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.
Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
Geography As Destiny
It is easy to understand and accept the premise that geography plays a major role in deciding the fate of a nation. Intuitively one can readily see that the Arabs are fabulously wealthy because of their vast oil deposits. Economists have long clung to the idea of comparative advantage afforded by the luck of geography. Portugal’s Mediterranean climate enables it to produce cheaper and better wines than Britain. The easy availability of coal in Britain on the other hand, made possible the steam revolution.
Access to navigable waterways and oceans confer immense advantages. For this reason Malacca was a center of vigorous Malay civilization for a long time. Through international commerce and the consequent intermixing of various cultures, Islam entered and became established in the Malay world through that port city.
Yet like many ideas that seem right, geography cannot be the full answer. There are too many exceptions of countries doing well despite seemingly no natural resources or favorable geographic factors. Hong Kong and Singapore are two oft-cited examples. But even here one cannot ignore geography entirely. Hong Kong enjoys the proximity of a huge hinterland, China. Singapore too, despite the irritatingly frequent boasts of its leaders to the contrary, is blessed with its strategic location on the maritime trade route between the Far East and Europe, and a protected natural deep-water harbor. Those are not inconsiderable assets. As realtors endlessly remind us, location is everything.
Favorable geography alone is not enough. Many nations blessed with abundant natural resources and favorable geography remain stagnant, their people languishing in poverty. Brunei may enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes but its people are essentially Third World peasants. One can easily imagine that country reverting to its original tropical swamps and its ruler reduced to the level of the Sultan of Sulu once the oil runs out. Africa contains the largest deposits of many valuable minerals and has huge potential for hydroelectric energy, yet that entire continent remains backward and poor.
Geography as an academic discipline too has also fallen on hard
times, with major American campuses beginning with Harvard dispensing
with it. Matters once under its purview are now relegated to earth sciences and geology. Only ancient British universities like Cambridge still have a Department of Geography.
Geography however, has a long history. The Greek philosopher Ptolemy in his Geographica divided the world into six geographic zones according to climate, and concluded that the areas most conducive to human civilization are the middle zones—the Mediterranean climate – where of course Greece happens to be located. The extreme zones, the polar north and hot tropical band, were deemed not conducive for human civilization.
Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Muslim historian in his Muqaddimah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), expanded on this Hellenic observation. “Environmental differences,” he wrote, “affect and shape man’s character, his appearance and his customs. The best conditions for human existence obtain in the middle regions of the earth, between its northern and southern extremes.” Ibn Khaldun too divided the world into several zones ranging from the tropic to the tundra, but he went further to boldly state that climate and the physical environment affect people’s character. Thus:
Now Negroes live in the hot zone. Heat dominates their temperament and formation. Therefore, they have in their spirits an amount of heat corresponding to that of their bodies and that of the zone in which they live….Excitability is the direct consequence.
Egyptians [in the heat are] dominated by joyfulness, levity, and disregard for the future. They store no provisions of food, neither for a month nor a year ahead, but purchase most of it in the market. Fez in the Maghrib on the other hand, lies inland and is surrounded by cold hills. Its inhabitants can be observed to look sad and gloomy and to be concerned for the future.”
He further elaborated on the role of the food supply in shaping the culture, physique, and character of a people. Thus, “We find that the inhabitants of fertile zones where the products of agriculture and animal husbandry as well as seasonings and fruits are plentiful, are, as a rule, described as stupid in mind and coarse in body. Those who lead a frugal life and are restricted to barely and dira … are superior both intellectually and physically.”
Essentially, we are what we eat! Or, adversity builds character!
The Malay scholar Pendita Za’ba, in a 1933 essay entitled Kemiskinan Orang Melayu (Poverty Among Malays) wrote, “The geography of our country, with its fertile soil and abundant flora which provide for easy sustenance together with our oppressively hot climate, are reasons often cited to explain why Malays are sluggish and backward. That is, we are not as diligent and hard working as the immigrants because we had no need to. Everything has been easily and amply provided for.” But he went on to suggest (a point often ignored) that “the factors of geography” alone cannot be the full explanation. He suggested two additional elements: first the role of religion (Islam); and second, culture.
I will cover these two issues as they specifically affect Malays later
The most obvious effect of geography is on the climate. Having been born and raised in the tropics, lived through many a frigid Canadian winter, and now residing in California, I can personally attest to the salubrious effects of the Mediterranean clime. Many Americans too share my sentiment, as evidenced by the large number of new arrivals from such states as Minnesota and Iowa.
It is argued that the human body tolerates cold better than heat. I disagree. I prefer the tropics to the frigid Artic any time; at least in the tropics I can always keep cool by taking off my shirt or having a shower. To keep warm in the cold entails adding more layers of clothing or starting a fire, both energy-consuming activities. In the tropics you can keep cool by not exerting yourself in the heat of the day; hence the cultural phenomenon of siesta. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would dare or be stupid enough to venture out in the heat of the day; the natives knew better.
Climate, as intimated by Ibn Khaldun, also affects personality. Many writers attribute the sunny, open, and warm personality of tropical inhabitants to the weather, in contrast to the frigid, icy behavior of the Northerners. Notice the similar vocabulary to describe human dispositions and weather.
Tropical dwellings too are open and airy, for ventilation and coolness, unlike the closed and insulated homes in cold weather countries. In a tropical home there is no distinction between the inside and outside; they just merge. When entertaining, guests are not cooped up within the confines of the living room but can easily flow out to the verandah and the outside. Malaysian homes also have their doors and windows wide open for ventilation, creating a welcoming aura. Entertaining in a temperate zone home, especially in winter, involves being cooped up. This does not favor long and leisurely conversations or create an atmosphere of openness. In Canada you hardly see your neighbor until the spring thaw. Not surprisingly, inhabitants of cold zones are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD—depression).
I brought a Canadian guest to a Hari Raya (Eid celebration) party in Malaysia. At the end he was amazed at the number of guests he had met and yet somehow they did not overwhelm him. The reason was that people came and went, mingled in and out of the house, with some eating on benches outside. The atmosphere was like a party at a public park rather than in a home. Children too were tolerated because they were not in the way; they could be running outside the home. In contrast, in Western societies it is considered bad form to bring children along unless specifically invited. I can see why. All you need is a couple of kids running wild within the confines of a house to give everyone a headache. Malaysians visiting a similar party in an American home always wonder where the children are. Well, they are cooped up in the family room watching a movie under the watchful eye of the babysitter.
