Is the Malaysia project a non-starter?

August 23, 2016

Is the Malaysia project a non-starter?

by Dr. KJ John

In the Seven (7) Habits series, Stephen Covey’s central thesis is that we must grow or develop habits for growth and development in meaningful and significant ways. He argues that all human or organic systems must first grow from total dependence (and appreciate all its full meanings) to independence or human freedoms, and then, finally and fully appreciate interdependence with others of like-heart and mind. This is also the Hearts and Mind agenda of our NGO.

Full understanding and appreciation of real and true meaning of interdependence must belong to every one of the stakeholders and partners in a shared and common enterprise. It must become a shared vision for posterity; and never to be compromised.

Whether it is the UN or the EU, or even federated states like the US or Malaysia, or our simple OHMSI Sdn Bhd; interdependence properly understood and stewarded defines real and true meanings of the so-called freedom we ‘pretend to enjoy’, it then becomes real ‘merdeka’.

Covey’s 7-Habits

Habit 1: Be Proactive
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Habit 4: Think Win-Win
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Habit 6: Synergise
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw”

– Stephen R Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Malaysia-Land of Beauty

I will try to evaluate our Malaysia project, not simply from a historical perspective, but more importantly from a worldview perspective and see what Covey might be saying to us. Such a perspective puts a very high premium on human values for growth within the ethics and culture of lived life; in seeking to move organic systems from the full dependence towards voluntary and volitional inter-dependence.

The Malaysia project

Malaysia came into existence on September 16, 2016. But, that fact is not clearly taught in history. Not many of us today can change that false reality interpreted today. Before that date we had four independent states called Federation of Malaya, Singapore, and the North Borneo States of Sarawak and Sabah; each with their own unique story about the movement from dependence towards independence and now interdependence.

Rightly or wrongly, for reasons of their own, in August 1965 Singapore chose to leave Malaysia by mutual agreement and consent between the leaderships of Malaysia and the island state. I am not sure if and whether Sarawak and Sabah or the United Kingdom had any direct say in this matter.

Therefore, after a short marriage of two years, Singapore exercised their ‘move from total dependence from the United Kingdom towards independence from the new Malaysia’. They wanted to learn and grow the experience and freedom with true independence.

Sarawak and Sabah may have had views about such a move by Singapore, but I do not know those facts, but they too surely want to experience movement from full dependence towards true independence. And their growth experiences will be surely very different.

Sarawak and Sabah’s self-governance experience

Have the Sarawak and Sabah governments and their political leadership learned true independence and interdependence from their many years as a one-third partner of Malaysia; even as the Malaysia Agreement gave them some clear and separate jurisdictions?

Many of these legal rights and privileges were captured within the revised Federal Constitution of Malaysia and including recognition of their 18 and 20 point submissions. Was there ever consensus on those two documents by the political leadership of Malaysia?

But why therefore, after more than 50 years within Malaysia, do they now put their foot down about Petronas’ governance and staff recruitment strength and raise issues about employment permits? As a public policy person, I am simply wondering loudly.

What have they really learnt about independence, or interdependence, or is it still merely dependence, if anything at all? Or, do these jurisdictional governance regimes feel like, we the Malayans, have thoroughly abused them altogether?

Learning from Covey

In my Pet Theory R, relationships are an important and elemental R. Therefore, building and growing our knowledge about ‘nurturing and growing mature relationships’ using the Covey’s three-step process and applying them to his seven habits for Sarawak and Sabah relationships with Malayans may be instructional:

