Dr. M’s UNGA Address should hit right home

September 30, 2018

Dr. M’s UNGA Address should hit right home

Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Address to the United Nations General Assembly was poised, articulate and to the point.

He did not mince his words when he spoke about global political, economic, social and environmental conditions since his last address 15 years ago, in 2003.

The gist? That the world has not changed much in terms of reform; that the developing world is still being bullied by powerful nations; that the trade war between the US and China continues to impoverish poorer and smaller countries; that there is a growing ambiguity of social values, and that the notion of freedom has become skewed, at best.

Intellectually-sharp and laudable, Dr. Mahathir delivered his poignant message, that the “new Malaysia” is not naive. He told the UN General Assembly that Malaysia will continue to soldier on with other countries, through the United Nations, to make the world a better place, economically, politically, socially and environmentally.

In foreign policy jargon, Mahathir delivered a warning against the acts of dangerous, threatening Hitlers and the misconceptions of peaceful, law-abiding allies.

Overall, his Address championed the aspirations of the developing world and smaller non-aligned nations. However, there is more that we should take away from his Address, in order to render his thoughts more relevant in the domestic Malaysian context.

There are three key areas the new Malaysia should focus on. Mahathir spoke of global terrorism. Although he did not specify the actual definition of the term (or of the word “terrorist”), one can read between the lines. He lamented that there is “something wrong with our way of thinking, with our value system. Kill one man, it is murder, kill a million and you become a hero”.

What he actually means is that the powerful have the capacity to define concepts in order to justify certain acts. Terrorism, as coined by the powerful, is a notion applied to non-state actors, jihadists and transnational communities of oppressed people who react violently to achieve justice.

Powerful states have the sole purpose of pushing their economic and political agendas and so a global understanding of the concept of terrorism was born after 9/11.

Yes, about 3,000 died mercilessly at the World Trade Center in 2001. But almost 130,000 (mostly civilians) perished in one day, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. This is more than 43 times the death toll at the hands of the so-called Islamic terrorists.

Yet, throughout the decades after World War Two, the acceptable narrative describing US geo-political advances (and those of her allies) was never termed “terrorist” or “terrorism”.

I am not condoning such acts as no mass killing of civilians can be considered civilised behaviour. However, we must consider here the socio-political manipulation of labels.

In the Malaysian context it is happening all around us to the detriment of the common people. For instance, the notion of “the rights of Malays” and “the welfare of the Malays”. What rights are we focusing on? The right to get a job based on race or the right that all qualified and capable Malays should be appropriately awarded?

For me, it is the latter. Yet, certain politicians still choose to speak about the unfair treatment of the Malays and that the new Pakatan Harapan government should be tasked to help bring them up to greatness and to be protected.

The label of “rights” is bandied around but its meaning is deliberately couched in ambiguity for an ulterior political motive.

Using Mahathir’s example of the plight of the Rohingyas, his message was an appeal for “caring”; that just because a nation is independent it does not mean the world should close an eye to domestic suffering and injustice.

He reiterated that nations need to solve the problems of global conflict, racism and bigotry by going back to the root causes.

Similarly, the state of Malaysia’s education system needs care and we need to identify the root causes of the inequality that exists in our schools and universities.

Agreed, our teachers and professors are not being massacred, and neither are our students. But mentally, the massacre began 61 years ago.

The public university leadership has failed to produce thinking professional graduates and to my mind, this is humanity’s greatest form of oppression.

We are all aware that our public university leadership is more concerned with national and international rankings, administrative positions of the academic staff, titles and research funding.

But are the research funds, for instance, channeled into meaningful projects to help society overcome real problems of poverty and discrimination?

Are the researchers and academics “caring” enough to plan such research even though they may not be awarded a future government contract or a datukship?

This brings me to my next point: values. Mahathir commented that there is something wrong with our way of thinking.  To my mind, the sole purpose of an education is to instil good values. These include moderation, dignity, integrity, hard work, perseverance and honour. No matter what religion or creed one belongs to, these are universal values.

In post-election Malaysia, this topic has surfaced many times. But I fear it is just a narrative with no substance.

There are many issues that have surfaced since PH took over. From the appointment of key ministerial positions, to presidents of universities, to the PD move, to child marriage, the list goes on.

Nepotism, cronyism and corruption still loom over us but it is not too late for values reform. What better way to start than to realise that, while it is important for us to preach values to the international community, we should apply this to our own society.

There is a need for all Malaysians to delve deeper into Mahathir’s UNGA Address because he was not only sending a message to the superpowers and their allies.We should also see his message as a warning to tackle our own domestic crises; problems that have arisen as a result of past mistakes, on-going stubbornness to address those mistakes and a lack of foresight.

Dr.Sharifah Munirah Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


China & Malaysia: Co-Existing with Asia’s Leviathan

September 28, 2018

China & Malaysia: Co-Existing with Asia’s Leviathan

by Dennis Ignatius

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China’s Dark Spots

Of course, China is far from perfect. Indeed, there is a dark and sinister side to the modern China of high-speed trains and gleaming skyscrapers.

For one thing, not everyone is enjoying the fruits of its progress. Forty million children, for example, still live in poverty. And each day, some part of China is rocked by angry, often violent protests as disaffected and marginalized groups rebel against injustice and governmental abuse of authority.

The lack of religious freedom, too, is appalling. According to UN reports, Xinjiang Province is home to vast gulags where thousands of Muslim Uighurs are incarcerated in “re-education” camps. Falun Gong followers are savagely repressed and yet another brutal crackdown on Christians is now underway.