Geography has also been invoked to explain differences in personalities and temperament of inhabitants of the different regions within a country, as between northern and southern Italians.
Ibn Khaldun was the first to systemically study the development of society. To him urbanization, in contrast to nomadic lifestyle, represents an advance form of existence. Such concentrations of humans permit, among other things, the division of labor, a concept that predates by centuries the thinking of modern economists. Further, human society can only exist and flourish through the cooperative endeavors of all its participants on behalf of the common good. This “group feeling” or group consciousness (asabiyah) is the glue that binds society. Groups that have strong asabiyah achieve predominance over others. Contemporary social scientists have a modern term to describe this attribute: social capital. This is increasingly recognized as the glue that keeps modern society functioning.
Next: Culture and Geography: An Experiment of Nature
The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin M. Bakri Musa
[First of Four Parts]
The dynamics between Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin is one of rivalry. They compete rather than complement each other. They give every indication to be the least productive and most dysfunctional ‘team,’ if I can stretch that term. Their relationship has awful feng shui and exudes bad karma.
They are politics’ Labu and Labi, the bumbling hired hands in P. Ramlee’s comedy movie of the same name, who spent their time fantasizing about their employer’s daughter while neglecting their chores.
Alas, leading the nation is anything but a comedic act; it is an awesome responsibility. Najib and Muhyiddin however, are treating their position as they would a trophy wife; with Najib consumed with displaying it while Muhyiddin is busy licking at the chops barely concealing his own desires.
Najib has nothing substantive to show after a year in office. It is emblematic of his inept leadership that when the recently-acquired new Scorpene submarine could finally dive, it made the headlines! Incidentally, that sub was bought during Najib’s tenure as Defense Minister.
We have significantly lowered the bar for and expectations of our leaders. Next, we will be excited if Najib were just to show up! Consider that former Prime Minister Mahathir had praised Najib merely for not dozing off at meetings! As for Najib’s much ballyhooed “1Malaysia,” a check on its website today showed that it is still inviting readers to register to join him for tea on March 13th, a good two weeks ago! Well at least that is better than the fate of his deputy’s blog.
On the major issues, from the teaching of science and mathematics in English to the controversy over the “Allah” terminology, the two are not even on the same page. They are complete opposites. Often that is the catalyst for a dynamic and creative relationship. That however, is true only with highly-accomplished and self-confident personalities. Najib and Muhyiddin are far from being that!
I will compare the current duo of Najib and Muhyiddin to their predecessors, and then suggest a course of action Najib should take to salvage his tattering leadership. I will focus on three preceding pairs: the best and ideal team of Tun Razak and Dr. Ismail; the longest and most enduring partnership of Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak; and the destructive and dysfunctional combination of Mahathir and Anwar. These three examples (two positive and one negative) provide many relevant lessons for Najib.
Unaltered the present course will lead to a breakup of the two, with destructive consequences to them, their party, and their country. The scale would be many times worse than the Mahathir-Anwar explosion of 1998. The latter crippled the party and deeply divided the country, but only temporarily. In that ruinous split there was a definite victor, the mercurial Mahathir, which made the conflict mercifully not protracted.
If Najib and Muhyiddin were to split, it would come at a time when their party is at its weakest and most vulnerable; likewise the nation. As neither Najib nor Muhyiddin is strong enough or commands sufficient respect and support within the party and country, their split could consume both of them, as well as fatally cripple UMNO.
As for Malaysia, it has come a long way since the traumatic events of 1998 and could thus take the Najib-Muhyiddin breakup in stride. Indeed I would argue that the split would be good for the nation.
Nothing however, is preordained; prophecies need not be self fulfilling. Even bad karma and ill feng shui can be ameliorated. Najib’s future is in his own hands and in the fateful decisions he makes, not with the alignment of the stars or the tea-leaf reading of some village soothsayers.
The first and longest pair was that of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak. It spanned over 15 years and was the most successful the country has ever seen, or likely to see again. Even when the duo broke up following the 1969 race riots, it was done discretely and with minimal public repercussions. The pair remained unique in that they maintained their respect for each other long after one exited the stage. They never uttered an unkind word for the other, at least not publicly. It was a class act right to the end.
Compare that to the nasty things the Tunku and Hussein Onn heaped upon Mahathir when he was Prime Minister, or the scorn and contempt Mahathir poured on his chosen successor, Abdullah.
At the other extreme, we had the initially very promising and dynamic but later proved to be highly destructive and dysfunctional pairing of Mahathir and Anwar. The nation is still playing the price for that ugly split. The pair was like an unstable radioisotope; when it split it continued spewing its toxic radiation, defying all attempts at containment.
The team of Tun Razak and Dr. Ismail that succeeded the Rahman-Razak duo was easily the best and ideal. Perhaps the brevity of their tenure spared them from the inevitable tensions and rivalries. Malaysians today look forlornly to that team, especially considering what is being served to us today.
The Razak-Ismail team was not the briefest; that distinction (if it can be called that) belongs to the immediately succeeding team of Razak and Hussein Onn. That was also the most forgettable pairing. The Razak and Huseein duo demonstrates that it would take both sides to make a great or at least workable team. It is not enough to have only one member shine; a laggard partner would bring the pair down. This observation would be validated many times later, as with the Mahathir-Musa Hitam and Mahathir-Ghaffar Baba pairings.
When both members are lightweights, then we would have a laughing stock of a team, a political Labu and Labi team. At worse it would be a disaster, for them as well as the country. We had that with the Abdullah and Najib; we are now we re-living it with Najib and Muhyiddin.
Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
Biology in Human History
It is also easy to fall for the trap of biologic determinism. In surveying the globe today, the most advanced nations are in Western Europe: America, and Australia. These are, to use a familiar term, White man’s countries. Meanwhile the whole of tropical Africa is backward and primitive. The most obvious difference is the skin color of their inhabitants. Skin color thus becomes the most identifiable and ready surrogate indicator of ability. As skin color is biologically determined, it therefore follows that these other abilities must also be so determined.
The Japanese take comfort in their light skin color to give them the confidence to compete with Caucasians. In the days of apartheid South Africa, the Japanese were genuinely flattered when given the status of “Honorary Whites.” They had “made it,” at least in their own eyes as well as to the racist South Africans.