  • Malaya was proactive in nurturing a relationship with Sarawak and Sabah; Brunei however did not respond in the same way. Why? We still grew Malaysia. Did we ask Indonesia at all?
  • Our end in mind was always National Unity and regional stability; and more recently, we have added words like integration and integrity. I call that agenda: integration with integrity.
  • What is our First Things First? Is it Malaysia, ‘Melayusia’, or ketuanan bumiputra for now or centre versus periphery in governance of lived life and stewardship of resources; including all human beings especially citizens?
  • Do we think win-win every time we have bilateral issues in our relationships concerns? Or, can we really begin to think win-win-win to endure stewardship as the third win for the sake of all human beings?
  • Do we seek to understand before we seek to be understood? I did not understand Sarawakians until I met the Kelabits earlier and now, after I spent 10 days in Baram Valley. Maximus Ongkili, Beth Baikan and Bernard Dompok taught me to learn to understand Kadazans.
  • Have we really learnt to synergise? Why then is the Malaysian Public Service still more than 80 percent made up of peninsular Malays (non-Malays are less than 10 percent I believe)? This issue is reflective of the Petronas case story. Synergy would allow for creating new values; not simply depreciating existing values.
  • Finally, from my experience on the ground, and meeting so many smart and equally ambitious Orang Ulu Sarawak and Kadazans; these questions are my Covey test for all of Malayans to sharpen our saw or ‘tools of execution and evaluation’ so that we can see and learn the real meaning of Malaysian interdependence and not allow it to become a foolhardy project.

KJ JOHN, PhD, was in public service for 32 years having served as a researcher, trainer, and policy adviser to the International Trade and Industry Ministry and the National IT Council (NITC) of the government of Malaysia. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at with any feedback or views.

‘Deep’ Malay cultural psychology

August 11, 2016

‘Deep’ Malay cultural psychology

by Clive Kessler

About the Author

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is well known for being unimpressed by postmodernist theory and analytical practice while being adamant that people, especially the champions and exponents of that now almost mandatory approach, should understand its origins and basis in twentieth century French social, cultural, intellectual and political history. The vast majority, he insists, alas do not. He is himself not such an enthusiast, but in the course of his scholarly career, he has made it his business, often in the hard way over years of serious investigation and study, to find out.

In modern Malaysia,  attitudes born in the traditional village, as well as Islam, are being used to defend against threats to the Malay world’s important symbolic boundaries.

I ended some recent remarks on the current political situation in Malaysia with an allusion to what I call ‘deep’ Malay cultural psychology.  I noted that:

They, so many of them, would rather have to themselves, unshared and exclusively ‘on their own terms’, 100 per cent of a small and dubious inheritance — to squabble over interminably among themselves — than to have and enjoy a substantial stake in a thriving enterprise that they must share, sensibly, in both material gratitude and human generosity, with others.  More on this ‘Malay cultural psychology’ another time…

Well, that time came sooner than I expected, so I have written on the subject. This is not a final statement but should be considered a first draft. Note well and bear that in mind as you read it.

First, let’s be  clear about what I am not talking about here. I am not talking about the now standard clichés, even these days generally  ‘received ideas’, promoted and popularised by Tun Dr Mahathir in his The Malay Dilemma (subsequently recycled, little changed or modified, in some parts of his memoir, Doctor in the House).

Nor am I speaking of the important ideas and debates that Tun Dr Mahathir should have been aware of (but probably was not) when he wrote The Malay Dilemma. These included the controversy that briefly raged in the late 1960s, especially between the economist Brian Parkinson and the anthropologist William Wilder Jr, about the non-economic aspects and sources of what was then called ‘Malay economic backwardness’.

I am not talking about the key ideas upon which that debate rested, found especially in the work of the anthropologist Michael G Swift exploring the formative sociocultural groundings and cultural-psychological dimensions of Malay economic attitudes and behaviour.

Nor am I speaking here about the bearing upon these same questions at the time and since of Syed Hussein Alatas’s critique of ‘the Myth of the Lazy Native’ in the wider Malay world of Southeast Asia.

Neither am I alluding to some more general ideas upon which that debate and those arguments in part rested: ideas, again, to which people now habitually have recourse in discussing many issues of this kind, while remaining totally innocent and ignorant of any idea of their origins. These are namely the clichés  — so much a part of the fateful policy debates of 1969-1970 leading up to the declaration of the New Economic Plan — of a ‘limited pie’ , of ‘dividing up the cake’ and of ‘increasing the size of the economic cake’ to be shared.

