Dignity amid tragedy provides crucial lesson

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2001, 12:00am

PART OF ME DIED watching the horrors in New York City. This city was my intellectual hatching ground. I received my undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate education at Columbia University. New York set the professional, cultural and intellectual standards against which I, as a young man, strived to be measured, because they were and still are second to none. (I earned a living as a lecturer, journalist and banker in the Big Apple for more than 10 years.)

Most of my closest friends live in New York. We seek each other out for counsel in difficult times and share our joys in happier ones. As Hong Kong becomes more inward looking (or northward looking), New York looms ever larger as the city of inspiration and worldliness.

If Paris is a 'moveable feast' - as described so elegantly by American novelist Ernest Hemingway - that one continues to savour long after leaving, New York is the feast that always awaits the returned. Far more than Paris, New York has more of everything and more of everybody from every corner of the Earth. You hear Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Spanish and, yes, even Afghan spoken in taxis, restaurants, in queues for a Broadway show or, certainly, in the classrooms of its great educational institutions, including New York University in Washington Square, a few subway stops north of the destroyed World Trade Centre.

It is a metropolis sure of its world-class nature without needing a trumpet to announce it. It is the greatest of all great cities, and it will remain so after the debris is cleared and the dead buried.

The quiet dignity with which New Yorkers are behaving, however much they are simmering in deep anger, is a lesson in culture and civility putting to shame many societies that have claimed to be superior to the 'crass' Americans.

I can think of at least two such societies, each with more than 4,000 years of recorded heritage, one in the Middle East and one in Asia. If something similar happened to their prime city, killing thousands in broad daylight, their respective governments would surely be whipping up mass hysteria by now. Yet it is the 'crass' Americans, with a history of just 225 years, who understand that composed, dignified silence in times of anger is a finer, stronger human quality.

A new war has begun. Multibillion-dollar missile hardware is no longer a defining weapon system. This war is borderless. The enemy is not even a sovereign state with an army. In total numbers, the enemy might not even add up to a couple of hundred people, probably far fewer. The world does not even know how to find them in order to combat them.

Thomas Friedman, an author and columnist with The New York Times, has been eloquent in pointing out that many in the world have missed the lesson of globalisation, labelling it a solely American phenomenon engineered in Silicon Valley and financed by Wall Street at the exclusive service of America.

The carnage in New York, although far from what globalisation was meant to be, is proof to the contrary. One evil mind making use of the advances in information technology and the inexpensive cost of computing power plus a few mobile phones can deal a body blow to the mightiest of powers in history.

Osama bin Laden, the supposed mastermind of the terror, is said to be worth US$300 million (about HK$2.3 billion) - hardly enough to buy an ageing B-1 bomber. In 1998, America launched 79 Tomahawk cruise missiles, at US$1 million each, trying to take him out. The matching of the world's only superpower against a small group of people is the sort of silly script one expects from Hollywood. But this is no movie.

There is a lesson for Asia, especially for Hong Kong. Asians must wake up to the fact that their fixation with real estate as the main source of wealth will not serve them well in the future. Real estate can evaporate right in front of your eyes. Plants and equipment can vanish without a trace. What is the true source of wealth? Brains.

Bin Laden did not need a fancy office to think big thoughts, evil as these were. He reportedly lives in tents easily dismantled in the deserts of Afghanistan.

Asia can only reclaim its past glory if it faces up to the reality that it is not innovative, creative or original. If Asia fails to break its mental block about Asian values, Confucian values, blind faith in leaders as the source of wisdom, subordination of the individual's mind to the collective, then Asia will always be a follower of what others create.

An important lesson to learn from the horrors in New York City is this: the future is all about brains, the only true asset in the world. If one evil mind can bring such destruction by mastering the simple tools of digital technology, then millions of good and creative minds will bring far more constructiveness to the world we wish our children to inherit. Whether Asia can rise up to this challenge of the 21st century is what every Asian parent must think about.

Sin-ming Shaw (smshaw@attglobal.net) is a writer and private investor who was formerly the regional economist for Chase Manhattan Bank