Over a century ago Japanese writers, realizing how backward their people were as compared to the exploring White men who ventured upon their shores, exhorted their countrymen to intermarry with the invading foreigners so as to infuse the beneficial “white” genes into Japanese society. Following the Meiji Reformation and the opening of Japan, the Japanese were falling all over themselves to ape the ways of the White man. A century later, Dr. Mahathir would recommend a similar remedy for Malays, exhorting us to intermarry outside our race. He had himself as exhibit number one, a vigorous leader, presumably the result of “cross breeding” between an Indian and a Malay.
These sentiments are not confined only to the Japanese and Malay leaders. In a recent survey, young Singaporeans openly declared their desire to be “white.” They went beyond, to unabashedly adopt Western ways and mannerisms. So much for the voluble exhortations of their leaders on the supposed superiority of Asian values!
To think that Singaporeans are among the most educated and “developed” of Asians. Despite that they still think that for them to be considered really “advanced” they have to be “white.” Unable to be that physically, they are reduced to simply imitating the ways of the ‘white man.’ Thus they are not content with their birth names that reflect their rich heritage, they want them anglicized. Simple Lee Boon Guan or Chin Chong Cheng would not do it; they would them “modernized” (read: anglicized) them to Robert B. G. Lee and Christopher C. C. Chin. They pay for expensive private music lessons so their children can learn to play Mozart; but ask those children to name one Chinese composer or play a bar of classical Chinese music, they will give you a puzzled look. Their repertoire runs the gamut of Bartok to Beethoven, not some tinny Chinese opera pieces. Facial plastic surgery, to create that idealized Western look, in particular the fashioning of an epicanthic eyelid fold, is consequently very popular in Asian countries to obliterate the mongoloid facial trait. But as the saying goes, it is not easy to White a Wong! Oops, right a wrong.
Recently, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister in a rare and clumsy attempt at displaying modesty, admitted how in school he had nearly failed his Chinese class. What this graduate of Cambridge and Harvard seems to say is that the study of his own language did not merit the expenditure of his considerable intellect. He would rather spend them on other worthwhile activities, like trying to be a White man.
This implicit acceptance of the superiority of the White man is found not surprisingly, among Caucasians. While crude expressions of racial supremacy are today not politically correct, at least in the West, nonetheless such ugly sentiments are now camouflaged in scholarly and sophisticated forms. Thus instead of blatantly proclaiming the superiority of the White race, they now resort to subtle statistics to demonstrate differences in the “inherent abilities” of the various groups.
In their highly controversial book, The Bell Curve, two American social scientists purported to prove that the differences in the cognitive ability (read: intelligence) of the various races in America are not the result of cultural factors but in the inherent nature of these people. Stripped of its pseudo-scientific and fluffy scholarly verbiage, these authors say in effect Blacks and other poor minorities are backward because of their inherent ability. Essentially, it is in their biology.
The problem with using biology to explain the conditions of human societies is that one finds many ready exceptions. America and Western Europe may be developed but alas a large swath of the “White man’s” land is still Third World: Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
Viewed through the wider prism of history, this biology theory falls apart. While London was still a village in the Dark Ages, cities in the Middle East like Baghdad were already flourishing and the centers of civilizations. Similarly the Chinese had an organized system of governance when Britain was nothing but a collection of feudal fiefdoms.
The ascendancy of Western civilization is a recent phenomenon, a fact often ignored by the proponents of Eurocentric perspectives on the nature of the ideal society. Concepts such as the separation of church and state (secularism) that are viewed today as universal are nothing more than the expression of European ideals. Delving into this more deeply, one discovers that this was purely a reaction to the excesses of the church in medieval Europe. Had I been writing this in the 11th or 12th Century, at the zenith of the Islamic civilization, I would definitely be Islam-centric, with the article of faith being that there was unity of State and Faith, with no differentiation between what is due to God and Caesar.
One cannot however, ignore the defining role of biology in human history. The near wiping out of the native population in the New World with the coming of the Spanish Conquerors was not purely a function of the superior military might of the invaders. The conquistadors unwittingly brought with them the most potent of weapons – biological. The natives were nearly annihilated by the new viruses and other pathogens for which they had scant immunity. The Europeans, having been exposed to these organisms through their long contact with domesticated animals, had developed immunity, but not the poor New World natives. The reverse is also true. Many a colonialist and their families succumbed to the deadly scourge of tropical pestilence like malaria. The natives to a certain extent were protected.
At the population level, the impact of such biological traits would not be apparent for generations. Occasionally however, when they affect certain critical individuals, the impact can be both profound and immediate, as exemplified by the last Czar of Russia.
Nicholas and his Empress Alexandra were desperate for a male heir. Their prayers were finally answered with the birth of their fifth child, Alexis. Their joy however, was short-lived as Alexis was soon found to be afflicted with hemophilia. As any mother would, the Empress suffered through the pains of her beloved son, the sole heir to the throne. She became obsessively protective and consumed with the fate of the future Czar.
When there is a personal problem especially within a loving and close-knit family, all other matters become secondary. And when that happens to the first family, then matters of state become neglected. There were many reasons for the collapse of the Russian empire and the subsequent success of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it certainly did not help that the Czar was distracted by the sufferings of his beloved son. Would the fate of the Russian empire be different had the Czar and his consort not been distracted by and consumed with their frail son? In their desperations they became vulnerable to sinister and self-centered influences, exemplified by the character Rasputin, now a metaphor for all things manipulative and evil.
Hemophilia in a Czar-to-be is only one example of the dramatic impact of biology on society. The mutation for this disease was believed to have started with Queen Victoria and spread throughout Europe’s palaces through inbreeding. This fondness for close relatives is typical of aristocrats of many societies, past and present. In Malay society too, royal inbreeding is still very much the pattern. Although there is no single disease comparable to hemophilia among the Malay sultans, nonetheless one wonders of other subtler consequences. The present aberrant and juvenile tantrums of the Brunei royal family (and some of Malaysia’s own) may well be a manifestation of one too many instances of inbreeding.
A corollary to the acceptance of biology as a determinant of human development is the concept that biology also explains individual human behavior. Only a few decades ago scientists were consumed with measuring and quantifying various skull shapes and bodily conformations in the belief that certain body forms and shapes were correlated with certain behaviors and traits. The entire discipline of criminology was once consumed with such anthropometrical studies.
“History followed different courses for different peoples,” writes Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, “because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.” I interpret the meaning of environment here broadly, to include not only the physical but also the social and cultural milieu.
