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AN upcoming seminar organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Advanced Medical and Dental Institute, which aims to explain the scientific aspect behind santau (an act of putting a curse on and poisoning someone through mystical means in the Malay community), drew a lot of flak from Netizens after it was reported online by an English daily (not the New Straits Times).

The daily also reported that Universiti Malaysia Pahang had sold an anti-hysteria kit, while Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia had organised a regional forum to help Muslim doctors reconcile their beliefs in spiritual beings and black magic with modern medicine. The daily seems to insinuate that these kinds of seminars and forums are not in line with advancements in science and technology, and that beliefs in santau and traditional medicine are irrational. Such cynicism is only to be expected because citizens in what used to be a colonised society undoubtedly subscribe to what their colonial masters approve of as accepted knowledge.

In the words of S.M. Mohamed Idris, one of Malaysia’s leading social activists, “colonialism, together with the reductionist philosophy that it brought along, has consciously or unconsciously encouraged us to devalue, erode and eradicate our treasuries of knowledge and wisdom, and our practices of daily life as Malays, Indians, Chinese or Africans”.

What constitutes reliable knowledge has always been a contested subject, and while most people know of Francis Bacon’s principle that “knowledge is power”, the reverse principle — power is knowledge — has been the dominant dictum ever since European expansionism and the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, it is a well-known fact that reductionist science fragments knowledge, and looks at matter and life in isolation. As a mechanical process, it creates a complexity far removed from human experience. It has an alienating effect on us as it breaks down our healthy sense of interconnectedness and interdependence.

The modern university’s increasing focus on the physical, mundane world has made it very difficult to maintain the bridge to the world of higher learning, which encompasses the physical, but is much more.

While some Netizens have questioned the value of and wisdom in organising such seminars and forums, we should also understand that there is not just one pathway to knowledge and wisdom.

Just as it is widely recognised that biodiversity is an essential factor in maintaining the fine balance in ecological health, the same can also be said of knowledge and wisdom. A diversity of knowledge and wisdom needs to be proactively cultivated so that there is a rich variety of wisdom for us to draw from when seeking solutions to our problems. The process of understanding and respecting such diversity provides the policy directions for future teaching, learning and research in universities responsive to the wisdom and knowledge found in local communities.

Globalisation seems to have the undesirable effect of homogenising ideas, particularly in universities. One of its pitfalls is causing human ways of knowing to become predictably capitalist, mechanistic, ecologically destructive and mundane in their conception. This thinking approach, which is embedded in the modern university, needs to be unthought. The challenge today is to reassert the importance of deep wisdom and its cultivation in students of the modern university.

It is, therefore, necessary that postcolonial universities give due recognition to the multitude of concepts of wisdom that exist. The same line of reasoning can be applied to the contested subject of knowledge.

The day-to-day knowledge that we acquire as humans — our tacit, socialised and experienced knowledge, our epistemological structure — is then influenced by codified knowledge that has been shaped, formed and abstracted into systems of knowledge transmission, known as schooling and higher education.

The kind of knowledge that will be discussed at USM’s seminar on santau is called “indigenous knowledge”, synonymous with “traditional/local knowledge”. This is to differentiate it from the “Western” or “modern” knowledge system, which is generated through the modern university.

Indigenous knowledge is embedded in the community, and is unique to a given culture, location or society. According to the World Bank, it is a large body of knowledge and skills that has been developed outside the formal education system, and enables communities to survive. Indigenous knowledge is all-inclusive, and comprises technologies and practices that have been, and still are, used by indigenous peoples for their existence, survival and adaptation in a variety of environments.

Indigenous information systems are dynamic, continually influenced by internal creativity and experimentation, as well as contact with external systems. Such knowledge covers diverse subjects, like agriculture, architecture, engineering, mathematics, governance, medicinal and indigenous plant varieties. With the onset of colonialism, indigenous knowledge was considered primitive, static and “not knowledge”.

The fixation on modernisation and development has contributed to a decline in the role of indigenous knowledge in the sustainable development process. Although this legacy is still very much alive, there is an exponential interest, in recent years, in the role that indigenous knowledge and technological innovations can play in sustainable development.

This is due to the realisation among researchers, academics, policymakers and development agencies that development efforts, which ignore indigenous knowledge and circumstance, are invariably inappropriate for a sustainable community livelihood because tried-and-tested indigenous knowledge technologies are effective, inexpensive, locally available, culturally appropriate, and based on preserving and building the patterns and processes of nature.

The view that knowledge is a social construct and an expression of relations of power has received merit because knowledge (indigenous or scientific) is inherently local, although different knowledge systems may differ in their epistemologies, methodologies, logic, cognitive structures and socio-economic contexts.

In this context, the indigenous way of knowing is as valid as other ways, and instead of deriding universities for venturing into indigenous knowledge, we should be thankful that they have the wisdom to embrace multicultural knowledge.

The writer, Azeem Fazwan is the director of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia

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