Toppling The Malay Coconut Shell

April 25th, 2017

Toppling The Malay Coconut Shell

  1. M. Bakri Musa

The Malay coconut shell had been toppled many times in our history, and not necessarily through our own efforts, as when those early Muslim traders entered our world. They came to trade but through their exemplary day-to-day activities and conduct, they upended our core belief system. Those Muslim traders transformed Malays from believing in multiple deities to a one All-Powerful and All-Encompassing God. That did not change our physical world but it was momentous nonetheless precisely because of that. We adapted to that new world in a smooth and seamless transition. We became better for it.

The colonials too flipped over our shell. Unlike those Muslims traders, the changes the colonials brought about were physical and demographic, as when they flooded the country with immigrants to work the tin mines and rubber estates. Those colonialists also made their presence known in no uncertain terms, to the natives as well as immigrants, who was in charge.

We cursed the colonials for upending our familiar comfortable world. Nonetheless their flipping over our coconut shell exposed us to a new and much wider world. At the micro or personal level, if not for the colonials I would still today be an orang hamba (slave) at the istana (palace), just like my ancestors. There are others who argue that the colonialism itself was a form of slavery. That may well be so.

At the macro or societal level, the British colonials (though not the earlier Dutch or Portuguese) introduced modern education. Thousands benefited from that. To be sure, those colonials did not do that with much enthusiasm nor funded it with bountiful generosity. They did it in portions just enough to satisfy their collective conscience and to meet their pragmatic need for locally qualified people to help them rule us more effectively and, not to be discounted, cheaply.

There were other less appreciated but nonetheless significant and enduring benefits of colonial rule. That may not be a politically correct assertion to make, nonetheless the British gave us Munshi Abdullah. If not for them, he too would be another indentured laborer at the istana, and Malay literature would remain nothing more than the chronicles of khayalan (fantasies).

Another global cataclysm that toppled the metaphorical coconut shell of our Malay world was World War II. While the colonialists’ entry forced a sea change in our Malay way of life and matters physical, the Japanese invasion triggered even more. They not only changed the country physically, and it was a very terrible change, but also and of much greater significance and permanence, triggered a momentous change in the Malay psyche.

The sight of those hitherto invincible white Tuans and their Mems scurrying in their Austins and Morris Minors chased by the short, yellow Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles made quite an impact on the collective natives’ psyche:  The myth of white supremacy forever shattered! It was this that emboldened Malays to pursue with even greater vigor our independence.

While external upheavals can topple our coconut shell, we cannot always count on them or predict the outcome to be in our favor. Nor could we anticipate the costs we would have to bear, which was considerable as we saw with colonialism and the Japanese Occupation. That is a crucial caveat. It would be much more preferable for us to make our own effort at toppling our shell. Then we could control its timing and thus minimize the collateral damage. We would also be more likely to get the changes we desired.

Toppling our coconut shell begins with our freeing ourselves mentally to imagine the world beyond the present. That is the crucial first step. Once we can imagine, then we can fly, or in the words of the great Muhammad Ali, “A man who has no imagination has no wings.”

Imagination rules the world, Napoleon once said. Once one’s imagination is ignited, there is no going back; our shell will be toppled. The question then will be whether it is done with great care so as not to incur collateral damages, or recklessly as in the rampage of a revolution. The former is preferable. However, as the promises of flipping our shell are so great, the fear of the latter should not deter us.

A sure way of igniting our imagination is to be dissatisfied with our present condition. Change, and thus progress, depends on us not being satisfied with the status quo. Once we have this sense of dissatisfaction or even better, anger, that would motivate us to topple over and get out from underneath our shell. Immigrants are successful in their adopted land because they are driven by dissatisfaction with their native land.

A major obstacle for Malays specifically and Muslims generally is our ingrained but misguided notion of satisfaction with the status quo, al qadar – our fate is written in the book – the passive acceptance that there is not much that we can do to alter our destiny. This destructive religious determinism is just as crippling as the pseudo modern biological one – our fate lies with our genes. The latter is from our misunderstanding of science; the former, the misreading of our faith.

There is much that we can do at the individual level to fire up our imagination. Merely looking at and being curious of the wonderful world around and within us would open up our minds. Observing the stars above had triggered many an imagination. With it, Copernicus transformed our view of the universe from a geocentric one that we inherited from the Greeks to a heliocentric one. Many a theological and other shells were shattered by that singular observation.

Exposing ourselves to the imagination of others is another, as with the old storytelling. Today it would be reading. Pictures and videos both expand and restrict that reach. It expands because of the richness of the images; restricts because the photographer or videographer imposes her imagination upon her viewers! Travel and experiencing other cultures too stretch our imagination. Mystics go into seclusion for extended periods to force a change in the normal rhythm of their lives to effect similar ends.

At the societal level, the proven pathways towards igniting our imagination and thus liberating our minds include information, education, and our involvement in trade and commerce.

Once we are aware through education, information and our travels or trading activities that there is a much wider world out there, then we are not likely to be satisfied with our own confined dark space no matter how comfortable it may seem to us at the time or what a paradise it is as per the repeated assurances of our leaders.

All three – information, education, and commerce – apart from opening up our minds and facilitating the toppling of our shell, are also the best ways to prepare us for the new open world. The following chapters will deal with each of these elements. Before proceeding, I pause and reassess where we are, the direction we are headed, and the destination we aspire to reach.

 

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

The False Comfort and Security Undeneath The Coconut Shell

April 17th, 2017

The False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell

M. Bakri Musa

 

The North Koreans are convinced that they live in Paradise because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to, and go to sleep at night on an empty stomach. Likewise, Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they are competent and honest despite the mess the country is in, while they luxuriate in palatial mansions and citizens struggle to eke out a living. Those leaders could not possibly afford such obscene opulence just on their government wages. However, express your doubts and you stand accused of being blasphemous, disloyal, or even traitorous.

Returning to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about his world and claim to comprehend and be in full command of it. After all what is there to understand or command? His world is dark and small. He is the only one to obey his orders!

What that proverbial Señor Froggie does not appreciate is that his universe, huge as it may seem to him, is nothing but a speck.

Those on the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We may even pity it. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well-intentioned people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot. That may well be; after all you do not miss what you do not know or have.

Malays face many forces, subtle as well as brute, that keep us cooped under our coconut shell. The subtle ones include the feudal elements of our culture, as with our ready acceptance of our fate (takdir) and our meek acceptance of and deference to authority figures. Then there are our schools and universities; they indoctrinate our young instead of teaching them to think critically. We are also easily taken in with labels; call something “Islamic” and we fall for it right away, suspending our critical judgment. I understand that they are working on an “Islamic” beer! Our leaders exploit this by labeling those they disagree with as anti-Islam, “anti-nationals,” or “unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels. The current puerile debate over halal and haram is a manifestation of this meaningless obsession.

