Do robotics activities help our children learn better?

I recently enrolled my son, Zachary, to a robotics school called Little Botz Academy. This school, which has a partnership with Universiti Malaya, teaches children mainly between ages 8 to 12 years robotics using Lego Mindstorm EV3 and Rero. Also included in their curricula are computer programming and computer practical skills.

My son, Zachary, just recently started his robotics classes at Little Botz Academy. His classes are twice a week for six months.

My son, Zachary, just recently started his robotics classes at Little Botz Academy. His classes are twice a week for six months.

Like most boys, Zachary loves Lego and robots. I too had my fair share of Lego and robots whilst growing up, but back then, Lego was not as popular or as widely available as it is now. Today, there are Lego movies, Lego TV series—and, blimey, even Lego theme parks. Robots today too have changed. No longer docile or passive of the past but more flexible, programmable, and reactive of today. So, combine the two—Lego and robots—and what we have is a integration of two very popular playthings for children. But are Lego and robots, at the end, just that—toys? Sure, they are addictive and nice to play with, as evidenced recently when one of Zachary’s friends visited us in our home, and they played for five hours straight building Lego pieces into robots, both of them stopping only for toilet breaks and coerced lunch. But ultimately, what do Lego and robots actually teach our children?

The many bots of Lego Mindstorms (photo from linuxgizmos.com).

Only some of the many bots of the highly configurable and programmable Lego Mindstorms (photo from linuxgizmos.com).

 

Another popular programmable robot is the Rero (reconfigurable robot) (photo from rero.io).

Another popular programmable robot is the Rero (Reconfigurable Robot) (photo from rero.io).

No doubt many of us would intuitively regard that robotics activities will motivate and fortify our children’s learning. But if there is one thing I have learned from science is this: our intuitions, though seemingly common sense, are not always correct.

In other words, I was looking for empirical evidence, not anecdotes, subjective experiences, or sales pitch from robotics school brochures, on how effective robotics classes would help in my son’s general learning experience.

The reality, at the end of my research, is simply this: there is still insufficient evidence on robotics’s actual impact on enhancing our children’s learning experience. But before you conclude that robotics classes are a waste of our precious money, be aware that having robotics activities in classrooms is a rather recent novelty, so expect still an unsatisfying number of studies carried out on their effectiveness. A more serious problem, however, is how these past studies have been conducted.

Most past studies that did evaluate the use of robotics activities in school classrooms are unfortunately descriptive in nature, that solely rely on teachers’ and children’s mere subjective reports of their learning experience. A recent 2012 review of studies by Benitti from the Universidade do Vale do Itajai, Brazil, for instance, found that during the ten-year period from 2000 to 2009, only ten studies had used empirical analysis to measure the impact of using robotics as a teaching aid in school classrooms.

Moreover, robotics in the past have mostly been used in a limited manner, typically in teaching topics directly related to robotics. Benitti remarked that robotics need not always be about robotics per se, but can be made general enough, without being tied down to any academic area or scope, to accommodate to the children’s interests, whatever that may be. Children who are interested in cars, for instance, would apply what they have learned from robotics to create motorized vehicles, or even children who are interested in music or arts to create interactive sculptures.

Even though limited in number, the ten studies found by Benitti are nonetheless comprehensive enough in scope, covering a total of over 1,200 school students from ages 6 to 15 years old and from various countries. More importantly—to me, at least—that these studies were specifically designed to determine the effectiveness of using robotics activities not to teach robotics per se but to enhance children’s learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) topics.

The outcome from these ten studies are promising. They generally report that students in classes that had robotics activities scored higher in exams related to maths, computer programming, robotics, engineering, and physics than those in the control group (classes without any robotics activities). Also encouraging is robotics activities made students more intellectually stimulated and engaged about the topics being taught. The students in one robotics-aided class, for example, showed a greater understanding and appreciation in evolution topics and were more engaged in classroom discussions among their peers than those in the control group. One study found tentative evidence that the use of Lego had helped one group of students, those who perform averagely in mathematics, to improve their maths scores a year later.

Nonetheless, merely having robotic activities in the classrooms is no guarantee that they would succeed to enhance learning. There have been reports where no improvement in learning were observed. Even after a year of Lego robotics training, for instance, about 200 students in several schools across Sweden performed overall no better in mathematics and problem solving than those who did not receive any Lego training.

Consequently, the effectiveness of robotics activities in enhancing learning depends on several factors, some of which, as asserted by Lindh and Holgersson from the Jönköping International Business School, Sweden, are: 1) children must be given enough space in the room to work with their robots, 2) no more than two or three students to be assigned to a single group working on a single robot or activity, and 3) the robotic tasks given to the students must be specific, realistic, and be related to the currently taught topics at schools. But the most important criteria of effective robotics training is ultimately the teacher, who must not only be knowledgeable in robotics, but also have a positive attitude and be motivated to steer the children’s learning process.

Scientific evidence about the effectiveness of robotics activities may still be lacking or not be entirely convincing. But just like the progress of any other scientific enquiry, I am sure, over time, the effectiveness of robotics training will eventually become increasingly clear with mounting evidence. Without doubt, robotics classes are becoming increasingly popular today, especially among children, and scientists would want to establish their efficacy.

So, at the end, it is important to have realistic expectations about the effectiveness of robotics classes. Yes, such classes can be effective, but much depends also on the school itself: their robotics curricula, how the school carry out their classes, and the kind of learning environment they create. Little Botz Academy, my son’s robotics school, does appear to have the right ingredients, as I have listed earlier, but I am not sending my son there because I have become totally convinced about the effectiveness of robotics activities. No, I am sending Zachary there because I see that he enjoys playing with Lego and robots, and I am sure some meaningful learning outcome will emerge as he designs, builds, and programs his robots. It is also important to allow Zachary discover if his fascination and enjoyment of Lego and robots would go beyond of just being toys to something more meaningful and life-changing.

But most of all, I want my son to learn robotics because I do not want him to grow up thinking that learning becomes meaningful only in the absence of fun.

Zachary having a go with his Lego Mindstorms set.

Zachary having a go with his Lego Mindstorms set during class.

 

References

  1. Benitti F.B.V. (2012) Exploring the educational potential of robotics in schools: a systematic review. Computers & Education, 58, 978-988.
  2. Lindh J., Holgersson T. (2007) Does lego training stimulate pupils’ ability to solve logical problems? Computers & Education, 49, 1097-1111.



Burden of our false races: Defeating racism and the myth of race in Malaysia

We Malaysians are defined by our races. Racial thinking is deeply entrenched and ubiquitous. It pervades our society such that our race determines our opportunities and experiences in education, work, religion, culture, friendship, romance, and politics. Our race affects how we interact and how we view others. Even whom we support in politics is determined by our race.

Our lives, however, are governed by a myth. My race, so as yours, are false.

As long as seven decades ago, Ashley Mantagu in 1942 wrote in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race that human races did not exist. Human races did not have any evolutionary basis, and they could not explain differences among human populations. People who still believed in races, Mantagu wrote, were old in their thinking. And in 1950, based on the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists, UNESCO issued a statement that all humans belong to the same species and that race is not a biological reality but a myth.

Since then, increasing scientific evidence have continued to fortify the notion that race is nothing but a myth. Science has shown, for instance, that no biological relationship exists between race and intelligence, talent, law-abidingness, or economic performance, just as there is no biological relationship between race and skin color, eye color, blood group, height, skull shape, facial features, hair color, or hair texture.

Human races are not an evolutionary outcome of nature but a human invention. Race is a weapon—a powerful ideological tool—used to divide, subdue, and control people. Race is a way to institutionalize human diversity by placing people into racial categories and using these categories to shape public policies. Ironically, by preventing debates on racial issues in Malaysia, presumably to maintain social order and harmony, has helped further entrench people into their race. Race loyalty, advocacy, and activism breed further polarization, intolerance, discrimination, and inequality.

Race is both a social construct and a social contract. Not only have we allowed ourselves to be divided into race groups, we have also allowed our lives to be structured and controlled according to our race. That we have allowed all these to happen to us is not the worst; the worst is we Malaysians are disturbingly zealous to our race and adopt a “siege mentality” to preserve and defend our race. We, once the creators of our race, are now acquiesce to our creation.

Race is a modern invention because it did not appear until the mid-17th century. Before then, it was ethnocentrism, not race, that separated people. Some people may believe themselves to be culturally superior to others in terms language, diet, adornment, conduct, and religion. That slaves may have a different “race” or skin color from their owners hardly mattered; it was the differences in religious affiliations that was the main cause of the subjugation of slaves. Not even in the 1600s did the early English colonists view their “black” slaves in racial terms.

But as European exploration and colonization became increasingly widespread and established, racial thinking became prevalent. Race was invented to justify slavery, to preempt slave revolts, and to control and oppress certain groups of people. Race created hierarchies among peoples, and race became an effective tool to foster contempt of whites on blacks and people of other skin colors. The 18th century was the great age of scientific classification of biodiversity. Unfortunately, it was also the period that started misguided attempts, such as by Carl Linnaeus, the well-known Swedish naturalist, to classify humans into races. The American and European races, wrote Linnaeus in his 10th edition book of “Systema Naturae”, were merry, free, gentle, acute, inventive, and principled, whereas the Asian and Africans races, in contrast, were haughty, crafty, indolent, opinionated, and impulsive.

That races do not exist seems counterintuitive. Take an Indian, a Malay, and a Chinese, for example. Few of us would have little difficulty in telling them apart. One distinguishing characteristic between them is their skin color: Indians generally have the darkest skin tone, followed by the Malays, and the Chinese the lightest tone. But skin colors do not change abruptly. They are graded, varying gradually along a color gradient. Travel by land, for instance, from Nairobi, Kenya to Oslo, Norway, and you will notice that people’s skin color vary gradually from black to brown and finally to white, but there is no point along the color gradient that separates any neighboring colors. So, if we use skin color as a basis of racial classification, at what cut-off points on the color gradient do we use to classify people as having white, brown, or black skin?

Skin color is one distinguishing feature that sets apart Indians, Malays, and Chinese, but skin color, like any human traits, is an unreliable criterion for racial classification (photo from Choo Choy May, themalaymailonline.com.my).

Skin color is one distinguishing feature that sets apart Indians, Malays, and Chinese, but skin color, like any other human traits, is an unreliable criterion for classifying human variations (photo from Choo Choy May, themalaymailonline.com.my).

Not just skin color, but hair color and the distribution of blood types, in particular the group B type, vary gradually as well. From west to east Europe or from southeast and northeast Asia to central Asia, increasingly more people would have the B blood group gene. And in Australia, moving farther inward the country and away from the coast, the number of supposedly single-raced Aborigines with yellow-brown hair (blonde) increases and those with black hair decreases.

Dark-skinned Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians do not all have black hair. They can have traits found on "Caucasions": red and blonde hair (from telegraph.co.uk)

Dark-skinned Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians do not all have black hair. They can have traits found in “Caucasians”: red and blonde hair, for instance … (from telegraph.co.uk)

... and blue eyes too (from afritorial.com).

… and for some, blue eyes (from afritorial.com).

Human races do not exist because human diversity cannot be compartmentalized into mutually exclusive groups. Individuals can simultaneously belong to two or more races whichever set of classification criteria we try to use or develop. This is because there will always be overlapping race groups such that a person in one race group would likely have the characteristics or traits from other race groups. For instance, blonde hair is often associated with people with light skins. But this is not always true. Five to ten percent of dark skinned Melanesians (as well as Aboriginal Australians), for instance, have blonde hair. Even among the dark skinned populations in India, Sri Lanka, and Central Africa, people there can vary widely in other traits, so it is possible they can be differentiated to other races even though their skin tones are similar to one another. This shows that depending on how we define race, a person’s race can change, and we can have as few as one race or as many as tens, if not hundreds, of races in any given human populations.

Human diversity is multifaceted and involves overlapping traits from other groups of people (from "Are We So Different" art exhibit: understandingrace.org).

Human diversity is multifaceted and involves overlapping traits from other groups of people (from “Are We So Different” art exhibit: understandingrace.org).