To dismiss biology is not to say that there are no discernible differences among the various races. Indeed, modern biology reveals many pertinent and important variations among different populations. The distribution of certain diseases, blood and genetic tissue types, and the propensity to develop certain maladies are not randomly distributed.
Such knowledge is useful. High blood pressure in certain ethnic groups responds better with certain medications but not to others. Certain environmental conditions (for example high calorie, high fat diet) would impact some racial groups more than others. Note the beneficial use of such insights on human biology, not to aggrandize a particular race over another but to help humanity. Yet another insight of modern biology is the recognition of the considerable variations within a racial group and wide overlapping between groups and races. It is this variability that makes human stereotyping so unproductive and destructive. This diversity is also what makes human society possible. We cannot be a society if we are all clones; we would then be like a colony of bacteria.
[Invited editorial, Malaysian Journal of Medical Science, 17(1):1-2, Jan-Mar 2010. ernd.usm.my/journal/journal/01-171editorial.pdf ]
As a young surgeon at the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, I remember pleading with Tan Sri Majid Ismail, then Director-General of the Ministry of Health, for funding of my research project.
A distinguished clinician turned policy maker, Tan Sri Majid was professionally interested in my proposal. Nonetheless he politely declined it, but not before offering me a comforting explanation. Between funding me and building a Klinik Desa (rural clinic) in Ulu Kelantan, the choice was clear, he gently told me. Besides, he assured me, I would have minimal difficulty securing funding elsewhere while those poor Kelantanese had no choice.
Tan Sri Majid said something else that reverberates in me today. “Healthcare is a bottomless pit,” he advised me, “but the resources to meet those literally endless worthy needs are limited, so society must set its priorities and draw the line somewhere.” The job of government is to ensure a minimal acceptable level of care for all, he added, and beyond that it is for individuals to set their own limits with their own resources.
Malaysia does this with its dual public and private healthcare systems. Tan Sri Majid was adamant in maintaining this clear separation lest there would be confusion in the respective missions and objectives.
America today is in the midst of a wrenching debate on healthcare reform, specifically its massive price tag and the provision for a “public option,” a government-run insurance company. Similar debates occur elsewhere, Malaysia included. These deliberations would be elevated greatly if we were to heed Tan Sri Majid’s observation on resources being necessarily limited and the necessity to set priorities.
It is understandable for America, the richest country, to have difficulty acknowledging the first, and as for the second, the setting of priorities is too often confused with rationing, a highly emotive issue.
This need for setting priorities is never more urgent today. In the past, the best that physicians could do was to bring our patients back to their pre-morbid state. Today the goals go far beyond, from enhancing lives (cosmetic surgery) to eliminating genetic diseases through bio-genetic engineering.
Consider the wonders of modern drugs. In the past they were for curative purposes in a limited setting, as with antibiotics for infections. Today the biggest expenses are for drugs in maintaining chronic conditions (anti-inflammatory medications), enhancing life (Viagra and oral contraceptives), and reducing risk of diseases (the statins).
Similarly with public health; in the past interventions were limited to specific communicable diseases as with childhood immunizations. Today we have the various screening tests for cancers.
Regular exercise, good diet, and smoking cessation too are also health enhancing and good preventive measures. Issues would arise however, if we insist that health insurers pay for our lean cuisine and health club membership. Where to draw the line, in the public health as well as clinical setting, is the great challenge.
Also often forgotten is that there is minimal correlation between outcomes and expenditures in healthcare. America spends twice as much as Britain (relative to the economy), yet it would be hard to argue that Americans are as healthy as the Brits, let alone twice that.
While the bulk of the healthcare dollar is expended on hospitals, pharmaceuticals, and physicians, nonetheless the costs are primarily physician-driven. Many are thus misled into believing that focusing on physicians specifically is the key to improving citizens’ health and or controlling costs.
In truth, much of our present good health is due more to civil engineering marvels as central sewer and water treatment plants, as well as modern refrigeration. Malaria, still a scourge in the Third World, was eliminated in California’s Sacramento Delta through the building of levees and consequent drainage of the swamps, not advances in parasitological research.
This observation is worth emphasizing. With rapid urbanization, the inadequacy of these basic infrastructures has turned Third World cities into public health time bombs. Stroll through an exclusive neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur and you will see garbage strewn all over, stagnant drains spewing unbearable stench, and septic tanks leaking their waste. Esthetics aside, those are real health hazards.
These infrastructures are prerequisites for our good health, yet perversely they are not considered as healthcare expenses. Malaysia spent hundreds of millions on the aborted new bridge to replace the existing causeway in Johor Baru, yet it does not have a water treatment plant. The returns on investment for a new water treatment facility would be much more in terms of health and thus productivity of citizens.
In between necessary infrastructure spending and providing basic medical care, there is the legitimate need for publicly-funded medical research even, if not especially, for a developing country like Malaysia.
I did research in transplant immunology before returning home but felt minimal inclination to continue it in Malaysia even though the country then had an active kidney transplant program under the capable leadership of Drs. Hussein Awang and Bakar Sulaiman. For one, I did not think that we could compete intellectually and resource-wise with programs in the West. For another, I was more attracted to the neglected but more relevant area of immunology of parasitic infections. You can be assured that there is minimal interest in the West to undertake such research, hence the need for countries like Malaysia to undertake them. Besides, they are best done locally as we have the most at stake.
Incidentally, Dr. Hussein’s brother Yahya, once my medical officer in Johor Baru, would later perform the first heart transplant in the region.
I am grateful to the wisdom Tan Sri Majid imparted on me. All of us involved in healthcare, from the policymakers to administrators and practitioners to researchers ought to participate in the exercise of acknowledging our limitations and setting our priorities.
 American Health Care Reform Debate, see: www.healthreform.gov
 Drug costs Economic Burden of Illness in Canada, 1993. Health Resources Centre, Canadian Public Health Association, 1565 Carling Avenue, Suite 400, Ottawa, Ontario K1Z8R1; Tel: (613) 725-3769; Fax: (613) 725-9826.
 Peterson, Chris L and Rachel Burton: “U.S. Health Care Spending: Comparison with other OECD Countries.” Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report to Congress, Sept 17, 2007. http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/RL34175_20070917.pdf
 Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, National Health Statistics Group, 2007 National Health Care Expenditures Data, March 2009.
 Patel, Ronak B and Thomas F. Burke: Urbanization — An Emerging Humanitarian Disaster. Perspective: Global Health. New England Journal of Medicine, 361:741-743, August 20, 2009.
