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Race, Sex, And The Brain

Monday, March 20th, 2017


Race, Sex, and the Brain

M. Bakri Musa



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

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Monday, 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

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Insight From Children and Their Marshmallow

M. Bakri Musa


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.

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Insights on the Mind: They Make Me Do It!

M. Bakri Musa

Asch experiments showed the powerful influence of social and peer pressures. In his experimental setting, the peer pressure came from fellow college students. Imagine if they had been not fellow students but authority figures with power over you. How would your decisions be influenced if not controlled by them?

For this we go to Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s, also at Yale, and Zimbardo’s at Stanford a decade later. Milgram’s studies gave us insights into the dynamics of what makes otherwise ordinary human beings do terrible things on account of their blind obedience to authority. We saw that in Nazi Germany, where being a “good German” meant obeying your superiors to do terrible things.

Milgram had his subjects, also college students, randomly assigned to be “teachers” whose job was to administer increasingly painful electric shock upon a “learner,” who responded with an incorrect answer to a word-pairing test. Except that the learner was part of the experimenter’s team. For every wrong answer given by the learner, the teacher who was in a separate room but could hear the learner would give an electric shock to the learner, increasing the voltage with every wrong response. Except that the “shocks” were all pretend, and with the learner purposely giving the wrong answers! One of the learners, as planned, also told the teacher that he (learner) had a “heart” condition, just as a reminder.

In his first set of experiments, 26 of the 40 teachers (65 percent) administered the maximal potentially lethal dose of electric shock, despite the moaning and groaning as well as the desperate banging on the wall by those “suffering” learners who gave the wrong answers. Some of the teachers protested, nonetheless they continued administering the potentially lethal punishment.

Milgram’s experiments had been repeated in other settings and across cultures but the results remained consistent.

A decade later, the Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo paid volunteer college students to take part in an experiment where they would be assigned randomly to be wardens or prisoners in a mock prison. He had the cooperation of the local police to make it realistic, as with arresting the students and booking them at the local police station. It did not take long for the wardens to take their “job” seriously, too seriously it turned out. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely as those wardens became in short order unduly sadistic, inflicting gratuitous punishment on their “prisoners”–their fellow students.

The insights from Zimbardo’s experiments shed light on the dynamics of the obscenities of Abu Ghraib prison scandal three decades later.

Returning to Milgram, imagine if the “experimenter” was not a mellow Yale professor but a top army general fully bedecked with medals and ribbons, or a charismatic leader with power over you, and the “learner” is not your fellow Yale undergraduate but a member of a minority with whom you have minimal sympathy or harbor prejudices of being “dumb and lazy.”

Or, imagine the Inspector-General of Police standing over you, a forensic pathologist or police investigator on government payroll, as you make your official report on former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar’s infamous bludgeoned black eye incident. With the “Kami menurut perentah” (I follow orders) and, “Saya di arahkan” (I am directed) ethos of the civil service, Anwar never had a chance.

As Milgram observed, “… [O]ften it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

One is tempted to agree with Milgram. However, it would be arrogant and wrong to assume that we could explain the full spectrum of the complexity of human behaviors based on the elegant studies of some imaginative scientists.

Consider Asch’s experiments; there were subjects who resisted the peer pressures; likewise with Milgram’s. Two British psychologists, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, repeated the Stanford Prison Experiment but with a twist. Their results were completely different and raised more questions.

The British experiment showed that it would take more than just putting someone in a subordinate position and then have an authority figure command him to commit evil deeds, or subject him to a group situation where “everyone is doing it.”

Milgram and Zimbardo focused only on those who continued with the experiments, not those who resisted and thus excluded from the studies and not factored in the conclusions.

With the British experiment the guards were not told how to behave; they were left to work out their problems. Further, those guards who had misgivings were retained in the study. It turned out those dissenters among the guards and prisoners did have a chastening effect on the rest, confirming Asch’s earlier observations.

The British study was more realistic and reflected the complexities of human behaviors. After all even during the Third Reich there were Germans who resisted the system. Yes, there were the eager participants but then they were the ones who already harbored resentment towards the Jews. Hitler merely provided the justifications and means for them to pursue their bigotry and hatred but with greater intensity and efficiency. Similarly with Abu Ghraib; there were ethical and honest American soldiers who blew the whistle.

