Note: This article was published, citation information below.


Ang, M. (2005). Imagination. In ParenThink. magazine, Chinese edition. May 2005 issue.

The development of human civilization through the ages has been dependent on creativity – the ability to think out of the box, to come up with fresh, new, extraordinary, yet workable ideas and inventions that are the hallmark of quantum leap advances. At the heart of creativity lies the imagination. It is not possible to dream up something new without literally dreaming it up. It follows that the development of the imagination should also develop our sense of creativity. Why is it then that many fail to develop this aspect of their potential? Why is it that the majority seem to lack that extra “spark” of creativity, satisfied merely “to go where others have gone before”, instead of “to go where no one has gone before”?

I believe the answer to this question lies in the general trends in contemporary entertainment. Though not the sole factor, I would like to suggest that this is one of the main factors for the present day general lack of true creativity. I would like to qualify myself here. I am not suggesting that there are no truly creative individuals in present day society. What I am suggesting is that the majority lack the ability to imagine new ideas, concepts, inventions, et cetera on their own.

To draw an analogy from the world of sport, there is a “spectator mentality” present in most entertainment today, as opposed to the “participant mentality” prominent in entertainment of yesteryear. Take children’s play for example – parents used to be able to tell their children to “go outside and play” – with nothing more to play with than other children and their imaginations. Trees became hideouts, broom handles became horses, old badminton rackets became guitars… in plainer words, children were able to improvise, to make do with whatever they had and to invent whatever else they required. Today’s parents by contrast worry that their children need more toys, more computer games… children today in general wouldn’t think of using old matchboxes to build their own toy cars – instead they want their parents to buy them Matchbox brand miniature replicas.

Another favourite type of entertainment has always been and continues to remain storytelling. What has changed is the form that it takes. The very oldest form of storytelling was just that – the oral tradition of actually telling stories. Someone would imagine up a story to tell, and listeners would have to imagine the scenes described to them. Listeners’ interjections (“ooh!”, “what happened next?”, et cetera) only served to fuel the storytellers imagination, causing the story to evolve into a sort of “living organism”. With the invention of writing and the printing press came books, and a new form of storytelling entertainment – fiction novels and short stories. While these more explicitly described characters, places and events in the author’s imagination, they nevertheless still engaged the reader’s own imagination, with each reader experiencing their own unique mental imagery and emotional responses. The invention of the moving picture added yet another external shell to the world of storytelling – with television and movies, viewers were now presented with an exact replica of the producer’s imagination, resulting in everyone receiving an identical mental image of the story. My picture of Tolkien’s Rivendell may have been different from yours, but now everyone’s picture is exactly the same as Peter Jackson’s. The proposed next step in the world of film technology is to introduce smells as well – what left is there for us to imagine then?

Music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. It is interesting to note the difference between more “primitive” musical forms in contrast with newer more “advanced” forms of music. Folk music is by its very nature meant to be for the people, by the people. It does not require high levels of musical skill, but instead corporate participation. People play, sing and dance, rather than watch and listen. This active participation not only builds community spirit and bonds of fellowship, but also develops individual character as participants learn to express themselves on their instruments, and with their voices and bodies. The trend of concert going, which first came into style in the 18th century, bred a generation of passive music listeners who merely sat back and enjoyed the effort of others. The musicians and singers themselves became more and more skilled, until the average person felt content to no longer participate in the music making, but to leave it to the professionals. The invention of recording technology and mass distribution avenues such as radio and music CDs meant that even the limited “community experience” of physically going to a concert hall was now replaced by an even more passive form of individual listening, at its most extreme form in total isolation through a pair of headphones. Creativity was no longer in the picture at all, neither was imagination. That was left to the composers, sometimes long dead and gone!

These three general examples serve to effectively illustrate the trend in modern entertainment towards mass forms that require minimal creative input from its participants, in contrast to much older forms of entertainment where those being entertained actively participated while at the same time developing their imagination and sense of creativity. The fact that entertainment today is geared towards the masses and its effects somewhat numb the mind’s ability to think for itself, has resulted in a general “mindlessness” in modern society. In fact, we live in a society that has been “prepared” to receive mass direction – a potentially dangerous situation open for exploitation by those sharp enough and manipulative enough.

Young people have young minds. They are impressionable, and are at that stage in life where they are searching – to understand themselves, where they stand in society, what they want to do with their lives… young people are also one of the main consumers of modern mass entertainment forms. Modern youth, unless guided otherwise by their parents during early childhood, have also grown up on a diet of passive forms of entertainment not requiring much imagination or creativity: television, pop music, computer games, and the movies. Not many Malaysian young people (or even older people for that matter!) would confess to being avid readers of fiction, or know how to occupy themselves if left alone with nothing other than their own imaginations. The common complaint among youth, “I’m bored”, stems from a singular lack of creative imagination. The truly creative are never bored – they can always find something with which to occupy themselves.

So is there anything we can do as parents to stem the tide? The answer is plenty! As in everything else, I firmly believe lifelong benefits come from lifestyle habits. Start your kids out right. Forgo the flashy light toys and resist the urge to plonk your child down in front of the TV set to keep him or her entertained. Choose music CDs over video CDs, and choose learning an instrument over merely watching a concert. Read to your children. Bedtime stories are wonderful things - don’t let computer games, TV or videos replace them. Choose simple toys that encourage imaginative play instead of toys that leave very little room for improvisation – simple blocks are very useful for older babies. When your kids are old enough play games like make-up your own story one line at a time – i.e. each of you takes turns to add to the storyline. Go to the beach – build sandcastles. And get your kids to tell you about their dreams. And you tell them yours. It is through encouraging creative development of our imaginations that Malaysia’s future Nobel Prize winner will emerge.


Copyright ©2005 Minni Ang