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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.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #4

Introduction and Overview

A Discussion on Causation


The numerous theories to explain why some societies develop and prosper while others languish and stagnate revolve around three broad themes: biology, geography, and culture. The first two factors are immutable; there is nothing that can be done to change a nation’s biological heritage or its geographical attributes. Culture on the other hand can and does change.

The popularity of the various theories varies with time. The prevailing view often coincides with the beliefs held by members of the dominant societies of the day. During the heyday of imperialism, biology took center stage. The Europeans, being the most advanced nations, easily believed that they were favored by nature and endowed with the most desirable characteristics: God’s perfection personified. The “White Man’s burden” mentality (they considered themselves divinely chosen to lead others) was a reflection of this belief in their inherent superiority.

Later, with the discovery of the importance of natural resources and trade, geographical attributes and strategic locations became popular explanations. The current favorite revolves around culture. That is, there is something in the cultures of the various societies that either predispose (or cause) them to develop; or conversely, impede their progress. In effect, culture is destiny. Economists emphasize the crucial role of institutions (an aspect of culture) in development; the backwardness of many Third World countries is caused largely by to their lack of effective and honest institutions.

Before proceeding, I will elaborate on the meaning of causation. When A causes B, it means that altering A will effect changes in B, or that without A, B will not happen. An opaque object blocking a ray of light causes a shadow, meaning, without that opaque object there will be no shadow. Substitute a transparent glass for example, and there will be no shadow. Further, by altering the shape, size, or position of the opaque object, we likewise directly alter the characteristics of the shadow.

Going further, by studying the physics of light, one can manipulate or eliminate shadows even if there is an opaque object blocking the ray of light. Experienced photographers manipulating the different angles of lights to neutralize and eliminate annoying shadows.

In life however, events are not always quite so clear. I illustrate this by using the example on the “cause” of malaria. In ancient times malaria was known as “black water fever,” an apt description as the disease was associated with brackish waters and swamps. This was a valuable observation, for by draining swamps we reduced the incidence of the disease. Fewer swamps, fewer cases of malaria! Thus the ancients rightly concluded that swamps caused the disease, hence the name. It did not matter what was the actual intermediary, for at the practical and operational level, the draining or eliminating of swamps effectively reduced the incidence of the disease.

Village Malays may attribute malaria to the hantu or spirits of the swamp, but it matters not. It is the swamp that ultimately caused the disease, the hantu being merely an intermediary, a vector in modern epidemiological parlance. Stay away from the swamps and their hantu, and you are spared the malady.

Later we discovered that mosquitoes “caused” malaria. Operationally that was a more valid and useful explanation. Get rid of the mosquitoes and we eliminate the disease. In terms of efficacy, this was a better and more specific explanation as it explained the household transmission of the disease and why it could occur in non swampy areas. It also provided a more efficient and cheaper way to control the disease. Instead of using expensive earth-moving equipment to drain swamps and upsetting the ecological balance, we could invest in cheap mosquito nets or insecticides. Thus this discovery was an improvement over the earlier model.

Now biologists know that mosquitoes do not “cause” malaria, rather it is the single-cell parasite, the protozoon Plasmodium that is the real culprit. The mosquito is merely a carrier. Again this is a far more accurate explanation. It explains how the disease can be transmitted in the absence of mosquitoes as in rare cases through blood transfusions; and why some Africans with a particular trait (sickle cell anemia) are more resistant to malaria.

Is Plasmodium then the ultimate truth or cause? Perhaps in the future scientists will discover something else. Maybe it is a virus within the parasite, or perhaps a protein component in the coating of the parasite that is responsible for the fever and disease.

For now however, the knowledge that Plasmodium causes malaria is very useful as drugs could be developed targeting the parasite. But this explanation also raises hosts of other interesting questions. For example, why does the body not reject this foreign organism as it would a transplanted kidney? So the enquiry goes on. And if it is a virus within the protozoa or the protein coat of the parasite that causes malaria, then one could conceivably develop vaccines to prevent the disease. Indeed modern research in malaria is aimed towards this very goal of prevention by vaccination.

Meanwhile whatever the ultimate or true ‘cause’ of malaria is, each level of explanation, from the swamp spirit to the protozoal parasite, provides its own utility.

Many of the studies I will cite in this book are culled from the social sciences, especially economics. Unlike in the natural sciences where the findings and observations can be tested in a controlled environment of the laboratory, few such opportunities are afforded in the social sciences. Whereas in the “hard” science we can confidently proclaim that A causes B because by experimentally altering A effects changes in B, in the social sciences the statement is stated differently: A is correlated with B, with no mention of causation. This means that when A changes, so does B. It does not mean that A causes B; correlation is not causation. It may well be that whatever conditions that caused A to change also affect B.

This caution is necessary lest we fall into the ridiculous trap of trying to curb ice cream sales to prevent drowning, based on the study that increased ice cream sales (as in summer) correlate with rates of drowning. In truth of course the warm summer days cause many to consume ice cream as well as go swimming, hence the correlation.

Such spurious correlations may not always be so readily apparent. Studies show that students who graduated from elite universities consistently earn more than graduates of lesser-known institutions, leading many to credit those august universities. This seems to make sense too. But later studies comparing students who went to elite universities to those who were accepted but instead chose to attend a local lesser-known school, revealed no difference in their later earnings.

Thus it is those same qualities (diligence and intelligence) that enable the students to get accepted at the top universities that are important and valued in the marketplace, regardless of where the students study. In short, it is not the university that matters, rather the individual.

Unfortunately many social science findings are not so readily validated. For example, a recent study by the World Bank reveals that developing countries that embrace free trade and globalization grew nearly five times faster than those countries that do not. The Bank concludes that developing countries should embrace globalization in order to grow. Although I agree with that sentiment, there are other possible interpretations. It could be that whatever qualities those developing countries have that made them adopt globalization also promote growth, for example, ready acceptance of new ideas.

Likewise, many studies indicate economic development to be correlated with investments in education, leading many to emphasize spending on our schools and colleges. Again I agree with this, but for a different reason – it is the right thing to do regardless of the economic cost-benefit analysis. Nonetheless we should still be cautious and not be confusing cause with effect. It could be that because they are economically developed these countries have the resources to expend on education. This is certainly true with individuals. When you are poor and the immediate concern is where your next meal would come, the last thing on your mind is your child’s education.

In discussing the various factors in human social and economic development, I am using the term causation in the manner of Plasmodium causing of malaria. That is, I am seeking those aspects that we can modify in order to promote development. I am more concerned with those elements that have utilitarian values, that is, those that we can do something about. This caveat is necessary because although I will be quoting various theological and religious arguments, it is my conviction that the present state of affairs of the various societies is the consequence of the activities of man, and not the will of Allah. The important corollary is that those very same factors can be modified. If I believe that everything is predestined—the will of Allah—then we might as well close the book. No further enquiry is warranted.

Next: The Outline

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