Racial classifications will always fail because races are difficult to define, and there are no impartial and consistent rules for deciding what constitutes a race or to what race a person belongs.

Make no mistake. Human variations are real. They are just not caused by race. Instead, human variations are caused by evolution and natural selection. Modern humans evolved in Africa about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, and some of them started to migrate out of Africa about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. As different groups of people travelled into different parts of the world, each group picked up new genetic mutations which would not be present in the original population whence they came or among those who took different migration routes. It is tempting to believe that these genetic differences between human populations would be large enough that we could use them for racial classification. This is not the case.

Human variations are diverse and wonderful. Good luck in trying to classify these people into scientifically valid races (from smithsonianchannel.com).

Human variations are real, diverse, and wonderful. Classification by “race” is worthless simply because it cannot categorize our full range of diversity (from smithsonianchannel.com).

In 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin, in a landmark study, showed that most human genetic variations were found not between human populations but within the same population. Subsequent studies, in particular by Rosenberg and his colleagues in 2002, have confirmed this to be true. The astonishing facts are simply this: “race” accounts only 5% or less of all human variations. Instead, nearly all of human variations (93 to 95%) are between individuals of the same population. To put it another way, there are much more genetic differences between individuals of the same “race” than individuals of different “races”. Why is this so?

Human variations are the largest where humans lived the longest. Modern humans arose in Africa, and it is here where humans lived the longest. This means they had more time here than anywhere else to accumulate the most genetic changes. When humans migrated out of Africa, they brought out with them only some (but not all) of these genetic variations because only some individuals from Africa migrated. Consequently, the genetic variations these travelers picked up were a subset of those who stayed in Africa. And this is exactly what was discovered by Yu and his colleagues in their 2002 study. They found more genetic variations between two Africans than between an African and non-African. Although those who migrated out Africa had accumulated new genetic mutations not found in the original African populations, these mutations occurred only on a small set of genes, those needed to function differently in the travelers’ new environment.

Lastly, human races do not exist because human migration out of Africa was too recent in history and the various human populations, despite being scattered over the world, were not isolated enough from one another for racial differentiation.

…there are much more genetic differences between individuals of the same “race” than individuals of different “races”

Science has shown that we are all related, that we are all mongrels—not purebreds—with intertwined and primal ancestry, and that we are all essentially Africans under our skins. Race as a concept or idea has been out of date for more than seventy years, so why is it that very few Malaysians even today are aware of this fact? Why haven’t we been made aware or our children been taught in schools that race is purely a myth?

Defeating racism begins with us understanding our human origins and why people are different from one another on a genetic not racial basis. But this is only half the struggle. Prof. Mark Cohen, an anthropologist from the State University of New York and book author of Culture of Intolerance: Chauvinism, Class, and Racism, argued that we should make it mandatory that our children be taught cultural relativism: the comparative study of human cultures. Merely learning that race is myth because it does not explain human diversity is insufficient. We also need to learn that culture distinguishes one group of people from others. When people refer to “race”, they often actually mean “culture”.

As Prof. Cohen explained, “The key point is that what we see as ‘racial’ differences in behavior may reflect the fact that people have different values, make different choices, operate with different cultural ‘grammars’, and categorize things (and therefore think) in different ways.”

So, it is about various cultures, not races, that we should examine. We need to examine what people are doing and try to understand their behavior in context of their culture and situation. We need to understand that although we do not share the desires or perceptions of people from other cultures, we nonetheless recognize that our desires or perceptions in our culture can appear just as arbitrary, unusual, or different to others. When we understand and appreciate the diversity of cultures and understand people’s behavior and actions in the context of their cultures, can we then realize that there is often more than one pattern for human perceptions, desires, and points of view. This in turn increases tolerance and freedom of thinking and less fundamentalist manners.

Like race, culture is a human invention too. If we fail to realize this, we risk substituting culture for race and ethnocentrism for racism, and we risk having our lives be compartmentalized and constrained by the arbitrary rules of our culture instead. According to Kenan Malik, author of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, people should not be subjugated by their cultures, where their identities and behaviors are chained to their culture. It is time to realize that people are free agents, rational and social beings who have the power to transform themselves and their societies through rational dialogue and activities for the better and overall good. We create and shape our culture, so why do we behave as if we are subjugated by our culture?

caption

“Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate” by Kenan Malik

In multicultural societies, Malik argued, people are not seeking to maintain cultural differences or even equality, but they are instead seeking equal political opportunities. Many multicultural societies are failing today because of cultural attachments, that people are linked to their culture groups and are treated accordingly.

“A truly plural society,” Malik explained, “would be one in which citizens have full freedom to pursue their different values or practices in private, while in the public sphere all citizens would be treated as political equals whatever the differences in their private lives.”

So, yes, Malaysians’ diversity should be celebrated, but we should not have our diversity chain us into predisposed identities, behaviors, and reasoning, or have our diversity segregate us into immutable and intolerant groups, or have some of us receiving unfair opportunities.

Despite our diversity, we Malaysians are equal to one another, and until we realize and value this, “racial” and cultural prejudice will continue unabated in our country.

(from FB group: "1 Million Likes to Say No to Racism in Malaysia").

Some get it — but for most of us Malaysians, we are disturbingly zealous to our non-existent race (from FB group: “1 Million Likes to Say No to Racism in Malaysia”).

References

  1. Cohen. M.N. 1998. Culture, not race, explains human diversity. The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 1998. XLIV(32): B4-5.
  2. Goodman, A.H., Moses, Y.T. and Jones, J.L. 2012. Races. Are We So Different? John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex, UK.
  3. Lewontin, R. 1972. The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 6 : 381-398.
  4. Malik, K. Why both sides are wrong in the race debate. Article from Pandaemonium blog. March 4, 2012.
  5. Malik, K. What is wrong with multiculturalism? Part 1 and 2. Article from Pandaemonium blog. June 4 and 7, 2012.
  6. Rosenberg , N.A., Pritchard , J.K., Weber, J.L., Cann, H.M., Kidd, K.K., Zhivotovsky, L.A. and Feldman, M.W. 2002. Genetic structure of human populations . Science, 298: 2381-2385.
  7. Sussman, R.W. 2014. The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
  8. Yu, N., Chen, F.C, Ota, S., Jorde, L.B., Pamilo, P., Patthy, L., Ramsay, M., Jenkis, T., Shyue, S.K. and Li, W.H. 2002. Larger genetic differences within Africans than between Africans and Eurasians . Genetics, 161: 269-274.



Malaysian social media regulation? Welcome to the dark side of social media

We thought the social media such as Facebook are a boon to finding out only the truth. We believe this because information flows unrestricted and uncensored from an open, diverse, and hyper-connected network of friends, friends of friends, and freedom fighters in the social media world. There are no gatekeepers here. No one decides which information goes forward and which does not. Information flows to you quickly and unbridled from censors and manipulation from an authoritarian and paranoid regime. But think about it: why should the unbridled social media disseminate only the good and the truth?

The freedom we have on the social media is the same freedom bestowed on those driven by personal and political agendas to spread their misinformation and propaganda. Information that goes viral are those that provoke anger and shock, so what better way to create viral messages than to spread hate?

Consider the recent Lowyat incident that begun as a run-of-the-mill mobile phone theft but that soon mutated into a racial fight, encouraged by the spread of misinformation on the social media and blogs. Or consider the “social media experiment” by CAGM (Citizens for Accountable Governance Malaysia) who deliberately spread misinformation about our Prime Minister to bring home the point that our media thrive on reporting sensational news.

Dear naïve Malaysians, welcome to the dark side of social media.

Social media, in particular Facebook, help to polarize people and encourage herd mentality. We are naive to think the use of Facebook will promote national unity. Facebook actually accentuates differences between groups of people. Facebook’s collaborative filter helps us to find like-minded people: those who share our beliefs, ideas, and perspectives. When everyone in our circle of friends think alike, is there room for a greater understanding of opinions and perspectives that are different from ours? Facebook’s news algorithm further selects news that matches our interests and beliefs. To have an open and effective discussion and learning experience, we need to have a diversity of opinions and point of views. Instead, Facebook encourages herd mentality. Facebook validates and entrenches our existing stance and opinions.

Does Facebook encourage group polarization? The social media "fileter bubble" technology filters and chooses news and information that matches our interests and opinions. We further choose to read articles that matches our opinions and views, so at the end, our views are not challenged but entrenched (from Bakshy et al., 2015).

Does Facebook encourage group polarization? The social media “filter bubble” technology filters and chooses news and information that matches our interests and opinions. We further choose to read articles that matches our opinions and views, so at the end, our views are not challenged but entrenched (from Bakshy et al., 2015).

Facebook is our “echo chamber” where we only hear, see, and click on what we want to hear, see, and click. On social media, we insulate ourselves from news and views that are different from ours.

Furthermore, the 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that social media stifle debate. They found that social media users were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA controversy in social media than they were in person. 86% of Americans reported that they were willing to debate this issue in person, but yet only 42% of those who use Facebook or Twitter were willing to debate such issues on social media. Moreover, the survey also found that people were more willing to share their views on social media only if they thought their audience agreed with them. Likewise, a 2013 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that people tend to self-censor more their social media posts or comments if the topic of discussion is highly specific or if the audience are less defined. People self-censor more, out of fear of offending others, instigating an argument, disagreeing with others, or being criticized by others. Facebook can promote racism, as reported by a 2013 study by two US psychologists. They observed that prolific Facebook users were more susceptible than by casual users to negatively racial postings on Facebook.

Prof. Susan Greenfield, who is also a member of the British upper house, is a vocal critic of social media. Social media, she explains, promote narcissism and reduce empathy and self-identity, especially among the youths. Words are only 10% of the social cues in communication, so connecting with others via social media deprives people of the other vital social cues. Consequently, Prof. Greenfield explains, social media make it easier to insult others without noticing the repercussions the insults have on the victims. A recent 2014 study in the US revealed that when preteens were not allowed to use any screen-based media and communication tools for only five days, their interpersonal skills improved.

Prof. Susan Greenfield is a vocal critic of social media which she explains encourages narcissism and reduces empathy and self-identity. Social media also makes it easier to insult others (from telegraph.co.uk).

Prof. Susan Greenfield is a vocal critic of social media which she explains encourage narcissism and reduce empathy and self-identity. The social media also make it easier to insult others (from telegraph.co.uk).

The social media have a very dark side. Far from being some utopian tool of truth, democracy, and social justice, the social media can also be a tool of misinformation and hidden agendas, a playground for malicious attempts to divert and encourage people to believe and behave in a certain given way. Social media can stifle, not promote, debate, and they amplify differences between groups of people. Social media discourage tolerance and understanding of people who have different of beliefs and opinions from ours.

Racism is rife in Malaysia, including in public universities. We are naive to think social media will reduce racism. It might instead promote racism (from www.lukeyishandsome.com)

Racism is rife in Malaysia, including in public universities. We are naive to think social media will reduce racism. It might instead promote it (from www.lukeyishandsome.com)

References




The good, meaningful life without God and religion: Malaysian atheists speak out

At the extreme end of the religiosity scale and obstinate against the rising tide of religiosity in the country are a small number of Malaysians—no more than 1% of the country’s population—who are atheists. Freethinkers, agnostics, and nontheists, as they are sometimes known, are merely different shades of the same meaning: an unbelief in any God and religion, or at least, a conviction that God and religion are unimportant, if not irrelevant, in their lives.

Some think it unnatural and disconcerting, perhaps even suicidal, for anyone to willfully forsake all religions. How can anyone, without religion, decide what is wrong and right, for instance? How can anyone be good or have a meaningful life without divine help?

Who are they, these unbelievers?

Atheism is no longer fringe but growing. Thirteen percent of the world’s population in 2012 are atheists, an increase by 4% since 2005, and, within the same period, world religiosity has declined by 9%. But whether religiosity rises or falls depends on where you are. Vietnam, Ireland, Switzerland, France, South Africa, Iceland, Ecuador, the US, and Canada are among the countries that have witnessed the largest decline in religiosity by between 10 to 20%.

