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17 May, 1998

The U.S. Will Run out of Steam Sooner or Later

Originally Published: 17 May 1998

It’s been a good past fortnight for the global religious movement. The coinciding of Easter, the Haj and the Kumbh Mela festivals brought together peoples of three of the great global faiths in a unified display of prayer and spiritual rejuvenation. They reminded us that night is always followed by day, and that inspite of the bleakness of societies and economies, there is always hope.

Indeed, the flickering candle of hope blazed a little brighter last weekend with the announcement of a peace accord in Northern Ireland, one of the last lingering international crises that occasionally flares with violence in London or Londonderry. Alongside, voices joined in a chorus of hope and prayer that the accord would stick and that a few more lives would be spared to see the dawn of the new millennium.

Sadly, even in the midst of joy, there is death. I grieve for those who lost loved ones at the hands of those who over-indulged their Songkran zeal with generous helpings of the local brew. Their family tragedies will linger on long after the country goes back to work.

Perhaps some of the bereaved may even recall that consumption of alcohol is banned in Buddhism, not that it matters in Thailand where that famous maxim “mai pen rai” is proudly worn on every lapel as a way of life, even though it has done more disservice to this country than anything else.

Watching the Pope’s message, the Haj and the Kumbh Mela movements over the Songkran weekend has been good for soul-searching. Freed temporary from phone calls and deadlines, I also found time to read the newspapers and reflect on a world that is surely and very rapidly spinning out of control.

It’s not a good feeling. No-one likes to be out of control but it is becoming increasingly apparent that families, societies, communities and indeed entire countries are no longer masters of their fate, if indeed they ever were.

Obvious in the confusing phalanx of headlines was that today, more than ever, we are at the mercy of currency speculators, stock markets, corrupt politicians, multinational corporations, the IMF, the decision-makers in Washington, the World Trade Organisation, Moody’s, the Internet, the media….. Add to that whatever you wish as my list will go well beyond the maximum length allowed by this column.

If money is what makes the world go round, there is no greater insecurity than wondering what is going to happen to yours next month, or next week, or even tomorrow. Instability and insecurity is here to stay.

In the midst of this insecurity, it is no wonder that people are seeking solace in their faith. I have maintained in this column and will always maintain that the laws of God will triumph over the laws of man. The created can never edge out the Creator. Religions have survived centuries of strife and conflict, and will continue to do so.

Charting a course through this swirl of confusion requires good decisions. To make good decisions, one needs good data and sufficient time to mull over it. Because the world is also becoming increasingly unforgiving of bad decisions, one also has to be very careful to ensure that those decisions are good.

However, the amount of data on which to base good decisions is rising in inverse proportion to the amount of time available to make them. There is far too much information to be sifted through in far too little time — a lethal formula by any account.

Once upon a time, decisions could be said to have a life span of several months, if not several years. These days, a good decision may hold for a few weeks and die the moment someone sitting on the other side of the world changes the game-rules.

Two weeks ago, I heard at a seminar on human resources development that the surge of knowledge and technology was so rapid that the lifespan of an expert’s ‘expertise’ was about three years before being rendered obsolete by new ways of doing things.

That expert, after having spent much of his life amassing MBAs, has only about three years to prove his worth before being overtaken by a new army of experts. So he or she is going to do everything possible to make as much money as possible in that time-span. Never mind the long-term consequences because he’s not going to be around to take the rap anyway.

Every decision must also head for a set target. These days, those targets are pretty straightforward: Generate the maximum possible returns on investment in the minimum possible time. Global currency and stock markets make that goal attainable, regardless of the fact that they are often referred to as legal gambling dens, another habit banned in Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and many other world religions.

All religions strive to attain a universal “cessation of suffering”. It is also the professed objective of those who tout democracy and free trade. Unfortunately, democracy and free trade tend to make things go out of control. Without proper controls and check-and-balance mechanisms, the situation can quickly degenerate into anarchy.

Which is exactly where things are heading today.

One big Songkran weekend story was this merger between some American banks. My eyeballs roll up each time I read these highfalutin stories about how this merger eclipses the previous one which occurred, surprise surprise, just a few weeks ago.

The world’s sole remaining superpower may think it is in control, but it isn’t, and it knows it. It is fighting so many different battles on so many different fronts — from nuclear proliferation to organised crime druglords to tinpot dictators to terrorism to trade wars — that it is going to run out of steam sooner or later. And then what?

Countries like Thailand are now struggling to restore a modicum of control over their future while others like India are struggling to avoid facing a future like Thailand’s. But as social luminaries like Dr Prawase Wasi and Sulak Sivaraksa are pointing out repeatedly and emphatically, the task of nation re-building must be preceded by the task of spiritual re-building.

Material bankruptcy one can contend with but if a country is also spiritually, morally and ethically bankrupt, another cycle of material bankruptcy is sure to follow.