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.
studies using f MRI are even more
fascinating. When American and Mainland Chinese subjects were shown pictures of
giraffes on a savanna (their natural habitat), the active brain areas in both
groups were comparable. When shown pictures of giraffes on a football field (an
unnatural environment), the response among the Americans remained unchanged.
For the Chinese however, a different part of their brain became activated, the
area associated with fear and anxiety.
interpretation here is that Americans readily accept “unnatural” or unfamiliar
situations. To the Chinese, such instances provoke fear and anxiety.
doing simple additions and subtractions, Chinese brains behave differently from
those of Americans. Hence the popular characterization of East and West brain.
Similar differences are seen in boys’ and girls’– blue and pink brain.
There is a profound
twist to this East and West brain. The Chinese have a higher incidence of a
genetic variation that resulted in reduced amounts of serotonin, a major
neurotransmitter, predisposing them to depression. Depression is treated by
giving drugs that inhibit the uptake of serotonin, thus maintaining its high
You would therefore
expect the Chinese to have a higher incidence of depression because of this
genetic variation. Far from it. What gives?
have developed over the ages a social system that is supportive and collectivist.
Westerners, spared this genetic predisposition, have little cultural incentive
to do likewise. Their society tends toward rugged individualism, with personal
liberty a premium. As a consequence of this lack of cultural support, depression
is more frequent in the West. An instance where biology impacts culture, and culture
ameliorating the potential impact of genes.
from fMRI is mirror neurons, brain
cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when he
sees someone else doing it, as with soccer fans kicking in response to the action
on the field, or boxing fans throwing punches in sync with the fighter.
phenomenon goes beyond merely mimicking the physical movements. The observer could
also anticipate the purpose of the action, whether the glass is grasped to
drink from it or to throw it at someone. In each case, different mirror neurons
would be activated.
neurons provide the neurological basis for empathy. They also play a
significant role in the transmission of cultural rituals and values through
facilitating horizontal (between members) learning within a society. Mirror
neurons are also important in language acquisition in babies, as the movements
of the mother’s lips and tongue are mirrored in the baby’s brain.
studies on mirror neurons are even more intriguing. Gestures meant to
communicate emotions particular to a culture, as with thumbs up to signal
approval, would trigger the firing of the corresponding mirror neurons only in
those who share that culture and thus understand the gesture. Outsiders who do
not understand the symbolism would not. If someone from other than that culture
were to use that signal, the mirror neurons of the native observer who
understood its cultural meaning would fire, though not at the same intensity
had the gesture been displayed by a fellow native.
difficulty non-Indians have in comprehending when Indians shake their heads. Is
it in agreement or disavowal?
cognitive psychology are even more illuminating. Adults who were bilingual from
an early age and those who acquired it later in life were shown different
colors and told in one language to translate the color into the second language.
Those bilingual from a young age showed brain activities in only one area while
those who became bilingual later in life showed activities in two. The brain of
the former is more efficient, better at translating or integrating diverse
familiar only with either Centigrade or Fahrenheit. When told it is 25C, she
would first mentally convert it to 77F before pronouncing, “It’s nice and
other advantages, cognitive and otherwise, to being bilingual. Bilingual
children are better at multitasking and prioritizing information, discerning
“signals” over “noise,” a valuable skill. Bilingualism delays the onset of
Alzheimer’s disease. It also enhances your marketability, quite apart from
increasing your potential sources of information. As language is closely
related to culture, knowing a second language enables you to understand and
appreciate that culture. That is always an advantage, more so in a plural
society. Only those with closed minds would be against learning a second
There is a loud
chorus in Malaysia today to do away with race-based policies. Any policy, more
so political and socio-economic, that does not factor in the various values and
norms is bound to fail. And both values and norms are tied to race. You ignore
race and culture at your own peril.
theme of economics may be “people respond to incentives, and the rest is commentary,”
to quote Lands ebrg in his eocnomcis for Dummeies but what makes that
commentary so thick is the core observation that incentives to some may be
disincentives to others. The noble objectives of the NEP are reducing poverty
and the “identification of race with economic activities.” Gambling and opium
smoking were once the scourge of the Chinese, with which the British nearly
destroyed their civilization. Not so today. For Malays, what makes us poor is
our obsession with the Hereafter. It still is today. Drugs were non-existent
among Malays of yore. Now it is our curse. Corruption is endemic because to
Malays it is rezki and borkat, gifts from Allah! Najib received
billions from the Saudis. How much closer to God can that be!
Chinese clamor for more government aid. Beware what you ask for! Penang’s Chung
Ling School currently has over 90 percent of its students pursuing STEM, far exceeding
the government’s 60:40 objective precisely because the school is spared the
“advice” and “help” from Putrajaya. Get more public funding and watch Chung
Ling degenerate into another Malay College.
necessity and nobleness of NEP’s objectives remain. The failure is with not
recognizing the core corruption and structural ineptness of the policy’s
implementation. We cannot resolve the first if we continue viewing such corrupt
practices as other than that, and we cannot improve the policy’s execution if
we continue relying on the corrupt and the incompetent. Even if we were to eliminate
the race factor in NEP, but with the corrupt and incompetent implementers
executing it, the results would be no different.
Next:Race, Sex, and the Brain
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind,
published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was
released in January 2016.