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.
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
A Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
Second of Two Parts
In the first part of my essay I recalled Shahab Ahmed’s elegant albeit oxymoronic phrase “coherent contradictions” to describe the dizzying diversity and puzzling perplexities that are the norms in Islam, then and now.
As for “reforming” Islam, the current fetish among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ahmed did not have much praise or hope for these reformers, ancient or modern. This was not out of any Islam-does-not-need-reforming sentiment, rather that those reformers limited themselves to reading only the Text (Koran) and then were consumed with their arcane legalistic and hermeneutical interpretations. They ignored the “Pre-Text” and “Con-Text,” or more crucially, how Islam is believed, practiced, and contributed to by Muslims past and present, scholars and ordinary believers alike.
Or in Shahab Ahmed’s words, “how Islam makes Muslims as Muslims make Islam.” Much can be learned about Islam, and about Muslims, from just that.
We can only learn if we do not let ourselves be trapped by the limitations of language but instead continually explore the greater, wider, and deeper meanings of those words, imageries and metaphors. This applies not only to learning the Koran but also other Revelations, and indeed any readings.
This exploration would necessitate the constant questioning and reappraising of the presently accepted. As per Sa’adi’s Gulistan, only three things have no durability without their concomitants: wealth without trade, knowledge without debate, and rulers without justice.
The rapid expansion of the knowledge of Islam and of the faith itself during its first few centuries was attributable in part to the robust and often none-too-peaceful debates among its adherents. Consider the battles between the literalist Kharijites and the rationalist Mu’tazilites that still rage to this day, or the theological argument whether the Koran was created or eternal. As for the prophet, even he was challenged, and often, to demonstrate the legitimacy of his mission and prophethood.
Followers of the various sects and fiqhs harbor profound and irreconcilable differences, yet they all profess to read and learn from the same Koran and abide by the teachings of the same Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims today look longingly to the glorious days of early Islam with the effervescence of its intellectual and other activities. We would do well to examine what was with the environment then that made those early Muslims so productively prolific and creative. Instead we are content with endlessly praising the prophet and those early Muslims while failing to emulate their sterling examples.
For one, those ancient Muslim scholars did not shy away from learning even from the atheistic Greek philosophers. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge, and thus worth pursuing. They did not differentiate between secular and religious knowledge or the equally futile current pursuit of its “Islamization,” a particular fad of contemporary Muslim scholars especially those from the Third World, as exemplified by the late Syed Naquib Al Attas.
Today we shy away from learning from the so-called kafir West. Instead we are content to denigrating its evident shortcomings instead of emulating its spectacular successes.
As for dealing with our differences, Muslims have failed to learn from our own Prophet Muhammad. Legend has it he had instructed his followers who were on a journey to meet at a certain place for their Asar prayers. One group was delayed, and arguments arose within whether they should stop for their prayers or rush on so they could pray together with the prophet at their agreed-upon destination. When they later brought up their disagreement to Prophet Muhammad, his answer was simple. Both interpretations were correct. His central message was that they should stay together and not endanger themselves by separating from each other. This simple wisdom, that there could be more than one valid interpretation, still baffles many.
As per the Koran, Allah will not let his ummah go astray. Meaning, listen to the ummah. This was what Shahab Ahmed did; and we are the beneficiaries of his worthy endeavor.
When there are differences, we must first ascertain that they are real and not apparent. When you say that an object is blue and I say it is green, the difference may be with the lenses we are wearing or the light under which we view the object instead of its intrinsic color. Even where the differences are real, they may be of the blind-men-and-the-elephant fable variety, meaning only the details vary but the underlying beast or principle is the same.
The mission then should be not to denigrate or belittle our differences, or allow them be sources of strife, rather to let them be the stimulus or inspiration for us to explore and deduce the underlying unifying principle.
Consider the universal law of gravity, as demonstrated by the simplistic Newton’s apple falling to the ground observation. Expressed thus, it is readily comprehensible by the masses.
However if one were to be on a Ferris wheel and at a sufficiently high speed where the centrifugal force exceeds gravitational pull, and then let the apple fly out of our hands while at the top of the ride, the apple would “fall” towards the sky, at least for a brief moment. This is the same principle used to train astronauts where they would be momentarily weightless as the plane makes a sharp arc dive towards the ground.
The apple “falling” up to the sky contradicts Newton’s observation, but if we were to understand the underlying principle of gravitational pull expressed elegantly by the formula F=G x M1M2/r2 (where F is the force, M the masses, r the distance between the two bodies, and G a constant), then the two observations of the apple falling to the ground and to the sky are not contradictory but illustrative of the same underlying principle.
Contradictions in Islam are often of this nature, as well as that of the blind-men-and-the-elephant variety. We must continue exploring the meaning of the Koran. We may never discover the ultimate truth, for in the words of the Koran, Allahu alam (only Allah knows), but the search itself can be very enlightening.
We may not be able to discern or extrapolate exactly the shape of the elephant from the various contradictory accounts, but if we could just appreciate the fact that they are all manifestations of the same beast, then we are already far ahead.
Going back to my Minanagkabau tradition of inheritance going only to daughters, this contradicting of the Koran may be illusory and that at the core my culture and the Koran are expressing the same sentiment. That is, inheritance should go to those who would look after their ageing parents, or be in a position to do so. In Bedouin culture, as per the “Pre-Text” of the Koran, that would be the sons. With my matriarchal Minangkabau culture where sons are traditionally engaged in merantau (wanderlust) and with more than a few expected not to return, that responsibility of parental care would fall on the daughters.
As for ancestor worship, again here we are trapped by words. There is a definite difference between respecting and honoring our past heroes and luminaries by building mausoleums and monuments in their honor, versus ancestor worship. However it is also not difficult to imagine the former degenerating into the latter, again demonstrating Ahmed’s spectrum and axis of values.
