Tuesday, July 23

Aquatic equanimity


I WAS looking for the word to best describe my recent travels on water. How does one encapsulate the uniquely therapeutic effect of the continuous sound of the sea being splashed by a murmuring vessel as it makes its path? And how does one evoke the visual accompaniment of endlessly morphing blues streaked by whites blending into multi-layered teals and occasional cyans where the curvature of the Earth meets its atmosphere, with puffs of grayscale above providing a cinematographic depth as the ship traverses forward? At sunrise and sunset the infinite palettes of crimson and vermillion dance around oranges and pinks, and at night the black sky reveals its glittering secrets only to the ever diminishing non-urban masses of humanity.

In this rare aquatic isolation – at one point not touching land for 90 straight hours (a pathetic number for experienced sailors, and certainly for our seafaring ancestors, but a record for me) – it is impossible not be awed by the vastness of our glorious world. As with the super blue blood moon that occurred some weeks ago, the physics of our universe provides a reminder of the smallness of oneself and the insignificance of one’s problems in the bigger scheme of things.

Gazing into the dusky horizon against a refreshing breeze on a balcony, I began to contemplate how the warmongers, autocrats and thieves of the world might behave differently if such natural wonders were exposed to them more often.  Or would it have no effect? Would the realisation of their mortality amidst God’s infinite majesty translate into a compassionate epiphany, a different attitude towards killing other people, destroying institutions meant to protect other people, or stealing resources that are meant to improve the lives of other people?  Or have they gone so far down a path of no return that nothing will trigger a realisation of humility and truth? Indeed, have they constructed a new truth that only they and their beneficiaries can see?

And then, the word I was looking for appeared. As I realised that my calmness on the water provided a juxtaposition not only to the realities of war and politics in the world, but also even to my own increasingly busy calendar when on land, the word emerged: equanimity.

It’s not the most used word of the English language, but in Malaysia its dictionary definition is overshadowed by feelings of what a certain boat of the same name represents.

By a strange coincidence, while I was on a kayak in another part of the world’s interconnected waters, the news broke on international news portals that the said US$260 million boat was seized near Bali by Indonesian police in cooperation with the United States Department of Justice, who believe that the vessel was bought using funds stolen from 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Given the explicitly stated link to a Malaysian and a Malaysian government fund, it is curious that some Malaysian media outlets did not to report about it (this newspaper, however, did). Such an incident can be spun any number of ways: an attempt at domestic political interference, a means of geopolitical leverage, a serious investigative blunder, a minor event being played up by traitors, and so on. The seemingly contradictory statements by a government minister and the supposed owner of the boat lend credence to the idea that attempts are being made to conceal the truth.

By the time I returned to the balcony, my mind was back in the real world.  Moments of personal equanimity are important, but so is working out how you’re going to live in an imperfect world alongside imperfect human beings and the possibility of imperfect temptations.

From my kayak, I witnessed the more brutal aspects of our natural world.  Straight out of a scene from BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’, a fur seal flapped its blubbered body nearby: a female in a pod where only the alpha male – having physically defeated its rivals – has the right to mate. Nearby, on a side of a large cliff, hundreds of local birds were on their colony coloured by their own excrement, with the junior members of the community living under the crap of their superiors on higher ground.

The hierarchies of the natural world are unforgiving, but modern human civilisation is supposed to be different. After millennia of social evolution, unwritten customs and written constitutions ostensibly work towards uplifting every member towards prosperity. Equanimity should be an achievable goal for everyone.

But when those customs and constitutions are violated so that only some acquire it at the expense of others, then even the ship of state is prone to capsizing in the clearest of waters.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.