By Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin. First published in The Malay Mail Online 23 September 2016


SEPT 23 — Many are curious about the true story behind the award-winning lady of substance who did not (as some might expect) attend the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly with her husband.

For Angelina Jolie is much more than a celebrated Hollywood actress: She is the UNHCR Special Envoy and a Visiting Professor of the London School of Economics who previously addressed the UN Security Council.  Those who regard Brangelina as the foremost power couple might not be aware of these credentials — nonetheless, her divorce application will dent the imagined ideal held by singletons seeking to be half of a power couple themselves.

Though there has also been confusion about a recent award and its relation to Unesco, there is no doubt as to the status of World Heritage Sites I visited this week. Overseas travel serves as a potent reminder of how differently other people see the world: Practices of crucial importance in one place are utterly irrelevant in another.  Still, I believe in any place where human beings have created civilisation, there is always knowledge that can enrich one’s own.

Germany offers obvious lessons, of course, which I touched on in a trip to Munich and Berlin last year. But unexpected discoveries are equally enlightening: In Cologne Cathedral, I learnt in the decades after World War II (during which the city was entirely destroyed apart from the cathedral), Turkish immigrants played a hugely important role in helping reconstruct the city.  As they did not have a mosque, they celebrated Eid ul-Fitr in the cathedral which purportedly houses the bones of the biblical Three Kings. Last year, when an anti-Muslim march went through the town, the cathedral turned off its lights to protest against that march.

The takeaway for Malaysians (and especially politicians who use exclusivist religious vocabulary in their quest for power) is that Muslims marked their most important festival in a cathedral — which in turn showed its support for Muslims.

Another unexpected contemplation has surfaced by travelling on a riverboat. I am appreciating how important these navigable waterways are: Not just to the present economy but in history too, as evidenced by the medieval towns, castles and churches that decorate the banks. The dream of a water route connecting the North Sea to the Black Sea existed for centuries but it was only in 1992 that it was realised with the completion of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

A river was long ago imagined by Western cartographers to cross the Malay Peninsula, too.  In fact, no such continuous water route existed, but at Jempol in Negri Sembilan, boats were pulled to connect the Jempol (a tributary of the Muar whose mouth is on the west coast) and the Serting (a tributary of the Pahang whose mouth is on the east coast) to enable a trans-peninsular crossing known as the Jalan Penarikan.

Today’s maps still show a  600m distance between the two rivers at Taman Tunku Puan Chik, but due to deforestation, they are no longer navigable.  This ancient route had a massive impact on the economic and political development of Malay kingdoms — Hang Tuah purportedly used the route — but this history is not well known today.

At the UN General Assembly, Barack Obama (half of another power couple) delivered his final speech as President of the United States.

My favourite aspect of it was its sensitivity to history: From the ideologically convincing expositions on the course of democracy, capitalism and constitutionalism, to the reminder of how “choices of individual human beings led to repeated world war”. I am loath to assess the legacy of a statesman before the end of his term, but certainly the power of his oratory to move people to action (a phenomenon I have personally seen in Americans and non-Americans alike) will be hard to match, especially when compared to the candidates who are vying to replace him.

Actors, too, have immense power to educate people. Mr & Mrs Smith was not available but I re-watched Seven Years in Tibet. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Heinrich Harrer — the Austrian mountaineer who during World War II ended up on the roof of the world, befriended the Dalai Lama and witnessed the country’s occupation by the Chinese Communist Party — certainly stirred my desire to learn more about that period of Tibetan history.

No politician’s speech, press release or Hollywood depiction of events would pass Unesco’s World Heritage criteria.  But it is our collective wisdom in responding to them that will enable us to preserve and advance world heritage and peace: Including uplifting the plight of refugees and protecting the legacies of our rivers.

* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of IDEAS.

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