Paling celaka, seorang pengarang bukan seorang talibarut, bukan seekor kuda tunggangan, bukan seberkas perkakas, bukan pengikut buta tuli dan bukan pencatit upahan.
—Shahnon Ahmad, Malaysia’s National Literary Laureate
(My translation: Damn it! A writer is not a rumormonger or someone’s hobbyhorse; nor is he the party’s apparatchik, a blind follower, or a hired hand.)
Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
Man is the child of customs, not the child of his ancestors.
—Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Muslim historian
The development of human societies can be analyzed from three perspectives: biology, geography, and culture. This classification is arbitrary, adopted for the convenience of discussion. In reality the factors are interrelated.
Briefly, the theories that favor biological factors posit that there are inherent differences among humans such that certain groups are favored or better endowed with capabilities that facilitated their progress. Conversely, others are less fortunate. Stripped of its sophistry, these are essentially racist viewpoints. It was such thinking that gave rise to Hitler’s fascist regime, with its attempted extermination of not only members of the “inferior” races but also Germans deemed not “up to snuff.” In Australia it was manifested in its discriminatory “White Australia” immigration policy; in South Africa, its abhorrent and now defunct apartheid rule. In ancient times it was the Chinese who proclaimed they were the best, smugly declaring that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians of the outside world.
Theories based on geography emphasize the role of the physical environment and climate in human development. Intuitively one can be easily persuaded by this argument. A nation blessed with abundant natural resources would be more likely to thrive and prosper, compared to one that is barren and harsh. Civilizations are not likely to thrive in extreme climatic zones like the tundra, rather in fertile alluvial plains of great rivers like the Nile and Indus.
The third of the series of theories presume that human progress is more a function of the social institutions and culture. Some cultures are resistant to changes and new ideas, others more receptive. The latter would be more likely to develop faster.
It is also easy to see the how these three main elements are interrelated in charting the course of human history. It is not coincidental that the major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – originated in the desert of the Middle East. In the vastness of the barren sand, with the stark contrast between life and death, desert and oasis, the scorching heat of the day and the frigid cold of the night, one sought a unifying theme to relate these profound differences. Thus the belief in an omnipotent deity took hold, to bridge the polar extremes and to link the present world with the hereafter.
Faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism that began in warmer climes view the cosmos differently. Inhabitants of the lush tropics with their different hues of life forms instead of the stark, dichotomous contrasts of the desert developed a belief in multiple deities and in reincarnations. The dead tree in the forest is not really dead, but gives rise to multiple life forms – fungi, ants, and worms. The variety of colors and sounds of the jungle make absolute silence impossible. This richness in the environment is reflected in their belief in the different deities – thus a god for this, and another for that.
Similarly there is a close relationship between known biological traits and geography. For example, the sickle gene trait common among African Blacks confers certain survival value in the tropics. With it the human hemoglobin takes a particular form that makes it resistant to malarial infection. Also, the dark skin of tropical people protects against the cancer-inducing ultraviolet rays of the sun. Melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, is predominantly the disease of fair-skinned individuals.
If biology affects such physical attributes as forms of hemoglobin and skin color, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to extend it to other human qualities, including intelligence and the propensity to progress. Geography thus operates through the process of natural selection, by enhancing the survivability of those with particular favorable traits and gradually eliminating those less fortunately endowed.
The difficulty with using biology and geography to explain the progress of human development is their limited utility. Members of a society are either lucky to possess the inherent “good” biological attributes, or lacking that, they would be trapped and doomed. Likewise with geography; a country is either blessed with a balmy climate, endowed with rich resources, and located in a desirable strategic area, or be cursed with a barren desert, devoid of precious minerals, and located at land’s end. Nothing can change those fundamental facts.
Granted, air conditioning has turned the hot humid American Southeast into “sun belts” and central heating makes living in Canada more bearable, but beyond those simple adjustments there is nothing much that can be done to alter the environment. That being the case, there is not much sense in studying such factors, as we cannot alter them; it would be purely academic. Human societies would then be at the mercy of their biological and geographical attributes – a form of predeterminism no less crippling than the more familiar religious one.
[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]
Part Six of Six: Q&A Con’td
Q 10: Can you give us examples of successful countries we can emulate? In one of your books you suggest South Korea, but it is so far ahead to make it a valid model for us.
MBM: Did you know that in the 1950s the Philippines was sending foreign aid workers to South Korea? How the world has changed! Today it is the Philippines that is an economic basket case. That is precisely my point; countries can change quickly, for better or worse. To re-emphasize, if you do not strive to reach Montreal, you would quickly slide back to Tijuana. Standing still is not an option.
In my book Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I gave three examples: Ireland, South Korea, and Argentina. Argentina is a negative example, of how quickly a nation could slide backward. I agree with you that South Korea is not the best model for us, but for different reasons. That nation, unlike ours, is culturally, linguistically and ethnically homogenous.
The better example would be Ireland. The Ireland of 1950s, like Malaysia today, was wrecked with its own Catholic-Protestant division, with the minority Protestant English dominating commerce and the professions while the Catholics were busy reciting their rosaries and making babies. The English schools and universities were also superior, but the Catholic Irish who attended those institutions risked being excommunicated!
Substitute Irish for Malays, English for non-Malays, and you have similar dynamics in Malaysia today.
Today Ireland is a different nation; its economy robust, the Celtic Tiger. Imagine, Ryan Air, a discount Irish airline, at one time attempted a takeover of the venerable and regal British Airways! I need not go over here how Ireland achieved her remarkable transformation as I have covered that in my Globalization book, but suffice to say that they did it by first freeing the Irish from the tight grip of the clergy class.
A noteworthy observation is that Sean Lemass, the leader responsible for the Irish transformation, did not become prime minister until 1959. It took the Irish at least two generations before they could escape the yoke of the church and began their trajectory of development to lead Ireland away from being the chronic “sick man of Europe’ to where it is today, a vibrant member of the EU.
So if Malaysia were to be blessed with her own Sean Lemaas today, it would not be until at least 2050 before we could hope to achieve ‘developed’ status. To make it even gloomier, Najib Razak has not demonstrated himself thus far to be anything close to Lemass in terms of his leadership ability and vision.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we do have a Malaysian Lemass in waiting in the person of Anwar Ibrahim. For one, he is the only leader with the courage and credentials to take on the Islamic establishment, as he did with the “Allah” issue. For another he is the only one who is not insular and has worldview more in tune in this current era of globalization. Lastly, like Lemass, Anwar is able to corral many bright young Malaysians to his cause.