As for the brute forces, there are the intrusive and repressive laws like the dreadful Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate citizens without trial. Now Malaysia has the National Security Act of 2016 with even more unchecked powers given to the authorities. Again, note those labels; those laws are not for our “security” but to keep us subservient.

No mortal should ever have unchecked and absolute power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any mullah, regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is, tell you otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.

Three daunting obstacles face our entrapped citizen frog in escaping from underneath his coconut shell. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second, help him escape or topple that shell; and third, assist him to adjust to his new open world.

The first obstacle is the toughest. Far too often we lack even the awareness of being trapped. We remain blissfully ignorant. This awareness is crucial but by itself is not enough; we must also then have the desire to escape. For that to happen, we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.

It may seem perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell, readily accepting their fate as Allah’s will–al qadar (divinely destined). Who are we to challenge His design?

Then there is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo. Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?

As for ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya noted in his short story, Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid). That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them, their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer humans but worms crawling inside the earth, wrote Pramoedya.

The coconut shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that story) was tossed over many times, yet they still sought to be underneath one. The Dutch enslaved them, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves they chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated, the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians, deeming themselves “too good” to be with their fellow dirty, brown natives.

History is replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent toppling of shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of the external cataclysms. Only when all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new, open and much bigger world do we realized that we had been cooped up all along.

Those who destined themselves to be eternal slaves (or accept their fate) like Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact, it would be downright frightening. They would then scramble to find new shells to hide under, like hermit crabs exposed after the onslaught of a tidal wave. For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a welcomed transforming event.

 

Next:  Paths Toward Toppling Our Coconut Shell

 

 

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications.

April 10th, 2017

Make Sultan Johor’s Alleged Briber A Hero

  1. M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

A prominent businessman who had hosted more than one Agong as well as many sultans was hauled away in his orange lock-up attire, desperate to hide his face, on charges of trying to bribe the Sultan of Johor over recommendations for a federal royal honorific title.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) has yet to release the suspect’s identity, or the charges. The social and mainstream media have already condemned him, Malaysia’s corruption personified. It is rare for the two often very contrasting views to coincide.

Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the complementary if not necessary role of the other half of the equation, recipients of his alleged bribes. If we were to focus on that instead, it would expose this corrosive and despicable aspect of Malaysian society. The man, as well as MACC Chief, the Sultan of Johor, and a few others would then emerge as heroes, and Malaysia the better for it. As for who the true villains were, we would have to wait.

The suspect was also alleged to have “brokered” on behalf of aspiring Malay knight wannabes among rich non-Malays, those willing to fork out huge sums for the privilege of donning the white songkok and the accompanying monkey suit during official functions.

The irony does not escape me. Non-Malays, the Chinese in particular, may be resentful if not disdainful of Malay community and culture, the consequence of being excluded from the New Economic Policy. Their elite however, are not at all bashful in pursuing feudal Malay titles. That reflects more the financial, social and other clouts such titles confer in contemporary Malaysia, less the honorees’ respect for Malay values.

Cases of Malaysian royal titles being bought, or allegations thereof, are not news. They are also far from being mere allegations. There is a portrait, viral in the social media, of a mongoloid-looking character barely out of his teens, all prim and proper in his official pose as a Malay hulubalang. I wonder what great service this prodigy had rendered.

I was once at a social function in America hosted by one of Malaysia’s many sultans here on a private visit. I found myself in a quiet corner with some of the guests. The conversation drifted on the many titled ones in the crowd, and of royal awards generally. To clarify and confirm what I thought I was hearing, I inquired as to the prevailing price of such titles, specifically with this sultan, known for his exuberant generosity in dispensing such honors. When told, I replied with nonchalant casualness that it was well within my affordability range. With the other sultans, the rates could be doubled, I was told.

Imagine my surprise when a few weeks later I received a phone call from Malaysia. The caller identified himself as a “Raja” and “well connected to the palace.” He wanted to pursue “the topic we had discussed!”

I burst out laughing and assured him that I had only been joking. He kept pressing me, unconvinced by my reply. He was so persistent that I had to hang up on him. I did not know whether he was genuine or a con artist trying to rip me off. I was not interested to find out.

Thus, when the Sultan of Johor exposed that bribery attempt, it elicited a yawn in me. What was new?

There was indeed something new, or at least unusual. First, the manner of his revealing it – on his social media. My inquisitiveness then took over. Why him, and of much greater significance, why now and the manner?

When I was a surgeon in GHJB in 1977, a colleague was banished out of state within 24 hours for allegedly being rude to a sultan. No trial, no due process. Imagine trying to bribe one! I expected the royal keris to have been sharpened, as in days of yore, not a posting in social media. Not many would dare even consider bribing a sultan, except perhaps the Sultan of Sulu. That would not be a bribe as he has no official function or power, and thus no favors to bestow.

It is safe to conclude that the Johor Sultan was not the suspect’s first or only attempted bribee. It is also safe to conclude that he must have some familiarity with sultans generally and that of Johor specifically.

In Malay culture, peasants bringing tributes to their sultans is the norm, much like Hindus their deities. That businessman could be trying to be a humble and loyal rakyat.

If MACC were to focus only on the briber, then this case would be no different from the many others. The same dynamics, comparable greed, and similar motives; only the personalities differ, and of course the size, nature, and purpose of the loot.

Circumstances create heroes. This is the rare and unique opportunity for the MACC chief to prove his mettle, to be a true, honest, and devoted public servant, as he without end claims to be. “Flip” this alleged briber; make him a prosecution witness instead of the defendant. Offer him immunity and a deal he could not refuse in return for the “goods” he would deliver.

It would not be an easy choice for the suspect. Coming from a culture that bred the feared Triads, not dissimilar from the Mafia, with its code of silence enforced with unimaginable brutality, being truthful would not come naturally, not to mention could be very dangerous. On the other hand, the prospect of a long jail sentence, and leaving behind your foreign wife and young children, is not palatable either.

Then consider the potential rewards, of being hailed a hero for exposing the seedy aspect of the royalty class, by Malays and non-Malays alike. He would then be truly deserving of his Tan Sri title.

He had it easy thus far, out on only RM200K bail. Peanuts to someone like him and in these days of the depreciated ringgit. From another aspect, the price of one Datukship from a cheap sultan.

Imagine if he were to reveal all. A special tribunal, as provided for in the constitution (thanks to Mahathir), would have to be empaneled to prosecute those alleged corrupt sultans. Imagine the electricity once the charges were proffered. Najib would sigh a huge relief as it would wipe off the festering 1MDB scandal from the front pages. His ardent defender, aka Attorney-General Apandi Ali, would also emerge as a hero among honest Malaysians, instead of as now, a renegade and protector of the corrupt.