These expressions and ideas had their origins in a once famous but now largely forgotten essay by the anthropologist George M Foster on “Peasant Society and the Image of the Limited Good”.  These are ideas about whether it is better to argue about the proportional sharing, or division, of a given fixed quantum (‘zero sum’ thinking in Game Theory talk) or to work instead to increase the size of the overall yield that is to be shared among a number of parties.

These ideas are often, in one way or another, drawn into the discussion about Malay and Malayan and Malaysian society: into arguments about ethnic relations, separation, competition and Malay anxieties and fears of being out-competed by (non-Malay) others.

But important as these ideas are, in general, and in the modern Malaysian policy and political context, I am not talking here simply about those things, but something much deeper.

So, what then am I talking about? I am calling attention here to matters that anybody who has ever spent a night, or several, or a week or several, in a Malay village — and especially anybody who has spent a few evenings, and long nights until dawn, with some Malay village bomoh (or shaman) as they have gone about their special business — will know about. And if you haven’t, you probably won’t. But need to.

This has to do with a fundamental Malay cultural sense of ‘beleaguerement’, and of the ensuing need of Malays to huddle close together — sometimes behind physical barricades such as bamboo perimeter fences and often behind less tangible protective barriers — in mutual support.

These ideas, upheld as experientially powerful cultural imperatives, long predate, and have much deeper sociocultural origins than, what we may call modern plural society social dynamics and stresses — though they may well feed into modern historical and now also contemporary Malay ideas about, attitudes toward, and anxieties concerning economic competition and fears of social displacement and marginalisation.

I am talking here about matters that were once of interest and concern to that largely forgotten, and now widely scorned field of knowledge — old-fashioned (pre-postmodernist) social and cultural anthropology.

If you have ever been in a ‘conventional’, quasi-traditional Malay village at nightfall, as the evening suddenly closes in and the swooping dark suddenly envelopes people at day’s end, as senja (dusk) arrives with all its mambang (hauntings) and other strange, disquieting mystical forces, you will know what I am talking about.

A perceptible apprehensive hush descends, and with it a fear of disturbing who knows what. Understandably, the villagers think (or that is how things were), they hope and trust in the idea, that there is safety in numbers. So they try to huddle together defensively, united in protective agreement against those fears, spoken and unspoken. It gives them strength, or a feeling of strength, it makes them feel secure.

When Malay villagers in former times felt themselves threatened — by human enemies, by wild animals, by plague and illness, by the supernatural terrors of the surrounding jungle, by the dark and all the unseen dangers that it might conceal — they would huddle together for strength. They would find assurance in and seek protection from the spirit-challenging jampi (spell) of a bomoh and would recite do’a, Islamic pleas and prayers. Together, they would chant especially potent verses and sura from the Quran for protection from encroaching evil.

In a similar way, overall, to that older village social universe, the Malay political world in Peninsular Malaysia these days huddles together for reassurance, in kampung-like strength and solidarity, behind a barrier and fortification that is afforded largely by Islam — an Islam under royal patronage and protection and of constitutionally guaranteed standing. It is the old strategy of kampung defence, now writ large.

Through recourse to Islam, threats to the integrity of the Malay world’s important symbolic boundaries can be contained. Islam is used to insulate the boundaries of Malay society against non-Malay intrusion, penetration and subversion — to separate Malay society symbolically and morally from, and elevate it beyond the reach of, its threatening, even contaminating, wider social environment.

We are all familiar with the concept and historical creation of Malay Reservation Land. More recently the same process of space-management has been extended to other areas, to virtual space. Specifically, to linguistic space.

In the contentious ‘name of Allah’ dispute — and notably in then Court of Appeals Justice Apandi Ali’s astounding landmark decision in the matter — as well as in the case of words such as agama, ibadah, iman and the 30 or more others that are now on Malaysia’s quasi-papal index of religious terms (istilah) that are for exclusive Muslim use only, and not to be applied to the discussion of any and all non-Muslim religious life, we see this process not just advancing but assiduously and officially promoted.

We now have, and people are asked to recognise and accept, an entire new privileged zone that has been set aside, that of “Bahasa dan Istilah Rizab Melayu”, of a quarantined Malay Reservation in language and terminology. A Malay semantic protectorate. One with Islamically patrolled and fortified boundaries.