But Malaysia has instead witnessed a rise in the number of religious people from 77 to 81% of the country’s population and a fall in the number of atheists by 4% between 2005 and 2012. Whereas people’s religiosities tend to decline with their age, Malaysians’ religiosity remains unwaveringly sky high across all age groups, from 15 to 54 years. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of religious Malaysians are fundamentalist—those adamant that their religion is the one true religion and the only truth.

If forsaking religion is bad, there should be some evidence that secular societies tend to fail or be worse off than religious societies. Yet, scientific studies consistently show the opposite: that people in secular countries, compared to those in religious ones, are more involved in charity work; are more trusting of strangers; have higher IQ scores; have lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia; show greater support for women’s equality; are more appreciative of science; and have higher rates of subject well-being. Secular countries also show higher economic growth, higher democratic stability, and better governance than religious countries.

Such trends persist even in Malaysia. World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010-14) showed that, among Malaysians, religious people were more intolerant of other races and religions than the atheists were. For instance, a third of religious Malaysians indicated they would not want neighbors of a different race or religion, compared with only 9% of Malaysian atheists. Furthermore, the atheists were between 10 to 30% more supportive of women’s equality in marriage, education, job, and politics, and by as much as 38% more appreciative of science, compared to the religious.

Science in the religious Arab world has regressed since the 13th century. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for the past eight centuries. It is frightening to learn that people in the UAE countries read only an average of one book per decade, and that Spain has translated more English books into Spanish in one year than the whole Arab world into Arabic in the last 1000 years. Whereas the world spends an average of 2.2% of a country’s GDP on science in 2010, the Arab countries only 0.1 to 1.0%. The Arab world contributes only 1.4% of the world’s scientific papers and 0.1% of international patents. Furthermore, the entire Arab region can only boast of two Nobel laureates in the sciences, compared to more than 120 Jewish scientists. OIC countries have only 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population compared to the world’s average of 40.7 and OECD countries of 139.3.

Arab astronomers. Since its glory days, there has no significant Muslim invention or knowledge breakthrough for the past eight centuries (image from utopiaordystopia.com)

Arab astronomers. Since its glory days, there has no significant Muslim invention or discovery for the past eight centuries (image from utopiaordystopia.com)

Correlation is not causation, of course. But societies appear to thrive, not collapse as they should, when religion is absent or exert little influence.

But, for some, being an atheist in Malaysia is difficult, if not dangerous. For ex-Muslims, coming out of the closet as an atheist is always an unsafe option, for severe discrimination and prosecution await them. Malaysia is among the most religious countries in the world and the least tolerant of unbelievers, as revealed by a 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Even our Prime Minister called humanism, secularism, and liberalism “deviant” and a “threat to Islam and the state”.

Amir (not his real name), who is 24 and a recent university graduate, is also both a Malay and an atheist. Having studied in many countries (both secular and Islamic) for nearly all his life, Amir has been exposed to a much greater diversity of cultures and outlook than most Malaysians have.

Amir described to me one of his early struggles with his faith: “[Imagine] you are in an international school and you are the only Muslim in the class. You look at everybody, and you think how could all of them be going to hell just because they don’t believe in the same things that I might have believed in. They are all going to hell even if they are not bad people … That was one of the first times I thought about atheism.

“When you realize that there are a lot of different ways of living, you find that maybe [what] you have been taught isn’t necessarily the right one.”

Amir’s mindset is just too different from the other Malays, so it is not surprising to learn that he has no Malay friends. Even the few he once had in the past eventually distance themselves from Amir.

“When I did tell them that I was an atheist—that sort of screwed things up,” Amir quipped. “It’s like there’s something wrong with [me]. [This happens] even with someone I thought I was getting along with previously. Some unspoken barrier comes up.

“I find even the religious moderates in this country, by my standards, to be quite religious.”

Each atheist has a different story to tell. Not all are like Amir, of course, who understandably has to keep his atheism a secret from his religious parents and from the society. Apart from Amir, none of the other atheists I met experienced any appreciable prejudice or discrimination because of their atheism.

Two other atheists I met were Willie, age 34 and a local university lecturer, and Kok Sen Wai, age 29 and a medical officer. Both are open atheists and outspoken about their atheism. Willie, in particular, has given many talks about rational thinking and humanism issues within and outside the country.

Willie, age 34 and a lecturer at a local university.

Willie, age 34 and a lecturer at a local university.

Both Willie and Sen Wai share a similar past. Both were once pious: Willie as a Christian and Sen Wai a Buddhist, and both begun their slide toward atheism by asking too many questions: first, of their own religion, then of other religions.

“I started by comparing the different sects of Christianity: Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and so on,” Willie recalled. “When I was going through all of them, I realized that there are lots of different interpretations of the holy texts. Then I started checking out other religions as well. I actually read a translation of the Quran, and I looked up Buddhism and Hinduism. After a while, I figured out that there doesn’t seem to be a correct way, like the perfect way, of interpreting all of them.

“There is no proof. When you are faced with a question of whether something exists or not, you would actually require proof of it before you start believing in it.

“In the beginning, I considered myself an agnostic … but, really, I discovered I was basically an atheist by definition.”

Sen Wai’s story is similar: “I guess this was the point in my life [after examining the different religions] when I realized that acquisition of [further] knowledge is fruitless if I am unable to tell if what I have learned is true or false. Though I did not know it at that time, I had inadvertently become a skeptic.

“The more you learn about religions, the more you realize that they are all alike in some way or another. They all demand faith that exceeds reason. Some of them even teach objectionable lessons that offend my conscience… I had stopped searching. I had come to accept that the well of religion is dry. I had become godless.”

While religious issues frequently occupy Willie’s and Sen Wai’s thoughts and concerns, Joey, who is 21 and a local university student, is rather indifferent. He has never been religious, so sliding into atheism for him was rather effortless, perhaps even inevitable.

“My family and I were Christian-ish, but who do not go to church, do not pray, do not say grace before we eat, and do not do anything that is Christian,” Joey explained. “I used to think that although I do not worship [God]—but if I am a good guy—maybe I will go to heaven.

“I was a freethinker for a while after that. But when I entered university, I hung out with some other atheists in my campus…and began to call myself an atheist. I wasn’t strong in my faith anyway, so it was easy for me [to be an atheist].”

But for many people, their conviction on atheism are often realized when they fail to find satisfying answers from religions such as the case for Willie and Sen Wai, or when they find religions offensive such as the case for Geetha, age 27 and a physiotherapist. That Geetha is also a feminist is important.

“All religions are essentially the same. They degrade women,” Geetha complained. “Women are seen as lower class and expected to conform to men’s expectations. The Indian culture and Hinduism are closely related to each other. I was in a culture and religion that disrespected women, that controlled women on how they should look and behave, for example. There’s no equality: women are a discriminated lot and expected to be submissive.”

Geetha, age 27 and a physiotherapist

Geetha, age 27 and a physiotherapist.

Atheists are sometimes regarded by others as rude, arrogant, and who are just as guilty as the religious fundamentalists in imposing their opinions onto others. The truth is the atheist community is diverse in many ways, one of which is by how atheists feel and react towards religion. Amir, Willie, Sen Wai, Joey, and Geetha exemplify such as a community.

While Joey is rather indifferent to religious people and religious issues, Willie is more diplomatic and wishes more for a rational but calm engagement with religious people.

“I chose to intentionally label myself as an atheist,” Willie revealed. “Part of the reason is to foster the conversation, to force people to ask the question on ‘What is this atheism?’ and the topics around it.”

Sen Wai and Geetha, in contrast, are less diplomatic.

“Religions are somehow considered sacred,” Geetha griped. “Nothing you can say about religion can be seen as constructive. Our arguments are always perceived as hostile by the religious.”

“If atheists are arrogant and disrespectful for calling Christians stupid,” Sen Wai added, “then one has to consider the Bible to be worse because Psalms 14:1 describes nonbelievers as stupid, evil, and incapable of doing good. Islamic preachers claim that my wife and I, being Kufrul-Inkaar, deserve to be tortured in hell. What can atheists say that are more arrogant and disrespectful than what religious people are saying about atheists? I am sure that rude, boorish atheists do exist (as they do in any group of people), but given how atheists in general are constantly being insulted and threatened by religious adherents, I am inclined to excuse them.”

But what about morality? Could atheists be both godless and moral?

“Morality is ingrained within us,” was Geetha’s response. “Morality follows a simple, basic rule: don’t hurt others. Yes, religions have good moral values, but they do have some very bad ones too.”

For Sen Wai: “My morality comes from my innate primate sense of empathy and altruism: my conscience. So far, it has served me well. For example, while most world religions denounce homosexuality, I see no wrong in the love of two persons of the same sex so long as it is consensual and harms no one. Also, I can empathize with gay lovers. I ask myself, ‘What if I love someone but I am forbidden to do so?’ That would be tragic and unfair. I would further assert that the absence of religion would actually make it easier for us to do right by our fellow men in this case.”

“Even in the absence of moral authority [from religion], you can actually figure out what is right or wrong based on how it affects people” Willie added. “Evolution has helped to select people who do learn to live cooperatively, so basically, surviving together is always better than surviving individually. And the laws or values that actually help the society should be the [morality] that move us forward.”

Willie’s answers are reminiscence of utilitarianism: that we should do whatever that will produce the best overall consequences for all concerned, and of the Golden Rule: “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”. In other words, morality is decided on the basis that we do whatever it is the best, without bias, for everyone, and that we treat everyone as we like ourselves to be treated.

“[Morality] is actually quite an easy and straightforward issue to deal with,” Willie further explained. “It is just that people have the background that they must somehow be told what is right and wrong. At the end of the day, somebody who actually figures out and decides to do things because he knows it is right is a more moral person than somebody who does something because he is told it is right. So, if you believe and you do it, you are actually an agent of good, but if you are told to do it because it is good, then you are nothing, you are a robot, just following instructions. That’s just dumb, not moral.”

Like many Malaysians today, the five atheists I met each expressed concern over the rise of religious fundamentalism in the country.

“I am frightened at the rate by which we are losing our country to religious fundamentalism,” Sen Wai agonized. “Issues like Muslims touching dogs and gymnasts wearing leotards, which did not seem to matter in the past, are now headlining news. I am no political analyst, and I do not pretend to know the solution, but a government which continuously exploits racial and religious schisms cannot be healthy for a nation’s sense of unity.”

Yes, dogs are nice to see and even nicer to touch, but if you are a Muslim, you are forbidden (haram) to touch dogs (image from financetwitter.com).

Yes, dogs are nice to see and even nicer to touch, but if you are a Muslim, dogs are haram, and you have to curb your innate urge to touch them (image from financetwitter.com).

“Malaysians weren’t like this before this,” Willie exclaimed. “In the past, you even have an advertisement of Guinness that said, ‘Guinness: [baik untok kita]’, and you had Malays in that ad. The fundamentalism wasn’t there in the early days of the country. So, how did we even get to this? There are a lot of scholars who went to these Arab countries, and they brought back a lot of the values that they actually saw from those countries which wasn’t actually here in the early days. The whole idea that there is only one way to be a Muslim or one way to be a Muslim country is ridiculous…I think a lot of people [from a lack of reference] have lost sight of Malaysia’s own past.

A Guiness advertisment in 1968, picturing two Malays (presumably Muslims too) in an ad for an alcoholic drink (image from hareshdeol.blogspot.com).

A Guinness advertisment in 1968, picturing two Malays (presumably Muslims too) in an ad for an alcoholic drink (image from hareshdeol.blogspot.com).

An early ad from the 1970. Good, old days, or sinful, old days? (image from nurulrahman.com).

Your aurat is showing, miss. An early ad from the 1970. Good, old days, or sinful, old days? You have to wonder how people in the past managed to get to heaven (image from nurulrahman.com).

“The opposite voice is not being heard. People don’t dare to speak out, especially from the politicians … You [also] have politicians who are saying secularism is bad for the country. This is a very sad state of affairs.

“We are living in a world that is enormously globalized, and it is very seldom where you can go to a country without actually seeing many Christians and Muslims living side by side regardless of which majority is in power. So, if you impose one set of fundamentalist values based on religion then you will run in contrary with others. So, in today’s world—especially in today’s world—you can no longer run this one-kind mind where only this set of values is the right one. The only way to apply all sets of values fairly to everybody is actually the secular kind of system.”