On the political front, in one fell swoop Najib would outstrip Mahathir in striking fear and terror among the sultans. They are still chafing at their collective treatment by Mahathir in the 1980s and 90s when he stripped them of their personal immunity as well as their veto powers over legislations. The sultans have been asserting themselves lately, in tandem with Najib’s increasing vulnerability. Their not assenting to the National Security Act of 2016 was a non-too-subtle manifestation of this new assertiveness. The so-called First Lady of Malaysia outflanking the Queen and the various sultanahs in the gaudy ostentatious arenas also did not sit well with the royals.

Expect UMNO newsletters Utusan, Berita Harian and The New Straits Times reprising the 1980s, filling their pages with lurid titillating details of royal peccadilloes.

What prompted Sultan Ibrahim, the son of the only sultan ever convicted of murder, to expose this alleged bribery? The Johore royal household is the wealthiest not just in Malaysia and not just among sultans. Its involvement in the massive Forest City Project would ensure its wealth would remain undiminished for generations no matter how profligate their princes and princesses. Perhaps the amount of the alleged bribe was insulting.

Forest City is drawing much negative reaction, in part because of the mega sums, massive Mainland Chinese involvement, and unknown environmental consequences. To many Malays this development rekindles painful humiliating memories of what his great grandfather did to that little island across Selat Tebrau.

Then there was the sultan declining to offer himself for election by his brother rulers to be Deputy King a few months ago. As all kids know, the difference between not wanting versus not being given can be hard to discern. There is not much fraternal love lost between him and his brother rulers. This exposé could be payback time.

This high-profile case will not end up in the usual NFA (No Further Action) file. The only question is whether the suspect, together with MACC chief, AG Apandi Ali, and the sultan emerge as heroes or renegades?

RUU355 U-Turn Exposes Najib’s Mischief and Vulnerability

April 3rd, 2017

RUU355 U-Turn Exposes Najib’s Mischief and Vulnerability

  1. M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

Many applaud Prime Minister Najib’s recent U-turn on RUU355, the legislative amendment to “strengthen” the Syariah. That circus, which is far from over, exposes Najib’s mischief and vulnerability. Lauding him for withdrawing the government’s sponsorship of that bill is akin to praising a pyromaniac who had tried to start a fire but failed. Najib should be condemned, not praised, for his dangerous game of stirring religious discord.

Whenever Islam enters the discourse in Malaysia, all rational discussions evaporate. Leaders and followers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, descent with gusto into the gutter of religious and underlying racial bigotry. I would have thought that such a realization would have cautioned leaders to be more circumspect when treading on matters religious. On the contrary, as revealed by Najib’s latest and very crude mischief, they are only too eager to fan the fire.

With over 60 years of a corrupt and incompetent UMNO-led administration, Malaysia is littered with debris and garbage, literal as well as figurative. Any idiot with a matchstick could start a conflagration with ease. Imagine a mischievous one, if Malaysians let it be. It is time to grab the matchstick away from Najib’s reach.

RUU355 began as PAS Hadi’s private member’s bill. Clueless on matters of statecraft, PAS leaders, well exemplified by Hadi, resort to simplistic and gimmicky maneuvers, as with introducing “Islamic laws” and making Malaysia an “Islamic state.”

For his part, Najib was desperate to be seen as a latter-day Malay hero championing syariah. He also sensed an opportunity to create mischief by driving a wedge in the opposition coalition; hence his over eagerness to take over the bill’s sponsorship. Later, caught and surprised by the unanticipated strong opposition from the now emboldened non-UMNO Barisan partners, specifically from Sarawak, Najib was forced to backtrack.

Clever only by half, Najib now finds himself on the unfamiliar terrain of having to make difficult choices. He opted for throwing PAS under the bus, hoping that his support among conservative Malays would not be too adversely affected. The risk of losing his crucial Sarawak partners, and with that the fall of his government, was much greater and more immediate. Earlier, Najib had hoped to endear himself to PAS followers and entice their party away from the opposition in time for the next election.

With Najib’s vulnerability now exposed, expect more challenges and shifts in the wind, and for him to be jerked around like a yoyo. It would be quite a sight! As for PAS, it is but the flighty woman jilted by her hitherto ardent suitor and now not welcomed by her previous partner. Not a pretty sight for a far-from-pretty old maid.

For Malaysians, the choice is simple. Deny Najib the privilege of leading Malaysia. Snatch the matchstick away from him.

If I were a non-Malay, I would support RUU355 with unrestraint enthusiasm. I would do likewise for all Islam-centric legislations, including the introduction of hudud. My assertion here is not meant to shock or raise eyebrows, nor is it a clumsy attempt at sarcasm or literary spoof, rather a matter of pragmatism if not blatant opportunism.

As a Malay however, I am terrified at this crude fascistic attempt to make Islam an instrument for repression. It pains me to see my faith debased as a political and social tool to control the ummah. Greatness can never emerge from a controlled and repressed society. Islam thrives only when there is freedom and justice. Oppression promotes neither.

Our ulamas and scholars have failed us here. They they have subverted what should be a political debate into a test of our faith. Oppose RUU355 and you are destined for Hell! How infantile!

There are many reasons (most are selfish and self-serving) why non-Malays should support the expansion of Islamic institutions. One benign rationale would be not to interfere with the wishes of the majority (Malays), as long as those do not impact you adversely. The constitution protects and spares non-Muslims from hudud. You could say that they do not “deserve” such divinely-derived laws!

Non-Muslims should for example, push for public executions and whippings, following Afghanistan’s example. Turn those into revenue-producing events, with “premium” front-row seats commanding hefty prices, and market them as showcasing the “beauty” and “superiority” of Islamic laws.

Sell ads to whip and sword manufacturers, much like oil companies advertise at Formula One races. Such public executions and whippings could rival major spectator events like boxing to draw foreign tourists.

It is also in the self-interest of non-Muslims to encourage Malays to be obsessed and consumed with matters religious and the pursuit of the Hereafter. With more young Malays preoccupied with studying revealed knowledge and prophetic traditions, there would be that much fewer to pursue STEM. Meaning, less competition for non-Malays wishing to become doctors, scientists and engineers.

With young Malays opting for Al Azhar and Pakistani madrasahs, there would be less competition among Malaysians aspiring for Oxford and Harvard. Not that our community is a formidable competitor on that front.

For non-Muslim politicians, embracing pro-Islam postures would be a sure way into the hearts of Malays and capturing their votes. Those politicians would become instant darlings of the Malay community, fast eclipsing the likes of that mualaf Ridhaun Tee, and without having to change your name or religion. You don’t have to suck up to UMNO or PAS politicians either! All you have to do is don white kopiah (or hijab, for a woman) at Muslim functions, and of course support RUU355 and similar legislations.

Non-Malays should be heartened that the Padang Merbok pro-RUU355 rally drew thousands; overwhelmingly Malays. It went well past midnight. Not even the early evening rain dampened the mood. They came from as far north as Perlis and Kelantan, giddy with the excitement of doing God’s work, as they had been led to believe.