The British study gives us hope. It is not that easy to turn humans into monsters except those who already so inclined. The challenge for leaders is not to provide them the opportunity and justification even if they were to be in the majority. That is a particular challenge in a democracy.

The greatest fear progressives have of America under President Trump is his seeming tolerance if not encouragement of those inclined towards bigotry and chauvinism. They could reaffirm the findings of Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo on the effect of peer pressure. On the other hand, the outpouring of protests against Trump by ordinary Americans reflects the optimism demonstrated by Haslam and Reicher.

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 Free Mind: Perspectives From Human Psychology Studies

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

The Free Mind: Perspectives From Human Psychology Studies

M. Bakri Musa



The last source of insight on the understanding of the mind comes from studies on normal human beings. First are the various experiments in human psychology and second, from the newer imaging techniques of the brain, in particular, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f MRI). I will review some of the classics of the first to illustrate particular points.


One is Asch’s famous conformity studies. In the 1950s Solomon Asch had his Yale students partake in an experiment of “visual judgment” where they would compare the length of a line. The test was done in a group, and they had to answer verbally. Unbeknownst to the subject, all the other members of the test group were part of the experimenter’s team.


The results were startling. In nearly a third of the time, the subjects would give obviously wrong answers simply because of pressure from the other “test subjects.” The subjects may express reservations or protest but in the end they voted with the group, clearly demonstrating the powerful effect of peer pressure. This insight is fully exploited by advertisers and propagandists in getting their message accepted. As the Chinese proverb would have it, three men would make a tiger.


There are many variations to the basic experiment, like varying the size of the “consensus” group, pairing the subject with a “trusted” partner and seeing the effect when that partner disagreed, and having a dissenting member among the experimental collaborators. This last variation is the most intriguing. It seems that having even only one dissenting member in the “collaborator” group would greatly reduce a subject’s propensity to conform.


This persuasive power of a dissenting minority of even one to disrupt group consensus has great social significance. That power would be greatly amplified if the dissenter were to be particularly assertive or otherwise vocal and influential.

It is this that motivates me to continue writing and express my views knowing that mine is in the minority, I hope only initially. If expressing my views would make others examine theirs and encourage them to be more open-minded, then my mission is accomplished.


Today there is diversity of viewpoints, political and otherwise, among Malays. That is healthy, although it makes the work of government propagandists that much more difficult. It is not a surprise that the government endlessly exhorts us to be “united.” To the authorities, especially those with an authoritarian bent, any expression of dissent is viewed as a threat to our “unity” and equate that with being disloyal or treasonous.


This potential influencing power of even a lone dissenter to disrupt consensus could be put to good use. When working on collaborative projects, insightful leaders would often assign a particular member to be the designated critic, to poke holes in the group’s decisions and deliberations so as to anticipate possible errors and misleading conclusions because of “groupthink.”


As another Yale psychologist Irving Janis observed, “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is … , the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink [and] … likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions against out groups.”


Examples abound of bad decisions made as a consequence of groupthink. In America, there was the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor and the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiascos. President Trump is today using this same particular technique of surrounding himself with only those who already agree with him. He goes beyond, to demonize those who disagree with him, including judges who ruled against him, to great effect.


From my perspective, conformity is a manifestation of a closed mind. It is conformity or peer pressure that makes us believe the smooth mullah over the braying donkey despite the donkey braying in our face.


Asch’s experiment, like all good ones, raised more questions than it answered. Foremost is that he used simple or objective judgments, as with estimating the length of a line. There is little emotion, cultural value or serious consequences to the decision-making process. Imagine if one were required to make judgment with significant emotions attached, like whether a person is a security threat or not. In post 9-11 America, it would not be at all difficult to get a unanimous judgment on whether a Middle Eastern-looking young man with a beard and turban is a security risk, even if Canada’s Defense Minister has a beard and a turban.


Today, with Trump’s team groupthink it is not difficult to get a consensus that those from Muslim countries pose a significant threat to America.


Referring to my earlier story of the mullah and his donkey, it is apparent that the social environment can be a very powerful influence on whether we believe the pious mullah or the braying donkey.


