natural, immediate mental sense of representation of reality), we cannot or are unable to annihilate and banish the conscience from our consciousness. 

Or conversely, it’s akin to the super-ego (as per Freud) which is inextricably bound to and, therefore, determined and impressed by the external world in the form of institutions like the family (upbringing), religion (guiding) and the State (enforcing).   

Better still, to give a more theological under- and over-tone, the conscience can be construed as “I” that has been called forth into existence by the Creator and, therefore can only respond to the same divine call, whatever form or shape it takes (as per Hamann, the Radical Enlightener and over-looked formidable critic of the Enlightenment project).

So, conscience is necessary, whether one is approaching it from a secular or theological/religious perspective.

Without conscience, we risk de-humanising ourselves. 

We risk stripping ourselves of dignity and integrity.

When we think, speak and act without conscience, i.e., without a deep sense of right or wrong, this means that our passions or base appetites (to borrow from the medieval scholastics as represented by the renowned theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas) like lust, greed and envy have overtaken and overwhelm our (very) “being” (where the body and soul is considered as unity for simplicity’s sake – without going into the mind-body dualism debate, etc.). 

Conscience is no longer the “substance” and “form” of our reason/reasoning – such that it’s now used to justify our casuistry, i.e., moral justification of something which objectively is immoral. 

The danger is, of course, we become so de-sensitised to casuistry that it becomes a norm (although still contrary to morality and religion) that the sense of shame has gone (even when conscience in its original state is still there albeit obscured and encrusted and corrupted). 

As the venerable Prof M Kamal Hassan (theologian, philosopher and scholar) has written in his Corruption and Hypocrisy in Malay Muslim Politics – The Urgency of Moral-Ethical Transformation (EMIR Research, 2022), corrupt politicians have lost a sense of shame – which was originally hard-wired into us as creatures as an expression of guilt.

Thus, in order to cope with guilt, we must first “sear” our conscience – with all sorts of justifications. An “artificially” constructed inner voice to “overcome” the natural (and supernatural intrinsic to the) inner voice that’s original to our constitution as human beings. 

When the searing of the conscience moves beyond from the individual (which is already quite bad enough) to the institutional and societal, we have reached a very critical point. 

Ordinary citizens can point to the (bad and evil) examples of leaders or they can just say that they were following orders – like those military leaders at the famous Nuremberg trial in the aftermath of World War Two who insisted that they were merely fulfilling the oath pledged to Hitler when carrying orders to massacre civilian populations, for example. 

On the contrary, contrarians can’t but be bound to their conscience and, if need be, go against the tide (although to be sure not in a Don Quixotic manner and according to the right timing, etc.). 

When Martin Luther stood at the Diet of Worms to declare that he has no choice but to defy the institutional, religious and political powers of the day, he did so on the basis of (the inter-locking nature of) conscience (and reason). 

Luther dared to defy the power-that-be because to do otherwise, he might as well have not existed in the first place.  

In other words, to go against the conscience is simply to go against one’s self, core being and what it means to be human, i.e., the “I” (singular) in relation to other “I” (plural), in the first place. 

In short, how can I who’s endowed with a conscience “live” with my own self when I go against it (i.e., my own conscience).

In effect, it’s to create something less than human which then defines ourselves in relation to the world around us.

We are pretty familiar with the breaches of consciences on a minor and daily scale – to which we are so accustomed as part of living in this world. 

Lack of traffic or driving courtesy by road users, the toxic, nasty and bullying employers who completely lack empathy and guilt in destroying the psychological and emotional lives of their subordinates, playboys who use their “captivated” lovers only for pleasure and nothing more, the corrupt official (whether public or private) who either browbeat or “proposes” bribery to facilitate certain transaction, etc.

And then, of course, we have the scammers who now seemed to be almost “ubiquitous” in their presence who think of nothing in fleecing even old-aged pensioners of their hard-earned savings, much less and not to say the hard-earned money of ordinary workers and employees (whether private or public). 

What about the possibility of collusion – necessarily implying the involvement of corrupt government officials which make possible the continuing existence of such scams. 

The fact that the scammers seem to have their “tentacles” spread far and wide might lend credence to some conspiracy and synergy among the corrupt sections of society.

But all of these points to a far deeper rot which permeates our institutions and political system.

The lack of sense of guilt and shame (rasa tak malu) – and therefore “lack” of conscience – which characterises corrupt top politicians is the root cause of all problems besetting our beloved nation. 

In fact, it could well be argued that it’s a “diminution”/”depreciation” of conscience that (partly) explains why the territories of Sabah and Sarawak have been hitherto “short-changed” vis-à-vis the Malaysia Agreement (1963) and the Federal Constitution, which definitively includes the import of racially and religiously divisive politics and marginalisation of the other Bumiputeras in terms of their administrative career advancement, economic and socio-economic empowerment, etc. 

All the while we have been emphasising the indispensability of conscience – that is in the public sphere.  

We need to return to basics, i.e., reviving the ethos and consciousness of the conscience in the public sphere and life and of mainstream Malaysia.

Religion, philosophy and life’s principles (e.g., including Confucian ethos, natural law) play a fundamental and critical role in safeguarding the necessity of the conscience in our lives. 

The conscience which serves to restrain and constrain evil acts from taking place in the public sphere. 

The political elite and establishment have long “neglected” or ignored the conscience in their (public) discourses and messaging. They have purposely shied away from the topic. 

Why is this so?

Be that as it may, the centrality of conscience as embodied by ethics and values and principles needs to be “re-instated” into our public sphere and life, i.e., politics, governance and public policy once again.

Without conscience as the substance and form of the uncompromising, non-negotiable and unchangeable principles which in turn constitute the basis and boundary of institutional and systemic reforms, our nation can’t move forward but can only “decline”. 

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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