Similar controversy rages among Muslims with respect to observing Maulud Nabi, the prophet’s birthday. Are Muslims “celebrating” it in the manner of Christians with their Christmas or are we “honoring” the prophet by recalling his wisdom and exemplary qualities on the occasion of his birthday?
As has been tragically demonstrated far too often, words, like sticks and stones, can really hurt you, especially words of the Revelation.
Shahab Ahmed’s greatest contribution to Muslims with this book is his message for us to continue exploring the varied meanings of the words, imageries, metaphors and other elements of language used in the Koran before those words hurt us, and others. At the pragmatic level, by learning and familiarizing ourselves with the various manifestations of Islam we would be able to get a better understanding of this great faith.
For non-Muslims, this book will enlighten them as to the vast and infinite manifestations of Islam. This appreciation will help them understand that when a Muslim undertakes an action in the name of Islam, that’s only his particular vision of the faith. The whole Muslim ummah thus should not be condemned, praised, or in any way be held responsible.
Though modestly priced and readily readable, this book is unlikely to get wide readership especially among Muslims in the Third World. There the reading culture is at best rudimentary and the oral tradition is still strong. Witness the mega crowds at sermons and religious lectures. If that is not already a severe obstacle and burden, then there is the penchant of Muslim leaders to ban books carrying views at variance to those accepted by the authorities.
The ideas presented in this book could albeit with great difficulty be compressed into an hour’s lecture and then distributed in the social media. If some enterprising soul were to do that, Shahab Ahmed’s ideas and illuminating perspectives would get a wider audience. Granted an oral presentation would not have the same impact or retentive power as a book. For that, it would be far more productive if there were to be a Readers’ Digest version of this volume, translated in the various languages used by Muslims. This book could be considerably abridged and made much thinner by dispensing with the detailed documentations and lengthy quotes. Having it in paperback edition would also make it more affordable in the greater Muslim world.
Spreading Shahab Ahmed’s ideas far and wide would be a splendid way to honor this brilliant young thinker, quite apart from disseminating a much more enlightened view of our great faith.
Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
M. Bakri Musa
First of Two Parts
While holidaying on an island in the Indonesian Riau Province I came upon a communal graveyard. I was surprised that while the graves had markers, there were no individual identifications, no names or even dates of death. On enquiring, the villagers told me that this was to discourage ancestor worship. In Islam we worship Allah, and only Him. Any deviation would be shirk, a blasphemy.
Yet only a few islands away on Pulau Penyengat, there is an elaborate mausoleum to honor the great poet Raja Ali Haji of Gurindam XII fame. On religious days and special occasions, villagers throng the site; at other times they come to pray for their children’s success at school.
The inhabitants on both islands are devout Muslims. While we could readily comprehend and accept variations in Islam (or any faith for that matter) in different geographic areas and with different cultures, the people on both islands are all Malays. What gives?
On a more substantive level, with my Minangkabau clan, inheritance goes exclusively to daughters, a direct and apparent defiance of the Koranic injunction that daughters get only half as much as sons. Yes, we Minangkabaus are also Malays and devout Muslims.
If there are such glaring contradictions in the practice of Islam within a small homogenous society, imagine the situation across cultures and continents. The ummah (community) as a whole has failed or refuses to recognize this central and obvious reality.
Much of the schisms ravaging the Muslim world today and in the past are rooted in this fundamental failure to accept much less embrace such differences. Every Muslim feels that his or her particular version of the faith is the only true one, the rest are but bida’a (adulterations), or worse. The consequence to this thinking is that every Muslim feels a messianic urge and rage to correct those “misled.”
On the flip side, when some Muslim Nigerians and Afghanis behave like brutal savages, the entire global Islamic community gets blamed. To non-Muslims we are but a monolithic homogenous mass with the same ideals and aspirations.
Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic addresses the reality of such conspicuous contradictions, dizzying diversity, and perplexing plurality within Islam. He focused on the vast arc of Muslim land from the Balkans to Bengal to illustrate his point that such diversity, plurality and outright contradictions are very much the norm in Islam, now and then. His somewhat oxymoronic but elegant phrase “coherent contradictions” does not in any way diminish that reality.
Ahmed had a Southeast Asian connection. Born in Singapore of Pakistani ancestry, he graduated in law from the International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, and later blossomed in America. A Princeton PhD, he was on the faculty at Harvard where he completed his tome. He died recently in his forties.
Scholars like Shahab Ahmed, trained in modern scholarship with its emphasis on critical thinking and rigorous analyses, shine new light on our faith. The Islam that we discover from such works is much more beautiful and relevant to our present ever increasingly diverse and interconnected world. That Islam is also a refreshing departure from the one projected by our traditional scholars, obsessed as they are with their dazzling quotations of the Koran, hadith, and the layers upon layers of ancient commentaries, or the “ideal” and “true” version as projected by reformers, ancient and contemporary, mesmerized as they are by their “enlightened” hermeneutics of our holy texts.
Shahab Ahmed sought the meaning of Islam “in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon . . . in its plenitude and complexity.” The book is an endeavor “to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam.” Ahmed did not presume to tell readers how Islam should be practiced to ensure one’s personal salvation. As to who would end up in Heaven, well, that is, as Muslims put it, Allahu alam (only God knows!).
This book is an account of what Islam means to its followers then and now, in the Balkans as well as Bengal, not what the ulamas and legal scholars think it ought to be. It is the Islam lived by its followers, not the prescriptive and proscriptive variety, or the halal versus haram version. The book however, is not a sociological treatise either in content or style. There are no surveys, graphs or statistical analyses, and the prose is highly readable. Technical terms and strange-sounding Arabic words are kept at a minimum.