This barrier of protective prohibitions is the modern equivalent of the recourse of Malay villagers to chanting do’a in the dark to ward off wild beasts, malign spirits, strangers or encroaching outside plagues such as cholera.

These modern practices, this array of duly gazetted bureaucratically sustained prohibitions, also provide a protective barrier, an insulating buffer device, enabling beleaguered Malays (or those who feel that way, and who have the power to impose their ways, likes and fears authoritatively on others, on all Malays) to huddle together, secure among their own kind, for reassurance and distancing protection.

As my friend. Dr. M Bakri Musa said, you can take the Kampong out of the Malay, but you can never  remove the Kampong in  the Malay

This is what, at the deep cultural and psychological level, lies behind, informs and drives the continuing Malay determination to live huddling together for comfort and strength — rather than being eager, ready, or just prepared to engage with others and seek sensibly to share the world with them. They would rather have a smaller, narrower world, but one that is their own, entirely their own, that they may inhabit and hold exclusively on their own cultural terms.

The outside world, the world that surrounds the Malay world, closes in upon it, and asks Malays to engage with it on its broader and more inclusive terms is, somehow, the analogue and functional equivalent of, and is psychologically isomorphic with, the non-human, asocial, non-Malay world of mambang and ghosts, of spirits and wild animals, of strangers and the unknown, that closed in upon the ‘little Malay world’ of the village every night.

Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is the author of many works in this area, most notably Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 1838-1969

Ramadan, Einstein, and a Memory

New York

June 23, 2016

Ramadan, Einstein, and a Memory

by Dr. Azly Rahman

Father Time-The Great Leveler and Equalizer, always fair to we The Living

Yes indeed the Muslim kids in Malaysia today have it easy during the fasting month; their conversations with Time is as speedy as the speed of the ‘Internet of Things’ (the IoT). Time is compressed in this global village characterised by the rapidisation of things. Relativity is the key word here as we speak of how the mind, body, spirit, and soul respond to the demands of the worldview of Ramadan.

Technology to ease the suffering of hunger and thirst has today progressed in Einsteinian proportions, as how the advancements have been made since Einstein scribbled his grand theory of everything, of Relativity and Black Holes, Worm Holes, and quasars and pulsars and said, in his broken German-English accent to the world:

“Here it is, my proof of the existence of black holes. One day (yes, about a hundred year later in 2015) and after the release of James Cameron’s movie Interstellar, you’ll have the proper instruments and a couple of great scientists mainly from Columbia University in the NYC to build that machine to see black holes. One day you’ll see my calculations come alive.”

How fast technology has changed and our conversations with modernity and hyper-modernity in this post-post-post Age of Techno-humanism have advanced, too. For Ramadan, today’s Muslim kids can sit in an air-conditioned room the whole day and play video games and check their Internet phones every six minutes and go take a two-hour nap, and next go back to the AC room and next, it’s break fast – or Bukak Posa Time!

Time is compressed. Technology has a life of its own, ‘a technologically-deterministic being’ it has become, as Marx predicted and alluded to in his magnum opus with Friedrich Engels, ‘Das Kapital’.

I remember my childhood days of Ramadan when technology in my house in my gangsta Malay village in Johor Baru was still in its Neanderthal stage. One step backward and it was the Age of No Tech, Low Tech, and one more step behind was the Age of the Perak Man… the age of the early man who got lost trying to decide which way to go: Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri. He went bald thinking hard.

Perak Man

The Original Perak Man in pieces–Harmless

The Perak Man 2 and The Pekan Man still around to entertain and irritate us

He died waiting at the junction, at the crossroad of human evolution. He gave up. Although he was said to be a determined man who lived for hundreds of years (we need to check his birth certificate though), he gave up right there near Changkat Jering, now a dangerous highway. He was a brave man – he walked from Africa alone and didn’t know where he was going and ended up in Perak. Hence the name Perak Man.