Imagine the acres of paddy fields not tilled that day and the next, the thousands of rubber trees not tapped, and hundreds of fishing boats idle in port. You do not need to be an economist to see the impact; all negative. Or perhaps it was minimal as they were marginal participants in the modern Malaysian economy, consumed as they were with the Hereafter.

As one of the few non-Malays present at that rally noted, the only non-Muslims affected by RUU355 would be casino operators. Few, Muslims or non-Muslims, have sympathy for them.

I compliment that non-Malay for his deep understanding of Malay culture and values. It is a sad commentary that individuals like him are a rarity today. Not so a few generations ago.

Following the failed Malayan Union, a coalition of populist Malay organizations under PUTERA, together with the primarily non-Malay trade union group AMCJA, put forth a proposal for self-rule.

A central feature of that proposal would have liberalized conditions for citizenship. The leftist Malay leaders in PUTERA enthusiastically embraced that simply because those new citizens would be called Melayu, not Malayans. Non-Malays, being pragmatic, too accepted that. They could not care less about the label as long as they were granted citizenship.

Malays were easily seduced into relaxing the citizenship requirements in return for the Melayu label. Never mind that those would-be culup Melayus were not Muslims and could not speak Malay or give a hoot about Malay mores and customs!

Thank God the British rejected the PUTERA/AMCJA idea and instead imposed the Federation Agreement.

To Malays, the label is all important. Do what you want with the content, in line with our culture’s premium on peragga (appearance). It was true then and it is even more true today. Label something as Islamic or hudud, and Malays would swallow it without question. Likewise, anything from the land of the Prophet is holy. Even the flies in Mecca are hallal! It is not a surprise that Najib’s receiving millions from a Saudi sheik be viewed as borkat (divine bounty) by Malays and not, as the rest of the world sees it, blatant corruption.

Two centuries ago the British nearly succeeded in destroying the Chinese civilization by giving the masses what they craved for–opium. In the process the Brits made tons of money and controlled China. The Chinese elite, from the emperor down to the mandarins, were aware of the dangers opium posed but they could not prevail against the mighty British.

With Malays on the other hand, our leaders are the biggest pushers of the metaphorical opium. Non-Malays should let that be and let Malays be narcotized. Then like the British in China of yore, non-Malays could control the economy and country even more. If Malays were to complain or be resentful, flatter them that a much bigger and better reward awaits them in the Hereafter.

That however is a distracting issue. The key conclusion from Najib’s latest U-turn on RUU355 is that he and the party he leads are now vulnerable. Najib is floundering. As any boxer will tell you, that is the best time to knock your opponent out.

Tun Razak: Seeing The Father Through The Son

March 26th, 2017

Tun Razak:  Seeing The Father Through The Son

M. Bakri Musa

Last March 11, 2017, would have been Tun Razak’s 95th birthday. He died in 1976, his sixth year in office and two months shy of turning 54. On April 3, 2017, his son, Prime Minister Najib, will enter his ninth year in office.

Najib seems so different from his father. Or is he? Is Najib a reflection of his father?

Just to pose that question is to commit secular blasphemy in Malaysia. Many Malaysians, Malays in particular, revere the Tun. He was buried at the Heroes Mausoleum at Masjid Negara. The country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Bapak Merdeka (Father of Independence), was buried in the state and very provincial capital of Alor Star.

“Many” does not mean all. Among non-Malays, excluded from the largesse of Tun’s landmark New Economic Policy (NEP), memories of him are less charitable.

As a young surgeon in Canada in the 1970s I came across William Shaw’s glowing biography of Tun Razak. He was a legend at Malay College, a scholar-athlete par excellence. He breezed through his law studies, completing it well before his scholarship term ended. He could have been a successful lawyer there or have a lucrative career with one the many colonial firms.

Instead he chose to serve his country. He could have been the first native Governor of the proposed and subsequently-aborted Malayan Union. He was a rising star destined for great heights. Yet he gave all that up to join the fledgling UMNO, and with that, a very uncertain future. UMNO then, very unlike today, had no plump GLC directorships or lucrative government contracts to dole out.

Tun’s story as spun by Shaw inspired me to return. Then just days after I landed, the news of his unexpected death in London. Sudden and shocking! I was devastated. So too was the country.

Razak’s legacy is NEP, and of course Najib. As for Najib’s, it’s too early to tell. This much however, is indisputable. He has burdened Malaysia with a humungous debt to be borne for generations. The full liabilities are not yet known. With most in foreign currencies and with the ringgit fast becoming worthless, those debts would only get worse. Crippling cuts to hospitals and universities are just the beginning.

Also indisputable is this. America’s Justice Department has filed its largest asset forfeiture lawsuit under its corruption and money laundering laws. “Malaysian Official 1,” aka Najib, is alleged to have siphoned off a staggering US$3.5 billion from 1MDB. Singapore has already convicted some of the culprits. Together with Switzerland, Singapore has also shuttered the banks involved.

Najib is both corrupt and incompetent, a lethal combination. Now desperate to hang on to power, Najib adds a third and volatile mix–religion. He regularly sports white jubbah and kopiah, a la the Bedouins. He unabashedly apes his predecessor in leading congregational prayers, an imam wannabe, with camera crew in tow of course. This from a man with Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities but minus the compensating intellect.

Those desert accoutrements are harmless, more juvenile. Far more dangerous is his cavorting with extremist Islamists. Earlier, Najib exhorted UMNO Youths to emulate ISIS. Now he eggs on PAS Hadi with his mischievous RUU 355, the so-called Hudud Bill. In plural Malaysia, that is playing with religious fire, a potential hell on earth.

Razak too co-opted PAS following the 1969 race riot. While he acted from strength, Najib is from weakness. Make that desperation.

These observations on Najib prompted me to reassess my hitherto hero, Tun Razak, spurred by the village wisdom, Bapak borek, anak rintik. Literally translated, frizzled roosters having spotted chicks; idiomatically, like father, like son. We do not become the characters we are out of nowhere. Our parents in particular shape, influence and develop our beliefs, morals, and assumptions.

As a kampung youngster back in the 1950s, I remember Minister of Education Razak exhorting Malays to send their children to the newly-established Malay secondary schools. Many fell for his sway, dis-enrolling their children out of English schools. The consequences of that initiative, and his education policies generally, are now plain.

I was a temporary teacher at one of those new Malay secondary schools back in 1963. I was appalled at the atrocious quality of the textbooks and the total lack of preparation for the new system. As a consequence, generations of Malay children paid and continue to pay a terrible price for Razak’s folly.

My saddest moment visiting the old village today is seeing my former English school classmates whose parents had switched them into the new Malay stream. They are stuck in the kampung; their education had failed them. Their only comment on seeing me was, “Your father was wiser than mine!”

What was my father’s wisdom? We should not listen to what our leaders say, rather follow what they do.

