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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tun Razak: Seeing The Father Thorugh The Son

Tun Razak:  Seeing The Father Through The Son
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com


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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Race, Sex, And The Brain


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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The East and West Brain

The “East” Versus “West” Brain
M. Bakri Musa

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            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.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Swap STAM For STEM To Enhance Malay Competitiveness

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.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Insights from Modern Imaging Studies of the Brain

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.