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

At This Time in Our History, It’s Important To Fight Noxious Seeds of Hatred

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Morgan Hill City’s ‘Statement of Support’ The Right Thing To Do

  1. M. Bakri Musa

On December 14, 2016, The City Council of Morgan Hill, a community at the southern tip of Silicon Valley, California, under the leadership of Mayor Steve Tate issued a Statement of Support and Assurance to its residents. Acknowledging that many of the city’s residents are foreign-born and thus fearful that changes in immigration rules or its enforcement could separate families, the city reaffirmed that among other things, its police force will not be used for federal immigration law enforcement. Instead its priority is “to maintain the trusting relationship  … [the force has] with our community.” It went on to declare in no uncertain terms that the City would not tolerate any hate crimes, and that foremost among our community’s ethical values is respect.

The full resolution is appended below.

The City’s resolution was issued on December 14, last year, long before the tumultuous national events of the past week. Since then the Mayors of other cities including Boston, New York and San Francisco have issued similar declarations; likewise, the Governors of California and Washington State.

As a longtime physician in Morgan Hill, I was inspired by my civic leaders’ reaffirmation of and recommitment to our shared core values. Below is my commentary, published in the Morgan Hill Life, February 1, 2017 issue.


At this time in U.S. history, it’s important to fight ‘noxious seeds of hatred’

  1. M.Bakri Musa

At a time when our nation is gripped with fear and hysteria, some of the leaders in our nation’s capital are content letting the noxious seeds of hatred and distrust take root in and soil our beautiful landscape. Our founders had anticipated this, hence their wisdom in asserting that the government closest to the people governs best.

Testament to that wisdom is the City of Morgan Hill’s “Statement of Support and Assurance to the Morgan Hill Community” voted on unanimously by council members Dec. 14. It reaffirms the commitment to making our city “well respected and inclusive.” Respect for all our residents is foremost among our values.

The board members of our South Valley school districts have also unanimously passed declarations affirming human rights for immigrants. The Gilroy Unified School Board voted January 26 to declare that its schools are in “a sanctuary district,” and the Morgan Hill Unified School Board voted January 17 to adopt a resolution declaring its schools are “safe havens” for students and their parents.

Having lived and practiced as a surgeon here for nearly four decades, I, like many others, have taken those values for granted. And rightfully so. We demonstrate every day those values of tolerance and inclusivity, both as individuals as well as a society.

When the young girl Sierra LaMar disappeared, we shared in the grief. Many volunteered in the search and to support her family. They still do, years later. When our high school marching band won national awards, and performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we shared in the reflected glory. We congratulated those talented students and their dedicated teachers.

Our community has an active interfaith organization, well represented with members and leaders of the various faiths, that meets regularly. We build bridges, not erect walls between us.

As individuals and as a community we do not claim to be angels, nor have we been angelic at all times. Nonetheless, when we see the noxious seeds of hatred and bigotry attempting to sprout, we act fast, as we did with the race-tainted hooliganism at our school.

The crucial message was sent out quick and clear to the young and adults alike. Our community will not tolerate such nonsense even if manifested as a prank.

Neither we nor our nation claim to have it right all the time. A casual reading of our history would disabuse us of that smugness. We dehumanized a subset of humanity in our midst because of their skin color. We disenfranchised half of our citizens based on their sex. More recently, we incarcerated a whole group of people based only on suspicion because of their ethnicity and national origin.

In all those instances, there were elegant and sophisticated contemporary commentaries defending those odious actions. Their sophistry could not hide nor justify the basic inhumanity and ugliness of those deeds.

While we may not have done everything right, there is one ideal we are committed to. That is “to strive for a more perfect union,” as stated with such elegant brevity in the Preamble to our Constitution, and to give full inclusive meaning to that other simple phrase, “We, the people.”

Those ideals notwithstanding, never underestimate the ability of one individual to wreak havoc. An idiot with a matchstick could burn down a whole town, what more a leader with access to the nuclear code.

Back to the idiot, he could only do mischief if he had access to a matchstick, the town littered with dried tinder, and it did not have a functional fire department. As residents, it is our duty to keep the metaphorical matchsticks out of the reach of potential mischief-makers, maintain a clean environment, and have our fire department in top form.

I have great faith in our civic leaders, institutions and shared values. The city’s statement is testament to that faith. I commend Mayor Steve Tate and the Morgan Hill City leaders for reasserting and reassuring us that our core values remain steadfast.