Shahab Ahmed began by posing six questions. What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy, considering that more than a few of its practitioners were non-Muslims; likewise with Islamic art? The next three questions pertain to some esoteric theological beliefs and practices of the Sufis that would rile up the Wahhabis and other conservatives.
The sixth and most striking is the issue of imbibing wine. Every Muslim knows or thinks he knows that wine is haram. Yet wine drinking was common at one time in much of the Balkans-to-Bengal arc. Rumi’s canonical Divan makes frequent celebratory references to it. There were even wine decanters inscribed with Koranic verses, and used at state functions during the heyday of the Islamic empire.
What is Islam gets great reviews. As a parenthetical aside, the snippets of glowing reviews reprinted on the book cover are from scholars whom the author had mentioned favorably in his book!
The book is over 600 pages, with drawn-out but not dense sentences, paragraphs that often extend well beyond the page, and chapters (there are only five) of mini-book length. Beyond that, the ideas and revelations presented require much contemplation to ponder and absorb. Nonetheless the reader is well rewarded in the end and could appreciate why the book is getting all those accolades. They are well deserved!
The Koran asserts that Islam is “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” Our holy book also says that Allah in His infinite wisdom had created mankind in all its diversity. As such, Islam must of necessity be a very big tent. We should not be surprised then that those on the western or sun-setting side would dress and behave differently from those on the eastern cooler part, or those on the northern side would view the world differently and speak a different language, with words, imageries, and metaphors carrying entirely different meanings.
Consider language. The Koran was revealed in a language understood by the Bedouins. Its words, metaphors and imageries did not arise in a vacuum rather they were the ones frequently used and well understood by those early Arabs. The denotations and connotations however, may have changed over time and place. They may well be at variance with the original usage.
Take the word ‘poetry.’ During the prophet’s time, poets were hired to assassinate characters or ridicule them. Poets were literary whores; their words may be poetic and stir emotions, but they were whores nonetheless. Today we hold poets in high esteem. Same word but vastly different if not diametrically opposed meaning.
Likewise imagery; consider Hell as depicted in the Koran, an eternal inferno. What would be the imagery had Almighty Allah chosen not an Arab but an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger?
That brings me to the story of the priest sent to the frigid North to preach among the natives there. On his very first fire-and-brimstone midnight sermon he warned his flock of the severe punishment of Hell awaiting those who transgressed God’s laws. Imagine his horror when the very next morning his parishioners were all gleefully indulging themselves! When asked they responded, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”
Same imagery, but evoking vastly different emotions and meaning!
To understand the Text (Koran), we would first have to comprehend the pre-revelation language, or what Ahmed referred to as the “Pre-Text,” as with the meaning of poets. Then we would have to appreciate the “Con-Text,” as with the imagery of Hell.
Much of the discussions on Islam today, in the West and in the Muslim world, involve languages and expressions of the dominant West, as with secular versus religious. Such dichotomy, with its constricting either/or proposition, while appropriate in the West with its history of heavy Church involvement in the affairs of state, is irrelevant in Islam or alien in its history or culture. If anything in Islam, as Noah Feldman noted in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, ulamas and scholars served as bulwarks against the excesses of the state and sultans.
At least that was the traditional roles of scholars and ulamas. Today as exemplified in Malaysia and elsewhere, they have been co-opted by the state to be its instruments for control and repression. Recall the wisdom of Sa’adi Shirazi’s Gulistan: Hell is full of scholars who were close to rulers; heaven with rulers who befriended ulamas.
Islam is more than a religion, our imams remind us often. It is all encompassing. An either/or dichotomy is inadequate. More relevant would be a spectrum or “axis of values,” not between religious or secular but along such lines as public and private, or state and personal. Spectrum means that boundaries are fuzzy, and would vary with circumstances. Instead of having to make a dichotomous choice, we have instead a hierarchy of values that is fluid, malleable, and changeable.
Thus what is haram or unacceptable in the public arena is very much tolerated if not embraced (pardon the pun) in the privacy of one’s bedroom. Consider this legend attributed to Caliph Omar, may Allah be pleased with him.
On one of his famous “walk-about” management routines, he came upon an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians would call khalwat, in the privacy of their quarters. The Caliph barged in and pronounced them guilty of adultery, and handed them the ultimate punishment, stoning to death (at least for the woman), as prescribed in the Koran.
After the Caliph had finished his ranting, the man calmly admitted that yes he and his partner had indeed committed a sin against God, as per the Koran, but the Caliph on the other hand had wronged the couple by invading their privacy, also haram as per the Koran. The great Caliph, recognizing his error, apologized and recanted his verdict.
The central point here is that in Islam, the latter – wronging your fellow man – is the far more serious offence than transgressing God’s laws. A Generous and All-Forgiving Allah may forgive you, not so your fellow man whom you have wronged.
The other and far more relevant point is the primacy of personal privacy. Even the great Caliph had to respect that. In Malaysia today we are obsessed with khalwat raids in hotels while the swindling of public funds done openly by our leaders is condoned if not considered praiseworthy. With the former you transgress God’s laws; the latter, you wronged the rakyats by robbing them of their due.
Caliph Omar recognized this hierarchy and spectrum of values implicit in Islam. No wonder he is universally held as the greatest Commander of our Faith.
Next: Second of Two Parts: Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
M. Bakri Musa
This burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threat can crop up well beyond our formative years and at the most unexpected venues.
At one Alif Ba Ta Conference a few years ago, organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in which I discussed self-affirmation and stereotype threat, a group of students confided to me their experiences in the special matriculation class preparing them for American universities. Midway through that class they were given a test. Those who excelled were sent abroad earlier.
Even though the class was filled predominantly with Malays, for the group selected to leave earlier, non-Malays were over represented. How do I explain that, the students inquired? I immediately sensed their burden of stereotype threat - Malay ineptitude in academics.