The big question is whether our Malaysian Lemass would be given that opportunity.
Q 11: What do you think of the institution of Malay sultans?
MBM: Let me throw that question back. What do you think of the Malay Rajas? No response? Well, let me rephrase that. How many think that the sultans are a positive influence? [Few hands went up] Negative? [Many more hands shot up.] Wow! I am amazed! I did not expect that.
On reflection however, I am not totally surprised. I read the thousands of comments posted on the web regarding our sultans, especially after the Perak political fiasco and the battle between the Johor and Negri Sembilan princes. I was stunned at the contempt and venom spewed.
I grew up in the royal town of Sri Menanti, but I try not to let that influence my thinking. Whether our sultans remain relevant and respected, or be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, depends not on what is inscribed in our constitution rather on how they perform their duties and how they behave personally. In these days of the Internet and cell phones, their shenanigans abroad or in private would easily be exposed. Contrary to their enticing tourism ads, what happens in Vegas no longer stays just there. The many recent negative accounts of members of the royal family do not advance their cause.
When I lived in Johor Baru in the 1970s, it was interesting to observe the behaviors of these Malay princes and princesses. In Singapore they behaved like ordinary mortals, observing the traffic laws and being civil in public. Once they crossed the causeway to return home, they suddenly transformed themselves and regressed to their infantile forms. My conclusion is that we are partly to blame for we tolerate their childish tantrums.
Royal peccadilloes, while titillating and headline-grabbing, do not interest me. My concern is that these sultans squat at the apex of the special privileges heap. Their every whim and demand is acceded too readily. They get monopolistic business licenses and granted prime state land literally on demand; their every gluttony and avarice satisfied, at state expense of course. How can we ask ordinary Malays to give up our special privilege crutch when our sultans are getting the biggest crutch of all, and a golden one at that?
My other concern also relates to their being role models. In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I describe the Sultan Syndrome, of ministers and department heads behaving as figureheads like our sultans instead of being the chief executive. They are consumed with the trappings of their offices while delegating the heavy lifting to their underlings. I truly believe that the deterioration of our public institutions is attributed in large part to this Sultan Syndrome.
Beyond that I have nothing against the institution of sultans.
Q 12: Don’t you think that the institution of sultans serves to anchor our diverse citizens? Political leaders come and go, but our sultans by being apolitical and above the fray, provide stability, commonality, as well as continuity.
MBM: Many would argue with your assertion that our sultans are above the political fray, especially after what happened in Perak and Trengganu. Even if we were to accede to your argument, do we really need nine sultans plus the Agong? Actually we have 13 if we include the four sultan wannabes – the governors of the non-sultan states who also have regal tastes and aspirations.
I would be satisfied with just the Agong; he is expensive enough to maintain, what with the new billion-ringgit palace. If we were to have all those other sultans, their consorts, raja mudas, raja bendaharas, and the whole slew of princes and princesses on the civil list, then I would impose strict rules. If they receive any royal allowance, then the moment they enter business, be gainful employed, or in any way earn an income, then their state allowance would be reduced in the amount of that income. That would encourage them towards voluntary services. I would put all those allowances saved in a trust fund towards scholarships for deserving kampong kids.
We have a few members of the royal family who have had the benefit of superior education, having gone to such august institutions as Oxford and Harvard. I challenge them to come up with a better idea than what I have presented here so they would remain relevant and be respected when they ascend to the throne.
* * * * *
As there are no more questions, let me close by again expressing my sincere appreciation for your staying right to the very end! I am sure there are many other places you would rather spend a Saturday evening than a lecture hall. I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions; most of all I have enjoyed your company.
You have asked many penetrating questions, and I do not pretend to know the answers. However, finding the solution begins with asking thoughtful questions, and you have certainly done that. You have asked many of the probing questions that needed to be asked. It is through such open discussions and the tapping of many minds that we would hope to find the best workable solutions.
During your stay here do take time to enjoy Upstate New York and the surrounding New England states. The region is attractive and wonderful at any time of the year. I wish you well in your studies and in the pursuit of your individual dreams.
M. Bakri Musa December 5, 2009
Next Week: The Labu-Labi Team of Najib and Muhyyiddin
This book has two parts. The first, “Perspectives on Development,” begins with the chapter exploring why some societies progress while others regress. The chapter following recaps the lessons of past societies that successfully overcame their stagnant conditions and then went on a trajectory of progress. The examples I choose are early Islam, the European Reformation, and the Meiji Restoration. The chapter after that covers three contemporary model states: two are positive examples—the “Asian tiger” (South Korea) and the “Celtic tiger” (Ireland) – while the third is a negative one, Argentina. I conclude this first part with a chapter on globalization, the prevailing and dominant force shaping the world today.
Globalization is now a reality. While there are many imperfections and inequities with the system, nonetheless for small nations like Malaysia it is best not to dwell on them. Suffice that Malaysia should concentrate on avoiding and minimizing the pitfalls, and on better preparing her citizens to face this new reality and its associated challenges. Once Malaysia is a full and active participant in globalization, then it will be in a better position to improve the system. Until then it would be presumptuous for Malaysians to presume to preach to the larger world. Besides, there are greater minds elsewhere now addressing the many inequities and translocations associated with globalization.
The second part, “Transforming Malaysia,” deals specifically with how Malaysia can best position itself for the next stage of development by taking full advantage of the many opportunities afforded through globalization and free trade. I begin with Chapter VI by taking stock of the nation, its assets and liabilities, paying particular attention to those factors that must of necessity be either assets or by default, they will become liabilities. For example, Malaysia’s plurality can be considered an asset if we leverage that to prepare our citizens to be tolerant of and adapt to the different cultures. That would prepare our citizens for globalization. On the other hand, our multiracial society could easily trip the nation into becoming another Bosnia if we allow our differences to divide us.
The chapter following that deals with how best to enhance our most precious asset – our human capital. The chapter “Culture, Institutions, and Leadership” examines how those elements could be enhanced in preparation for globalization. As Islam is a major influence on Malay culture, I have a separate chapter examining its impact on law, education, and the economy. Because of the centrality of the institution of law, I devote an entire chapter on Freedom, Justice, and The Law. The last but one chapter is my plea for Malaysia to adopt the only economic system that has proven to be successful in alleviating poverty in the greatest number of people: free enterprise. I conclude with my specific prescription on how best to transform Malaysia. This is in the format of an open letter to Prime Minister Mahathir.