The Communist Party of China is also entirely dismissive of  basic human rights in violation of its own constitution. Hundreds of human rights activists are routinely jailed, often tortured as well. The death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in a hospital prison last year was a potent reminder of Beijing’s utter contempt for basic human

Thankfully, Malaysia has not seen the kind of brutal and repressive measures that are routine in China today. We can learn a lot of things from China but it is certainly not a country we want to emulate in everything.

China: Vision, Planning and Leadership equal rapid Progress

Perhaps the one lesson we can learn is that where there is vision, planning and leadership, countries can progress rapidly. Countries don’t have to get everything right; success in just a few critical areas can make a huge difference.

China did precisely that and in 33 years has become a behemoth that now challenges our own sovereignty. As I have noted elsewhere, few realize how close we came to compromising our sovereignty under former Prime Minister Najib. His reckless borrowing and lopsided infrastructure projects would have turned us into “a wholly-owned subsidiary” of China.

Whatever one may ascribe China’s rapid rise to, there’s no escaping the fact that we now have a leviathan  at our doorstep and we must, as a nation, rise to meet the challenge it poses.  China is going to cast a long shadow over Malaysia and the region. And we have to be ready for it.

Every Malaysian politician, certainly every Pakatan cabinet minister, would do well to spend time in China – to  learn, to see what’s possible and to understand what we are up against. Perhaps they may return home with a new realism and a fresh determination to prepare our nation for a future in which China is going to figure very significantly.

Preparing for the 4th Industrial Revolution

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The other great challenge that we face is the rapid technological advances – the Forth Industrial Revolution – that is already gathering pace.

As Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Word Economic Forum (WEF) put it: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike
anything humankind has experienced before.”

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A recent WEF study estimates that some 65% of children entering primary school today will end up doing a job that does not even exist now. Artificial intelligence will make millions of existing jobs obsolete while many of the skills we now value will become redundant.

Naveen Menon, President of CISCO Southeast Asia, warns that those most at risk will be those “lacking IT skills and ‘interactive skills’ such as negotiation, persuasion and customer service skills….”

Are we ready for this new world? It’s going to require a massive effort on the part of government, business and educators to ensure that our workforce will have the skills
to compete and prosper in the coming decades, not just against China (which is already making quantum leaps in technology)  but even against our immediate neighbours.

It is a sobering reminder that we can no longer afford to dissipate our energies in destructive and divisive arguments and policies that detract us from facing up to the real challenges we face.

Running out of time

Simply put, we are running out of time as a nation. We cannot continue to keep fighting old battles; we either fight amongst ourselves and be left behind or unite to compete with the rest of the world.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot turn back the clock of history:

Malaysia is a multicultural nation with a rich blend of ethnicities, languages, cultures and traditions. We can either make it our  greatest strength or allow it to become our greatest weakness.


Likewise, we can harness the power of our respective belief systems to inspire the kind of  unity, integrity and work ethic that is necessary to build a prosperous and peaceful nation or we can use it to justify exclusionary and extremist policies that diminish us all.

We are a nation of many that must become one to prosper, to face the challenges that confront us.

The Challenge of Leadership

Of course, the challenges are enormous. How do you change the mindset of a nation that has long been conditioned to think and act in racial terms, that has long been taught to view each other with suspicion and distrust? How do you even promote much-needed policies that, in the short-term at least, might be deeply unpopular?

How does the government persuade the nation to rise to its greatness when the opposition is trying to drag it down into the gutter of bigotry?

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But that is the true challenge of political leadership: to take a nation where it must go, not where it necessarily wants to go. If anyone can do it, it is surely Dr Mahathir and this government.

Dr Mahathir has shown that he is not afraid to do what is unpopular if it’s good for the nation. And, at 93, he knows he doesn’t have the luxury of time to wait for evolutionary or incremental change; there must be a drastic reordering of the way we do things or nothing will

The greatest legacy he can give to our nation is to leave behind a nation with sound national institutions, a grand vision for the future and a reformatted mindset that pulls us together rather than drives us apart. It is perhaps no coincidence that circumstance has brought back the very man who dared to dream of “a Bangsa Malaysia” to lead us again when national unity is most needed.

We have perhaps a five-year window of opportunity (till the next election) to dramatically change our nation for the better. Fate has given us another chance to reinvent ourselves, learn from our mistakes and build that better nation we all long for. If China can do it, so can we.

Let us be that transformational generation  – the generation that makes the transition from the old Malaysia to the new Malaysia.





Malay anxiety, exclusion, and national unity

September 21,2018

Malay anxiety, exclusion, and national unity

A fragmented Malay society is making ‘Malay unity’ more urgent for those defeated by GE-14.

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Cambodia embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

September 13, 2018

Cambodia embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

by Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times

In today’s world, more countries are looking for innovative strategies to deal with the rising uncertainties they are facing. Asean, not cushioned from the same concerns, is at a crossroads with the rapid evolution of the geopolitical and geo-economic spheres.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is evolving at an unprecedented speed and its impact will be felt everywhere. This is the main theme at this year’s World Economic Forum held in Hanoi. In order to adapt to and make full use of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Asean member countries are reforming their institutions and regulations at varying degrees.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the host of this year’s forum, proposed a five-point strategy for ASEAN: fostering digital connectivity and data sharing; harmonising the business environment; building synergies among innovation incubators; managing talents; and creating an education network for life-long learning.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo stressed that “with creativity, with energy, and with collaboration and partnership, we, humanity, shall enjoy abundance and we shall produce infinite resources”. He warned about the misguided belief and misperception that the rise of some will lead to the decline of others, saying it is a dangerous notion.

