Which thought systems enable a delivering economy? | Daily News

Which thought systems enable a delivering economy?

Traditional Japanese medicine
Traditional Japanese medicine

What are indigenous systems, and why are they exalted? Japan and China are supposed to have their own indigenous systems — ways of doing things — and that is supposed to be the reason for their breakout success in economic terms, as the second and third largest economies on Earth.

China however has a massive pharmaceutical industry and manufactures a vast array of generic medicines. Though China is considered the home of alternative treatment — Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) — when the country “modernized” in the ’70s, the use of TCM dropped drastically.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Today, just about 20 percent of Chinese use TCM treatments for their ailments. In Japan however, there are traditional Japanese medical practitioners in hospitals that offer conventional allopathic medicinal cures, so the situation in that country is somewhat different.

In Japan, South Korea and China, there are on the average about four schools offering conventional medicine to every school that offers traditional/indigenous medicinal cures.

These statistics show that these countries that are idolized for indigenous thought, are not exactly wedded to their indigenous systems.

However, the people of these nations have not totally eschewed traditional lifestyles. But these countries all have one thing in common — offering a high standard of living for their citizens, by having never eschewed influences from the outside world.

That should be food for thought for those who romanticize these countries, while romanticizing the notion of ‘traditional thinking’. There is no doubt that indigenous knowledge or indigenous ways of thinking are rife in Japanese society, or Chinese society — and that these indigenous knowledge systems or ‘ways of knowing things’ are in stark contrast to Eurocentric knowledge systems.

Indigenous knowledge

I am using the word indigenous here to denote traditional as opposed to Eurocentric, and not to denote the so called ‘indigenous’ communities of Japan such as Ainu, Okinawans, etc.

Traditional Chinese medicine

That being out of the way, there is no doubt that the indigenous knowledge systems in Japan, China and South Korea all seek to coexist with nature while in the Eurocentric epistemology, nature is considered subordinate to man, who is considered superior.

That is a fundamental difference if ever there was one. However, countries such as Japan and even China have internalized Eurocentric systems, particularly in order to thrive in the global capitalist system.

In the case of the Japanese, education or rather the educational methodology became almost entirely Eurocentric as a result of Eurocentric influences from outside. Indigenous ways of knowing were marginalized.

It is said that the Japanese indigenous ways of knowing are about ‘discovery’ while the Eurocentric ways of knowing are about ‘knowledge’. However, the fact remains that be it Japan — or South Korea or even China, these countries have subsumed indigenous ways of knowing under Eurocentric and Western thought systems, because they want to thrive in the global capitalist economy.

Traditional Korean medicine

If that is so, people may argue that these nations are not going down the correct path. They may argue that powerful though these countries may be and strong though their economies are, they have not got it quite right, because they have subordinated their own indigenous thought systems to those of the Western world.

However, those who may argue in this fashion cannot deny the fact that all of these nations — bar none — have been able to offer better standards of living to their citizens. It is why these countries are widely admired today in, say, our part of the world, and why by most metrics, people here consider these countries to be ‘advanced.’

Better standards

So those who romanticize indigenous ways of knowing should give pause to their romanticism and ponder a few realities. People everywhere seem to want these ‘better standards of living,’ and who is to blame them?

They want better transportation and better roads, for instance. That is not difficult to empathize with, because people suffer when transport systems are sub-standard, i.e., when the buses and trains are crowded, and uncomfortable, and un-dependable.

Those who hanker after indigenous systems of knowledge to the exclusion of all other winds of change that blow over from outside, seem to do so at the risk of depriving the people of these basic facilities and amenities they desire — good transportation, affordable housing, ‘modern’ contraptions such as washing machines, refrigerators, etc.

There does not seem to be many (or any) places on Earth where indigenous thought systems remain intact exclusively and in isolation, and people are still self-contained and happy despite that, except perhaps in the Amazon rainforests, etc. where tribes exist that still have had no contact with the outside world. Is neighbouring Bhutan such a place?

Well, Bhutan is focused on Climate Change, and on carbon footprints and so forth — and that is hardly the stamp for glorifying indigenous knowledge systems. Bhutan’s ruler, the King, is fixated on maintaining a high score on the Happiness Index — which is not viewed by all Bhutanese with great joy. A Bhutanese woman was interviewed by a foreign journalist recently, and when asked about the King and his fondness for maintaining high-marks on the Happiness Index, she replied, ‘life is not something that is to be happy about, it is something to endure.”!

That is a digression, but at best there is an amalgam of thought systems in the most ‘traditional’ of countries and that is not surprising — Sri Lankan thinkers who speak of a Buddhist value system should ideally be able to identify with that, because the Buddha taught the Middle Way or Path, which simply means the avoidance of extremes. Extreme fealty to indigenous thought systems is not seen to satisfy people’s general yearning for a better quality of life, or better standards of living.

Mahatma Gandhi said we are our own slaves, not of the British. “The British cannot be here, if we do not want them to”, he said bluntly. Often, it seems the idea that we should eschew Eurocentric knowledge systems completely, is a way of overcompensating — and being ‘our own slaves’. Eurocentric thought systems are associated with better economies, and that is a fact.

As far as such overcompensation is concerned, it seems China did not do it, or Japan did not do it, or South Korea did not do it — and neither did Bhutan. So there is no need for Sri Lanka to do it. Of course, we need to explore more environmentally friendly ways of doing things, but in none of these areas should we be dogmatic.

Happy medium

It seems the policymakers want to strike a happy medium here in Sri Lanka — there is a push towards digitization and e-commerce, etc., and that certainly does not indicate that there is any obsession with being ‘isolated’. In Japan, one counter colonial or rather counter imperial trend — because Japan was never colonized per se — was to be nationalist in the extreme, but these movements have always been at the margins of society.

It is easy to see why Japan for long remained the world’s second largest economy, and was only displaced from that spot fairly recently by China. Japan was able to build this economy and consequently to offer the quality of life that is enjoyed by the people by having an amalgam of knowledge systems which at times tilted heavily towards Western knowledge systems, particularly when the Japanese had to engage with global capitalism.

It does not seem likely that we would enjoy reinventing the wheel and going totally indigenous. Anyone who thinks abandoning all other knowledge and going indigenous is good, probably does not think of the poor harried commuter or the poor harried housewife, for whom ‘a better standard of living’ means just that — better transportation, better and more efficient domestic equipment, etc.

They could not care less which knowledge systems provide them that, and who is to blame them for that mindset?

We should not exactly call for a curse on the houses of those who shriek for indigenous thought systems and become obsessive about it — but we can treat these people with a little bit of good humor, and plain old fraternal laughter. If they want to debate the matter any further, they can be told to talk to somebody on a ramshackle bus who wishes dearly that there was a more comfortable tube-train transportation system, so he or she does not have to suffer the travails of unendurable bus travel, when providing for family.


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