Malaysia’s goal at this stage should be a modest one. That is, how best to prepare its citizens to meet the challenges of and to benefit from globalization. This book is my small contribution towards this goal.
Next: Part I: Perspectives on Development
Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress
[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]
Part Five of Six: Q&A Con’td:
Q 4: How can we unite Malaysians when we have these separate school systems?
MBM: The underpinning of the national school policy, as articulated in the Razak Report of 1956, was that if young Malaysians were to learn the same language, read the same books, study the same history, then we would all idolize the same heroes and subscribe to the same values. With a common base and shared goals, national unity would be that more readily achievable.
It was not an unreasonable assumption. Tun Razak’s national schools were a definite improvement over the then existing vernacular schools. At least Malaysians now know more about Tunku Abdul Rahman than Nehru or Chiang Kai Shek, and can speak the national language, an achievement that should not be belittled.
Instead of building on that, we have over time corroded the noble values of the Razak Plan such that today we are even more segregated racially then we were during colonial rule. There are many factors contributing to this sad affair, among them the increasing Islamization and the de-emphasis of English in our national schools. I have elaborated on this in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia and elsewhere. Today young Malaysians may be reading the same books or learning the same facts, but they are not doing it together in class as they have voluntarily segregated themselves, with the Chinese attending Chinese schools and Malays, national schools. That is the crux of the problem.
I have a different perspective. I could not care less if we have a thousand school systems, as long as young Malaysians from the different races are learning together in class, playing together on the school fields, and participating in the same school plays and bands, then we would more likely end up as a nation less segregated and consequently more united. I would focus on making our schools integrated; the student body must reflect the general community. How that is done is for each school to decide. To encourage that effort, I would reward through generous funding those schools that are fully integrated so they could enhance their programs to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.
Q 5: What school system is best for Malaysia?
MBM: I do not know. That is not an attempt at false modesty on my part. I cannot honestly say that I know what is best for the children of a fisherman in Ulu Kelantan as compared to the needs of the children of a diplomat at Bukit Tunku.
This certainty I do know. Our schools must have a function beyond only educating our children; they should also serve as an instrument to bring our young together; dwifungsi (dual functions) as the Indonesians would say of their military. Otherwise we would have a highly educated but divided society, another Northern Ireland.
So if we were to have a single school system, then it should have only the two requirements. One, the enrolment must reflect the community; two, its curriculum should have the core of Malay, English, science, and mathematics. Beyond that, each school should be given the latitude to chart its own course, including choosing its language of instruction.
Q 6: Can you comment on the recent policy reversal with respect to the teaching of science and mathematics in English?
MBM: I do not wish to go over the various arguments except to point to two incontrovertible facts. One, we are better off knowing two languages instead of just one. Quite apart from enhancing our marketability, being bilingual offers other significant cognitive advantages, like being able to see things from different perspectives. I would leave it to the professionals on how best to make our children bilingual.
Two, the bulk of the literature in science and technology is in English. If we have to depend on translations, that means we are putting an unnecessary barrier in getting to the forefront of scientific knowledge. I support the teaching of science and mathematics in English because of these two realities.
There is no point in saying that the Japanese learn science in their language. They have had centuries of experience; we do not. Besides, they are already so far ahead of us. If we were to “Look East,” the Japan we should emulate would be the Japan following the Meiji Restoration. Then realizing how far behind they were as compared to the West, the Japanese sent thousands of their senior officials abroad for extended study tours to learn and absorb the best practices. Additionally, Japan imported massive number of teachers and scientists from the West. Even today thousands of young Americans go to Japan to teach English (the JET Program).
I question the relevance to Malaysia of the UNESCO report favoring the use of mother tongue. That report was concerned with the languages of small tribes and the fear that those languages would disappear. Malay is the native language of over a quarter billion people; there is no likelihood it would suffer such a fate.
I would go beyond being bilingual and make Malaysians trilingual, or at least have a working knowledge of a third. Non-Malays are already trilingual: Malay, English, and their mother tongue. Malays could too: Malay, English, and Arabic. In truth I could not care less what the second and third languages are, but I presume for most Malays, English and Arabic would be the easiest to learn.
Apart from the cognitive advantages, there are other benefits of knowing another language. According to the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity, the way we look at reality is shaped by our language. Thus we think and behave differently because of the differences in our languages. I will illustrate this with a seemingly unrelated account.
A few years ago Korea Airlines suffered through a series of terrible crashes such that the authorities were considering banning the airline from American airspace. These accidents were all due to pilot errors. The tragedy was that often the first officer and flight engineer were fully aware of the dangers they were in but were too scared of contradicting their captain. This fear subordinates have of their superiors is a feature of many Asian cultures, ours included.
To remedy the situation, the airline hired an American consultant; he immediately recognized this major cultural impediment to effective cockpit communications. As a foreigner he had little hope of changing Korean culture. Instead, he prevailed upon management to impose an all-English rule in the cockpit. Once the crew enters the plane, all communications must be in English. He justified that on the basis that English is the language of aviation. He also instituted other changes, like enhancing their communication skills.
A remarkable thing happened. He found that junior officers were now more open, direct and most importantly, clear when communicating with their superiors. Whereas before they would convey their disagreements with their superiors in the most indirect and obtuse way, now those junior officers had no difficulty expressing them forthrightly.
How did that happen? Apparently in Korean language there are multiple ways of referring to “you” and “I” depending on the status of the speaker and the person addressed. Just like Malay language, when a commoner addresses a royalty, he would refer to himself as patek (slave) while the sultan refers to himself as beta (royal “we”). In English, it is only “I” and “You,” so the status barrier, or what cultural anthropologists refer to as power distance, is eliminated. Today, directly as a consequence of the English-only cockpit policy, Korea Airlines is one of the safest airlines. A remarkable transformation!
Recently Mahathir lamented that his greatest failure was not being able to change Malay culture. It is pure hubris on his part to think that he could change our culture. If he had been more modest, he could have effected significant changes in Malays by making us learn English. At least then we could address ourselves as “I” or “we” and not as slaves when addressing a member of the royalty. Then we would not have witnessed the incongruity of our language as demonstrated by Mentri Besar Nizar of Perak when he respectfully disagreed with his sultan, “Patek memohon derhaka … ” (I, your slave, beg to be treasonous with Your Majesty!) Malay language is just not equipped for such direct or frontal communications.