Image result for Prime Hun Sen at WEF-ASEAN 2018 in Hanoi

Prime Minister Hun Sen set out a list of priority areas that Cambodia and ASEAN should focus on to enhance the application of technology for socioeconomic development and poverty reduction.


In his remarks at the forum, Prime Minister Hun Sen set out a list of priority areas that Cambodia and ASEAN should focus on to enhance the application of technology for socioeconomic development and poverty reduction.

Cambodia is concerned that digitalisation and automation might lead to job losses and increase inequality. The Cambodian government is already developing policies to seize opportunities and overcome the challenges that come with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

First, the government is going to double its investment in upskilling the country’s human capital, especially in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Second, the Cambodian premier said a bigger investment is needed to develop digital platforms that can be used to share knowledge.

Third, he said more support mechanisms for the private sector are needed, especially for digital literacy, digital infrastructure development, and research and development.

“Cambodia can leapfrog if it can maximise its comparative advantages in terms of the demographic factor and its open economic structure. Hence, more investments are needed in education and knowledge governance,” Mr Hun Sen said.

He added that he was hoping to encourage innovative ways to narrow the brain gap.

“What ASEAN can do, Cambodia should be able to do as well and, if possible, better, because of the advantage of hindsight. This can be done by investing more in human resource training in Cambodia.”

The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution was first put forward by Klaus Schwab, a Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. He argues in his book ‘Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ that governments, businesses, and individuals must make the right strategic decisions regarding the development and deployment of technologies.

“The scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges facing the world today call for leadership and action that are both responsive and responsible. With the right experimentation of the spirit of systems leadership by values-driven individuals across all sectors, we have the chance to shape a future where the most powerful technologies contribute to a more inclusive, fair and prosperous community”, he wrote.

In Hanoi, Prime Minister Hun Sen and several other leaders from Asean stressed the importance of human capital as the nations embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Human capital, technological innovation and artificial intelligence need to be utilised side by side and with equal emphasis for Industry 4.0 to work,” he added.

What Termites Can Teach Us

September 11, 2018

In 1781, Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society celebrating termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation” for “most closely imitating mankind in provident industry and regular government.” Termites, he wrote, surpassed “all other animals” in the “arts of building” by the same margin that “Europeans excel the least cultivated savages.”–Amia Srinivasan

Do you know why?  Because there no politicians messing up their harmonious existence. Do you think we can live in societies without politicians. Those who invented”democracy”did not study how termites are able to live without politics. –Din Merican

What Termites Can Teach Us

Roboticists are fascinated by their “swarm intelligence,” biologists by their ability to turn grass into energy. But can humans replicate their achievements?

New termite colonies are founded on windless evenings, at dusk, after the rain. Most termites have neither eyes nor wings, but every mature colony has a caste of translucent-winged seeing creatures called alates, which are nurtured by the colony’s workers until they are ready to propagate. When the time comes—given the right temperature and humidity—colonies release thousands of alates into the air, an event called “swarming.” Most of the nutrient-rich alates are eaten by animals as they glide to the ground. The few that survive shed their wings and pair off, male and female. Then they burrow into the earth, future kings and queens. The pair will remain there, alone in a dark hole, for the rest of their lives. They bite off the ends of their antennae, reducing their acute sensitivity; perhaps it’s a means of making more bearable a life wholly given over to procreation. They mate, and the queen begins to lay her eggs. She will lay millions in the course of her decades-long life—the longest life span of any insect. Her translucent white abdomen, constricted by the tight black bands of her exoskeleton, swells to the size of a human thumb, leaving her unable to move. Her tiny head and legs flail while her pulsating body is fed and cleaned by her offspring.


The South African naturalist and poet Eugène Marais described the queen’s fate in “The Soul of the White Ant” (first published, in Afrikaans, in 1934): “Although you will apparently be an immobile shapeless mass buried in a living grave, you will actually be a sensitive mainspring. You will become the feeling, the thinking, the seeing, of a life a thousand times greater and more important than yours could ever have become.”

Humans have often looked at insects and seen themselves, or the selves they would like to be. Early-modern European naturalists peered into termite mounds, anthills, and beehives and saw microcosms of well-ordered states: monarchs, soldiers, laborers. (There was no general recognition that bee “kings” were actually female “queens” until the sixteen-seventies, when a Dutch microscopist, Jan Swammerdam, pointed out that bee kings had ovaries.) In 1781, Henry Smeathman wrote a report for the Royal Society celebrating termites as “foremost on the list of the wonders of the creation” for “most closely imitating mankind in provident industry and regular government.” Termites, he wrote, surpassed “all other animals” in the “arts of building” by the same margin that “Europeans excel the least cultivated savages.”

According to Smeathman, the “perfect” alate caste “might very appositely be called the nobility or gentry, for they neither labour, or toil, or fight, being quite incapable of either,” but are instead devoted to founding new colonies. (In 1786, Smeathman published a plan for the settling of freed black slaves in a new colony, on the West African coast, where he had done his termite studies.) He viewed the laborers, meanwhile, as “voluntary subjects” who served the “happy pair” of king and queen. Just over a century later, in “Mutual Aid” (1902), the Russian thinker and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin exalted the coöperative habits of termites as a model, and a scientific basis, for Communism. In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud presented the termite mound as an example of the perfect sublimation of the individual will to the demands of the group—a sublimation that, he said, would continue to elude mankind.