For Geetha, she fears the rise of religion fundamentalism will create a society that is increasingly irrational and less open. But it is women’s rights, she fears the most, that will be the hardest hit from increased religious fundamentalism.

When I asked her what the country should do, she simply said, “Keep religion out of politics.”

You might think the atheists, having forsaken their religions, would be happy to see the back of religion or glee at its destruction. Remarkably, none of those whom I interviewed desired to destroy religion even if given a hypothetical chance.

“I would rather promote science than to destroy religion,” Geetha revealed, “because science encourages critical thinking. Destroying religion is pointless. I have many friends who are religious, but they are also liberal in their thinking.”

“I think religion is natural, like the most natural human thing.” Amir opined. “Religion becomes people’s identity, especially during times of trouble and persecution. Strip a person of everything, and a person’s religion is only that is left.”

“If I destroy religion, will I also destroy its culture?” Joey asked. “I don’t like religion when it affects people’s decision-making. But I like the culture that comes from religion[such as its festivals and celebrations].”

Destroying religion means denying people their religion. And that would exacerbate, not resolve, human conflicts because for many people, their identity, self-worth, and culture are derived, sometimes in large parts, from their religion. All human civilizations, past and present, have been influenced with varying degrees by religion, giving rise to amazing creations of religion-influenced art and architecture. Destroy religion and the world could be poorer for it. I can appreciate why Amir and Joey are reluctant to see an end to religion.

For Willie and Sen Wai: freedom of choice means freedom to believe even in religion.

“Fundamentally, we must give human beings choice,” Willie explained. “That means, even making sure the false choices are still available. You cannot tell somebody that ‘You must reach a [certain] conclusion’. You can hope they reach the correct conclusion. The whole idea of promoting science or scientific literacy is that humanity will become an intelligent species who will work based on evidence. Even within science, the principle is always to question yourself. At the end of the day, you must make sure everyone has the freedom to [even] make their own mistakes and to figure out their paths.”

“I think it is neither possible to be rid of religion entirely nor do I want to,” Sen Wai answered. “I believe in secularism. I believe that people should have the freedom to believe in whatever they want to believe, so long as they do not harm anyone by it or try to force others to comply with their beliefs.”

I came away from my research enlightened that far from being deluded, immoral, or aimless, atheists can be very clear and articulate on their principles, stance, and concerns. Without religion, the atheists have found freedom, not to inexorably fall into a life of aimlessness, depravity, and despair, but freedom to discover that having a moral and meaningful life is not only desirable and possible, but also a better outcome than that prescribed by religion. Unlike the religious who are fixated on the afterlife, these atheists are instead much more focused on the here and now, on whether they are making full use of their single finite life, for the afterlife, to these atheists, is a simply a lie.

Ricky Gervais, the English actor and comedian, said it best about living his atheist life: “[When I die,] it’s the end of something glorious, so I have to pack it all in. But, you know, I’m not depressed about it. I don’t want to die any more than anyone else. And I think there’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for. We have everything to live for.”


I like to thank Amir, Willie, Sen Wai, Joey, and Geetha for their time and frankness to be interviewed for this article. They are members of MAFA (Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and Their Friends), a social and discussion group on Facebook.

References

  1. Charities Aid Foundation. 2014. World Giving Index 2014. Charities Aid Foundation, Kent, UK.
  2. Hoodbhoy, P.A. 2007. Science and the Islamic world – The quest for rapprochement. Physics Today, August 2007. pp. 49-55.
  3. WIN-Gallup International. 2012. Global index of religion and atheism. Press Release. Zurich, Switzerland.
  4. Zuckerman, P. 2009. Atheism, secularity, and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3: 949–971.



What are the odds you will find the true religion?

What are the chances that if you were born today, you will eventually practise the correct religion? Your challenge is two-fold. You need to know which religion is true, and you need to be in an environment, society, or culture that allows you to be exposed to this true religion. Imagine if Christianity is the one true religion and you are born in Yemen. The odds that you would learn about Christianity and finally embrace it in such an anti-Christian environment would be small. Unlucky you.

Considering there are over 4,200 religions in the world, what are the odds that one of them is the true religion? A devout Christian will tell you that Christianity is the true religion. Her prayers are answered, her God is her consoler and protector, her life has been deeply enriched by her Christian faith, and Christianity’s holy texts are sacred. But a devout Muslim will genuinely also tell you likewise: that Islam is the true religion because his God answers his prayers, his God consoles and protects him, his life has been deeply enriched by his Islamic faith, and that Islam’s holy texts are sacred.

The sad reality is most religions are either in conflict or are incompatible with one another. A Christian and a Muslim cannot both be correct: only one of them can be saved – or perhaps not even them if Hindus or Buddhists have their way.

With so many religions in the world today, what is the probability that, if you were born today, you would be able to find and practise the true religion and thus be saved from damnation? I was intrigued if I could calculate the probability of being saved.

So, let’s get started. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are the four main organized religions in the world today. These four religions are the faiths for nearly 70% of the world’s population. Consequently, I will make my first assumption: only Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are considered candidates as the true religion, ignoring the possibilities that the other 4,200 or so religions could be true. Working from a position of maximum ignorance, I will further assume equal probability for each of those four religions being the true one.

The ten major religions in the world today (chart from adherents.com).

The major religions in the world today (chart from adherents.com).

This means Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism each has a 25% chance of being the true religion:

[math]
P(\text{Christianity is true})\\
=P(\text{Islam is true})\\
=P(\text{Hinduism is true})\\
=P(\text{Buddhism is true})\\
=0.25
[/math]

where the notation P(outcome) denotes the probability of an outcome.

Whether you become a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist depends largely on where you will be born. If you are born in Pakistan, for instance, chances are much greater that you will be a Muslim than if you were born in the US or Sweden. The probability you will be born in a particular country () is given by:

[math]
P(\text{Born in X}) = \frac{\text{X’s population}}{\text{total population of all countries}}
[/math]

Now, having been born in a particular country, what are the chances you will become a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist in that country? To compute this probability, I used the data from the World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010-14) which surveyed nearly 80,000 participants from 56 countries (with the combined population of over 5 billion). I used the World Values Survey data, as it is more accurate. The survey goes down to the ground and asks how religious people are and in what faith, rather than depending on the religion stated on one’s birth certificate. A person may be born, for example, a Hindu but who is really a practicing Christian.

Table 1. Your probability of being born in a country (Pb) and being either a Christian (PC), Muslim (PM), Hindu (PH), or Buddhist (PB) in that country of birth. All values are in per cent.
CountryPbPCPMPHPB
Algeria0.80.599.500
Argentina0.871.90.20.30.5
Armenia0.10.50.100.2
Australia0.5481.10.21.7
Azerbaijan0.21.79700
Belarus0.285.80.300
Brazil456.80.100.2
Chile0.376.300.10
China27.33.50.609.7
Colombia175.10.100.1
Cyprus068.324.600
Ecuador0.364.7000
Estonia033.10.200.1
Georgia0.194.83.400
Germany1.629.55.70.20.2
Ghana0.580.311.40.10
Hong Kong0.118.80.10.111.3
India24.87.614.474.41.6
Iraq0.719900
Japan2.50.60039
Jordan0.139700
Kazakhstan0.328.450.30.10.1
Kyrgyzstan0.16.789.40.10.1
Lebanon0.13655.100
Libya0.1098.200
Malaysia0.67.363.17.620.3
Mexico2.472.9000
Morocco0.70.399.30.10
Netherlands0.328.32.10.30.3
New Zealand0.156.50.71.10
Nigeria3.545.7430.10
Pakistan3.60.199.70.30
Palestine0.10.299.700
Peru0.688.10.10.20
Philippines271.2600
Poland0.795.1000
Romania0.497.60.300.1
Russia2.864.17.500.2
Rwanda0.277.45.20.10
Singapore0.116.116.2729.4
Slovenia067.11.70.10.1
South Africa147.51.51.70.4
South Korea1370.1021.2
Spain0.974.30.20.10.2
Sweden0.22.12.40.20.1
Taiwan0.528.403.626.6
Thailand1.30.62.20.196.3
Trinidad and Tobago062.17.420.70.1
Tunisia0.2010000
Turkey1.5099.100
Ukraine0.983.60.60.10.3
United States6.3470.30.40.6
Uruguay0.124.1000
Uzbekistan0.63.495.70.20.1
Yemen0.5010000
Zimbabwe0.390.20.700.1

Let’s take Malaysia as an example: the probability of you being born in Malaysia and becoming a Christian in this country is computed simply as:

[math]
P(\text{Born in Malaysia and a Christian})\\
=P(\text{Born in Malaysia}) \times P(\text{Christian in Malaysia})
[/math]

What if you were born instead in another country, say, in the US? In the same manner, we determine the probability as:

[math]
P(\text{Born in the US and a Christian})\\
=P(\text{Born in the US}) \times P(\text{Christian in the US})
[/math]

Consequently, the probability of you becoming a Christian is simply the summation of all probabilities you would be a Christian in every country you could be born in:

[math]
P(\text{Christian})=\sum_{X=1}^{56} P(\text{Born in X and a Christian})
[/math]

where there are 56 countries covered in the World Values Survey.

Finally, the probability of you being a Christian and Christianity being the true religion is simply:

[math]
P(\text{Christian and Christianity is true})=\\
P(\text{Christian}) \times P(\text{Christian is true})
[/math]

where P(Christianity is true), as stated earlier, is 0.25 (which is the same with the other three religions).

The above steps are repeated for determining the probabilities for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Table 2 shows that you have very little chance (between 1 to 6%) of finding the true religion. Why is this possibility so remote?

Table 2. The probability you will find and practise the true religion.
ReligionProbability (%)
Christianity6
Islam4
Hinduism5
Buddhism1

Take China and India, for example. Both countries comprise nearly half of the world’s population. This means there is nearly a 50% chance that you would be born in either China or India. If you were born in China, chances are great that you will be either an unbeliever (e.g., atheist or agnostic) or practice one of the religions that is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. But if you were instead born in India, Table 1 shows a near 75% chance that you will become a Hindu. So, depending on where you will be born and the probability of you adopting a particular religion in that country, probability theory tells us that you have very little chance being saved because you are unable to find the true religion.

…you have very little chance (between 1 to 6%) of finding the true religion…perhaps even much lower if other religions were considered

The probabilities in Table 2 may actually be too large, considering the generous assumptions I had used. For instance, I considered only four religions out of 4,200 or more religions as potential candidates to be the true religion. What if Judaism is the true religion? What about Sikhism, Baha’ism, or Confucianism? These aforementioned organized religions are among the ten most widely practiced in the world. So, if I were to consider these other religions, the probability that one of them is true would be far smaller than 25%, a value that I had used earlier.

Furthermore, Christianity is not a homogenous group. It is a group of many Christian denominations, some of which in contradiction with one another. Nonetheless, Christianity can be broadly grouped into Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. Likewise for Islam, which is generally made up of Sunnis and Shiites (as well as the Sufis whom no one seems to like).

So, if I were to add the other religions to the list of true religion candidates and further distinguish between the various Christianity and Islamic groups, the values in Table 2 would be much, much smaller.

My calculations, despite using generous assumptions, show how extremely remote a person, born today, can find the true religion and thus be saved. God may be all-loving, all-powerful, and all-present to some believers, but God has sure made it really difficult for us to find Him. Perhaps religious people might even take my calculations as a warning of the importance of them spreading their faiths, since finding the true religion appears so remote.

Which way to Truth? So many religions, so many Gods, so many choices (photo from radhanathswamionline.com).

Which way to the Truth? So many religions, so many routes, so many choices (photo from radhanathswamionline.com).

I like to end my article by emphatically pointing out that my calculations are merely an interesting, thought-provoking academic exercise and not to be taken, God forbid, as mathematical proof of anything, science or supernatural.




We Malaysians have the right to be naked and to wear short skirts

Do we have the right to wear what we want?