So I asked them what they had done between their school examination in November the preceding year until they were enrolled in that special class the following July. To a person they all replied "Nothing!" Yes, nothing!
Then I also asked them whether they had discussed with their successful and predominantly non-Malay classmates how they managed to do so well, specifically what were they doing from January till July when they started their matriculation classes together. The Malay students could not answer me. Obviously they never thought to ask or were too embarrassed to discuss that sensitive topic with their non-Malay classmates, or their teachers. For their part, their matriculation teachers, unlike my Mr. Peter Norton at Malay College in the 1960s during my Sixth Form years there, merely accepted the fact as it was.
Whenever I meet Malaysians at elite American campuses I always try to discern through casual conversation what schools they attended (in particular their matriculation classes) in Malaysia and what made them choose America and pick that particular university. Invariably those students (even Malays) came from other than our national schools, reflecting the quality of such schools. Further and far more crucial, they had spent the six-or seven-month hiatus following their November SPM examination enrolled in private pre-university classes.
So when they were selected into the government's special matrikulasi class, they were already six months ahead as compared to their Malay classmates who did "nothing." That is a significant advantage in what would typically be a two-year course at most.
Malay College recently (July 2011) started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program after over a decade in planning. Again, the students were those who did well in their SPM the previous November. Apart from its radically different learning and teaching philosophy, IB is all English. Meanwhile those students had spent the previous 11 years in Malay medium. I suggested to those in charge that they should enroll the students earlier (as in January) so they could have six months of "pre-IB" where they could improve their English and other skills.
The response? No funds lah! I hope the first batch of students had done well. Should they fail or even just not excel, then expect those ugly stereotypes to be resurrected. The burden would fall not only on them but also on those following and on Malays generally. They will certainly not blame the teachers or the organizers of the program!
The government had already spent hundreds of millions of ringgit to set up the IB program, yet it could not secure extra funds to ensure that it would succeed.
Meanwhile in the business sphere, when Bank Bumiputra collapsed in the 1990s, ugly stereotypes on Malay aptitude for and competence in commerce were again resurrected, and not just by non-Malays. That too was very ugly, and the public behaviors of the key players merely reinforced those stereotypes. Conveniently forgotten was that the bank failed not because it was run by Malays, but because of corruption, incompetence and political patronage, the very same afflictions that burdened GLCs in China (CITIC), India (Air India), and America (Freddie Mac).
Today a generation later, the same tragic story is being repeated with 1MDB, another GLC, this time at a much greater cost and with the nation's highest leader involved. Again here the main players are Malays. Just in case the point is missed, they brought in a non-Malay to resolve the mess. Never mind that he was no more successful than his predecessor.
The 1MDB scandal again resurrected yet another stereotype, this time on the Chinese. One of the players, the few except of course for Najib who came out like bandits literally, was a Malaysian Chinese character close to Najib's family. Here we have the all-too-familiar story of a scheming Chinese taking advantage of a dumb Malay leader. Well, that dumb Malay leader part of the stereotype is true. At least Malaysians should be comforted by that fact. Imagine if we had a Malay leader who was smart as well as corrupt. The damage he would inflict could be horrendous! Count your blessings, Malaysians!
Linked to stereotype threat is the maintenance of the integrity of self-affirmation. When we see something that threatens our self-image, for example, Malays not doing well academically, we shift the focus elsewhere. Thus we say we do not care for "secular knowledge;" we are more into "spiritual" and "real" knowledge, the kind that would get us into Heaven. In that way we protect ourselves as non-Muslims would certainly not be competing with us in that field. If Muslim Chinese and Indians were to later beat us and excel in the same field, then we would have to spin yet another fanciful narrative.
When I see Malays focused on religion and the Hereafter and neglect their worldly obligations, I see that as nothing more than a manifestation of this threat to their self-affirmation rather than a genuine love for religious knowledge or concerns with personal salvation.
A similar phenomenon is seen in children. When kids run a playground race, those who are left behind would rationalize that they are not really "racing" or competing. Or, it's only a "practice." Likewise when I am sailing; I am always racing, that is, when I am overtaking the other sailboats. When I am being overtaken, well, I am out just for a leisurely afternoon cruise!
Both stereotypes and self-affirmation threats can be remedied. We do not have to be resigned to being their victims. To do that however, we first have to free up our minds from those cluttered and unproductive mental patterns. We have to create new or modify existing narratives to be more reflective of reality, one that would also be more useful and productive.
We can learn much from the insights of modern neuroscience on how to do that. In the next few essays I will review some of those exciting studies and how they could be applied to better understand and appreciate our current particular dilemmas.
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.
The Heavy Burden of Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat
The Heavy Burden of Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat
M. Bakri Musa
Our mind’s narrative of the world includes the perception we have of ourselves, and what we believe others have of us. The first is self-affirmation; the second, stereotype. Each of us is a member of some groups or other (race, profession, culture); thus we cannot escape from being stereotyped.
As for self-perception, like all other of our mental patterns this one too grew out of our experiences. Should we encounter something that does not conform to that mental picture we have of ourselves, we react like the patient with Cabgras delusion; we alter or ‘edit’ that information to make it conform to our pre-set pattern.
Our “self” narrative includes the stereotype others have of us, as with the colonialists’ “lazy native.” Not surprisingly, we often perform to those expectations, further reinforcing the stereotype. This vicious cycle continues, each cycle reinforcing earlier ones.
You have to work doubly hard and perform beyond well just to dispel the stereotype. Then even if you do succeed, there is no guarantee of escaping the stereotyping. It is a heavy burden to bear.
Consider girls and mathematics; there are many associated negative stereotypes. Should a girl were to stumble at her first test in college, not an uncommon experience especially at an elite college where all your classmates are top students while in high school, she would risk being a victim of negative stereotype when there could be other and more valid reasons, as with poor study habits or wrong choice of course. This stereotype burden would be worse if she were also to be a member of a visible disadvantaged minority.
