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.
The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If
those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas,
teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially
in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This
is true of individuals as well as society.
experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with
instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded
with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of
fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain
themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the
experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed
gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned
as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did
not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the
study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”
years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking
up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those
kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better
academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in
eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic
achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!
The other valuable insight came not
from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids
were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be
tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.
dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his
sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the
Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in
restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too
would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*
It is not
enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say
No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by
engaging in other activities.
original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning,
above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was
stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East
Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive
hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The
Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under
the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to
Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for
revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with
race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.
This ability to delay
gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate
gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us
that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed
gratification) is key to economic development.
The insight from the marshmallow
study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those
who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those
who acquire it through hard work do.
those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was
acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being
poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business
keeps his wealth.
FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not
preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the
other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good
money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of
his work and inspiring him to continue.
the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just
enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another
enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider
squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement
with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to
distract herself from her marshmallow.
weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA
farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same
fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption,
rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the
lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star
Advertisers take full advantage of
our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally,
if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has
doubled in value. That restrains your spending.
Enter the concept of home equity.
With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe
$150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value
and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish
vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.
were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for
the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom
not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and
home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values
dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007
American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.
As much of this desire for instant
gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the
context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old
nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a
system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by
incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its
curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental
character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students,
for them to learn to not devour their
marshmallows right away.
We can teach that to young and old. When
Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes
but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in
self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.
Back to those now poor FELDA
farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows
(spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution
instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for
example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial
advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension
funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like
distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges
now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.
As can be
seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones
involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind,
published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was
released in January 2016.
* In Greek
mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who
lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.