Take the recent incident at Sabah. On May 30, 2015, ten foreign tourists stripped naked for photography on top of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah. This nudity act was scandalous for two reasons. First, their act was deemed sacrilegious because Mount Kinabalu is deeply revered and sacred to Sabahan natives. Second, their nudity act was said to have angered the gods of the sacred mountain, and as a consequence, an earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, was sent by the gods. The earthquake claimed 18 lives, including six children, all of whom were at Mount Kinabalu at that time.

Ten foreigners atop Mount Kinabalu, getting ready to strip naked. Their activities were believed to have caused the wraths from god in the form of an earthquake a few days later (photo from ).

Dress code violation #1: Ten foreigners atop Mount Kinabalu, getting ready to strip naked. Their activities were believed to have caused the wrath from the gods of the sacred mountain. The wrath came in the form of an earthquake a few days later, claiming 18 lives (photo from loyarburok.com).

Whether you believe this earthquake was caused by supernatural beings or by the movements of Earth’s tectonic plates is irrelevant. It is the perceived violation and offence that these tourists had brought upon the natives of Sabah that is important. But yet, from the perspective of the ten nudists, they may think that it is their right to wear what they want (or in this case, not wear anything) and that the natives of Sabah should not impose their moral values, which the tourists have no believe in, upon them. So, who is right?

Consider a second recent incident involving Suzanna Tan and the Road Transport Department (RTD). On June 8, 2015, Suzanna was refused service at an RTD office because she had violated the department’s dress code by wearing a skirt that did not extend below her knees, so she was made to wear a sarong before she could be served. Embarrassed and humiliated, she vented her frustrations on Facebook, and her post went viral. Suzanna’s incident drew the attention from various people including that from Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, a member of the Muslim moderates G25 group. Datuk Noor Farida deplored RTD’s dress code (as well as that in other government agencies), saying this is an example of “the infiltration of religious conservatism into public administration”.

Suzanna Tan had to wear a sarong to cover her legs before she could be served at the RTD (Road Transport Department) office (photo from ).

Dress code violation #2: Suzanna Tan had to wear a sarong to cover her legs before she could be served at the RTD (Road Transport Department) office (photo from themalaymailonline.com).

The religion in question is of course Islam. The dress code at all government agencies are heavily biased towards that dictated by Islam. So, should Suzanna, being a non-Muslim, follow RTD’s dress code? Like the case for the nudists at Mount Kinabalu, does Suzanna have a right to dress how she likes?

Whether we realize it or not, we all have conformed to some form of dress code. What we wear is dictated by social norms, culture, and for those who are religious, religion.

But at the same time, we have the right to dress in whatever way we want. We have the right to be naked on the top of any mountain, sacred or not, or appear even in a bikini at the RTD’s office. No one can refuse to recognize us simply on the basis that we dress differently from that expected.

Consider, for instance, the male natives of Papua New Guinea (PNG). One traditional wear of the men there is koteka or penis sheath which they wear over their genitals. To them, wearing the koteka is part of their identity and culture. It would take a very brave person to tell them otherwise.

A PNG man, wearing a koteka, would probably be deemed offensive if he walked up Mount Kinabalu or entered an RTD office, but to him, he is acting perfectly normal according to his culture. He has all the rights to wear his koteka wherever he goes even if his attire is regarded inappropriate to others. Who are we to tell people of another culture that their culture is wrong or incompatible?

So, what we have here is a conflict of moral values, where the values of one group of people are being imposed on others. The natives of Sabah are imposing their moral values on others, dictating how people should behave on the sacred mountain. And in the case of RTD (as well as other government agencies), the moral values of Islam are imposed on others such that they dictate how and what people should wear.

How then do we resolve conflict of moral values? Although we each have the right to dress how we want, this does not mean we have to express this right all the time. We need to consider very carefully if expressing our right to dress would unnecessarily cause conflict with other groups of people who do not share our moral values.

So, yes, the ten nudists on top of Mount Kinabalu have the right to be naked, but they should have considered if stripping naked just for the sake of having the ultimate group selfie is more important than the sentiments of the local natives. Just as people would not strip in a mosque, temple, or church, these ten tourists should not have been naked on a mountain considered sacred by Sabahans.

Many people, including these Sabahan natives, identify themselves through their religion, so for anyone to disrepute that would exacerbate group conflicts. Complying with the dress code (by not being naked, for instance) on Mount Kinabalu is not about comprising your rights or moral values, but it is about recognizing differences exist and yet showing respect to these differences.

But the Islamic-based dress code imposed by RTD is a different case. Are RTD offices somehow sacred grounds to Muslims? If not, why Islamic-based dress code? Why not base a dress code on, say, traditional Chinese wear? Or better still, for the sake of national unity, RTD can rotate on a per monthly basis dress codes based on Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sabahan, then Sarawakian culture? That would certainly be innovative, perhaps even fun.

Malaysia unity only comes when differences between peoples are respected not removed by imposing one's moral values upon others (photo from thestar.com.my).

Malaysian unity only comes when differences between peoples are respected, not removed (photo from thestar.com.my).

If Malaysia is to be progressive, we need to create a common platform upon which all Malaysians from all culture, religions, and beliefs can come and work together to achieve a higher goal that transcends each group’s interests. Yes, we each have rights, but that right needs to be exercised in view of respecting, not removing, the differences between us.




Why can’t all Malaysians just get along? Conflict of moral values and a divided nation

We Malaysians have been delineated along racial and religious lines even before our country gained her independence nearly six decades ago. While such delineations have created a heterogeneous society that is rich in culture, tradition, personality, and charm, they have also resulted in a lack of unity among Malaysians. Unifying all Malaysians has always been one of the greatest challenges for our country.

Race and religion are two very powerful divisive agents that naturally segregate people into very committed and immutable groups. Many studies have shown that while race and religion promote cooperation between members of the same race or religion, they unfortunately also promote discrimination and prejudice against people not of the same race or faith.

Malaysians are indeed united but only at the level within their own group and at the cost of increased discrimination and prejudice against people from other groups. So, herein lies the core problem of Malaysia.

As Joshua Greene writes in his book “The Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them”, we humans are wired for tribalism: we intuitively divide the world into Us vs. Them and to favor Us over Them. Even at a very young age, we naturally distinguish people base on their race, skin color, linguistic cues, and gender. We have been evolved to do this because group membership maximizes our chances of survival in nature. We cooperate with members of our own group to gain mutual benefits, and we perceive outsiders as threats to our survival, so we discriminate against them.

"Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them" by Joshua Greene, 2013, Penguin Press.

“Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them” by Joshua Greene, 2013, Penguin Press.

Joshua Greene (photo from wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene).

Joshua Greene (photo from wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene).

Evolution thus encourages both competition and cooperation. In an environment of limited resources, the fittest individuals survive the competition of resources. But competition alone is not a successful strategy. Imagine a group made up of only selfish people, who act only to serve their self-interests and where cooperation does not exist. Such a group would quickly disintegrate into anarchy, and it would be impossible for such a group to maintain their social cohesiveness for long periods or for the group to expand their number of members. It is difficult to imagine such a group, without any kind of cooperation among members, would continue to exist or to progress into a sophisticated society. We only have to look at any human civilization, past or present, to see that cooperation is required to give rise to a cohesive society, one having culture, socioeconomic and political structure, and technology.

And the “glue” that keeps a group together, according to Joshua Greene, is morality. Morality is the altruism, unselfishness, or a willingness to pay a personal cost to benefit others. Morality is the psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation. Morality has evolved to enable cooperation because cooperative individuals out-compete selfish individuals. So, morality has evolved to enable cooperation to keep a group of individuals together, but at the same time, morality has unfortunately also enabled competition between groups.

Conflicts between groups occur because groups differ in their ideas about how a society should be organized. In other words, different groups have different set of moral values. These groups may share some moral values but they may also differ in how these moral values should be emphasized or expressed. These groups may also have different ideas about the appropriate terms of cooperation and about what people should and should not expect from one another. Conflicts occur when one group attempts to enforce its moral values onto other groups. One typical and important factor that bonds a group together is religion. Religion establishes moral values unique only to that group. Religion is deeply polarizing, serving both a source of moral unity and moral division. This is particularly relevant today in Malaysia, where the values of one religion are increasingly being imposed onto others, causing aggrieved groups to they feel that their own moral values are being infringed.

Humans are prone to many kinds of biases, three of which are biased fairness, biased perception, and biased escalation, where our sense of fairness and how we perceive and understand an issue are tainted by our self-interests and outlook. Though we try to be fair, studies have shown we still tend to favor interests or options that benefit us and that we tend to interpret facts, events, or issues in a way that is consistent with our current values and beliefs. We also tend to overestimate our positive impacts on others and underestimate or play down our negative impacts on others. These biases can create and exacerbate conflicts between groups because they taint each group’s objectivity, its interpretation of issues, its understanding of how its actions can have or have impacted other groups, and its efforts to resolve disputes.

A united Malaysia can only occur when we all desire a common goal that transcends even our group’s self-interests.

And what exactly would that common goal be? That common goal would be to increase the society’s happiness. As Joshua Greene simply puts it, happiness is the common currency of conflicting groups. Happiness here however is not to be confused with the temporary experience of elation or euphoria. Instead, the happiness of a society is the overall quality of all people’s experience. Happiness is not a value by itself, but it is embedded in other values such as intellectual values (e.g., knowledge, truth, education, and arts), civic values (e.g., freedom and justice), and character values (e.g., bravery, honesty, and creativity).

We Malaysians need to seek a common goal in which every Malaysian can contribute to achieve a happy society, one that is, among others, united, just, moral, peaceful, stable, intellectual, and creative. We need to create a society in which individuals can find ample opportunities to discover and use their talents to lead positive and meaningful lives.

We need to desire this larger goal and put aside our prejudices to work out long-term and sustainable solutions that can increase the society’s positive experiences. These solutions must be impartial such that no group’s happiness is prioritized over others.

Malaysia needs to make science as the foundation of the country upon which the country can systematically gather and logically evaluate evidence about the effectiveness of various national policies and practices to increase the society’s happiness.

Science needs to be the foundation of this country (photo from eduspiral.files.wordpress.com).

Science needs to be the foundation of Malaysia (photo from eduspiral.files.wordpress.com).

Malaysia is a highly religious country where less than 5% of the population are either atheists or agnostics. But as Joshua Greene writes in his book, religion cannot become the common currency of conflicting groups. Religious fundamentalism in particular would greatly exacerbate group conflicts because a group’s immutable set of moral values would be imposed on other groups.

Conflict of moral values: growing intolerance of other religions in Malaysia. On April 2015, a church was "asked" to put down its cross from its building facade (photo from straitstimes.com).

Conflict of moral values: growing intolerance of other religions in Malaysia. On April 19, 2015, a Christian church in Taman Medan, Selangor was bullied to dismantle its cross from its building facade by a group of demonstrators from another faith (photo from straitstimes.com).

Instead, religious moderation and secularism are part of the solution because they form the common ground upon which all Malaysians, regardless of their faiths (or lack thereof), can come together without feeling that their moral values are being infringed, questioned, or threatened. It is only in such an environment that group conflicts can begin to diminish.

It is tempting to conclude here that Malaysia needs to be “color-blind” and “religion-blind” where the various races and religions are treated as if they are non-existent or unimportant. Such policies of color- and religion-blindness, though well-intentioned, may actually exacerbate group conflicts. This is because Malaysians still derive a large part of their identities from their race and religion. Ignoring or treating people’s race or religion as unimportant may trigger group conflicts because this is akin to denying their identities, culture, and moral values. We should recognize and celebrate group differences but at the same time, encourage inter-group understanding and interaction that enables cooperation for mutual benefits.

I like to believe there is still hope for Malaysia, that we Malaysians have not become so polarized that we cannot see beyond our group’s self-interests to seek a united, peaceful, and progressive Malaysia — or that we have become incapable of reaching out to other groups to increase everyone’s quality of experience, regardless of group memberships.

And to seek that common goal, we need to put aside our self-interests, prejudices, and perceived superiority over others and cooperate, not compete, with one another.