Some have seen in termites a darker vision for humanity, a warning rather than a guide. The early-twentieth-century American entomologist William Wheeler began as a believer in the political example of termites and ants, detecting in their colonies a Deweyan ethos, both communitarian and democratic. But, by the late nineteen-twenties, Wheeler had begun to worry that the social insects represented a sort of evolutionary cul-de-sac, which foretold “the eventual state of human society”: “very low intelligence combined with an intense and pugnacious solidarity of the whole.” For Wheeler, the harmony of insect society was made possible by its solution to what he called the “problem of the male.” Males, Wheeler said, are the “antisocial sex,” responsible for the “instability and mutual aggressiveness so conspicuous among the members of our own society.” Termites and ants, with their castes of sterile male workers and soldiers, had done away with the problem of the male. But humans could do so only at the cost of civilization, Wheeler warned, for “all progress . . . is initiated by a relatively small portion of the male population, whose restlessly questing intellects are really driven by the unsocial dominance impulses of their male mammalian constitution and not by any intense desire to improve society.” Among those products of male striving Wheeler counted “sciences, arts, technologies,” along with “philosophies, theologies, social utopias.” He did not appear to worry about what the termite life might mean for women, or about the possibility that the queen was not a queen at all but a slave.


Termites are insects of the infraorder Isoptera. They have bulbous, eyeless heads and teardrop-shaped bodies that are often translucent, exposing a swirl of guts and digesting plant matter. They are eusocial creatures—eusociality being the highest level of animal sociality recognized by sociobiologists, characterized by a division of reproductive labor between fertile and non-fertile castes, and by the collective care of the young. Until 2007, Isoptera was considered its own distinct order, and it had been classified that way for the previous hundred and seventy-five years. But phylogenetic studies confirmed that, despite appearances, termites are a kind of cockroach, and so Isoptera was reclassified under the cockroach order, Blattodea. This demotion has not helped the termite cause. Termites already suffer in the comparison with other eusocial insects: they lack the charisma of bees, with their summery associations and waggle dances, and do not receive the same recognition as ants for their work ethic and load-bearing capacities. They also have a reputation for destruction. In the United States, termites have been estimated to consume somewhere between $1.5 and $20 billion worth of property every year. At times they go straight for the cash: in 2011, termites consumed around ten million rupees’ worth of banknotes in a branch of the State Bank of India in Uttar Pradesh; two years later, termites munched part of the way through the savings of an elderly woman in Guangdong, who had wrapped four hundred thousand yuan in plastic and put it in a drawer.

The Australian Mastotermes darwiniensis, the oldest and one of the largest species of termite—most closely resembling the wood-eating cockroach from which termites are thought to have evolved—is reported to have performed legendary feats of chewing, including reducing a house to rubble while its owner was travelling for two weeks.

In fact, only twenty-eight of approximately twenty-six hundred identified species of termite are invasive pests. (If they all were, we would be in big trouble: collectively, termites outweigh humans ten to one.) What’s more, noninvasive termites are ecologically crucial, in irrigating land, protecting against drought, and enriching the soil. They may also have served as a crucial food source for our own australopithecine ancestors. And yet termites are generally unloved.

While I was reading Lisa Margonelli’s new book, “Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology,” I discovered that everyone I knew had an unsavory termite tale. A friend who lives in Los Angeles is disgusted by the piles of black beads she finds near neat holes in her hardwood floors, which I unhelpfully identified as the fecal pellets, or “frass,” of dry-wood termites. Another friend, in Berkeley, swears that she can hear termites chewing when she closes her eyes at night, despite an exterminator’s assurances that her house is not infested. As a small child in suburban New Jersey, I discovered a piece of wood in our back yard that was covered in a maze of delicate etching. I was thrilled with the beauty of it: the smooth, shallow holes and grooves had the look of secret runes—the writing, I imagined, of Druids or fairies. I took it in to my mother. She told me that this was not magic but the sign of a termite infestation, and made me throw it out.

Termites may be hard to love, but they should be easy to admire. Termite mounds are among the largest structures built by any nonhuman animal. They reach as high as thirty feet, which, proportional to the insects’ tiny size, is the equivalent of our building something twice as tall as the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. The mounds are also fantastically beautiful, Gaudíesque structures, with rippling, soaring towers, in browns and oranges and reds. The interior of a termite mound is an intricate structure of interweaving tunnels and passageways, radiating chambers, galleries, archways, and spiral staircases. To build a mound, termites move vast quantities of mud and water; in the course of a year, eleven pounds of termites can move about three hundred and sixty-four pounds of dirt (in the form of mud balls) and thirty-three hundred pounds of water (which they suck into their bodies).

The point of all this construction is not to have a place to dwell—the colony lives in a nest a metre or two below the mound—but to be able to breathe. A termite colony, which may contain a million bugs, has about the same metabolic rate as a nine-hundred-pound cow, and, like cows (and humans), termites breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The mound acts as a lung for the colony, managing the exchange of gases, leveraging small changes in wind speed to inhale and exhale. Also like lungs, a termite mound has a role as a secondary diffusion system, which carries oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from the far reaches of the underground termite nest. The mound functions as a humidifier, too, tightly regulating moisture levels across wet and dry seasons. Some termite species partly outsource their digestion through the practice of fungiculture—the farming of a grass-eating fungus, which they store, tend, and feed in an elaborate garden maze below the mound.

