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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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Reflections on Ramadan: Children And Thei Marchmallows

 Reflections on Ramadan:  Beyond The Fast

M. Bakri Musa


Second of Three Parts:  Children And Their Marshmallows


[In Part One I likened Ramadan to a forced “time out,” akin to winter with plants and animals, or the quiet room in a lumber mill where the cut pieces are left alone in a controlled environment to recover from the stresses that they had been through.]


My second thought comes from the 1972 Stanford marshmallow study on delayed gratification with preschool children. The kids were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study reveals that marked individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned at a very early age.


            If that was the only conclusion, the study would not have been later regarded as “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.” Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, did a follow-up study. It turned out those “impulse controlled” children (those who successfully deferred devouring their marshmallows) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. The ability to delay eating your marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parents' educational level!


            This insight is leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. Part of that character building is teaching children the equivalent of not eating their marshmallows right away. The school has been remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.


            This marshmallow study has much wider implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would be less likely to save. The consequent low capital formation leads to economic stagnation. The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it, while those who acquire it through hard work do. They have persistence and self-discipline, key to their success and more importantly, in maintaining that success. Something for champions of Malay rights (Ketuanan Melayu) to ponder!


            If the ability to delay devouring marshmallows for fifteen minutes among preschoolers is associated with later academic and other successes, imagine the good if we could delay our eating for the entire daylight hours! That is the supreme value and significance of Ramadan, instilling self-discipline and acquiring the habit of delayed gratification. Those are useful traits for success in this world. As for in the Hereafter, Allah hu alam (only God knows).


            That this trait (tolerance for delayed gratification) could be detected early suggests that it is more “nature” than “nurture.” This is reinforced by an earlier study (substituting candies for marshmallows) comparing Black and Indian children in Jamaica. As a group, Black children had difficulty delaying eating their candies. 


            Subsequent studies suggest yet another important variable:  the absence of a father, as in a divorced family. This is relevant to Malays as similar dynamics occur when the father has multiple wives, or children of “temporary marriages” (kahwin muta’ah). With the former, the children of other than the favored wife grow up fatherless.


            There are many recent twists to this classic experiment. One involves “priming” the children to be either in the “reliable” or “unreliable” group. For the “reliable,” the experimenter would, as promised, reward the children. For the “unreliable” group however, he would return but apologize profusely for not being able to bring the promised reward. The experiment was then repeated. Nine of the 14 children in the “reliable” group successfully delayed eating their marshmallows as compared to only one in the “unreliable” group. The explanation there is that the trust factor is absent or not developed with the “unreliable” group.


            This suggests that we can train our young to delay their gratification, favoring “nurture” over “nature,” contrary to the earlier Jamaican study. For this to be effective, we have to first establish trust. The children must have faith with the adults in their lives. Children with absent father figures (as with Malay children of kahwin mutaah and fathers with multiple wives) are deprived of this critical influence.


            Another insight to the marshmallow study comes not from the data but direct observations. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy actively distracting themselves as with singing, sitting on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closing their eyes, or kneading their skirts, analogous to the sailors in the Greek mythology stuffing their ears and Ulysses tying himself to the mast, to restrain themselves from the call of the Siren song.


            The relevance of this to Ramadan is that it is easier to fast if we are working or otherwise occupied in maintaining our regular routine. Indeed, the Qur’an and hadith exhort us not to sleep or idle ourselves when fasting. Yet the perversity in Malaysia is to do the very opposite, with businesses and offices curtailing their hours. That essentially makes your day much longer and fasting thus more of a challenge. To me, my noon break during Ramadan is my most productive time writing-wise as I am not distracted, what with everyone else out for lunch.


Next:  Last of Three Parts:   Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society


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