I like to end this article with an excerpt of President  Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the “Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America” conference in Washington, D.C., in 2006. The following excerpt is taken from Joshua Greene’s book:

“Democracy demands the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or [invoke] God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

 

References

  1. Chuah, S-H., Hoffman, R., Ramasamy, B. and Tan, J.H.W. 2014. Religion, ethnicity and cooperation: An experimental study. Journal of Economic Psychology, 45: 33-43.
  2. Dottie, B. 2010. The perils of color blindness. In: J. Marsh, R. Mendoza-Denton and J.A. Smith (Eds.) Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. Beacon Press, Boston.
  3. Greene, J. 2013. The Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. The Penguin Press, New York.



Courage: How much is your PhD worth?

I first met Amir (not his real name) in my office about six years ago when he told me that he wanted to do his PhD under my supervision. While I do not remember much what we discussed, I do remember being a little annoyed by his presence. Overdressed and smelling of strong cologne, Amir looked more like a rich man’s spoiled son than someone committed to the long haul of a PhD endeavor.

Amir was indeed rich. He comes from an upper middle-class family, but this pales in comparison to his parents-in-law’s much higher socioeconomic standing. Amir was married to the daughter of a very rich and influential man from his country.

Amir’s troubles started about a year into his studies when his father-in-law wanted to stop Amir from continuing his PhD in Malaysia.

“I was recently married to his daughter,” Amir explained to me, “so perhaps he wanted me to spend more time with his daughter rather than being away from her in Malaysia—but what really shocked me was the great lengths he would go into stopping my studies.”

Pressured by her father, Amir’s wife not only later divorced Amir but also tarnished his image by spreading false rumors about him. Amir’s own business in his country was high-handedly shut down by his father-in law. Amir suddenly found himself with rapidly depleting funds.

“My own parents would not even give me any money because my father said there has never been a divorce in our family history,” Amir disclosed to me. “My father wanted me to return home to save my marriage. He too wanted me to stop my studies.”

Abandoned by his own parents and with no money other than his modest monthly scholarship he gets from my research funds, Amir had to take on part-time and odd jobs to help pay for his living expenses and university fees. He also had to make large changes in how he lived in Malaysia. He had to move from his large apartment to renting a simple room, from driving a car to riding an old motorbike, and from affluent to simple living. Amir now looked more simple and much less like a rich man’s son.

But Amir’s problems would soon exacerbate. His father-in-law may have exerted his influence to have Amir’s embassy in Malaysia summoned him three times to the embassy and each time to make subtle threats to make Amir return home. Lawyers, acting like thugs, were even dispatched to Malaysia to threaten Amir with abduction if Amir did not comply with his father-in-law’s wishes.

Whether these threats were real or mere scare tactics, Amir took no chances and had to seek protection from the Malaysian police. Only then did their threats rescind – but only for as long as his father-in-law to change tactics, one of which was to have the embassy write a letter to my university, incredulously requesting that my university terminate Amir’s studies. This request did not work of course, as Amir had done nothing wrong in the university or in Malaysia.

Well, if Amir is reluctant to return home, his father-in-law may have thought, might as well make the boy’s decision permanent.

Amir was blacklisted in his country’s immigration records. This meant Amir was barred from entering his country. This carried serious consequences especially when Amir learned sometime later of the tragic deaths of his two brothers. Being blacklisted meant Amir could not attend their funerals back home in the usual manner.

Amir’s story, however, has a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Despite the difficulties he faced from his PhD research, not helped by the immense pressure from his father-in-law, Amir did complete his PhD and will graduate at the end of this year. Amir has also managed to overturn his country’s blacklist of him through a legal court battle at his country. To top it off, Amir has met someone else, a new love of his life. He has already met her parents, and he tells me he would soon ask for their daughter’s hand.

Pursuing a PhD degree in any university is hard. PhD students often work at the knowledge frontier, between the known and unknown. Consequently, measurement difficulties, perplexing results, limited resources and time, and unexpected equipment failures are only some of the common challenges faced by PhD students. Moreover, doing a PhD requires immense discipline, concentration, determination, and sacrifices. No one comes out the same after a PhD experience.

But for Amir, his PhD experience has not only deepen and widen his knowledge and technical skills, it has also forged him in fire, making him more resilient, independent, and determined in the face of severe adversity.

In all my years of being a research supervisor, I thought I had seen them all: the many types of stress and problems faced by postgraduate students, that is, until I met Amir. Despite my initial impression of him, I quickly found Amir intelligent, independent, and tenacious. He would surmount unexpected research problems and difficulties exemplary well and would push through with his research until completion with diligence, resilience, and enthusiasm.

I did ask Amir if getting his PhD was worth all his troubles.

“If my father-in-law had tried to persuade me to quit my studies without resorting to insults, rumors, and threats , I could have ceded to him,” Amir explained, “but the more he resorted to heavy-handed tactics, the more determined I was to finish my studies.”

The last time I met Amir, he thanked me for my support and patience during his troubles, but I think I should also thank him for showing me something I thought I would never learn from my students: courage.




Why my son will leave Malaysia: Rise of racism, prejudice, religiosity, fundamentalism, and unscientific thinking

No country can take care of Malaysians better than Malaysia.” I am not sure who said this first; perhaps it was already a common dictum long before when I first heard it at a young age. Even after spending several years overseas, Malaysia remains my home. I  have never had any intention to stay overseas for long. Even if I were to work overseas, it would only be to polish my CV for a better job offer when I return home to Malaysia. And I would always return home. Always.

Malaysia has done exemplary well in just a short period after her independence in 1957. Where some countries fell into anarchy soon after gaining their independence, Malaysia (then Malaya) had a strong government to steer the country in the correct direction, helped a great deal by the collective support of the people.

But Malaysia today faces a much harder challenge. Our former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir, recently wrote in his blog, “There’s something rotten in the state of Malaysia” in which he laments about the country’s poor governance. But Malaysia’s rot is much more fundamental and widespread than that lamented by Tun M.

Yes, we do have a weak and clueless government, eager to please everyone but pleasing no one at the end because Malaysians have now become so polarized in their beliefs and values. But at the other end of the ring, we also have an equally clueless opposition and who are just as desperate for power as the government are desperate to stay in power. Together, these two belligerent factions have successfully nurtured mutually exclusive groups of people.

We the rakyat have become so cynical that we do not even desire to distinguish between the good and the bad, the truth and the lies. The good achievements of the country are mocked and the bad sarcastically hailed. Nothing good the country achieves is seen as good enough or done without the involvement of political conspiracies and hidden motives. Trust is gone.

We have become too inward looking to our own race, championing more for our race and less for the common good. Each race is told to unite, be strong, be progressive—and not to be outdone by the other races. Malays and Chinese see themselves as Malays and Chinese first, respectively, and Malaysians second. No wonder then we remain as ever racist and prejudiced. Contrary to what most cynics believe, we do not need the government or anyone to divide us along racial lines; we will do it ourselves. It is in our nature. We have evolved to be in group memberships because group living maximizes our chances of survival. And the tendency to be bias towards our own group and be prejudice against outsiders is our adaptive response against threats coming from outside our group.

Many moderates such as Marina Mahathir and other Malaysians know there is a rot in Malaysia, but not many of them have identified correctly the exact cause of the rot (photo from thesar.com.my).

Many moderates and activists such as Marina Mahathir know there is a rot in Malaysia and are fighting against it, but not many of them have identified correctly its exact cause (photo from thestar.com.my).

Experiments even since the 1970s have shown that when we randomly place people in different groups, bias towards one’s group automatically emerges even when these groups are demarcated along arbitrary and meaningless markers such as red and blue, north and south, or apple and pear. Race and religion are two very powerful polarizing agents that will easily divide people into distinct and zealous groups. People will fight and die for their race and religions. No other agents, apart from nationalism, can induce people to behave in such a manner. Numerous research have revealed that race and religion, as expected, tend to cause people to favor their own group and to discriminate other groups.

A local study by Chuah and his associates in 2014, for instance, showed that, of the 96 Malaysian respondents, the Muslims were the most religious and fundamentalist, followed by the Christians, and the Hindus and Buddhists the least. Chuah observed that while race and religion increased cooperation between two people who shared the same race or religion, religion fundamentalism increased out-group prejudice. In other words, religious people who believe their religion is the only and absolute truth (i.e., fundamentalism) will cooperate more with like-minded people but show more prejudice against dissimilar people.

Research have shown people sharing the same race or religion tend to cooperate more with each other but less with others (photo from life.se).

Research have shown that people who share the same race or religion tend to cooperate more with one other but less with others from a different race or religion (photo from life.se).

Social science studies such as Chuah’s serve as warnings to us particularly when religious fundamentalism is on the rise in Malaysia. We are also seeing increased incidences where the beliefs, values, and demands of one religion are being imposed onto others who do not share the same faith. Most religions are incompatible with one another. Each religion defends itself as the only truth, the only way we should lead our lives, and the final and only answer. So, we cannot impose any one religion on others and yet expect no repercussions or indifferent compliance.

Race and religion are taboo to any form of questioning. We cannot question race or religion in Malaysia without serious repercussions. We may demand for freedom of speech, but I think many of us will balk at such freedom especially when it includes freedom to question our religion. We are told to be more scientific and more religious, not realizing that the two are mutually incompatible. No amount of reconciliation can make both science and religion share the same spot in our mental faculties; we will suffer from cognitive dissonance, a state of mental stress from having two opposing ideas.

BFM journalist Aisyah Tajuddin received death and rape threats in her satire questioning the need of hudud (photo from themalymail.com)

Radio station BFM host Aisyah Tajuddin received death and rape threats because of this BFM video satire questioning the need of hudud law in the Kelantan state of Malaysia (photo from themalymail.com).

If religion and fundamentalism continues to grow in this country, they will impede scientific progress and rational thinking. They will impede our freedom to discover, to question, to seek for answers, and to defend our ideas and beliefs. Religion and fundamentalism breed intolerance because they prevent us from changing our opinions and stance in spite of us being shown wrong. Freedom of speech is the foundation of enlightenment. As Christopher Hitchens said, it is not so much what we think is important; it is also matters how we think it. It is frightening to learn that people in the U.A.E. countries read only one book every ten years, and that Spain has translated more English books into Spanish in one year than all the Arab countries into Arabic in the last 1,000 years. In contrast, research have shown that people in non-religious or secular countries tend to have higher levels of education, IQ, and verbal ability; lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia; and greater support for women’s equality and independent thinking than in religious countries. Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is telling that social benefits seem to flourish in the absence of religion or when religion exerts little influence on the society.

I find it distressing to learn from a recent survey by MASTIC that showed half of Malaysian scientists still believe humans were created by a Supreme Being, and a third do not believe the Big Bang created the universe. These Malaysian scientists have apparently built mental walls to separate science from their everyday thinking and decision-making process. Science appears just a tool they use at work. I fear it is not just Malaysian scientists but also includes our schoolchildren, many of whom view science is just one of the subjects at school that they have plod through and where only 20 to 30% of them will  choose science-based careers.

There is something wrong when our national school exams show continuous improvement in overall test scores every year, only for us to be brought down to earth when our school students take the international exams for science and mathematics. For the past decade, Malaysia has been ranked as the country having one of the lowest literacy in science and mathematics in the world.

Racism, religiosity, prejudice, and unscientific thinking are all related to one another.

It is too easy to blame all ills on the current government, as the opposition love to do and would like us to follow suite. But the opposition stand just as clueless as the accused for the solutions to Malaysia’s rot. The opposition talk about “Ubah” or “Big Change”. But it isn’t just change that Malaysia needs. It is a complete (and very painful) upheaval involving the whole political and social structure. The reboot process involves the following:

  1. We must separate religion from government and from all public affairs.
  2. We must have complete freedom of speech, where no beliefs and no ideas are taboo.
  3. We must make science the foundation upon which the country develops.
  4. We must de-emphasize differences between races by not dividing the society along racial lines but along lines of people who need the least to most help, for instance.
  5. We must create a society that is safe and governed by a just government, free of corruption at all levels.

I am under no illusions. These five steps will be extremely difficult to achieve, considering the current state of our country and the peoples. Any politician today advocating such a Malaysian reboot (especially advocating separation of religion from government) will be committing political suicide. Optimistically, it may take a hundred years for Malaysia to achieve a complete reboot.