What did Razak do for his children? He sent them all to English schools, and in England to boot! Hypocrisy would be too mild a term for that!

Today his son Najib is asking Malaysians to be frugal and civil servants not be corrupt. Laughable! Many in UMNO today are taking my father’s advice. They don’t listen to him but follow what he does! While Najib, his family, the Lows and a few of the highs like that Goldman Sach bonds salesman get hundreds of millions if not billions, those UMNO kutus are satisfied with a few devalued ringgits and some leftover contracts as rewards for their sucking up to Najib.

`           Malays are not mudah lupa (forgetful lot), rather mudah selesa (easily satisfied).

 

Returning to the shock of his death, Razak hid his lethal cancer from his family and country for years. Even his last desperate flight to England seeking medical treatment was undertaken in an elaborate ruse. A leader not trusting his people. Razak deceived not only Malaysians but also his loved ones.

Our prophet counselled us to lead a life as if we would live forever (meaning, plan long term), but be prepared as if you will die tomorrow (keep your affairs in order so as not to leave a mess). Razak failed to prepare his young family as well as the nation. With five young sons, and a wife unprepared, that was the height of paternal irresponsibility.

In his memoir, Tunku lamented how Razak went through elaborate machinations to topple Tunku, or at least forced him to resign following the May 1969 riot. If only Razak had been straightforward and confided his wish to Tunku, he would have stepped aside sooner. There was no need for Razak to undertake those dirty, unseemly backroom maneuvers. Despite being comrade in arms for over a quarter of a century, Razak still did not take Tunku in his confidence.

That was Tunku’s assessment of Razak’s character.

There is a picture of a young Razak in a Japanese Imperial Army uniform. His apologists spun that as his being a ‘secret agent’ for the British! Only with imminent Japanese surrender did he switch sides. There should be a special word to describe such Benedict Arnold duplicity. “Coward” and “traitor” would not do justice.

Young Razak was no Lieutenant Adnan. He wore his Malay Regiment uniform with pride defending his Tanah Air against the Japanese. Adnan gave the ultimate sacrifice; a wira sahih (genuine hero).

Note the parallel between Razak’s Japanese uniform and Najib’ Bedouin trappings.

Najib also has a political father. Mahathir mentored Najib and more than just greased his ascent. Najib is Mahathir’s most obscene legacy. The redeeming grace is that Mahathir now recognizes his error and is desperate to rectify it. It must pain him to spend his retirement years on this onerous but necessary dirty duty.

Muslims believe that Allah punishes us in this world to spare us a more horrible one in the Hereafter. That belief is a salve to our current travails. As to what awaits us in the Hereafter, only He knows. That aside, I pray for Mahathir’s success, not for his salvation but Malaysia’s.

As for Razak, may his soul rest in peace. His early demise spared him the agony of witnessing what he had bequeathed unto Malaysia through his oldest son.

Race, Sex, And The Brain

March 20th, 2017

 

Race, Sex, and the Brain

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

Anatomists would be hard put to declare at the gross or even microscopic level that there is such an entity as the Malay brain any more than there is a Negro or Caucasian one. At the genomic (DNA or genes) level however, certain genetic markers are associated with certain races, and that there is indeed a Malay brain in contrast to a Caucasian one, just as there is a Malay intestine or red cell in contrast to Caucasian ones. That explains why Malays do not tolerate cheese and Europeans are more susceptible to malaria.

 

If there are such differences in the distribution of certain traits with respect to the gut and blood cells of individuals from the different races, it stands to reason that similar differences should also exist with the brain. An example would be the incidence of mental retardation due to various “inborn errors of metabolism” like Tay Sachs disease, and the onset of dementia among various ethnic groups.

 

Those with a racist bend will find these insights of modern biology reinforcing their prejudices. The scientist Daniel Hillis however, likens our genes (or genome) to the menu of a restaurant, or the ingredients found in its kitchen. If you were to see a wok and MSG in the kitchen, and the menu offers sweet and sour pork, then you could conclude that you are in a Chinese restaurant. If cheese and truffles were in the fridge and the menu offers chicken cordon bleu, then it is most likely a French bistro.

 

You cannot however conclude from that the taste or quality of the food, the reason for choosing a restaurant. That depends less on the ingredients and tools found in the kitchen, more on the talent of the chef.

 

Just as there are variations in the brain based on race, likewise there are differences based on sex. Former Harvard University President Larry Summers generated considerable heat when he stated this fact in his usual less-than-tactful manner. He used that to “explain” or more likely rationalize the lack of women in mathematics and the hard sciences on his campus and in academia generally. Summers paid dearly for his utterance. Just to be sure that the message was hammered into him and others of his persuasion, Harvard chose a woman biologist to succeed him.

 

The pertinent question is the significance of those differences, anatomical or otherwise. Differences between man and woman extend beyond our primary and secondary sex organs. No surprise there either, as the male body is exposed to different hormones; likewise, the experience of a male child as compared to that of a female. Those two factors, more than anything else, differentiate the “pink brain” from the “blue” one. It is the recognition of these other factors that led to the increasing acceptance of transgender individuals.

 

There are discernible as well as subtle differences between the brain of an infant boy and girl. However, as the neuroscientist Lise Eliot noted, infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time as parents, teachers, peers, and the culture at large unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes. Then as adults we attribute all those differences between the sexes to the innate qualities of our brains instead of all those environmental factors.

 

Eliot likens the nature-nurture debate thus. Imagine a ball on the slope of a hill, with the journey of life being a roll downwards with no re-do, as with rolling up the hill to re-start. Nature determines how smooth and heavy the ball, but the steepness of the slope and the terrain are the environment (nurture). If you are fortunately gifted (a heavy smooth round ball) and be placed (born) on a smooth steep slope, you will end far and fast down the slope. However, even if you are heavy and smooth but the slope you were put on had many outcroppings and obstacles that could shift your slide one way or the other, then you could end on the far side of either left or right. A young boy in a tough neighborhood makes a slight mistake, and he pays dearly, sometimes with his life; another would be rescued and end up far differently.

 

The inspiring life story of Ben Carson, the brilliant Black pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins and later bumbling Presidential candidate, illustrates this point. Brought up by a single mother in inner city Detroit, he overcame many obstacles that could have potentially shifted his downward flow in a far different direction.

 

Laura Bush, wife of President Bush 44, ran a stop sign at 17 and killed the driver of the other car. She was not injured or even cited. Someone less lucky or born on the other side of the track could have been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, his or her life forever altered. A friend’s son partook in a drag race on a city street at midnight, and paid the ultimate price. Those are the bumps on the slope of life that could not only alter the course of your life but also end it.

 

In the retelling of the stories of highly successful individuals, one easily forgets the contributions of the many waypoints down the slope that help nudge the flow in one direction over the other. Had Steve Job’s Syrian biological father been born in mid 1990s, he would not have been able to come to America. Jobs and other outstanding individuals like Bill Gates had many fortuitous circumstances nudging them along the way, as so elegantly chronicled in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.

