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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Making Monsters Out of Our Students - The "Lucifer Effect" on Our Campuses

Making Monsters Out Of Our Students – The “Lucifer Effect” On Campus
M. Bakri Musa

I commend Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for his swift action in reassigning the commandant of the Royal Military College (RMC) over the death of one of its students, Naim Mustaqim, during a ragging incident. Earlier, the college had expelled the alleged abusers. Likewise, I praise Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin in issuing a stern warning of his “zero tolerance” for ragging in our public universities.

Ragging is now entrenched in our universities and residential schools, creating monsters out of these students, the “Lucifer Effect” being operative (more on that later). The ensuing scars and damages are consequential, both physical and psychological. A few like Naim get killed.

Ragging is one of those unsavory “traditions” of the colonial British that Third World natives have picked up with a vengeance. We denigrate everything associated with the colonials but somehow when it comes to ragging, we have no qualms in quickly adopting it. We have bested the Indians and Sri Lankans in the savagery of our hazing rituals.

The only effective way to end this pestilence that has plagued our schools and colleges is to initiate a “shock and awe” intervention that would impress everyone on the evilness of this hitherto foreign ritual. We have to do that now before we have other innocent victims.

Strong Individual and Collective Actions Needed

We need aggressive actions at both the individual and system levels.

At the personal level, we must help the family of Naim Mustaqim launch lawsuits against not only his alleged abusers but also the RMC authorities and personnel, including the reassigned commandant. They have been negligent in failing to provide a safe environment for those under their care. The government must also initiate criminal proceedings; those in supervisory positions including the wardens and teachers should also be prosecuted.

Naim’s family will not get their young son back, but by instituting civil and criminal actions we would make those responsible pay for their culpabilities. We cannot condone criminal behaviors lurking beneath ‘tradition.’

It is reprehensible that those who have been given the awesome responsibility for nurturing our young have neglected their duties, resulting in one promising young man being killed. Naim’s teachers and wardens had been with him for over six months, literally day and night, and yet they failed to notice the signs of his desperate need for help. I wonder how they would feel if their loved ones had been similarly neglected.

The first order of business for RMC’s new commandant must be to impress upon his staff their obligation to look after the safety of those under their charge. His second order of duty would be to punish those who had let this ugly situation occur. Those are his two immediate priorities, and not, as he was quoted, “to safeguard the college’s image and moral of students, staff, parents and the public alike.”

At the systemic level, the responsible ministers should issue directives to the vice-chancellors as well as principals of our universities and residential schools indicating that they would be held responsible for any ragging on their campuses. Were that to happen, they would suffer the same fate, or worse, as the RMC commandant.

I would like them to draw up specific rules and lists of “don’ts,” and the penalties for infringements, be given to student and parent (in the case of residential schools) before these students enroll. They (as well as their parents) would have to sign that document acknowledging their full understanding of the content.

Be strict for a few years and we would effectively get rid of this scourge. When the present generation of students who had been brutalized by ragging graduate (in three or four years), then this odious practice would end. Then our new students could look forward to coming to our campuses for a different experience, one more welcoming and nurturing.

I was privileged to be spared from attending our local university and thus had a vastly different college experience. One of the sweetest and most comforting words that greeted me on my arrival on campus in Canada decades ago was an upperclassman extending his hand and saying, “You must be Bakri, from Malaysia! Hi! I am Ray, your resident advisor!”

Of course during orientation week we still had to wear that silly beanie and were made to steal apples from the nearby orchards, but nothing beyond that. What I remember most was my seniors helping and guiding me. It was to them that I turned to in seeking advice on classes and what was appropriate to wear to campus functions.

That is what orientation week is supposed to be, to help incoming students adjust to their new campus environment.

Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

While I advocate severe punishment for the abusers of Naim Mustaqim, I am mindful that these kids are not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, what we have learned from the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment in 1971 is that those students who became torturers (and in Naim’s case, murderers) were normal human beings. Given a different set of circumstances they could very well become heroes.

Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” (after Lucifer, God’s favorite angel who turned evil; the Quranic version is Iblis who, banished by Allah from Paradise to earth for disobeying Him, made it his mission to convert as many mortals to his new evil and Satanic ways) is what made otherwise ordinary soldiers into sadists and murderers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Those who have read the accounts of Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, Raja Petra and others incarcerated under the ISA would immediately recognize the local variation of this Lucifer Effect. The difference between Kamunting and Abu Ghraib is merely a matter of degree, not kind.

In his experiment, Zimbardo recruited ordinary college students looking to make a few dollars as subjects in a human psychology experiment simulating the prison experience. What he discovered about human nature from that innocent experiment shocked him, and forced him to prematurely terminate the study.

What Zimbardo discovered was that students who were randomly assigned to be “guards” soon became vicious, senselessly brutalizing and inflicting gratuitous punishments on their “prisoners.” Even though those students were aware that they were being monitored and that it was only an experimental situation, nonetheless they persisted in their brutish ways.

There are other experiments along the same vein where the social situation, in short peer pressure, made the subjects do things they would not otherwise do.

The Lucifer Effect illuminates how otherwise good people can turn evil, given the “right” circumstances. Humans are like pet dogs. In the calm and nurturing environment of a quiet home with a caring master, it is the most docile, playful and obedient pet, indeed almost angelic. It would not bark even if your toddler were to yank its tail. However, let it loose with his canine friends to maraud in the neighborhood as a pack at night, and they would become vicious predators.

We must make sure that the environment in our schools and universities would not turn our promising young students into evil fallen angels. Those in charge, from the ministers down to the teachers and custodians, have an awesome responsibility to make sure that this would not happen. If they fail, then they must be made to pay a stiff price.


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