But that is another story of why he walked out of Africa. I saw him once in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, a few years back. He was lying in an enclosed glass bed, tired from the long walk to freedom. He was all bones. He was bald.

Twelve hours felt like twelve months

I remember my childhood Ramadan of the sixties. It was pure torture. It was a Buddhist experience of samsara. Of a life of suffering. Of denouncing water, food, and other childhood Earthly pleasures. Although the suffering was about twelve hours, it felt like twelve months of dying, of the experience of the Perak man’s marathon solo-walking. Herein lies Einstein’s Relativity.

I had no iPhone nor iPad to play with, no PlayStation Seventeen to play games that have me shoot people. no blasting high-fi air-conditioning machine to ease the cells in my body and to freeze them pleasurably so that they would not wilt like raisins in the sun, as how Langston Hughes said about the self in his poem ‘Dreams’.

And I didn’t have 700 channels of junk on TV to help me escape the reality of suffering and to bring me to this Hollywood or Bollywood nirvana.

 None of these I had. Nor was I as a kid fasting the full swing of 30-day delight as strong as our man, the Perak man. Every day of the journey, I felt my body slowly getting weak and turning into that Malay pancake called ‘lempeng’; a sorry state of beingness with the feel that by the Time the bilal hit the ‘kentong’ (sounding ‘tong… tong… tong…) or that bamboo ‘break fast announcement instrument from the kampong masjid yonder’ and next, by the time I heard the imam clearing his throat at the microphone like Matt Monroe or Louis Armstrong, ready to azan or ‘bang’ (not banging people’s head, mind you… but ‘bang’ means calling for the maghrib prayer – signifying the end of suffering,) and lastly… by the time she announced, “Lekas, boleh berbuka kita… orang dah bang tu...” (Let us now break our fast as the imam has called for prayer – by the Time all these happened, I thought I had already died, ready to be reincarnated the next day for another round of the hunger game.

So – it seems like – in Ramadan death cometh daily. The madman Mansur Al-Hallaj said that, too, running around the street yelling, “Ana al Haq… Ana al Haq… I am the Truth… I am the Truth”.And then I would be alive again. Time. Time. Time. Relative is Time.

As the Quranic verses go: “Time. Verily, Man is in a state of Loss and Utter Despair. Except those who do Good and Keeps the faith and remind others to do Good.” In other words: To promote peace and to keep peace and to build peace, after making peace with the self.

So – with no AC, how did I ease the suffering? Here is what I did daily. The tempayan was my friend, I’d go to the bathroom and climb into the huge earthen-ware pot, turn on the tap, water would flow through the mouldy green hose, the tempayan/pot would fill up to the brim, and I’d be sitting in there as cool as the Perak Man in the Pahang River. Cooling myself with water coming to the level of my neck.

Liiikkk kau buat apa lama lama dalam bilik air tu, nak… Dah dekat sejam.

My mother would call out after an hour of wondering if I had drowned in the gigantic pot and died and perhaps transported to Africa and walked with the Perak man and get confused like him at the junction of Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri.

Lik mandi mak… sekejap lagi habis. Nak sabun badan ni. (I am bathing, mother. Now is the soap-ing part…)”

Ultimate goal is the finishing line

I was happy for that Einsteinian hour in that day on the month of extreme test of spiritual endurance. For about twelve hours daily, I was both the Perak man and Siddharta Gautama or the ‘Buddha Matrieya’, wandering like Moses in an exodus for 40 years in the desert of my hyper-consciousness, in this Hunger Game called fasting – a game whose ultimate goal is the finishing line… to still be alive to hear the ‘tong… tong… tong…” sound of the masjid’s kentong. Mind-body-spirit game.

I suppose Einstein would agree. Life is not about finding happiness. It is about evading pain. Not about suffering. But to find victory in the battle within. The jihad within – and only within. And that jihad is Love and nothing else. In memory of the greatest Love – my mother.

Today, sixteen hours of my journey of the Perak man, in the blazing saddle heat of the New York Indian Summer Ramadan… I have felt nothing. I only eat one simple meal a day. A dead simple minimalist meal.