Bakri Musa is a longtime area surgeon and former president of South Valley Islamic Community.

First published in Morgan Hill Life, February 1, 2017 (



At the City Council meeting on December 14, 2016 the City Council affirmed the following Statement of Support and Assurance to the Morgan Hill Community.

To Morgan Hill Residents,                                             

Recent national events have triggered some negative impacts in many Morgan Hill residents; fear and uncertainty about their well-being and their status in our community and country. The Morgan Hill City Council and staff want to reassure our residents that we will stand up for all of them. 

Many of our residents are foreign-born and fear that changes in immigration rules or enforcement could separate their families. There are also concerns about proposed federal registries of community members of the Muslim faith. And the recent nationwide spike in hate crimes is causing even more fear. Here in Morgan Hill, we cannot control the events in Washington, D.C., but we can do much to care for each other here at home. We want to assure you that:

Hate Crimes will not be tolerated in Morgan Hill
Our Police Department is committed to enforcing laws against commitment of hate crimes without regard to the immigration status of the victim or reporting party. Please report all incidents to the Police Department at 

Our Police will not be used for federal immigration enforcement
Changes to immigration laws and enforcement are the responsibility of federal policy makers. Local police should not be involved in federal immigration enforcement and our Police Officers will continue to focus their time on high priority crimes. In accordance with best practices of local law enforcement professionals nationally, we will stay out of immigration enforcement. Our priority is to maintain the trusting relationship Morgan Hill Police Officers have with our community.

Anyone who witnesses or is a victim of any crime can contact the Police Department without fear of inquiry regarding their immigration status.

Your Constitutional rights will be protected 
We cannot know if assertions made during national campaigning — like Muslim registries — will come to fruition. We will monitor any proposed legislation or executive actions from Washington and work closely with our national, state and local representatives, other cities, and if necessary, the courts, to protect the Constitutional rights of our residents. 

Discrimination based on race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, color or disability is prohibited under federal and/or state law. We will protect the rights of all our residents, regardless of background or sexual orientation.

Morgan Hill residents are highly ethical; we have a set of ethical values that are fundamental to the character of our community. Foremost among the ethical values is respect. Because we respect those we interact with, we treat them honestly, fairly and responsibly. In this time of uncertainty and fear, we encourage all our residents to maintain a high level of respect in all their interactions.

Thank you for making Morgan Hill a well respected and inclusive community.



The Mind: Insights From Science

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

The Mind: Insights From Science

 M. Bakri Musa



Much of the scientific insights on the human brain emerge from four sources: “wet labs” on laboratory animals; clinical observations on brain-damaged patients; observing babies and children; and human psychology experiments.

Insights on the mind however, are best gleaned through reading Shakespeare and pondering the philosophers.

The current popular specie for “wet labs” is the nematode (worm) Caenorhabditis elegans. It is transparent, easily manipulated genetically, and has only 302 neurons (as compared to billions for humans). It would be far fetched to consider that organism as having a brain compatible to that of humans; nonetheless its far fewer neurons enable scientists to study the basic physiology of nerve cells.

Imprinting experiments with birds, specifically geese, give us insights on such concepts as the “critical” period of learning.

Nothing in nature however is clear-cut. If you cut the nerve to the frog’s eye and then rotate it 180 degrees, and then after the nerves have regenerated, observe the frog catching flies. It could not; its tongue keeps flipping in the opposite direction. The explanation there is that the eye had been “hard wired” to the brain in a certain way and that no amount of “learning” could change the situation. In short, no neuroplasticity (the ability of nerve cells to modify its functions) operating there.

If you were to suture shut one eye of a kitten and weeks later remove the sutures, that eye is functionally blind even though it is still receiving the images. The lack of visual stimulation in that eye disrupts the production of the specific factors needed for the nerve cells to grow longer branches (dendrites) and connect to the brain, illustrating the significant role of the environment in brain development.

Baby monkeys raised in isolation with only a fluffy doll as their “mother” grew up to be severely disturbed, again illustrating the crucial role of early nurturing or mothering.

The second source of insight comes from brain-injured patients. One was the case of Phineas Gage who had a crowbar pierced through his skull. He survived, but his subsequent personality changes were such that he was “no longer Gage.”