 

* * * * *

 

I end this sojourn into neuroscience with a necessary pause for reflection. I do not imply from the studies cited that the human mind or person could be simplistically reduced to the transfers of molecules of neurotransmitters across synapses, electrical impulses along nerve cells that could be picked up by sophisticated instrumentations, or biochemical changes at the cellular that would be manifested on f MRI scans. Nor could we predict how individuals would react based on studies of laboratory rats and volunteer college students out for a few dollars to pay for their Starbucks. One need not be a philosopher or particularly religious to appreciate that human consciousness or mind, or even the human person, is much more than that.

 

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the insights gained from these studies or be contemptuously dismissive of them as the British neurologist-turn-philosopher Raymond Tallis did in his book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

 

My purpose in citing these studies is to give us an insight or at least possible neurological basis on why it is that at times we willingly listen to the words of the Mullah and ignore the donkey braying in our face.

 

Next:  The False Comfort Underneath The Coconut Shell

 

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

The East Versus West Brain

March 13th, 2017

The “East” Versus “West” Brain

M.Bakri Musa

            Cross-cultural studies using f MRI are even more fascinating. When American and Mainland Chinese subjects were shown pictures of giraffes on a savanna (their natural habitat), the active brain areas in both groups were comparable. When shown pictures of giraffes on a football field (an unnatural environment), the response among the Americans remained unchanged. For the Chinese however, a different part of their brain became activated, the area associated with fear and anxiety.

The interpretation here is that Americans readily accept “unnatural” or unfamiliar situations. To the Chinese, such instances provoke fear and anxiety.

Even with doing simple additions and subtractions, Chinese brains behave differently from those of Americans. Hence the popular characterization of East and West brain. Similar differences are seen in boys’ and girls’– blue and pink brain.

There is a profound twist to this East and West brain. The Chinese have a higher incidence of a genetic variation that resulted in reduced amounts of serotonin, a major neurotransmitter, predisposing them to depression. Depression is treated by giving drugs that inhibit the uptake of serotonin, thus maintaining its high levels.

You would therefore expect the Chinese to have a higher incidence of depression because of this genetic variation. Far from it. What gives?

The Chinese have developed over the ages a social system that is supportive and collectivist. Westerners, spared this genetic predisposition, have little cultural incentive to do likewise. Their society tends toward rugged individualism, with personal liberty a premium. As a consequence of this lack of cultural support, depression is more frequent in the West. An instance where biology impacts culture, and culture ameliorating the potential impact of genes. 

Another insight from fMRI is mirror neurons, brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when he sees someone else doing it, as with soccer fans kicking in response to the action on the field, or boxing fans throwing punches in sync with the fighter.

This phenomenon goes beyond merely mimicking the physical movements. The observer could also anticipate the purpose of the action, whether the glass is grasped to drink from it or to throw it at someone. In each case, different mirror neurons would be activated.

Mirror neurons provide the neurological basis for empathy. They also play a significant role in the transmission of cultural rituals and values through facilitating horizontal (between members) learning within a society. Mirror neurons are also important in language acquisition in babies, as the movements of the mother’s lips and tongue are mirrored in the baby’s brain.

Cross-cultural studies on mirror neurons are even more intriguing. Gestures meant to communicate emotions particular to a culture, as with thumbs up to signal approval, would trigger the firing of the corresponding mirror neurons only in those who share that culture and thus understand the gesture. Outsiders who do not understand the symbolism would not. If someone from other than that culture were to use that signal, the mirror neurons of the native observer who understood its cultural meaning would fire, though not at the same intensity had the gesture been displayed by a fellow native.

Hence the difficulty non-Indians have in comprehending when Indians shake their heads. Is it in agreement or disavowal?

Studies in cognitive psychology are even more illuminating. Adults who were bilingual from an early age and those who acquired it later in life were shown different colors and told in one language to translate the color into the second language. Those bilingual from a young age showed brain activities in only one area while those who became bilingual later in life showed activities in two. The brain of the former is more efficient, better at translating or integrating diverse information.

Consider those familiar only with either Centigrade or Fahrenheit. When told it is 25C, she would first mentally convert it to 77F before pronouncing, “It’s nice and warm!”

There are other advantages, cognitive and otherwise, to being bilingual. Bilingual children are better at multitasking and prioritizing information, discerning “signals” over “noise,” a valuable skill. Bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It also enhances your marketability, quite apart from increasing your potential sources of information. As language is closely related to culture, knowing a second language enables you to understand and appreciate that culture. That is always an advantage, more so in a plural society. Only those with closed minds would be against learning a second language.

There is a loud chorus in Malaysia today to do away with race-based policies. Any policy, more so political and socio-economic, that does not factor in the various values and norms is bound to fail. And both values and norms are tied to race. You ignore race and culture at your own peril.

The central theme of economics may be “people respond to incentives, and the rest is commentary,” to quote Lands ebrg in his eocnomcis for Dummeies but what makes that commentary so thick is the core observation that incentives to some may be disincentives to others. The noble objectives of the NEP are reducing poverty and the “identification of race with economic activities.” Gambling and opium smoking were once the scourge of the Chinese, with which the British nearly destroyed their civilization. Not so today. For Malays, what makes us poor is our obsession with the Hereafter. It still is today. Drugs were non-existent among Malays of yore. Now it is our curse. Corruption is endemic because to Malays it is rezki and borkat, gifts from Allah! Najib received billions from the Saudis. How much closer to God can that be!

Today the Chinese clamor for more government aid. Beware what you ask for! Penang’s Chung Ling School currently has over 90 percent of its students pursuing STEM, far exceeding the government’s 60:40 objective precisely because the school is spared the “advice” and “help” from Putrajaya. Get more public funding and watch Chung Ling degenerate into another Malay College.

The centrality, necessity and nobleness of NEP’s objectives remain. The failure is with not recognizing the core corruption and structural ineptness of the policy’s implementation. We cannot resolve the first if we continue viewing such corrupt practices as other than that, and we cannot improve the policy’s execution if we continue relying on the corrupt and the incompetent. Even if we were to eliminate the race factor in NEP, but with the corrupt and incompetent implementers executing it, the results would be no different.

Next:  Race, Sex, and the Brain

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Swap STAM For STEM To Enhance Malay Competitiveness

March 5th, 2017

Swap STAM For STEM To Enhance Malay Competitiveness

M. Bakri Musa

[I interrupt the regular serialization of my Liberating  The Malay Mind for this commentary. The serialization will resume next week. MBM]

In 2016, nearly nine thousand students, almost exclusively Malays, sat for the Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM-Religious High School Certificate). The results were announced last week with great fanfare.