Many of our sultans sit on the governing boards of important institutions. How could there be robust discussions in such meetings when everyone would be deferring to the sultan? Senior scholars, seasoned politicians, and hard-nosed corporate captains suddenly become meek and genuflect to the sultan. That cannot be good. One way to overcome that would be to communicate in English. It would be so much easier to say in English, “I am sorry Your Royal Highness, I respectfully disagree!” I challenge anyone to say that in Malay and then be brave enough to say it to a sultan! It just cannot be done; that is the constraint of our language and culture.
Q 7: You have these wonderful ideas like air-conditioning our schools and equipping them with modern laboratories. Those are expensive propositions. How can we afford them?
MBM: You are sounding like a politician or civil servant already! “No funds lah!” is their chronic excuse. We have the money, but we spend it foolishly, as in the billions wasted bailing out those GLCs.
I will illustrate the misplaced priorities of our officials with this small incident. A senior official was visiting California recently. At a private conversation I noted to him that our officials do not carry laptops when they travel abroad and wondered how they would keep in touch with their offices back home. Besides, what do they do on the long trans-Pacific flights and the hours waiting at airports?
His response was to blame the government for not supplying its senior officers with laptops. My rebuttal was that that if they had traveled business instead of first class, the government would have plenty of leftover cash to buy them fancy laptops! That demonstrates the priorities of our officials at the micro level and involving only a few thousand ringgit. The same misplaced priorities occur at the macro level, and with a price tag of billions.
Along the same point, if we have open competitive bidding, our schools and their laboratories would cost considerably less. We have the resources if only we use them wisely.
Q 8: How can we use our schools specifically and education system generally to open up Malaysian minds? Malaysians today are better educated than ever, with many ministers having impressive degrees from leading universities, but their mindset is still kampong.
MBM: That is a profound question and observation. I will try to answer by stating a few simple and obvious facts. First, schooling does not equal learning. If you were to ask the many who dropped out why they did so, invariably their answer would be that they were not learning anything at school.
Second, the classroom is not the only place where you can learn. The boy who helps his father at his kedai kopi is learning many things, like customer relations, cash flow, and inventory control. He may not know them through such terms but he is still absorbing the essence of those concepts. If he had stayed in a Malaysian school he probably still could not balance his checkbook.
There was a study many years ago of those kampong girls working in the factories of multinational companies – the Minah Karans (Hot girls!). Most had attended only primary school, hence the derogatory label. Yet after a few years of working, those girls had a social profile associated more with those who had completed secondary schooling. Meaning, they marry late, save more, and have fewer children. Obviously working in a factory taught them many lessons such as to be punctual, value time and money, and be independent. Those are useful lessons of life, and they will never learn that in school, at least not our schools. Working in those factories of multinational companies made them escape their kampong mindset far more effectively than had they completed their local schooling or even attended local universities.
As for opening up Malaysian minds, you would automatically achieve that if you are not intent on closing them. What goes on in our schools today, especially religious schools, is nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education. We are intent on closing minds. Children are by nature curious; they have an innate desire to explore. All we have to do is leave them alone; we would of course go further if we equip them with the necessary tools.
One such tool is language skills. I would like our students be fluently bilingual for reasons discussed earlier. The two natural languages for us would be Malay and English. Then we should ensure that they have the necessary quantitative skills so they could think with some degree of precision and not merely agak agak (wild guesses). Meaning, emphasize mathematics. Lastly, I would encourage critical thinking through reading literature, even our simple folktales.
Consider my favorite childhood story, Batu belah, Batu melangkup. You know, the story of the mother who sulked and ran away to disappear into a cave because her children had eaten all the food and left her with nothing. If after reading that story in class, the teacher would ask the girls to imagine themselves as the mother. She is now in the cave alone and a jinn would appear to grant her one final wish: to deliver her last letter to her children. Now ask the girls to write that letter. For the boys, imagine that you, being the eldest and now responsible for your siblings, the jinn too had also given you a similar wish. Now write that last letter to your mother.
Imagine the different responses! That is the sort of classroom assignments that would encourage students to think creatively and explore their inner world. You can be sure that the answer is not given at the back of the book! Nor would there be any “prep” essays available for download! Such an exercise would really challenge and bring out the intelligence and creativity of your students.
Literature is exciting and helps develop our powers of critical thinking, but only if we go beyond the “who said what and to whom,” and, if I may add, on what page!
Our education system today succeeds only in creating an obsession with paper qualifications – credentialism. I am stunned at how many chief ministers and corporate chiefs who unabashedly display their “doctorates” from known degree mills. They are not even embarrassed. Worse, nobody in the media exposes their fraud.
Q 9: [Question from a hearing-impaired student; his question and my answer were translated by a sign language interpreter.]
When I was a student in Malaysia, my teachers would always ignore those of us at the bottom of the class. The teachers focused only on the top students. So I was pleased with your allocation and in not ignoring the bottom decile.
First, I want to make one point clear. When I label a part of the population as being at the bottom or top decile, I am merely referring to a particular attribute that I am measuring. It does NOT make any judgment on the whole person or his other abilities and attributes. I want to emphasize that, and that is why I specifically choose an attribute – the ability to fish – that has no emotive or other association.
In focusing on the “top” students, your teachers were making a value judgment, presumably based on test scores. Let me make a confession here. If I were a student in Malaysia today, I would have long ago been kicked out of school. In fact that nearly happened to me at my afternoon religious school, for misbehaving in class per the ustad’s standards. Fortunately my wise father saw something in me and took me out before I was expelled! If you live in a kampong, you know that took considerable courage on his part.
Your teachers back home assumed that you, being hearing impaired, were also dumb; hence their reactions to you. Here in America and specifically RIT, we do not use the label “deaf.” I am told that there are nearly a thousand hearing-impaired students at RIT diligently preparing to be productive citizens. If they had been Malaysians, ignored by their teachers, they would end up as Mat Rempits. They would be perfect for that as the roar of their machines would not bother them in the least!
Yesterday at Friday prayers on campus, there was a sign language translator interpreting the khutba. What a wonderful sight! I challenge anyone to cite a similar example anywhere in the Muslim world. To Muslims who are hearing-impaired, the Imam’s prayers and sermons are nothing but lips quivering and hands gesturing. Here on the campus of a private secular university in a Christian country, a hearing-impaired Muslim gets to ‘hear’ a khutba!
Next: Concluding Piece - Part Six of Six: Q&A Con’td
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.