Termites appear to do all this without any centralized planning: there are no architects, engineers, or blueprints. Indeed, the termite mound is not so much a building as a body, a self-regulating organic process that continuously reacts to its changing environment, building and unbuilding itself. Its complex behavior emerges, as if by magic, from its simple constituents. It is generally agreed that individual termites are not particularly intelligent, lacking memory and the ability to learn. Put a few termites into a petri dish and they wander around aimlessly; put in forty and they start stampeding around the dish’s perimeter like a herd. But put enough termites together, in the right conditions, and they will build you a cathedral.

“Underbug” is more about humans who are preoccupied with termites than about termites themselves. Specifically, Margonelli is concerned with the sort of human whose interest in termites isn’t confined to wanting to kill them. (About half the scientific papers written about termites from 2000 to 2013 involve their extermination). These entomologists, geneticists, synthetic biologists, mathematical biologists, microbial ecologists, roboticists, computer scientists, and physicists are drawn to termites for a variety of reasons, not all of which are compatible. Some of these scientists, the minority, simply appear to be seduced by termites, and want to understand how they do what they do. One such is J. Scott Turner, a physiologist who, before turning to termites, placed alligators in wind tunnels in order to understand how they regulate their body temperature. By pumping propane gas down termite mounds, he was able to show that they function as lungs, not as chimneys that allow hot air to escape, which had been the previous assumption. (Putting things into a mound and seeing what happens is a favored mode of termite experimentation; Turner and his team have also experimented with plastic beads and molten aluminum. One convenience of working with termites is that there are few regulations concerning their treatment.)

Turner is a proponent of what he calls the “extended organism” thesis. (It’s meant as a variant of, and ultimately as an alternative to, Richard Dawkins’s “extended phenotype” model.) In Turner’s view, the physical termite mound—with its mud tunnels and walls, digested wood and grass and fungus—is part of the termite, rather than part of the environment on which the termite acts. The entire mound—insects plus structure—is thus a living thing: a self-regulating physiological and cognitive system, with a sense of its own boundaries, a memory, and a kind of collective intentionality.

The extended-organism hypothesis also recalls an older idea: that the termite, bee, or ant colony is a “superorganism.” This term was coined by William Wheeler in 1911, though the idea dates back to Darwin, who saw the superorganism as a solution to the “problem” of eusociality. The problem is this: if natural selection favors those organisms which are best at reproducing, then how do castes of nonreproductive insects ever evolve? One way to address the problem is to regard the colony as a whole as the unit of selection. The sterile worker should be thought of not as an individual organism but as a “well-flavored vegetable,” in Darwin’s phrase, produced by the queen.

Today, most evolutionary theorists favor the “inclusive fitness” explanation of eusociality, a theory developed by W. D. Hamilton in the early nineteen-sixties. Hamilton showed mathematically that altruism can be a beneficial reproductive strategy for an organism, so long as the altruistic act benefits another organism to which it is sufficiently genetically similar. As a human being, the obvious way for me to reproduce my genes is to have biological children, who will inherit half of my genes. But I can also reproduce my genes by helping my sister, who shares on average half of my genetic material, nurture and protect her own children, who will share a quarter. If sacrificing my life will enable my sister to have more than twice as many children as I would have had, my sacrifice is “worth it,” from the perspective of my selfish genes. E. O. Wilson, though an early evangelist for Hamilton’s theory, has recently argued for a return to the superorganism as a solution to Darwin’s problem. In this, Wilson is very much in the minority; Richard Dawkins has called his criticisms of inclusive fitness “downright perverse.”

Most of the other scientists Margonelli follows are interested in termites as a means to human ends, and aim at simplifying their complexity to something replicable. Consider termites’ ability to convert dead plant matter into energy. They do this with the help of the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of species of microbes—bacteria and protists—that live in their guts, ninety per cent of which are found nowhere else on earth. Some of these microbes are themselves, like the termite superorganism, composite animals. The protist Trichonympha, found in some termite guts, is itself host to colonies of symbiotic bacteria. Termites and their gut microbes are thought to have coevolved between two hundred and fifty million and a hundred and fifty-five million years ago, when some cockroaches ingested wood-eating microbes, and then began sharing what entomologists politely call “woodshake”—a mixture of feces, microbes, and plant matter—among themselves, mouth to mouth, and mouth to anus.


This practice, known as “trophallaxis” (another of William Wheeler’s coinages), allows a communal pooling of digestive capacity, which can then be handed down from one generation to the next. (With the rise of fecal transplants to cure C. difficile infection and other gastrointestinal disorders, trophallaxis is gaining popularity among humans; the F.D.A. has, since 2013, officially classified human feces as a drug.) The Department of Energy says that the U.S. can produce 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass—from harvested trees, cornstalks, high-energy grasses, and the like—without taking anything away from regular agricultural uses. If humans can crack the code to termite digestion, the U.S. could turn the stuff into nearly a hundred billion gallons of biofuel a year—what’s sometimes called “grassoline”—and thereby reduce automobile emissions by eighty-six per cent.

“AXP ↓ 0.78, AIG ↓ 1.12, T ↓ 2.63, BAC ↓ 0.98, BA ↓ 0.08, CAT ↓ 4.37 . . .”