Also last weekend, and with even greater fanfare, was the glittering mega event at Putrajaya, “Reviving The Islamic Spirit” (RIS) conference. That was the first time it was held outside the Muslim-minority West and in a Muslim-majority country. The organizers made a big point on that.

Careful observation would reveal that, the government excepted, in the modern sectors of Malaysian life and economy, Malays (and thus Muslims) remain very much in the minority and at the margins. Only the overwhelming presence of the Malay-dominated government in the marketplace masks this stark reality. Malaysia’s ostentatious minarets and other very visible artifacts of Islam give visitors and natives alike a false sense of achievement.

So in reality, having RIS in Malaysia did not alter the conference’s traditional and overall Muslim-minority ambience.

Judging from the luminaries and the trappings, the conference must have cost a bundle. However expensive, it pales to the opportunity costs of the squandering of precious Malay brains through STAM. Malays and Muslims would advance more if we get rid of STAM and revamp our religious schools.

Religious schools in Malaysia and elsewhere in the Muslim world should be more like those in the West. Meaning, produce their share of the nation’s scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers. These schools should not be monasteries or a refuge for Malays escaping from this world.

The world is heavy into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but Malays are rushing into STAM. Ever wonder why we are still behind? The only sliver of hope was the slight drop in the number of candidates last year.

The Islamic cachet sells with Malays. More Malay parents enroll their children in Islamic schools, greased by the deterioration of the national stream.

STAM’s curriculum is narrow, restricted to Islam and Arabic. Even Malay is not offered, while English is only an elective, not as a formal subject but a prep course for the Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET). Malays forget that the language of RIS is English. How could they understand the message of the conference without knowing English?

The only universities STAM students could enroll in, apart from local ones (and only if they pass their MUET), would be Arab ones, hardly the leading centers of learning. The courses those students could pursue are even more constricted.

Outside the religious establishment, the only jobs STAM graduates could get would be as tour guides for visiting Arabs. These students could not even be their camel herders. Even if those students were lucky enough to be one, the only thing they could do for their sick herd would be to pray.

Islamic education in Malaysia and the Muslim world is outmoded and irrelevant. The Arabs are scratching their heads on how to modernize their archaic system. However, do not expect any utterance at the RIS conference on this critical daunting issue facing Muslims.

The central fallacy if not arrogance of contemporary Muslim scholars is the obsession with the “Islamization” of knowledge, the view that there is a uniquely Islamic version or perspective. That conceit flies in the face of reality as evidenced by the wide spectrum of views within Islam throughout history as well as now. Muslim ulamas and leaders however, would prefer the flock to be like sheep, subscribing to the only one true version of Islam, as they see it.

Ancient Muslim scholars saw no such distinction between the secular and religious; the leading ones were both scientists and ulamas. Those ancient Muslims did not hesitate learning from the atheistic and polytheistic Greeks. Early Muslims would go to China if they had to in the pursuit of knowledge even though the Chinese did not believe in Allah.

I do not know whether there was any irony intended when Syed Naquib Al Attas, the champion of this Islamization, was honored with the Al Ghazzali Achievement Award at this RIS!

A saying attributed to Martin Luther has it that a Christian cobbler would best demonstrate his devotion to God not by carving intricate crucifixes on the shoes he makes but to make them sturdy and cheap so as to be durable and affordable. You serve God by serving your fellow man, not by endlessly reciting His Glory. He doesn’t need that.

A comparable hadith has it that a man was admitted into Heaven because he once removed a thorn from a path, thus saving others from hurting themselves; likewise, a prostitute who brought water to a dog dying of thirst. If those were the rewards in Islam, imagine what it would be for the engineer who built the road or bridge so villagers could bring their produce to market or their sick child to the hospital! Also imagine the reward for a veterinarian!

STAM does not prepare you to be an engineer or a veterinarian. The current Islamic education reduces our great faith to a set of rituals and our Holy Koran to a mere talisman, no different from the dried grass strands our animist ancestors hung to ward off evil spirits. Want to pass your examination, recite the Koran; want to heal your illness, likewise.

This vast chasm separating Islamic leaders, religious and otherwise, from reality and the masses is the most formidable challenge facing the ummah.

Consider corruption, the blight of all Muslim societies. Not a word was uttered at that RIS conference. I met one of the American speakers before he left for Malaysia. Knowing that I was from there, his first words after the customary salutation was, “Return the billions to the people!” he jested, in reference to the 1MDB scandal. I hope he did mention that at the conference.

Another speaker at RIS was Afifi al-Akiti, a local fellow now a don at Oxford. He was once asked while on a government-sponsored trip back home on the scandalous corruptions now blighting Malaysia. He grinned and pleaded ignorance, his being away from the country for so long! What a cop out! Either that or he was so cloistered in his cramped Oxford office and equally restricted discipline to be aware of the outside world.

Throughout history, ulamas and scholars were formidable bulkheads against the excesses of leaders. Today these scholars have been co-opted by the state and given impressive titles and equally generous stipends. I am reminded of the wisdom that Heaven is full of rulers who were close to scholars, but Hell is full of scholars who befriended rulers.

If Muslims are serious about reviving the spirit of our great faith, begin with the simple Koranic injunction: Command good, and forbid evil. The rest is but commentary. Condemning the corruption, injustices and flagrant human rights abuses of your host country would be an excellent start. As for serving God by serving mankind, young Malays would achieve this better through pursuing STEM than STAM.

In doing so, perhaps when RIS would again be held in Malaysia, it would be truly in a Muslim-majority country in all respects and sectors.

 

The serialization of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, will resume next week.

 

 

Insights From Modern Imaging Studies of the Brain

February 27th, 2017

Insights From Modern Imaging Studies of the Brain

 

 

Modern imaging techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ( f MRI) enable scientists to study the human brain in real time. Areas of the brain that are active would “light up” when the subject perform a function or activity, giving us an idea the parts of the brain involved. Likewise, when the part of the brain that should light up when doing a certain activity but does not in a particular person doing that same activity, that also tells us something of the abnormality in that person’s brain. This particular observation is highly relevant in such conditions as autism.

The basic principle of f MRI is based on changes in local blood flow in the brain that correlates with increased nerve cell activities. This increased flow alters the ratio of the oxygenated (unused) hemoglobin pigment versus the deoxygenated (used), which is picked up by the f MRI.

There are fascinating studies on babies and also adults across cultures that help us better understand the workings of the human brain.

            The brain is unique in that it is far from fully developed at birth. It has considerable post-birth growth, making the birth process pivotal as interferences during it impacts the brain’s subsequent development. There are many examples of the tragic consequences on brain development from birth complications. Both nature and nurture influence post-birth growth.

Pre-birth, genetic factors predominate, as with chromosomal abnormalities. Environmental factors like lack of essential vitamins (folic acid) and nutrients or the presence of toxins (lead, infection) could also be consequential.