Thank you to the memory of the Perak man. And of course the tempayan, the huge pot in the bathroom. And the sound of the tong tong tong… I could still hear – from more than a thousand miles away!

Malaysia:Witch Doctors in Modern Society

April 25, 2016

Malaysia:Witch Doctors in Modern Society

by Azly Rahman

Malaysia’s Bomohs: Witch Doctors in Modern Society

Last week, students at several schools in the town of Pengkalan Chepa in the eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan suddenly began screaming and gyrating, seeing a particular Malay ghost called Pontianak,  also known as Kuntilanak in Indonesia — evil, half-dead, foul-smelling, dripping blood with a nail stuck in her neck, a shrieking female poltergeist.

The case of girls in school dorms or dorm-like habitats in multinational microchip assembly plants such as those in Penang is not new. In the 1970s and 1980s they were regular occurrences, with factories filled with screaming women, and western multinationals kept close contact with bomohs, or Malay shamans, to dispel the spirits.

Nor are they are unique to Malaysia although Malaysia seems a particular center for the phenomenon. They have been observed since the Middle Ages, where nuns in a French convent simultaneously began mewing like cats, according Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Good, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer in May of 2000. Episodes, the two wrote, typically occur in small, tightly knit groups such as schools, factories, convents and orphanages.

Growing up, I recall elite boarding schools such as those Mara Junior Science Colleges experiencing mass hysteria and group-dynamics demon possession as well In a Kuantan town in the mid-1970s. One ghost was said to look like an angry belly-rubbing monk from Thailand, a “bomoh-Siam-looking ghost” that sat on the rooftop of the girls’ dorms. One girl said she saw him and the dormitory exploded into humming and screaming and ghost-dancing and praying, and the bomoh was called in. He brought a live chicken as a tool for healing.

The school, based on the concept of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science, was in chaos for a good two weeks. More than a dozen girls were said to be possessed by evil spirits. The school’s authorities, through the daily efforts of the ustazs and ustazahs, Islamic teachers, orchestrated daily readings of verses from the Quran. Few improved immediately.

There was more than just en-masse demon possession. It was a case of young girls in a coeducational residential school under a tremendous amount of stress or adolescent pain.  In the town of Seremban during that time, it was the “green ghost” the students saw – a half-dead woman perhaps from the Seremban Lake Garden and all green, dripping with red blood.

In the town of Pengkalan Chepa in Kelantan over these past few days, all of them saw the same ghost – the daughter of the Demon Ponti, the Pontianak. But why? Why did they, in all the three cases above see the same evil half-human half-spirit being? I think because when these girls were wide awake and congregating, huddling or perhaps cuddling in those dorms while outside it was ‘a dark and stormy night, they love to tell tales of ghosts.

They would love scaring themselves to sleep, and add more vital statistics of these bad spirits not only to their own consciousness but also to the sociology of knowledge of it. Hence everybody agreed to the ghost’s the shape and characterization.

When stress sets in or when adolescent sexual tensions engulf the self and when one girl starts screaming, it triggers a chain reaction. And when one screams bloody murder of that blood-dripping pontianak or the Seremban green ghost or that Siamese ghost, everybody gets possessed and sees the same ghost. That is the logic.

This is a psychological explanation of demon possession. Every soul possessed would tell the same story. Despite living in a rapidly industrializing society, Malays love to turn to the bomoh or the shaman or the pawang or the dukun or the tok batin, the Malay-Muslim ghostbuster when it comes to such cases. This merry band of bomohs make a comfortable living speaking the language of demon banishment.

Malaysia saw these bomohs in the news two years ago, attempting to locate the missing Malaysian airplane MH370. We saw a federation of them pledging allegiance to the current regime, and we saw three decades ago a Mercedes Benz-driving telegenic female bomoh from the northern state of Perlis named Mona Fandey, brutally murdering a Malay politician by cutting him into 18 pieces.

The poor politician was seeking help in winning elections and advancing his career and all 18 pieces ended buried under a concrete slab behind the bomoh’s house. It was a sad and gory story.

