Sri Lanka General Election 2010: Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?

Keeping an eye on his beloved island...?

To melancholic Hamlet, death was an undiscovered country. In Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, the Prince of Denmark hesitates in his consideration of suicide not because of an absolute Christian belief in divine retribution, but because he is afraid of an afterlife of which he cannot be sure.

For the more cheerful among us, the Future is the great Undiscovered Country. It’s a notion that has been used widely by science fiction writers, and in 1991, it was popularised by Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is the sixth feature film in the Star Trek science fiction franchise.

In the movie, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon – talking peace with the Earth Federation – gives a toast to “the undiscovered country — the future”. Spock recognizes the line from Hamlet, and Gorkon tells Spock that one has never read Shakespeare properly until reading the text in “the original Klingon”…

All this forms the backdrop (well, sort of!) to my latest op ed essay, just published by Groundviews citizen journalism website. Titled Voting for the ‘Undiscovered Country’?, and timed for Sri Lanka’s general election 2010, it takes a look at the most important common element discussed and debated during the election campaigns by all parties: Sri Lanka’s future prosperity.

As I note: “Our endlessly bickering political parties rarely agree on anything, so it’s refreshing to see a broad consensus on what this election is fundamentally about: future prosperity.

“That’s no coincidence. This is the first time we elect our law makers since the long drawn and brutal civil war ended in May 2009. We have been looking back — or nervously looking around — for much of the past three decades. It’s about time we finally looked forward.”

I go on to say: “How we wish Sir Arthur C Clarke was still with us at this crucial juncture in our history! For half a century up to his death in March 2008, the author, explorer and visionary was Sri Lanka’s amiable ‘tour guide’ to that ‘Undiscovered Country’ called the Future.

“Whoever wins this week’s election, shaping a better future will need clarity of purpose, hard work and persistence. Those looking for long term vision can start with the substantial volume of essays, interviews and speeches that Clarke has left behind…”

The rest of the essay is a concise exploration of Sir Arthur Clarke’s advice offered to his adopted homeland over several decades, and covering different areas of public policy and public interest such as education, technology, environmental conservation and managing human diversity.

Read the full essay on Groundviews, and join the online discussion.

Note: This essay is partly based on the Arthur C Clarke memorial address I gave at the British Council Colombo on 17 March 2010.

Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

Going where no trekkie has gone before?

I’m exactly as old as Star Trek: we were both born a few months apart in 1966 (I’m older by seven months). But because we grew up on opposite sides of planet Earth in the pre-Internet era, our worlds didn’t collide until we were both well into our teens. From then on, I’ve been a Trekkie/Trekker since.

I can’t wait to see the latest (11th) Star Trek movie that opened on 8 May 2009. It’s an ‘origins’ movie – a chronicle of the early days of Captain James T. Kirk and his fellow USS Enterprise crew members. Read plot on Wikipedia.

Our world was very different when the one-time US Army pilot, screenwriter and TV producer Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, the original series. It started airing on the US network NBC in September 1966. The Space Age was less than a decade old, and only a few men (and a couple of women) had made short trips to near Earth orbit. The great Space Race was in full swing, and NASA was spearheading the largest peace-time operation in history, aimed at landing men on the Moon and getting them safely back before the decade was out.

Star Trek, in contrast, offered ambition and hope. Every week at the appointed time, the United Star Ship Enterprise and its intrepid crew took viewers roaming around the universe. The stories appealed as much for insights into the infinite possibilities (and combinations) of life, technology, compassion and power at a cosmic scale, as for its glimpses of the near-Utopian human society in the 23rd century.

As Manohla Dargis, said this week reviewing the latest Star Trek movie (2009) in The New York Times: “Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission (“to boldly go”), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up.”

According to Dargis, the enduring appeal of Star Trek and the global cult following it inspired is “a testament to television’s power as myth-maker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from.”

Star Trek Original SeriesAnd, we might add, where we are headed. The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “The show was unique, for its time, for its portrayal of diversity and unity among the wider cast of characters. As the Wikipedia notes: “At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas, Roddenberry created a multi-ethnic crew for the Enterprise, including an African woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and—most notably—an alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. In the second season, reflecting the contemporaneous Cold War, Roddenberry added a Russian crew member. “

This utopian scenario needs to be contrasted with the prevailing reality of the American Space Programme. No American had ventured beyond near Earth orbit in 1966, and NASA was struggling to catch up with the Russians. Yet, by the time Star Trek original series finished its initial run in September 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had returned safely and triumphantly from the Moon. In the event, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo XIII. Without exception, all of them were white and male.

The journey has only just begun...

The journey has only just begun...

It took many years for reality to catch up with Star Trek‘s vision, and then, only just. Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983. A few weeks later, in August that year, Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational.

It wasn’t just racial equality and harmony that Star Trek advocated in its subtext. While bringing intellectually stimulating entertainment, it also celebrated values like compassion and tolerance. In the Cold War world locked into Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Star Trek gently reminded viewers that mutual co-existence was a viable option…if only enough effort was invested in it.

As space visionary and science fiction grandmaster Sir Arthur C Clarke noted in a 40th anniversary tribute to the series in 2007: “Appearing at such a time in human history, Star Trek popularised much more than the vision of a space-faring civilisation. In episode after episode, it promoted the then unpopular ideals of tolerance for differing cultures and respect for life in all forms – without preaching, and always with a saving sense of humour.”

He then added, in characteristic style: “Over the years, the sophistication of storylines and special effects has certainly improved, but Star Trek retains its core values – still very much needed in our sadly divided and quarreling world.”

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...

The Enterprise will be cruising the galaxy for centuries to come...