Another patient, HM, had a scar surgically removed from an “old” part of his brain (hippocampus) to control burdensome seizures. After the surgery he had severe anterograde memory loss; he could not remember events occurring afterwards. He still had his “old” memories of events before the surgery. That led to the insight of different memories. Certain medications can also cause this distressing side effect, fortunately only transiently.

In the 1960s Sperry studied patients who had their corpus callossum severed to prevent epileptic seizures from spreading from one hemisphere of the brain to the other. The corpus callosum is the thick tissue that sits at the base of and binds the two hemispheres. After surgery these patients would behave like any other normal person, with no impairment of speech, walking, or other activities.

Through studies on these patients Sperry was able to demonstrate the lateralization of brain function, with the right more visual and able to process information in an integrative and intuitive way while the left, more verbal and adept at processing information in a sequential and analytical manner. Popularly expressed, the left-brain is rational and analytical while the right, emotional and creative, a neuro-scientific variation of the Yin and Yang theme. Women tend to use their right brain more than men. The implications of Sperry’s insight go beyond differences in how boys and girls learn; it also explains why men and women differ in their views on social issues.

In 1966 at the University of Texas, Charles Whitman shot and killed 13 people while wounding another 32 before he was shot dead. Whitman left a suicide note, admitting that he had been bothered by irrational thoughts and requesting an autopsy be done as he suspected that there was something wrong inside his brain. They did, and he was right. They found a tumor pressing on his amygdale, the part of the brain controlling emotions, especially fear and aggression.

These and other dramatic if not tragic examples challenge our concept of free will and culpability.

At that time there were no CAT scans or MRIs. Today an enhancement, f MRI (for functional) scan, is an important tool in brain research; it shows which part of the brain is ‘lighted’ or active during dynamic studies.

Another research involves patients with parts of their nervous system damaged from birth and then restored later in life. An example would be congenital cataracts. In developed countries these children would be treated early, with minimal if any eyesight loss. In the Third World these children would remain blind, with all its tragic consequences.

Recently a fortunate few in India were operated on through the surgical intervention of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Prakash Project. Contrary to the findings of the earlier experiments with kittens, those treated children were able to see following their cataract surgery. However, they do not “see” immediately, nor is what they see initially the same as what people with normal vision would see.

While we see Holstein cows munching leisurely in the lush meadow under the cloudless blue sky, those children would see blotches of black and white over a green background under a blue patch. They would not see what we see until their brain has learned to interpret those images, a process that could take days or weeks. The images transmitted from their eye to their visual center of the brain (optical cortex) are exactly the same immediately after surgery as well as later, but the brain has not yet learned to see, or interpret those images properly until much later.

The third source of insight comes from observing babies and children. A baby’s brain is neither a blank slate nor an adult one in miniature. A remarkable feature is its steep learning curve, unseen again at any other time. A baby has to learn to recognize its mother and get her attention, process the sights and sounds of the world, as well as learn to crawl, walk and control its sphincters.

This learning predates delivery. The baby in utero learns to recognize the sound of its parent’s voices and the movements of its mother. If the father is absent, then little of this pre-delivery bonding would take place with him.

After birth there is the all-important filial bonding and imprinting. The baby learns to recognize its mother. It can do this within a few days but that recognition is fragile. If the mother were to later wear a scarf for example, the infant would treat that face as that of a stranger. A similar “make strange” response would occur if the mother were to approach the baby from its head, thus presenting to the baby an upside-down image. Only much later does the baby learn to recognize its mother’s face from every angle.

The fourth source of insight comes from the study of normal, healthy human beings. These human psychology experiments contribute much to our understanding of the human brain, and thus the mind. I will devote the next two chapters to reviewing some of the insightful ones.


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

Dancing Dragons Have No Partners, Only Prey

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

Dancing Dragons Have No Partners, Only Prey


  1. Bakri Musa



With Prime Minister Najib Razak dancing with the Chinese dragon, it is worth reminding him and his admirers that dragons have no dance partners, only prey.


Najib is using the old and dangerous game of playing the major powers against each other. During his latest visit to Beijing he railed against the Americans for lecturing him on lapses in his leadership, specifically his corruption and trampling on his fellow citizens’ human rights. Najib then went on to poke America’s eyes by putting out a joint declaration with his Chinese counterpart calling for no outside interference in the brewing South China Sea crisis.