The search for a termite-inspired grassoline is a major goal of the emerging field of synthetic biology, in which biological systems—metabolic pathways, cells, organisms—are reëngineered to produce things humans want, including biofuels and precursors of drugs. One of the field’s leaders is Jay Keasling, who runs the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, or J.B.E.I. Keasling imagines a fully modular system of synthetic biology, with different companies producing different off-the-shelf parts—empty cell “bags,” the chromosomes with which to program them, the molecules to “boot” them up—that can readily be assembled to produce the desired chemical output. Manufacturing a termite biofuel would require identifying the genes for wood eating from the termite’s microbe colony and inserting them into a cellular bag. The first challenge is overcoming the fickleness of microbes: less than one per cent of them can be isolated and grown in a petri dish. This used to mean that it was nearly impossible to map the genomes of the termite’s wood-eating microbes. But in 2004 a team led by the Berkeley earth scientist Jill Banfield came up with “metagenomics,” a process of sequencing the genes of an entire microbial community at once. In 2007, Nature published a metagenomic analysis of gut microbes from a Costa Rican termite; puzzle-piecing together fifty-four million base pairs of DNA, researchers identified more than a thousand genes that might be for digesting wood. A termite biofuel seemed not far off.

Yet the synthetic biologists at J.B.E.I. still have not produced a grassoline that can compete with ordinary fossil fuels. (They have turned their attention to the production of other biofuels, including those in demand by the military.) Margonelli suggests two reasons for this failure. First, the termite’s gut turned out to be too complex to understand, let alone imitate. Phil Hugenholtz, one of the researchers who helped sequence the gut microbes of the Costa Rican termite, jokes that “you might as well go and hook your car to a bunch of termites.” Second, the biology itself seems to resist being reëngineered in the way that synthetic biologists would like. “What we’re doing,”


Héctor García Martín, a physicist who works with Keasling, says, “is taking a bug”—like E. coli—“with no interest in producing biofuels and forcing it to produce them.” García Martín goes on to cite the microbiologist Carl Woese, who observed that, unlike electrons, cells have a history—something like memories of what they have metabolized in the past. These “memories” are encoded not in the cells’ DNA but somewhere else in their chemistry, so it may be misguided to think in terms of swapping genetic programs in and out of cell “bags.” The willingness, on the part of a physicist like García Martín, to talk about the “memories” and “interests” of biological systems is surprising. But it reflects a larger shift among synthetic biologists away from a belief in the fundamentally mechanical nature of life.

In 2014, Keasling and three other prominent synthetic biologists published a paper in the journal Cell, in which they declared it an “open question . . . whether biology is genuinely modular in an engineering sense”—that is, a predictable aggregation of rudimentary components—“or whether modularity is only a human construct that helps us understand biology.” But the spectre raised by termites, microbes, and other organisms that are at once simple and devilishly complex is that the very metaphor of modularity might be misleading: that, as long as we think of living systems as machines, we are guaranteed not to understand them.

Another reason termites interest engineers is that they are a paradigm of “swarm intelligence”—highly complex behavior that emerges from the interaction of individual units in the absence of a centralized command. Each termite is presumed to be governed by a set of simple rules, which dictate particular actions—crawl, turn, dig, stack a mud ball—in response to specific triggers from the environment or from other termites. But it’s unclear precisely what mechanism produces termites’ group intelligence—which chemical or physical signals trigger which actions, and by what rules.

Since 1959, the dominant theory has been “stigmergy,” first developed by the French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé. The term comes from the Greek stigma (mark or sign) and ergon (work or action); the idea is that a trace left behind in the environment by one agent triggers further action by other agents, creating a positive-feedback loop. Stigmergy seeks to explain how extremely simple creatures, with no capacity for communication, can achieve the appearance of joint decision-making. In the case of termites (stigmergy has also been used to explain the complex emergent behavior of other simple creatures, such as multicellular bacteria) scientists speculate that the action-triggering “trace” is found in their saliva. A termite picks up a mud ball, gets some of its saliva on it, and drops it, presumably at random; other termites, triggered by the saliva scent, start stacking mud-and-saliva balls on top of the first ball, strengthening the signal; eventually, the mud balls turn into a wall or a pillar.

In the nineteen-nineties, computer scientists began programming virtual termites that built “walls” via the principles of stigmergy. These virtual termites could build two-dimensional shapes, but they could not produce anything like the complex three-dimensional architecture of real termites. And though stigmergy might explain how termites build, it does not readily explain why they so often unbuild, dismantling and modifying their work as they go. Recent studies suggest that some individual termites have a tendency to lead, while others have a tendency to follow—meaning that what gets the stigmergic process going is not a random action but something more systematic. It also appears that termites are not so much industrious drones as they are denizens of a post-capitalist Utopia: in a petri dish of twenty-five termites, only five appear to work at any one time. It seems likely that stigmergy is, at best, just one of several mechanisms that produce the complex group behavior of termites. For many researchers, identifying these mechanisms is the key to the future of robotics and A.I.: not one smart machine but a hyper-smart flock of thousands of small, cheap, dumb machines.

In 2014, an issue of Science featured, on its cover, a piece on TERMES, a termite-inspired robot created by the computer scientist Radhika Nagpal and her team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. TERMES are adorable, semicircular, tissue-box-size robots that move on four “whegs” (short for “wheel legs,” a feature inspired by a cockroach’s climbing behavior) and lift and move blocks with their clawlike heads. Each TERMES robot is programmed with an algorithm that tells it what basic action (move forward, turn, pick up block, place block) to perform next, based on the input its sensors receive about its environment. By following a sequence of a hundred or so programmed steps, each robot can construct a preordained structure: a wall, a staircase, or a four-sided building. What is more, a group of TERMES, each programmed with the same set of individual instructions, will collectively build the same structure, without any centralized command or inter-robot communication; if one robot detects another in its way, it simply pauses until it stops sensing the other robot, and then gets back to its regular programming. The robots are built on the principle of what Nagpal and her team call “extended stigmergy”: the embedding of design information in the robots’ environment, rather than in the robots. Each building block, for example, can be given a unique label, allowing the robots to use the blocks as landmarks. In some versions of the TERMES system, the robots themselves tag the blocks as they build.