My advice

But here is my advice to the Kelantanese, concerning the pontianak possession of the school girls. It is about repression and the way education is approached as well as the way human relations are perceived and most importantly how the human mind is nurtured. This not new. The ghost and spirits are always unfairly blamed, Not their fault.  Whether or not they exist, the bomohs will benefit from the crisis.

Those who developed the anti-hysteria kit being recommended will benefit and make huge profits. It is a psychological, socio-cultural, and pedagogical issue. Don’t blame everything on the polong and the pontianak. They are already retired – on a pension scheme, And with the invention of the electricity, the ghosts have all escaped through the electric cables and are probably dancing on the poles before they die of old age.

But seriously, these girls in the dorms and the factories are repressed. There is probably too much control and telling them what to do, dumbing down teaching or simply a common case of en masse adolescent sexual tension.

Look at these and humanize the system and make the school a happy place. Make learning more active – the mind has a life of its own. It is more philosophical and cultural than religious. Understand this premise of the foundation of teaching and learning. Maybe that is the cure for mass hysteria in a mass-babysitting enterprise called schooling.

Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has written seven books and more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia and global issues.  He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies. He blogs at


Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

April 25, 2016

Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Our mind’s narrative of the world includes the perception we have of ourselves, and what we believe others have of us. The first is self-affirmation; the second, stereotype. Each of us is a member of some groups or other (race, profession, culture); thus we cannot escape from being stereotyped.

As for self-perception, like all other of our mental patterns this one too grew out of our experiences. Should we encounter something that does not conform to that mental picture we have of ourselves, we react like the patient with Cabgras delusion; we alter or ‘edit’ that information to make it conform to our pre-set pattern.

Our “self” narrative includes the stereotype others have of us, as with the colonialists’ “lazy native.” Not surprisingly, we often perform to those expectations, further reinforcing the stereotype. This vicious cycle continues, each cycle reinforcing earlier ones.

You have to work doubly hard and perform beyond well just to dispel the stereotype. Then even if you do succeed, there is no guarantee of escaping the stereotyping. It is a heavy burden to bear.

Consider girls and mathematics; there are many associated negative stereotypes. Should a girl were to stumble at her first test in college, not an uncommon experience especially at an elite college where all your classmates are top students while in high school, she would risk being a victim of negative stereotype when there could be other and more valid reasons, as with poor study habits or wrong choice of course. This stereotype burden would be worse if she were also to be a member of a visible disadvantaged minority.

Something similar happened to my daughter. She excelled in mathematics in school but she aspired to be a lawyer. Her undergraduate college required all students to take a math (as well as a science) course, the choice of which to be based upon the college’s own placement test. She was assigned one and found the going rough. She had to devote more than her usual effort just to stay abreast. She confided to us her problem, and as concerned parents we suggested that she met with her counselor.

To the horror of her counselor, my daughter was assigned to a class for honors mathematics and engineering majors! Presumably she aced her placement test and was thus assigned the “appropriate” course. It may be appropriate based on her test scores but not for her career aspirations. Fortunately it was early in the academic year for her to switch course. Also luckily for her she had sufficient self-confidence and was not burdened by any possible negative stereotype. Imagine a Malay girl having a similar problem at the University of Singapore or even the University of Malaya.

This stereotype threat is the rationale for having single-sex schools and colleges. This phenomenon is also seen in non-academic settings like sports, as with, “White men can’t jump!”

Stanford’s Claude Steele

Claude Steele, the Stanford psychologist (above) who had studied stereotypes and self-affirmation threats extensively, shared his insights in his book, Whistling Vivaldi. And Other Clues on How Stereotypes Affect Us.

The title itself is intriguing; he had the idea from his fellow African-American student at the University of Chicago. Like at other elite campuses, African-Americans were noticeable for their rarity at such places, then and now. This friend sensed that his fellow students felt uncomfortable by his presence and would purposely avoid him. He overcame this prejudice by whistling Vivaldi (a classical composer, thus indicating a “high brow” taste in the finer things of life) to smooth the way. I can just imagine the horror on the staid white campus had he tried rap music!

