By Steven Ooi, GP tutor
B.A. (First Class Honours), NUS
The economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the manipulation of users’ news feeds by Facebook in an experiment on human psychology – the world may be abuzz with these events today, but in just five or ten years, they may be just distant or even evaporated memories. The countless hours we spend reading The Independent, watching CNN or listening to the BBC World Service seem largely wasted as these apparently ephemeral states of affairs are relentlessly superseded by new ones. However, just because something may become irrelevant in a decade does not mean that it is not of utmost pertinence now, for now is the time we inhabit. Also, current affairs are the running narrative of humanity of which we are a part, and in which we must therefore take an interest. What is more, some of these events of today may have monumental historic significance one day. For all these reasons, it is my utmost conviction that as human beings we must take a keen and active interest in current affairs.
Sceptics will point out that most current affairs will soon be forgotten as their significance to the world may be short-lived, and make the case that they are therefore a waste of time. The sheer fluidity of today’s high-tech, globalised world causes most current affairs to have merely transient relevance or interest to us. Whether it be a political assassination in Rwanda, the poor take-up rate of electric cars in Germany or a 90 percent plunge in the stock price of Singaporean mining company Blumont, there is an extremely high probability that in a few years, they will no longer have much bearing on the world or on our lives, and we will no longer be able to recall the event (unless one happens to have been a Blumont shareholder). Hence, critics assert, our time is more fruitfully spent on learning things of more enduring importance, such as trigonometry, poetic metre and the principles of accounting.
However, this is a specious line of reasoning. Just because a certain current development may not have much significance or prominence in the future does not mean that it is not of great pertinence to our lives in the present; and the present is where we live. Not in the past, and certainly not in the future. Certain current affairs can pose a serious threat to us. Hence, staying abreast of them makes us more aware of the dangers in the world. It enables us to take pre-emptive or precautionary measures to keep ourselves safe. Examples would include the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003 and the civil war in Ukraine. If one had been reading his newspapers, he could have been among the first to learn of the rapidly emerging threat and wear a mask when in crowded places, thereby saving his life and that of his family as well. As for the civil war in Ukraine, if Malaysia Airlines had been more aware of ongoing events there – most notably that Russia had supplied the sophisticated BUK missile system to Ukrainian rebels – the tragic loss of hundreds of lives on flight MH17 could have been prevented. Instead the airline chose to uncritically follow the misguided advice of international civil aviation authorities that the airspace was safe. Current affairs are no mere conversation topics; they can help us protect our very life and limb.
The myriad developments in the world alert us not only to danger, but to priceless opportunity. The fast-changing, globalised and technologically-driven world of today presents virtually limitless opportunity to those who keep closely tuned to emerging trends. Demand for new forms of products, services and skills can quickly surface; any individual who spots these developments and seizes the opportunity more quickly than others can achieve outstanding success. A case in point would be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who realised before most people that there was a burgeoning desire among Harvard undergraduates for an online social network that would enable them to connect easily with and find out more about fellow students, notably those they had a romantic interest in. Zuckerberg worked fervently to create just such a network, secured the crucial first-mover advantage and established the world’s Number One online social network. He also became one of the world’s youngest billionaires in his 20s. To buttress my point, for every Mark Zuckerberg, there are millions of ordinary people who benefit immensely from keeping in touch with world newsflow. For instance, a mid-career professional who feels disengaged and jaded in her career might read about the thriving Singapore-based marketing communications and design firm Kingsmen Creatives, which does fascinating work like designing displays at Universal Studios and new stores for international brands like H & M – and find a very exciting job there. Being in touch with current affairs can open up life-changing opportunities to everyone.
It is worth adding that while most current affairs will be forgotten one day, not all of it will. The event you read about in today’s newspapers could eventually turn out to have deeply lasting significance in the history of your country or even the world. Consider the first ever win by a European football team in a World Cup held on South American soil, when Germany lifted the trophy in Brazil in 2014; or the Arab Spring protests that erupted and blazed across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Those sceptical of the value of current affairs may put forth the argument that most stories in the newspapers lack such enduring magnitude, but if we have no concern for current affairs, we will not be motivated to follow them – and we will then become unaware of the most momentous events of our times. We would be, in short, ignoramuses.
It is not only the obviously earth-shaking events that are worth our learning. Sometimes even a seemingly trivial event has significance because it adds to the bigger picture of one’s understanding of the world, and of life itself. Each little event is like a dot in our minds, and when we collect enough dots over time, we can join them, analyse them and gain that precious thing called insight. For instance, when one reads story after story about the misadventures of wealthy young socialites such as Paris Hilton and joins the dots, one may realise the perils of raising children in incredible luxury that stem from the potentially deleterious effects of excessive comfort on the character of a child. Even if you are very wealthy, then, you might decide to live in a fairly modest apartment instead of a 40,000 square-foot mansion with a swimming pool and four housekeepers – in the process raising a down-to-earth child with sound character who will be a source of great joy and pride for the rest of your life.
Even so, critics argue, the great majority of current affairs that we learn about have little or no practical value, whereas almost all the time we spend learning a practical skill such as computer programming or plumbing can definitely help us increase our earning power or solve more pragmatic problems. However, we should remember the timeless words of Martin Luther King Jr. “An individual has not started living,” he said, “until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” As human beings, one special quality of our species is our need and search for meaning in life. This meaning comes from being connected to others, to society and to a cause greater than oneself. Current affairs are the running narrative of humanity, and if we are a part of humanity we must be concerned about them. Without this concern, our lives are stripped of meaning and we deprive ourselves of the highest fulfilment.
Therefore I hold firmly to the belief that as human beings, we must take a keen interest in current affairs because they give us the broad situational awareness that will optimally inform our choices in life to help us to achieve the best outcomes both pragmatic and symbolic. To divorce oneself from current affairs is to be like the frog at the bottom of the well in the Chinese idiom. One would dwell in the darkness of ignorance, and see only a tiny sliver of the majestic sky.
Copyright Steven Ooi 2014
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The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
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