A baby’s brain has the same number of neurons as the adult’s. These neurons continue making their connections with each other (synapses) after birth, a process called synaptic growth. This is influenced by both nature (primarily genetic) and nurture (the baby’s physical and emotional experiences). Such activities like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting stimulate the growth of these neural connections.

When a pathway is used frequently, the brain recognizes its importance and covers the nerve cell branches with a fatty myelin sheath to insulate it so the impulses would travel faster and not stray, as well as to protect the nerve fiber. This myelination process is most dynamic up until adolescence but continues on though much more slowly into adulthood.

Concomitant with synaptic growth is another process both complementary and in the opposite direction, that of synaptic pruning. Those connections not used will atrophy, as illustrated by the experiments on suturing shut the eyes of kittens cited earlier.

There are three theories on brain development. First, the maturational perspective, postulates that brain development depends on the natural maturation process of its various parts and largely determined by nature. The environmental role would be restricted to only interference or acceleration of that maturation process. The child for example, would not learn to control its sphincters until the appropriate parts of the brain controlling those functions are mature (at about three or four years); likewise, learning to talk or walk (at about two).

Second is the interactive specialization theory. Brain development (especially postnatal) involves organizing interactions between the different parts of the brain where the development (or lack) of one part affects the others. Meaning, primarily a process of integration. The studies on children blinded at birth with cataracts and later given sight-restoring surgery support this contention. The child does not “see” right after the surgery but has to learn it.

The third is the skill-learning hypothesis. Imaging studies indicate that when children learn new skills, like walking, the frontal cortex (“higher” part) of the brain is activated. As they become facile, the active part shifts more posterior. The inference is that the frontal cortex is concerned with learning, but once that skill has become automatic (as with walking), brain activity shifts to the back, the non-thinking part.

When we learn a new skill like playing a musical instrument, the front part of our brain would be active. Later when we have mastered it, the brain activity would shift to a more posterior part of the brain, from the learning to the routine center as it were.

This theory is also supported by the findings that children who receive little social stimulation or opportunities to explore their world have 20 to 30 percent smaller brains than children of comparable age. Similarly, children exposed to prolonged stress, as with abuse or trauma, will have altered brain function as a consequence of that constant high level of the stress hormone, cortisol. They have difficulty developing warm and secure relationships. We saw this with Harlow’s baby monkeys.

In essence the earlier nature-nurture dichotomy and the consequent heated controversies were misplaced. Instead we have a complex interplay of the two, one influencing and in turn being influenced by the other. It is a dynamic as well as adaptive process.

An exciting development in modern genetics is epigenetics. Briefly explained, it is the inheritance of traits that are not due to changes in one’s underlying genes but induced by alterations in our environment. In traditional biology, only genetic changes are inherited; that still holds true. However, changes in the environment (like stress, starvation, exposure to drugs and chemicals) could alter how those genes would be expressed (phenotype), and then those changes would be passed on to the next generation. The gene itself is unchanged, only its expression.

As a concept, it is an old one, predating Darwin, as with Lamark using it to explain the long neck of giraffes. The modern concept, with its understanding at the molecular level and integrating it with existing knowledge of DNAs, is very recent.

Genes carry only the codes for proteins, and only that. Proteins are complex molecules, and how they function is influenced by its final shape or conformation even though the molecule itself is unchanged. Gene expression also depends on its conformations, and that in turn is influenced by its microenvironment.

Consider the “simple” water molecule, one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Imagine a gene coding for it. At room temperature that chemical as water could be used to erode a slope; at higher temperatures as steam, to power turbines to produce electricity; at low temperatures as in the Arctic, it could crush the ships’ steel hulls. Same code for the same molecule, but with different environment you get vastly different consequences.

Something similar with the workings of our genes. Depending on their conformations (shapes), different parts have different polarities, some more positive, others negative. Chemicals like the stress hormone cortisol has varying own polarities on its molecules. They would be attracted to the opposite polar parts of the genes, thus altering their shapes ever so subtly to the extent that the genes could not be expressed. This change in conformation would then be transferred to the next generation such that even though it has the genes, they are not expressed, which is the same thing as not having the genes.

Experiments with rats showed that when the mother licked its babies frequently, they grew up to be contented and relaxed. Those babies in turn would have babies that were also contented and relaxed, and would lick their own babies frequently, thus perpetuating the transmission. Meanwhile those mothers that did not lick or prevented from licking their babies would have stressed babies. They in turn would not lick their young and produce yet another generation of stressed babies, and the cycle continues. The genes themselves have not changed rather the behaviors of the mother would be transmitted through the mechanism of epigenes to the next generation, influencing whether those genes would be expressed.

Child rearing practices (and that would include what and how we feed as well as nurture our babies) vary with culture. Those practices, as with the licking of rat babies, affect our epigenome, and we pass that on to the next generation.

Stated simply, we pass on through our biological mechanisms not only our genes (our nature) but also our cultural practices (nurture) through our epigenomes.

The next major period of change is during adolescence. Again, the environment is crucial. This impact is consequential and defining enough to merit the designation of the “adolescent brain.” Nothing has changed with respect to the “nature” component, only the environment. One is internal, the surge of new hormones (primarily sex hormones) and the other, external, the cultural rites of passage. The effect on the brain at puberty however is not as critical though no less profound as with during the first few years.

The different parts of the brain develop at different rates. The subcortical limbic system that controls emotions develops much faster than the cortical part, the “rational” center. Stated in Freudian language, the id maturing before the superego. Thus, teenagers are predisposed to impulsive and dangerous behaviors. Insights from studies of the adolescent brain have tremendous impact on the criminal justice system, questioning the basic premise of culpability and liability with these teenagers.

In California, when a child is involved in an accident it is never at fault; it is always the adult’s. Likewise, the criminal records of juveniles are sealed or destroyed once they reach a certain age, based on the same principle.

 

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Insight From Children And Their Marshmallows

February 21st, 2017

Insight From Children and Their Marshmallow

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas, teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This is true of individuals as well as society.

Consider this experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the deadline!

The experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”

Fourteen years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!

The other valuable insight came not from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.

The psychological dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*

It is not enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by engaging in other activities.

The original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning, above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for marshmallows.

The study revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.

            This ability to delay gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed gratification) is key to economic development.

The insight from the marshmallow study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do.

Consider those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business keeps his wealth.

Those lucky FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of his work and inspiring him to continue.

Consider the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to distract herself from her marshmallow.

This weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption, rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star restaurants.

Advertisers take full advantage of our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally, if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has doubled in value. That restrains your spending.

Enter the concept of home equity. With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe $150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.

Advertisers were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and fancy vacations.

Millions of home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007 American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.

As much of this desire for instant gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).

Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students, for them to learn to not devour their marshmallows right away.

We can teach that to young and old. When Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.

Back to those now poor FELDA farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows (spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.

As can be seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical applications.

 

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

* In Greek mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.