Something similar happened to my daughter. She excelled in mathematics in school but she aspired to be a lawyer. Her undergraduate college required all students to take a math (as well as a science) course, the choice of which to be based upon the college’s own placement test. She was assigned one and found the going rough. She had to devote more than her usual effort just to stay abreast. She confided to us her problem, and as concerned parents we suggested that she meet with her counselor.
To the horror of her counselor, my daughter was assigned to a class for honors mathematics and engineering majors! Presumably she aced her placement test and was thus assigned the “appropriate” course. It may be appropriate based on her test scores but not for her career aspirations. Fortunately it was early in the academic year for her to switch course. Also luckily for her she had sufficient self-confidence and was not burdened by any possible negative stereotype. Imagine a Malay girl having a similar problem at the University of Singapore or even the University of Malaya.
This stereotype threat is the rationale for having single-sex schools and colleges. This phenomenon is also seen in non-academic settings like sports, as with, “White men can’t jump!”
Claude Steele, the Stanford psychologist who had studied stereotypes and self-affirmation threats extensively, shared his insights in his book, Whistling Vivaldi. And Other Clues on How Stereotypes Affect Us.
The title itself is intriguing; he had the idea from his fellow African-American student at the University of Chicago. Like at other elite campuses, African-Americans were noticeable for their rarity at such places, then and now. This friend sensed that his fellow students felt uncomfortable by his presence and would purposely avoid him. He overcame this prejudice by whistling Vivaldi (a classical composer, thus indicating a “high brow” taste in the finer things of life) to smooth the way. I can just imagine the horror on the staid white campus had he tried rap music!
There are many negative stereotypes burdening Malays, like our supposed lack of aptitude for mathematics specifically and academics generally. Unfortunately the statistics reinforce this. Consider that when the results of the SPM and other public examinations are announced, the consistent feature would be Malay under-representation among the top scorers.
The tempting conclusion, and not just by non-Malays, would be to believe these ugly stereotypes about Malays. However, consider this. The Sixth Form science class at Malay College I joined in 1961 had been threatened with closure because there were too few students from the college who had passed the entrance examination. And the college supposedly took in only the brightest Malays! That only fed the prevailing ugly stereotype.
It took the initiative of its chemistry teacher, Mr. Peter Norton, a non-Malaysian, to identify the problem and then push to solve it. Malay College boys did poorly in science not because they were Malays rather they were insufficiently prepared. So in 1961 the college vastly expanded it science laboratories and instituted for the first time a pure science stream at the fourth form. For perspective, my old school in Kuala Pilah had been doing this for years. No surprise then that my old school outperformed Malay College in science.
That first batch of “pure science” students at Malay College excelled, as did others following. They are now among the nation’s eminent doctors, scientists and professors, as represented by Ariffin Aton, a University of Leeds PhD in Chemical Engineering, now head of MyIPO, the body concerned with intellectual properties.
Then there was my calculus class experience at Malay College. At Lower Six we had a Canadian “Peace Corp” volunteer as our teacher. Being new to the country he did not harbor any negative stereotypes of or preconceived ideas on Malays, except perhaps that we lived in trees. On finding out that we did not, he proceeded to treat us like his Canadian students.
Mr. Allen Brown began his class with us without any fuss; no dire preamble about how “tough” calculus would be and that we had to “buckle up.” He treated it like any other subject; he assumed we could handle it.
I remember well his first day in class. He began by drawing a series of arcs of from the same center point, each with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shape. It was obvious; as the radius got longer, the curve became flatter. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be very flat, we responded. Then he beamed and exclaimed, “Yes! A straight line is nothing but a curve with a radius of infinity!”
“Now imagine the opposite,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve that are infinitely close to each other.” Then he began taking a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify a wee tiny part of this curve a zillion times,” as he pretended doing it on the board, “the two points on it would essentially be on a straight line.”
Then he swung around and exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes!” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line would be equally applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it.
Thus was the mystery of variable change and calculus revealed, at least to me. I had taken calculus the year before in fifth form and had aced it. Yet I did not fully grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and then plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that.
We had an even greater surprise the following February when the national examination results were announced. The entire class but two had aced it. The two who did not nonetheless scored high “credit” (B plus). It was a record not just for the school but also the country. As we were whooping it up back at the dorm, Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what it was we were celebrating. To him, it was not a surprise at all; after all he had seen our performances on the many regular tests he had given us during the year. The surprise for him was that we were surprised.
Decades later, I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a teacher, Jamie Escalante, in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles inner-city school. He did such an incredible job with his AP (Advanced Placement, college-level) class that the College Board (the examining body) thought his students were cheating and forced them to re-sit the test! They still aced it!
Escalante quickly became a celebrity. Not revealed in that movie were the many monumental as well as petty obstacles placed in Escalante’s path by his principal and others. For example, his principal was against Escalante using the gym to accommodate the large size of his class, and the teachers’ union was against his exceeding the class-size limit. Tellingly, the program collapsed when Escalante left in frustration.
Talk to any dedicated teacher in Malaysia and she would readily identify with Escalante.
I too can testify to that culture. Many years ago I visited an elite residential school in Malaysia. I wanted to donate a video microscope for its biology lab. As I also wanted to know of its other needs, I made an appointment to see the headmaster. On three occasions he canceled our meeting at the last minute as he had “other commitments.” Needless to say, that video microscope was my only gift to that school.
As for the headmaster’s “other commitments,” one was the meeting of the local Koran reading contest committee, the other, planning the reception for a ministerial visit.
Judging from the many social media postings by parents today, things have only gotten worse in our national schools, further reinforcing the burden of self affirmation and stereotype threats among their students who today happened to be mostly if not exclusively Malays.
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.