When the Science piece came out, there was a brief media frenzy, with some journalists predicting that TERMES would end up colonizing Mars, and others warning of the coming robot apocalypse. Still, TERMES are limited: they can build only on a black-and-white floor, in quiet rooms, and with magnetized blocks. Indeed, these are features of extended stigmergy: TERMES rely heavily on the orderliness of their environment to be able to build. Real termites, by contrast, are masters at responding to the novel and the unpredictable. “I don’t really know how to do that,” Nagpal says. What is not clear is whether TERMES ever will be termites—whether a more sophisticated version of stigmergy will eventually allow robots to mimic their biological models, or whether stigmergy, like modularity, is a framework that can take engineers only so far.

The Wyss Institute’s most famous robot is the RoboBee, a mechanical bee, smaller than a paper clip, that can take off, fly, and land. Although research for the RoboBee was funded by the National Science Foundation, its creator, Robert Wood, has previously been funded by DARPA and the Air Force. (J. Scott Turner, of the extended-organism thesis, has also been funded by the military.) An influential paper published by the Center for a New American Security, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm,” cites the RoboBee as evidence of the possibility of 3-D-printed, less-than-a-dollar-apiece drones that, in vast quantities, could “flood” civilian and combat areas as “smart clouds.” As Margonelli writes, “Everything termites do, the military would like to do, too.” The military would like to have weapons that are at once tiny (like termites) and massive (like swarms)—weapons that are easy to maneuver and hard to detect, but also smart and lethal. One researcher in Nagpal’s lab tells Margonelli, “We can’t stop the technology because it might be used for bad.”

Indeed, synthetic swarm intelligence is already with us. A few years ago, the U.S. Navy began testing swarms of autonomous, self-organizing robotic speedboats. In 2012, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic called for a preëmptive, international ban on the development of fully autonomous weapons. The same year, the Department of Defense issued a directive that stopped far short of banning autonomous weapons, requiring only that a human be somehow involved whenever they are used to deliver lethal force.

Mark Hagerott, the former deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies at the Naval Academy, favors stringent restrictions on the development of swarming weapons, including limits on size (no smaller than a human), fuel sources, and numbers. He worries that, with both semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons, it is increasingly difficult to identify the crucial place where finger meets trigger. This matters, Hagerott says, because this is the place where empathy is exercised, when it is exercised, during warfare.

What is less often mentioned by critics of autonomous weapons is that there is something valuable in the high casualty rate of conventional warfare. If war costs states nothing but money, what is there to hold them back? What will stop a bellicose government from pursuing its foreign projects, if there are no body bags to focus its citizens’ outrage?

The termite is no longer what it was to earlier observers: a model of what humans could be—more coöperative and harmonious, less competitive and aggressive. Instead, it has become a resource to be harnessed for the achievement of our own, already established, ends. ♦


This article appears in the print edition of the September 17, 2018, issue, with the headline “Busy Bodies.”
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  • Amia Srinivasan is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. Her book of essays will be published next year.

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)

September 6, 2018

ISTAC and The Closing of the Malay Mind (?)


Dr. Maszlee Malik was appointed Minister of Education to enhance Pakatan Harapan’s Malay-Islamic credentials

COMMENT | Any specialist on think tanks will tell you that 80 percent of the think tanks in the world were formed right after 1950. This was a period marked by the ascendance of the Cold War.

When Cold War ended in 1989, think tanks remained. Some tried to reinvent themselves by holding marquee events like the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

In Japan, the Nikkei Asia Review does not have a think tank but is nevertheless made more pronounced by the annual Nikkei Asia Conference which Dr Mahathir Mohamad never seems to miss.

In China, the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Island was formed with the goal to supplant and replace WEF while the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore seeks to gather all the defence ministers in one spot over a period of three days or less.

At last week’s Bumiputera Empowerment Congress, which in 1962 and 1965 spawned the creation of MARA and Bank Bumiputera (now absorb by CIMB Bank Group), there were a series of resolutions that read like a laundry list of motherhood statements.

This is usually the first sign that things are about to fail. When driven to the extreme, where ideas are sparse, just pull any proverbial rabbits out of the hats.

Among others, it affirmed the centrality of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) as the prime vehicle to transmit the right values to help Malays and bumiputeras become competitive again.

Yet, ISTAC has had a checkered history. When it was first created in 1987, its location was just a stone’s throw away from the old International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) campus in Petaling Jaya.

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Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (pic above) was the leading founder of Istac.  His goal was to revive the salience of the philosophy of Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Anyone who failed to abide by this dictate was not considered his ‘murid’ (student).

Subsequently, it was moved to its own campus in Damansara Heights, adorned with its own Spanish Muslim or Andalusian motifs to give it a sense of crowning intellectual glory.

Before ISTAC could establish itself as a world-class institution, the politics of 1998 had thrown a curve ball at it.

ISTAC found itself embedded into IIUM’s new Gombak campus once more, and towards the end of the tenure of Najib Razak tenure as prime minister, most of the professors in Istac were either retired, or impelled to leave; some sadly were teaching three credit hours a year.