There are many negative stereotypes burdening Malays, like our supposed lack of aptitude for mathematics specifically and academics generally. Unfortunately the statistics reinforce this. Consider that when the results of the SPM and other public examinations are announced, the consistent feature would be Malay under-representation among the top scorers.

The tempting conclusion, and not just by non-Malays, would be to believe these ugly stereotypes about Malays. However, consider this. The Sixth Form science class at Malay College I joined in 1961 had been threatened with closure because there were too few students from the college who had passed the entrance examination. And the college supposedly took in only the brightest Malays! That only fed the prevailing ugly stereotype.

It took the initiative of its chemistry teacher, Mr. Peter Norton, a non-Malaysian, to identify the problem and then push to solve it. Malay College boys did poorly in science not because they were Malays rather they were insufficiently prepared. So in 1961 the college vastly expanded it science laboratories and instituted for the first time a pure science stream at the fourth form. For perspective, my old school in Kuala Pilah had been doing this for years. No surprise then that my old school outperformed Malay College in science.

That first batch of “pure science” students at Malay College excelled, as did others following. They are now among the nation’s eminent doctors, scientists and professors, as represented by Ariffin Aton, a University of Leeds PhD in Chemical Engineering, now head of MyIPO, the body concerned with intellectual properties.

Then there was my calculus class experience at Malay College. At Lower Six we had a Canadian “Peace Corp” volunteer as our teacher. Being new to the country he did not harbor any negative stereotypes of or preconceived ideas on Malays, except perhaps that we lived in trees. On finding out that we did not, he proceeded to treat us like his Canadian students.

Mr. Allen Brown began his class with us without any fuss; no dire preamble about how “tough” calculus would be and that we had to “buckle up.” He treated it like any other subject; he assumed we could handle it.

I remember well his first day in class. He began by drawing a series of arcs of from the same center point, each with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shape. It was obvious; as the radius got longer, the curve became flatter. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be very flat, we responded. Then he beamed and exclaimed, “Yes! A straight line is nothing but a curve with a radius of infinity!”

“Now imagine the opposite,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve that are infinitely close to each other.” Then he began taking a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify a wee tiny part of this curve a zillion times,” as he pretended doing it on the board, “the two points on it would essentially be on a straight line.”

Then he swung around and exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes!” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line would be equally applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it.

Thus was the mystery of variable change and calculus revealed, at least to me. I had taken calculus the year before in fifth form and had aced it. Yet I did not fully grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and then plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that.

We had an even greater surprise the following February when the national examination results were announced. The entire class but two had aced it. The two who did not nonetheless scored high “credit” (B plus). It was a record not just for the school but also the country. As we were whooping it up back at the dorm, Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what it was we were celebrating. To him, it was not a surprise at all; after all he had seen our performances on the many regular tests he had given us during the year. The surprise for him was that we were surprised.

Decades later, I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a teacher, Jamie Escalante, in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles inner-city school. He did such an incredible job with his AP (Advanced Placement, college-level) class that the College Board (the examining body) thought his students were cheating and forced them to re-sit the test! They still aced it!

Escalante quickly became a celebrity. Not revealed in that movie were the many monumental as well as petty obstacles placed in Escalante’s path by his principal and others. For example, his principal was against Escalante using the gym to accommodate the large size of his class, and the teachers’ union was against his exceeding the class-size limit. Tellingly, the program collapsed when Escalante left in frustration.

Talk to any dedicated teacher in Malaysia and she would readily identify with Escalante.I too can testify to that culture. Many years ago I visited an elite residential school in Malaysia. I wanted to donate a video microscope for its biology lab. As I also wanted to know of its other needs, I made an appointment to see the headmaster. On three occasions he canceled our meeting at the last-minute as he had “other commitments.” Needless to say, that video microscope was my only gift to that school.

As for the headmaster’s “other commitments,” one was the meeting of the local Koran reading contest committee, the other, planning the reception for a ministerial visit.

Judging from the many social media postings by parents today, things have only gotten worse in our national schools, further reinforcing the burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threats among their students who today happened to be mostly if not exclusively Malays.

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.