Like any responsible parent, I would like my child to flourish. I want my son to learn, live, work, and love in a society that is intellectual, sophisticated, adaptable, and culturally-rich, one that provides him with opportunities to discover his talents and use them to lead a meaningful and productive life. That Malaysia is still far from being such a nation is not what upsets me. No, what upsets me the most is that Malaysia is regressing from being such a nation, that the country today is becoming increasingly oppressive, intolerant, narrow-minded, and unscientific, and that the rot in Malaysia is simply this: the Malaysian mind is closing.

References

  1. Buchanan, M. 2007. Are we born prejudiced? New Scientist, 17 March 2007, issue 2595, pg. 40-43.
  2. Chuah, S-H., Hoffman, R., Ramasamy, B. and Tan, J.H.W. 2014. Religion, ethnicity and cooperation: An experimental study. Journal of Economic Psychology, 45: 33-43.
  3. Cribari-Netoa, F. and Souza, T.C. 2013. Religious belief and intelligence: Worldwide evidence. Intelligence, 41: 482–489.
  4. Zuckerman, P. 2009. Atheism, secularity, and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3: 949–971.




Malaysia’s war on drugs: Are we misunderstanding the problem and using the wrong solutions?

We are told drugs are dangerous. One try, one experiment, one little use is all it takes, and we will be hooked. Our lives will inevitably and irrevocably spiral out of control. Drugs are chemical hooks that will not only ensnare our bodies into addiction but will also cause our bodies to crave ever increasingly higher doses, leading to a runaway drug addiction that will finally succumb us.

But if drugs are so addictive, why is it that most medical patients who have been prescribed powerful opiates to treat for pain do not become addicted to these opiates? And of the estimated 16 to 39 million drug users worldwide—according to the 2010 report by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)—why is it that only 10-13% of them are addicts? Similarly, Dr. Carl Hart from the Columbia University observed no more than 20% (or 3% on average) of crack cocaine users would eventually become addicts.

The startling truth is this: drug use seldom leads to drug addiction. Research even as early as the 1970s have been telling us that drug addiction is not down solely to the biochemical effects. Drug addiction is also influenced very much by our environment and our susceptibility to addiction. Drug addiction, rather than being the cause, is the symptom of our social psychological problems and our adaptation to our environment.

Rats placed in an environment with plenty of stimuli, for instance, would prefer to drink from a bottled water filled with only water, even when a bottled of drugged water (water laced with morphine) was offered to them. But take away all the stimuli and something profound occurs. The rats now preferred to drink from the bottle with the drugged water rather than from the bottle with only water. The rats’ addiction to the morphine soon ensued which almost always led to their deaths.

The so-called Rat Park experiment designed by Prof. Bruce Alexander, then at the Simon Fraser University, British Columbia (photo from brucekalexander.com).

The so-called “Rat Park” experiment designed by Prof. Bruce Alexander, then at the Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. Although conducted in the 1970s, this experiment was under-appreciated, perhaps biasedly ignored, until recently (photo from brucekalexander.com).

Rats, when given plenty of choices of food, play, and other rats for company and sex, preferred to drink only water than water laced with morphine. Take away all their stimuli, rats will instead prefer the latter (photo from brucekalexander.com).

Rats, when given plenty stimuli (such as many choices of food, play, and other rats for company and sex), preferred to drink only water than water mixed with morphine. But take away all the stimuli and rats will instead prefer to drink the latter (photo from brucekalexander.com).

But could we humans also act in the same way as these rats? As it turns out, yes. In the 1970s, there were more heroin addicts in the US army in Vietnam than all the heroin addicts back home. There was a fear then that the US would face a crippling drug addiction problem when all these US servicemen finally returned home. But this fear was unfounded because as many as 95% of the addicted US servicemen quit within a year upon returning home. Upon returning home, these addicted US servicemen remitted because they were no longer exposed to the same kind of environment and social interaction that they had in Vietnam. Even when more than half of the Vietnam addicts tried heroin again after their return home, they did not become re-addicted, and even if they did, they were addicted only briefly. Heroin’s notoriety as a very addictive drug appeared over-hyped. Heroin addiction, rather than for life, would typically last 5 to 6 years, as the addicts were able to “mature out” of their addiction, mostly on their own, regardless if they had any treatment.

In the 1970s, heroin addiction was rife among US soldiers in Vietnam. However, 95% of them remitted their addiction upon returning home to the US. Why? (photo from AP)

In the 1970s, heroin addiction was rife among US soldiers in Vietnam. However, 95% of them remitted their addiction upon returning home to the US. Why? (photo from AP)

But there is another reason why people do drugs: a desire that is natural and innate to be intoxicated. Prof. Ronald K. Siegel, who was the adviser to two US presidents and WHO and the book author of “Intoxication”, reveals that seeking out intoxication is human nature, just as it is human nature for us to satisfy our food, drink, and sex demands. Humans naturally seek out intoxication just as animals would. Cats, for instance, seek out catnip for pleasure, bees certain nectar, birds inebriating berries, elephants fermented fruits, monkeys “magic mushrooms”, and in the case of vervet monkeys on the Caribbean islands, fermented sugar cane.

Vervet monkeys on the Caribbean islands enjoy the alcohol from fermented sugar cane, discarded on the Caribbean plantations (photo from bbc.com).

Animals seek out intoxication too: vervet monkeys will actively seek out fermented sugar cane, discarded on the plantations, due to the alcohol content in the sugar cane (photo from bbc.com).

Solving the drug problem in the society, asserts Siegel, begins by understanding that seeking out intoxication is our fundamental and natural drive and that drug use should not always be associated with what only dysfunctional people do. Just as some people would smoke or drink alcohol for intoxication, some people will instead do drugs.

Perhaps then it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that in 2009, WikiLeaks leaked a 1995 WHO report that had been suppressed for 13 years because this report sensationally found that experimental and occasional use of cocaine was by far the most common reason for cocaine use and compulsive or dysfunctional use much less a reason.

In most societies, drug addicts face high social stigma and are treated exactly like criminals. The Malaysian Narcotics Crime Investigation Department, for instance, spends 70% of their drug enforcement energies on apprehending drug users and only 30% on drug dealers. What social stigma and criminalization do is they ostracize addicts, compounding the problem by making addicts carry on with their drug habits. A survey done by Mahmood in 1996, for instance, found that 95% of 60 families interviewed in Peninsular Malaysia opined that drug addicts are useless to the country, and 6% thought that addicts cannot be forgiven and should be relocated far from anyone.

Like in most other countries, Malaysia treats drug addicts like criminals. By doing this, Malaysia is compounding the drug addiction problem not shaming or scaring these addicts to quit (photo from Zainal Abd Halim / Reuters).

Like most other countries, Malaysia treats drug addicts like criminals. But by doing this, Malaysia is compounding the drug addiction problem, not shaming or scaring these addicts to quit (photo from Zainal Abd Halim / Reuters).

When drug addicts are treated as criminals, it deters them from seeking an early treatment for their addiction. Most drug addicts are brought to treatment by coercion through the criminal justice system. Even then, success from conventional treatments to break drug addictions has been disappointing. Forced abstinence seldom works for long. In Malaysia, as high as 90% of former addicts would relapse to their drug habits within half a year after their release from drug treatment, and even as early as within a month after their release, 40% of former addicts would begin to pine for drugs. In a survey, these addicts reported that they inevitably relapse because they suffer from low self-efficacy and that they face high social stigma, lack employment opportunities due to lack of trust by employers, and lack open interaction with their family members.

War on drugs

For the past 50 years, the world is at war with drugs, a war fought literally with guns and violence and resulting in a staggering loss of lives. The war on drugs started in 1961 when UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was established to create a drug-free world. Since then increasingly more countries have declared their war against drugs. US declared theirs on June 18, 1971 when the then US President Nixon called drugs “public enemy number one” in the country. Malaysia declared theirs on Feb. 19, 1983 by categorizing drugs as a national disaster , and on Jan. 22, 2003, Malaysia made 2003 the “Year of Total War Against Drugs”. The country further strengthened the resolve against drugs by pledging to be a drug-free nation by 2015.

While the US had the “Just Say No” slogan against drugs, Malaysia had a much more boorish slogan: “Dadah Adalah Najis” to mean exactly as uncomfortably intended because, in English, Malaysia’s slogan literally translates to “Drugs Are Shit”.

Despite harsh drug laws in most countries, UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) estimates that illegal drugs remain the world’s largest illicit commodity market, with an estimated turnover of USD330 billion per year. The cost of fighting the war is enormous. The world spends at least USD100 billion a year in its war against drugs. No one knows exactly how many lives have been lost or missing to the drug wars. But in Mexico, the cost of fighting the drug war has cost the country an estimated 100,000 lives lost and missing in just ten years and in Columbia 15,000 over a 20-year period.

The Mexican drug war is perhaps the most violent war in the world against drug cartels. It is a war that involves large losses of lives, widespread corruption, and horrific violence. This is because drugs, when banned, offer enormous wealth and power to criminals (photo from AP).

The Mexican drug war is perhaps the most violent war in the world against drug cartels. It is a war that involves large losses of lives, widespread corruption, and horrific violence. This is because drugs, when banned, offer enormous wealth and power to criminals that far outweigh the harsh penalties of drug laws (photo from AP).

When drugs are criminalized, the drugs do not disappear. Criminals instead take over the supply and trade of drugs, and they use violence to enforce their control. These criminals would actually prefer if drugs remain banned because it keeps them involved in the drug trade. The harsh penalties of drug laws are far outweighed by the large amount of money and power offered by drugs. The highest number of violence in the US occurred during periods when alcohol and drugs were banned: 1920-23 for alcohol and 1970-90 the peak of the drug prohibition period. Milton Friedman, the American economist and statistician, estimated that the alcohol prohibition had caused an estimated 10,000 more murders and the height of the drug prohibition 25-75% more murders. US police face unsustainable benefits when they undertake major offensives to clean up neighborhoods from drug dealers. These neighborhoods stay clean from several weeks (at times only a week) before drug dealers and street gangs return and resume their drug peddling. One criminal put away is merely replaced by another and one street gang dismantled causes another gang to take over.

Indonesia will soon execute these two Australian drug traffickers. Unfazed from criticisms and pleas from Australia, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, says their execution will send a strong message to all drug smugglers. Indonesia has 4.5 million people in rehabilitation centers, 1.5 million which is incurable. Evidence have shown that harsh penalties to not curb drug use, smuggling, and trade (photo from Reuters).

Indonesia will soon execute these two Australian drug traffickers. Unfazed from criticisms and pleas from Australia, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, says their executions will send a strong message to all drug smugglers. Indonesia has 4.5 million people in rehabilitation centers, 1.5 million of whom are incurable. Evidence have shown that harsh penalties even death sentences do not deter drug criminals (photo from Reuters).

The UK Home Office recently revealed that after 40 years, there was no indication that UK’s tough drug laws had any effect on lowering drug use in the country.

And despite the noble intentions of being a drug-free nation by 2015, Malaysia today is still far from becoming one, with little signs that drugs would soon become a diminishing problem. Malaysia had only 711 registered new drug addicts in 1970, but this figure soon exploded to 14,624 in 1983, the year Malaysia declared war on drugs. Although the number of new drug addicts declined sharply to 6,138 in 1985, Malaysia’s early success on the war on drugs did not continue. By 2004, the number of new drug addicts had climbed to a maximum of 38,568. Since then, the number of new drug addicts has dropped but has remained rather steady at about 17,500 over 2007-13 period.

Number of registered new drug addicts (including relapse cases) in Malaysia. Note: values for 1971-79 and 1986-99 are estimated.

Number of registered new drug addicts (including relapse cases) in Malaysia. Note: values for 1971-79 and 1986-99 are estimated.

Likewise, the number of drug-related arrests (averaging 44,000 cases per year) showed no clear declining or rising trend from 2005 to 2012. The exceptional year was 2013 with 128,412 number of arrests, 3 times higher than that in 2012. Whether this high number of arrests is an indication of the coming trend or merely a blimp remains to be seen.

Number of drug-related arrests in Malaysia.

Number of drug-related arrests in Malaysia.