Only the deluded would believe that Najib had an equal or any say in that joint communique. His only contribution was to agree. Najib was there to beg China to bail out his 1MDB, as well as to borrow money. Beggars don’t get to choose.


The world is full of tragic examples of once stable nations now in tatters because their leaders thought they were smart or adroit enough to play one world power against the other. Egypt’s Nasser had the Russians finance his ambitious Aswan Dam, and banked on them to help Egypt against Israel. The humiliation of the Six Day War still haunts the Egyptians. His successor Anwar Sadat reversed course and cozied up to America, and in the process won the approval of the ultimate values gatekeeper of the West, the Nobel Committee, which awarded him the Peace Prize. At least Sadat brought peace to his people, albeit only too briefly. Egyptians today are still being whipsawed from one extreme to the other.


In dealing with others, local or foreign, small or great powers, we must be guided by our internal compass, our values. Those others may or may not share our qiblat. We have for example, no desire to emulate China on how it treats its minorities or dissidents. Nor does Malaysia wish to be treated like Tibet or China’s western Muslim provinces. Although I must admit that at times I wish Malaysia would adopt China’s treatment of its corrupt officials.


Najib thinks that he looks elegant and puffed up dancing with the Chinese dragon. To me, he is more the painted lady on the dance floor of a Vegas whorehouse. We know who is paying for Najib’s services, on the dance floor and afterwards. Najib is paid well to act like an equal and enthusiastic partner, but we know what his role really is, as well as his price tag.

It is well over RM140 billion. Regardless, a high-priced hooker is still a hooker.


Najib would like us to believe that China is investing in Malaysia, and he has convinced many. The reality is that Malaysia is borrowing those hundreds of billions. That money has to be repaid. The only positive aspect is that some of the money would be for financing infrastructures like the East Coast Rail and Trans Sabah Gas Pipeline, not for skyscrapers and fancy headquarters for civil servants.


Left unanswered however, is how much those projects would have cost had there been competitive international bidding. Nor do we know the financing terms. The 1MDB bonds cost several hundred basis points above the prevailing rates. Another unknown is how much of the Chinese money would be shifted to Najib’s personal account a la the Saudi investor and 1MDB, in gratitude for Najib’s ‘leadership?’


Beijing was generous to Najib. I am reminded of the rich towkay in a Malay village, charitable to his customers, extending them easy credit. Soon he owned the entire village. As we Malays say, Menang sorak, kampung tergadia (win the applause but mortgage the village).


China is an important country, quite apart from it being Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and sharing an extensive and contested maritime border. That relationship should be based on mutual respect and in accordance with international laws and norms, acknowledging that China is a major power while Malaysia isn’t. Being deeply in hock to China is not a good start to that kind of relationship.


The sparkle of Najib’s golf soiree with President Obama in Hawaii during Christmas of 2014 was short-lived, eclipsed by the blasting Malaysian sun. Najib is discovering to his sorrow that America has robust independent institutions. You may be Obama’s golfing partner, but if you indulge in illicit activities, its media will expose you and the Attorney-General will prosecute you. Malaysian officials may be bought with cheap titles and trinkets, not so America’s.


The Malaysian media is Najib’s lapdog, not so foreign ones or local social media. Thanks to the Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and others, Najib is being subjected to unaccustomed scrutiny. Local alternate media amplify and extend the reach of those foreign news sources to average Malaysians.


There are a few certainties to Najib’s leadership. One, it will end. As for when, how and under what circumstances, the bomohs have as much credibility as the experts. With his echo chambers well amplified, Najib feels invincible. So did Saddam and Ghaddafi not too long ago; they were even more ruthless and in power far longer than Najib. Two, the massive debts through 1MDB and now the Chinese loans incurred by Najib will burden Malaysians for generations. Three, Najib’s rank corruption. Regardless of the outcome of the current US Department of Justice’s 1MDB asset forfeiture lawsuit, it has already put a black mark on Malaysia.


Najib’s future does not interest me. As for the debt load, at least that is quantifiable; not so the soiling of Malaysia’s name. The plastic glitter of Najib dancing with the dragon star, like his earlier soiree with Obama, will also be short-lived. The dragon will not be denied its prey. Najib, and Malaysians, may yet feel the true impact of a tsunami, the Chinese version.