The corollary to my earlier discussion is that it is far better to have a mindset with the capacity to grow and adapt than one that is fixated on its existing worldview. Harping on “changing mindset,” as our leaders are wont to do, is misplaced.
The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two mindsets: the growth versus the fixed. They differ not only in their hypothesis of the outside world but also how they view their inner being.
Those with a fixed mindset view their talent and ability as fixed and tied to their innate ability. They view themselves as being governed by whatever abilities that they have been endowed with by nature. They are trapped by their biologic pre-determinism, which can be just as crippling as the more familiar religious variety afflicting simple villagers – “My fate is written in the book of life!”
The “book of life” of those with fixed mindset and are science-literate is the sequence of amino acids encoded in their DNA strands. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that their fate depends on their ability to adapt and learn from new challenges and experiences, not on whatever nature has bestowed upon them through their chromosomes. To these individuals, opportunities are the flipside of crises, as the ancient Chinese wisdom would have it. Success depends on their ability to convert the latter to the former.
Those with a growth mindset are not trapped or limited by whatever nature had endowed upon them. Nor do they believe that their fate is dependent upon the benevolence of a remote emperor or what had been written in the book of life, either the theological or biological edition.
In medieval times those with fixed mindset believed that their fate was set at birth. Born a peasant and you would always remain one, and so would your children and their children. This was the belief of Ina and Sabu, the characters in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s short story Djangus dan Babu. That mindset is continually being reinforced by cultural beliefs and religious convictions.
Leaders with a fixed mindset are the likes of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, firm believers in their innate abilities. Presidents Nixon and Reagan best exemplified leaders with a growth mindset. Nixon was a staunch conservative and firm supporter of Taiwan, but that did not stop him from opening up to China. Reagan, like Nixon, was also staunchly conservative and anti-communist, but he had no difficulty working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The signal difference between those with fixed versus growth mindset is their attitude towards failure. The former would treat failure as reflecting their inner being, an affirmation of their inadequacies and lack of natural ability. Worse, their failure also reflects that of their race or culture, or both. They would then retreat, never to challenge the situation again.
Those with a growth mindset on the other hand consider failures as part and parcel of learning and adapting. They bounce right back. In Silicon Valley, California, a failed entrepreneur wears his failure as a warrior would his battle scars, and then moves on. Nixon and Reagan were both defeated on their first try at the presidency, but both went on to win substantial majorities on subsequent attempt.
Mistakes and failures are part of life. Physicians have a pragmatic approach to mistakes. In making clinical decisions, all things being equal, we would pursue a path where should we make a mistake it would be more readily corrected, over one where it would be more difficult to remedy. For example in a clinically ambiguous situation, surgeons will opt to operate on a case of suspected acute appendicitis only to find out that it is normal rather than wait to be certain and risk the inflamed appendix rupturing and jeopardizing the patient’s life. The consequences of the first mistake (operating too soon) are less severe and more remediable than with the second (operating too late).
Hamka’s words best encapsulate the attitude of those with a fixed mindset, Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati. The fear of failure is the real failure, the hallmark of those with a fixed mindset.
We can develop or train ourselves to have a growth mindset. This is best tackled simultaneously at two levels: individual and societal. For individuals, we should expose ourselves to as many new experiences as possible thus enabling our brain to forge those new neural pathways. At the societal and cultural levels, it would be anything that would encourage and facilitate our people in having those new experiences.
Geography plays a major role in shaping our mindset. Inhabitants of coastal areas and others exposed to large bodies of water (traditional means of transportation in ancient times) are more cosmopolitan than those inland. In China, it is Shanghai; Malaysia, Malacca; and India, Goa. Their residents are exposed to many visitors (mainly traders in the old days) from different lands bringing with them new cultures and ideas. Today, technology, specifically modern means of communications, has overcome this limitations imposed by geography.
With frequent exposures to new people and experiences, as with traveling, we increase our comfort level with the unfamiliar and different. With that comes tolerance and appreciation.
This only works if we have a growth mindset. If we have a fixed one, then all those new experiences would only reinforce our existing prejudices. Psychologists refer to this as “confirmation bias,” the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions and avoid those that do not. To return to my earlier metaphor, we would be concerned only with “re-editing” the facts to fit our pre-existing narrative instead of creating a new one.
If you believe that the West is inherently decadent, then when visiting Washington, D.C, all you would see are the porn shops, street potholes, and the homeless pandering. You would miss Georgetown University, Library of Congress, and the National Institutes of Health.
The writer Anis Sabirin, a former Fulbright scholar who spent decades living in Los Angeles, related in her memoir Dua Dunia (Two Worlds) her experience visiting the Library of Congress. There she was treated with the utmost courtesy and given all the help she needed, a vast contrast to her miserable experience when she visited the University of Malaya library. To make it even more unbearable and unbelievable, she was a former faculty member at that institution!
Anis Sabirin is a Claremont PhD in economics; she is the beneficiary of America’s tradition of liberal education. Even though she is passionate about Malaysia as reflected in her stirring syairs (poetry), nonetheless she has an open mind to discern the differences between her native land and America. She is also confident of her patriotism such that she is not afraid to criticize her homeland and praise America. That also personifies a growth mindset and a free mind.
The two activities – traveling and reading (as reflected by visiting libraries) – are the best ways to enhance a growth mindset, as long as you keep an open mind and be aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. Restrictions on travel, standard issue in China, Russia and other repressive societies, together with book banning and burning, are the crudest expression of this fixed mindset. Unfortunately that is the path Malaysian leaders have chosen, with their penchant on banning and/or licensing speakers.
With a free mind and a growth mindset we can explore the many transformational events in our history and view them from a perspective different from what we have been used to. Only then could we learn and benefit from the exercise, and making our learning curve steeper. With a closed mind, our review of history and past experiences would result only in syok sendiri (self-gratification or glorification), with our learning curve remaining flat and our narrative unchanged.