So much for respecting the intellectual authority and pre-eminence of the academics. It was Rais Yatim, as the IIUM President, who tried to add a dash of relevance by connecting ISTAC to the Malay world.

After all, rather than a singular focus on Imam al-Ghazali, the same intensity can be zeroed in on Hamzah Fansuri, a top spiritual thinker in Aceh, Indonesia, in the 16th century.

Malay, Islam, or both?

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When the authorities resort to moving the goalpost once too often, what is originally a sound academic institution would be enveloped by a foreboding atmosphere of fear and intellectual intimidation. Should we focus on Islam or the Malay world or both? In other words, academics who signed on to teach in ISTAC would be immediately aware of its sketchy history.

Instead of challenging the students to think in a critical and creative manner, the academics themselves would be looking over their shoulder if any authorities are watching over them when they teach subjects that are seemingly politically or ethnographically incorrect.

Must they teach Islam alongside with Malay history when the two can be separate disciplines?

The sciences of Quran and Hadith, for example, have their strong and long pedigree. But so does Sufism of various strands. Would a scholar be punished for teaching Ibn Arabi, instead of Ibn Farabi? No one knows. Precisely because the prior failed experimentation with creative Islamic thought had sent Muslim thinkers careening into various directions.

Do they just stick to their jobs and teach run-of-the-mill courses dictated by the authorities above or do they take the risk of teaching thoughtful and challenging subjects?

When scholars themselves are enveloped in an atmosphere of uncertainties, the process of transmitting the right values to the students are usually facile, fake, and artificial.

Not surprisingly, IIUM produced two groups of students in the last 20 years. Some were committed to reforming Malaysia, others who worked alongside Najib, saw no wrong in the kleptocratic excesses of the regime.

How can IIUM students fail on such a simple moral issue? Stealing was wrong yet many went with it at the Prime Minister’s Office. When scholars cannot predict their own fate, how can they help students grapple with their own?

Way to move forward

Indeed, Neil Postman, a top critic and educator, affirmed that the classroom is a seat of “negotiation”. When students and staffs are trapped in the same classroom, they have to challenge and confront one another’s ideas, albeit differently.

What emerges from the austere setting of the classrooms are not just information and knowledge per se, but the appetite to ask even more questions in the following days or weeks.

Paul Freire, a Brazilian thinker, argued in ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ that if students and staff members do not resort to outright argument and counter-argument, they would be importing all the logic of domination – and hegemony – that are all too apparent out there into their own mental conditioning.

If Malays are deemed as an “uncompetitive race” and this notion is left unchallenged in the future classes of ISTAC, then the students and staff members would not be able to break the chain of such mind-numbing stereotypes that are transported into the academic setting.

Students and faculty members would be attempting a safe and septic way to put their views across, which for the lack of better word, is what the late Professor Allan Bloom pointed out in the American campuses at the start of his ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ – no one wants to ask hard questions.

Indeed, the Bumiputera Empowerment Congress can lead to the Closing of the “Malay mind” too.

At the one-day conference, where the leaders talk down to the audience, where the latter in turn pretends to listen out of the polite fiction to portray their sheer compliance to the new government of Pakatan Harapan, there is no “breakthrough” at all.

Indeed, even if Education Minister Maszlee Malik as the IIUM president wants to focus on transforming Istac, the latter is an institution that is distinguished by two mediums of instructions – Arabic and English.

Malays were at their phenomenal best in MARA, subsequently, Bank Rakyat and Bank Negara, when they could excel in Malay and English, only then Arabic. If it is the latter, a third language, one would have to spend a considerable time memorising the grammar, syntax and rich vocabularies.

While learning a third language is good, the issue at play is economic competitiveness of the bumiputeras and Malays now, which means they have to make their proficiency in Malay and English work first, only then a mastery of Arabic. Either way, they must compete in an Anglo-Saxon world.

Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim are not masters of Arabic. Neither is Daim Zainuddin. In fact, none of our previous prime ministers or education ministers has had any command of the Arabic language, except perhaps Maszlee who did a language stint in Jordan. But one cannot expect a first-term minister to lionise the whole country at the first instance. He can’t. The struggle over black shoes versus white shoes was enough to reflect the difficulties that he may have found himself dragged into.

To be sure, the idea of using ISTAC to transfuse the right values into the bumiputeras is a lovely premise. But a wrong one.

Anyone who has been associated with ISTAC in any way and form will also know that the institution does not normally cater to large segment of students. They offer advanced graduate classes at Masters and PhD levels. How can bumiputeras and Malay graduates be transformed only at the top, when those howling for help and jobs are those at the heap of the bottom?

Somehow the proposition on Istac as the locomotive of ‘revolusi mental’, or mental revolution, seems like a return to the 1990s when the Malaysian and global economy both moved so far along to produce platform, honeycomb, sharing, and gig economy – all of which are driven by artificial intelligence, algorithm, big data analytics and automation.

How can ISTAC transform Malays and bumputeras to adopt Industrial Revolution 4.0 when the focus on ISTAC itself, both institutionally and otherwise, remain unclear?

The success of MARAa has proven that Malays are quite adept at learning the best technologies, sciences and communication media; without which Malaysia would not have produced a capable group of officers and captains of industries.

But ISTAC has to either be merged with MARA, or converted into an entity that can cater to the bumiputera and Malay masses.

When it does, ISTAC has to then cultivate an ethic to learn, unlearn, and relearn, without fail, as futuristic Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler warned. Without such a curiosity, it will be another project that is high on rhetoric and low on delivery.

PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning Head Teaching Fellow on China and Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.