Next: Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat
Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.
Related to the concept of a free mind is that of mindset, defined as one’s attitude to or philosophy of life. With all the established neural networks and stored memories in the brain, it forms a working hypothesis of what reality is. How the brain perceives new information is influenced by its existing working hypothesis, its pre-set narrative of reality.
If the brain were to receive new information that would not conform to or diametrically contradict the brain’s preexisting narrative, then it (the brain) would use various ingenuous interpretations to make the new data conform to that pre-set pattern.
A dramatic demonstration of this is the rare clinical condition called Cabgras delusion. Here the sufferer, through injury or stroke, has lost the capacity to recognize hitherto familiar faces including those of close family members. The patient would readily admit that the person facing him looks, speaks and even smells like his mother for example, but would adamantly refuse to admit that is who she is. Instead he is convinced that she is nothing more than a look-alike imposter, intent on swindling him for some nefarious ends, as with claiming insurance benefits. Imagine the mother’s heartbreak!
During the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, psychiatrists had a great time invoking the Oedipus complex* as a defense mechanism to explain the dynamics of this malady. Those explanations may make for titillating reading but they do not in any way help the poor patient.
The University of California, San Diego, neurologist Ramachandran studied these patients using modern clinical techniques and came up with a much more scientifically supportable explanation. In so doing he was also able to help his patients, the ultimate goal, while in the process greatly expanding our understanding of the brain.
What happened to the patient was that when he saw his mother, he did not experience the usual associated warm feelings one typically expects on meeting one’s loved ones. Apparently the accident had interrupted the neural pathway between the patient’s eyes to his thalamus and hypothalamus – the seats of emotions. Thus while the brain recognized the images of his mother, those images did not trigger the usual associated warm emotions to corroborate the identity. To resolve this discordance, the brain (or its thinking or cortical part) ingeniously concocted a new “explanation,” and the only “logical” one would be to interpret the woman not as the familiar warm mother but a conniving impostor. That would neatly “explain” the lack of emotions.
Fortunately for this particular patient, the neural pathway from his ears to the thalamus and hypothalamus was intact. So to treat the patient Ramachandran had the mother phone the patient from another room without being seen by him. He of course recognized the voice as coming from his mother, as the pathway from his ears to the thalamus was intact and with it, the associated warm emotional feelings were evoked on hearing her familiar voice. As he did not see her, there were no conflicting visual images to confuse his brain.
Then gradually the mother would approach the patient while still talking with him on a mobile phone, finally making eye contact while still talking on the phone. Through repeating this process many times, the patient was able to bring back his pre-existing, familiar, warm emotions for his mother as he had now learned to integrate the voice with the visual images of the face. The plasticity of his brain enabled it to form new pathways from his eyes to the thalamus to bypass the previously damaged ones.
The mind has a coherent picture of reality, and this picture in turn is created through our experiences and learning. If there are elements in the current reality that are jarring or do not fit that existing pattern, then the mind “re-edits” those elements so as to fit the pre-existing pattern.
This composite and internally consistent hypothesis our brain has of reality is what’s meant by mindset. In so far as members of a particular group, race, or profession have the commonality of experiences and thus developed a common internally consistent hypothesis of reality, then they can be said to share the same mindset. Such is the difference between the Malay mindset and the colonial one.
These established neural networks remain unchanged except through injuries or disease when those connections could be interfered with. Stated differently, we cannot change our mindset. What we can do is subject ourselves to new experiences and with that, learning opportunities, so our brain can form new pathways and establish new networks. When those new patterns prove to be more efficient or useful to us in interpreting reality, we would gradually replace the old, less efficient pathways.
For that to happen we must first have the willingness if not eagerness to learn new things and be exposed to new experiences so our brain cells can forge those new networks and then slowly discard the old and less-useful ones. There is of course no guarantee that our mind would form new networks but merely simply reinterpret the new data and information to conform to our existing view of the world, as the patient with the Capgras delusion. The hope however, is that with sufficient new experiences and the opening of new neural channels and networks, our brain would use those new ones and then prune off the old and less used and less reliable patterns of the past. That was precisely the strategy used in treating the patient with the Capgras syndrome.
Thus it is not so much as a new mindset rather that the old one that has been “improved” upon to such a degree as to be sufficiently different from the old one. Therefor it would be more fruitful to talk about a mindset that can grow (or improved upon) with new experiences instead of a new mindset.
Next: “Fixed” Versus “Growth” Mindset
Adapted from the writer’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.
A discussion on the “free mind” begins with clarifying three related terms: brain, mind, and mindset.
The brain is the jelly-like structure in our skull, part of our central nervous system. To use the language of computers, the brain is the central processing unit of our nervous system. It is, however, much more; the brain is the core of our consciousness.
Like any other organ, the brain has its own blood supply, support structures, and nutritional requirements. Like the heart, any developmental or other abnormalities of the brain will adversely affect its many functions. Unlike the heart however, which is fully developed and functional at birth (a baby’s heart functions in the same manner as an adult’s), the brain continues its development for many years after birth. Indeed, significant development of the brain occurs after birth, especially in the first few critical years of early childhood.
There is another major difference between the brain and other organs. While the internal parts of the heart for example, do communicate with each other, they do so only so they can function in a coordinated and rhythmic way to make the organ mechanically efficient. In the brain however, the communications of its various internal parts define the function of the whole brain. The significant point is that this development of communication pathways is as much dependent on what had been programmed in that individual through his genetic make-up as much as on the environment, internal and external, physical as well as non-physical.
The definition of the mind that is relevant here refers to the intellect and consciousness, our thoughts, perceptions, memory, emotions, will and imagination, among others. The mind is also our thinking process, the rational aspects of our behavior. Thus behaving in an aberrant fashion is referred to as being out of one’s mind. Dispensing with the philosophical and theological, and stating it differently and briefly while albeit simplistically, the mind is the brain at work. If the brain does not work, as for example by the clamping of the blood supply and thus depriving it of life-giving oxygen, the brain would be dead, and with that, the mind and the person.
I am aware of the many accounts of near-death experiences that would seem to challenge this assertion. As a junior physician I was part of a team that successfully resuscitated a journalist who had a heart attack. Later he was able to recall the drama minute by minute. It was as if, as he related, he had had an out-of-body experience and was watching the whole event from the ceiling, detached. Others have described similar experiences. The overall theme, heavy with religious connotations, is that the mind or soul is separate from and independent of the anatomical brain. I will leave it at that and not get into that line of inquiry, which is heavy on philosophy and theology.
Mindset on the other hand refers to our outlook in or philosophy of life. It is the set of ideas, attitudes and assumptions that we as individuals or members of a group share of reality, or what we perceive to be it. Neurologically speaking, mindset is the preexisting neural pattern in our brain; conceptually, it is our mental hypothesis of reality.
While the brain is something physical and can be touched, mind and mindset are but concepts. All three are interrelated but the nature and level of the relationships are not well understood. Increasingly but not exclusively they point towards the molecular (specifically neurotransmitter) level, or what neuroscientists refer to as the “neurotransmitter correlates of consciousness.”
Two relevant and related insights of modern neuroscience are the brain’s ability to change with new experiences or in response to injury, an attribute termed neuroplasticity, and the other, the concept of “use it or lose it.”
At the cellular level, neuroplasticity means the ability of the brain to form new pathways based on fresh stimuli (experiences). This is best demonstrated in the almost miraculous ability of the adult brain to readjust following injuries. Initially this plasticity was thought to be the exclusive property of the young brain, but now it is recognized to be a lifelong capacity, although obviously most pronounced in the young.
As for “use it or lose it,” a baby’s brain has almost limitless ability to learn and form new neural networks. However, over time if these pathways are not used, meaning, if a particular mental faculty associated with that network is not utilized, then it will atrophy, a process termed “synaptic pruning.”
The classic example is the lazy eye syndrome in childhood; untreated it will lead to blindness of that eye. When the muscles of one eye are not well coordinated or weak, that eye sends a different image from that of the good eye. This confuses the brain, and it adapts by “ignoring” the image from the bad eye. Over time through synaptic pruning, the neural wiring from that bad eye to the brain will atrophy and you will get the condition of “cortical blindness” where between the brain and that eye has atrophied from disuse.
Conversely, those mental faculties (and thus neural networks) that are used often will be strengthened. In this regard the brain is like the muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes; the less, the faster it atrophies.
The environment, especially social and emotional, plays a major role in both neuroplasticity and synaptic pruning; hence the importance of a nurturing and stimulating environment especially in early childhood.
Lifelong neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new networks in response to new experiences or injuries, and “synaptic pruning,” letting those rarely-used pathways atrophy, are the essence of the brain, not its size, proportion, capacity, or whatever innate ability.
There are exceptions, of course, specifically the outliers at either end of the spectrum. At one end are the unfortunate few with mental developmental deficits. At the other, unfortunately equally few, are the exceptionally gifted and talented. While we know more about the first group, to the extent of being able to prevent or ameliorate specific maladies as with phenylketonuria (PKU – mental retardation due to the inability to utilize the essential amino acid phenylalanine), we are woefully ignorant of those with exceptional talents.
Again cognizant of the complexity, the brain’s plasticity is the good news, but not all the time. There is no guarantee that when those new networks are formed as a consequence of new experiences that they would always be beneficial. They could well be maladaptive and confer no benefits and may indeed make things worse. An example would be the phantom pain syndrome amputees suffer. Here the nerve to the amputated leg has been severed but the brain forms new pathways to compensate for that loss. Consequently the patient still suffers from the old pain he had before the amputation. This new phantom “pain” can just be disabling.
Simplistically put, the mind is the brain with the composite of all these neural networks together with its established patterns and archives of memories. To use the computer analogy, the brain is the combination of both hardware and software, while the mind is the computer, which in addition to its hardware and software would also include all applications and files, downloaded materials that had been stored, and the set default positions.
In so far as those from the same family, tribe, race, culture and profession would share commonality of experiences and learning, then we could have the Malay mind, the legal mind, or the mind of an economist.
As cultures differ, and with that our experiences, norms and values, it is not a surprise that there should be differences between a Malay and English mind for example, just as we would expect differences between a legal mind and the mind of an economist. A policeman used to encountering the criminal elements of society would greet a stranger in a very different way than a priest. The former would be more circumspect and suspicious while the latter, spontaneous and warmly welcoming.
These are the predictable and understandable differences. Physicians are specifically trained to be sensitive to these nuances in our patients, to be alert and able to read, as it were, their patient’s mind. To a stoic farmer, “It hurts just a wee bit!” has an entirely different meaning from, “It hurts all over!” lament of a hysterical actress.
It is less important whether we have a Malay or an English mind, or whether we approach a problem with a legal mind or the mind of an economist, more important that we have a free mind unencumbered by or at least aware of the baggage of our preconceptions and past experiences. Our past experiences should be a guide or compass, not a trap or a baggage.
To summarize, the brain with all its existing neural networks and stored memories is the mind. That is an oversimplification but operationally it is sufficient for the purpose of this book. A free mind is not a brain that denies or pretends that all these networks and stored memories do not exist, rather one that still maintains its plasticity, meaning the ability to form new networks and store new memories. In short, a free mind is a brain that remains as fresh as that of a newborn, ever eager to learn from new experiences and more than ready to give up its old, no longer valid pathways and assumptions.
Excerpts from the author's last book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.