Drug use decriminalization and drug legalization

There are greater calls today for a change in how we approach our fight against drugs, considering even whether we should decriminalize drug use or go as far as legalizing drugs, both of which are controversial issues because they run against our notion that something harmful like drugs must be of course be prohibited.

Lord Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner of the Scotland Yard, warns that drug legalization is an irreversible experiment that we can ill afford because we have no idea what impact it would have on the society. But Lord Blair is wrong. Some countries today have radicalized they way they approach and treat the drug problems in their respective countries. Their examples give us some insight as to what would happen if drug use was ever to be decriminalized or drugs legalized.

In the 1980s, Portugal had one of the highest drug users in the world, and by 1990, there were one drug addict for every 100 persons in the country. Portugal had tried tough law enforcement but saw little returns. Out of desperation, Portugal chose a radical approach: they decriminalize all drug use, the first country to do so, in 2001. While using and carrying drugs (up to certain limits) were legal, selling and making drugs remained illegal in Portugal. One key benefit decriminalization did was to remove the social stigma of drug users, causing addicts to voluntarily seek treatment. And instead of just a quick “Just Say No” response to drugs, Portugal asked instead their schoolchildren reflect on why people might want to use drugs and the possible repercussions from their decision.

A cannabis smoker in Portugal. In 2001, Portugal became the first country to legalize all drug use (photo from Estela Silva/EPA).

A cannabis smoker in Portugal. In 2001, Portugal became the first country to legalize all drug use (photo from Estela Silva/EPA).

Many studies have since been done to examine the outcome of Portugal’s drug decriminalization policy after ten years. The results have confusingly been mixed. Nonetheless, in 2012, Hughes and Stevens, two Australian university researchers, re-examined the evidence and determined that although Portugal’s drug policy was not a resounding success, it did however lower the drug use by youths aged 15-24 years old by as much as 10-30% between 2001 and 2007 and that drug-related deaths fell sharply by about 75% during the same period. That the youths aged 15-24 years used less drugs is important because this age group is considered most susceptible to drug use initiation and prolonged drug use. Portugal’s success in dealing with the drug problems was concluded to be slightly better or on par with most European countries.

Australia, Denmark, Canada, and Switzerland provide safe havens or drug clinics where addicts can receive clean drugs for free and be intoxicated under supervised conditions. The drugs provided by these clinics are purer, unadulterated, and clean from contaminants, unlike those unreliable, possibly contaminated drugs sold on the streets. Drugs provided by the drug cartels do not undergo any quality control, so it is easy for drug users to overdose because the users do not know what they are taking: is it 1% or 40% heroin?

A supervised drug injection center in Vancouver, Canada, where drug users can obtain free and clean drugs and inject themselves under monitored conditions. Canada sees such centers as essential to protect drug addicts from overdosing and being infected by the usual diseases (like HIV) from drug use. Such centers also reduce drug-related crime. More such centers are planned for Montreal, Toronto and Victoria (photo from macleans.ca).

A supervised drug injection center in Vancouver, Canada, where drug users can obtain free and clean drugs and inject themselves under monitored conditions. Canada sees such centers as essential to protect drug addicts from overdosing and being infected by the usual diseases (like HIV) from drug use. Such centers also reduce drug-related crimes. More such centers are planned for Montreal, Toronto and Victoria (photo from macleans.ca).

Consequently, because of these drug clinics, deaths by drug overdose and HIV infections ceased completely. Moreover, these drug clinics observed that addicts, when given a freedom to request for higher doses, will at first aim for a higher dose, then stabilize it, with some even later asking for a lesser dose. That addicts could stabilize their doses or choose a lower dose breaks the myth that addiction leads to increased tolerance to drugs, so addicts would inevitably crave increasingly higher doses.

Drugs sold at the streets have their prices set at whatever level demanded by the criminals. This often encourages drug users to commit crimes to help pay for their addiction. So, when clean drugs are provided for free under the Swiss’ drug program, this resulted in fewer drug-related crimes: 55% fewer vehicle thefts and 88% fewer muggings and burglaries committed by drug addicts. HIV infection due to drug use fell from 85% in 1985 to 5% in 2009.

By providing clean and free drugs and in proper doses, addicts under this program could function as normal, remaining lucid and in control.

“If you would meet these people [addicts] in the street, you would never know they are on substitution. They are married, with kids, working at the bank,” remarks Dr. Roberto Pirrotta, the senior psychiatrist at the Arud Drug Treatment Centre at Aussersihl, Switzerland.

A methadone counter at the Arud Drug Treatment Centre at Aussersihl, Switzerland (photo from Fifa and Sarah, 2014).

A methadone counter at the Arud Drug Treatment Center at Aussersihl, Switzerland. Addicts can come to such centers for their free fix and under supervised conditions (photo from Fifa and Sarah, 2014).

Addicts under this drug prescription treatment could each own a home, and one-third of them would eventually come out of welfare. Addicts under this drug prescription treatment would carry on with their addiction for no more than 3 years, with only 15% of them continuing for longer periods. The Swiss drug prescription treatment is also cheaper by more than 20% than the previous method of arresting, trying, and convicting drug users.

Netherlands has also legalized the sale of cannabis at sanctioned coffee shops. Although cannabis use across all age groups rose in Netherlands, they remained low at 5% (and not out of control) of the population, compared to 6.5% in the US and 7% in European Union countries. The number of hard addicts in Netherlands has stabilized and the average age of addicts has risen to 38 years, an indication of their drug policy is working.

Increasingly more countries today are changing their approach to handling the drug problem. Uruguay has recently legalized the growing and sale of marijuana. Even the US has softened their fight against drugs.

Malaysia too are beginning to treat drug addicts more as medical patients and less as criminals, as remarked by Nancy Shukri, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Malaysian pilot trials using methadone as an opioid substitution have shown promising results. Drug addicts given methadone as a substitution for opiates saw two thirds of them securing permanent jobs, as many as 80% of patients choosing to remain under this program, and only 3% of patients testing positive for drugs in their urine tests. The opioid substitution treatment is also cheaper by a remarkable 7.5 times than the conventional treatment. Countries that have tried this opioid substitution program also see similar promising results.

Two addicts at a drug clinic in Malaysia. They are waiting to receive their fix as the staff prepares the methadone for them (photo from bazuki.com).

Two addicts at the Methadone Research Clinic, run by the Universiti Malaya Centre of Addiction Sciences, at Kuala Lumpur. They are waiting to receive their fix as the staff prepares the methadone dose for them (photo from bazuki.com).

What countries like Australia, Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, and Netherlands have shown us is that there is an alternative and successful approach to handling the drug problem. Skeptics may disagree that drug use should be decriminalized or drugs legalized, but even they would disagree that the world is winning the drug wars. But instead of upping the fight against drugs, we should rely on science and evidence to reevaluate our position and stance on drugs.

Malaysia in particular needs to reevaluate its drug policy to one that is more evidence-based. Changes however will be difficult and have to be done in stages. Decriminalizing drug use or providing free drugs clinic require much planning to ensure that drug addicts receive effective treatments for their addiction and that they can function as normal and contribute positively to the society. Money, rather spent to arrest, try, and incarcerate drug addicts, could be used instead for their treatment.

A change to an evidence-based drug policy is not an admission of defeat that the drugs have won. Far from it. Instead, it is about us regaining control of drugs by taking away at least some of the power and wealth from the drug cartels, dealers, and smugglers, and street gangs. It is about giving real hope to drug addicts. And it is about us taking back our streets and neighborhoods, making them safer by reducing drug-related deaths, crimes, and violence.

"Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari.

“Chasing the Scream”, a new book by Johann Hari.

Johann Hari argues we have misunderstood the drug problem and are fighting drugs in a catastrophic manner (photo from theguardian.com).

Johann Hari argues in “Chasing the Scream” that we have misunderstood the drug problem and are fighting against drugs in a catastrophic manner (photo from theguardian.com).

References

 

  1. AADK (Agensi Antidadah Kebangsaan). 2009. Maklumat Dadah 2009. Kementerian Dalam Negeri, Kajang.
  2. AADK (Agensi Antidadah Kebangsaan). 2010. Maklumat Dadah 2010. Kementerian Dalam Negeri, Kajang.
  3. AADK (Agensi Antidadah Kebangsaan). 2013. Maklumat Dadah 2013. Kementerian Dalam Negeri, Kajang.
  4. Fauziah, I. and Kumar, N. 2009. Factors effecting drug relapse in Malaysia: an empirical evidence. Asian Social Science, 5: 37-44.
  5. Fifa, R. and Sarah, I. 2014. Health, Safety, Public Order. A Photo Report on Swiss Drug Policy. Malaysian AIDS Council, Kuala Lumpur.
  6. Hari, J. 2015. Chasing the Scream. Bloomsbury USA, New York.
  7. Hart, C. 2014. High Price. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
  8. Hughes, C.E. and Stevens, A. 2012. A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs. Drug and Alcohol Review, 31: 101–113.
  9. Low, W.Y and Khairuddin Y. 1988. Drug Addiction – Current Trends. Med. J. Malaysia, 43: 34-39.
  10. Mahmood, N.M. 1996. Peranan & penglibatan keluarga dan masyarakat dalam pencegahan penagihan berulang. Jurnal PERKAMA, 6.
  11. Robins, L.A. 1993. Vietnam veterans’ rapid recovery from heroin addiction: a fluke or normal expectation? Addiction, 88: 1041-1054.
  12. Robson, N., Usdi, R., Mahmood, N and Hassan, H. 2012. Treating heroin addiction: Bridging the past and future – a Malaysian experience. Country report. Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, Blackwell Publishing Asia.
  13. Rolles, S., Murkin, G., Powell, M., Kushlick D. and Slater, J. 2012. The Alternative World Drug Report. Counting the Costs of the War on Drugs. Count the Costs, UK.
  14. Siegel, R. K. 2005. Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances. Park Street Press, Vermont.
  15. UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). 2010. World Drug Report 2010. United Nations, New York.
  16. UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). 2014. World Drug Report 2014. United Nations, New York.

 




Road fatalities in Malaysia: Are our roads becoming safer or more dangerous?

The Member of Parliament (MP) of Kluang recently wrote about the rising number of road fatalities in Malaysia. His article cited the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report that purportedly showed that Malaysia “has the highest deaths on the road compared to any other nation in the world”. Malaysia’s road fatalities currently stand at 25 deaths per 100,000 population, a value which is higher than India (19.9), Russia (18.6), and China (20.5). But Malaysia’s figure actually puts the country not in the first position, as the Kluang MP asserted, but at 22nd out of 185 countries for having the most dangerous roads in the world.

Road fatalities such as this one is unfortunately becoming increasingly common in Malaysia (photo from cbt.com.my).

Are road fatalities such as this becoming increasingly common in Malaysia (photo from cbt.com.my)?

Now comes the more interesting part: if we use the same data from the 2013 WHO report to calculate the number of road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, we get a contrasting picture on Malaysia’s road safety level: Malaysia has 31.4 road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles. At this value, Malaysia now ranks 129 out of 185 countries for having the world’s most dangerous roads!

Malaysia's road deaths per 100,000 population is among the highest in the world, but it is also among the lowest in the world if the road deaths are expressed as number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles.

Malaysia’s road deaths per 100,000 population is among the highest in the world, but it is also among the lowest in the world if the road deaths are expressed on per 100,000 vehicles basis. What’s going on?

In other words, using one type of road safety measure, Malaysia ranks near the top for having the world’s most dangerous roads, but by using another measure, Malaysia now tumbles down the ranks. So, what’s going on here?

Malaysia's road deaths are actually declining annually but still remains high if compared to highly developed nations.

Malaysia’s number of road deaths are actually declining sharply annually but still remains high if compared to highly developed nations.

Unbeknownst to the Kluang MP (and probably to most Malaysians) is that the road safety level of a country can be expressed or measured in several ways, two of which are to calculate either the number of road deaths per 100,000 population or the number of road deaths per 100,000 (or sometimes 10,000) vehicles. But none of these two indexes are satisfactorily adequate or comprehensive because they do not fully capture all factors involved in road safety such as risk of exposure.

Take Australia and Tonga, for instance. Australia has 5 road deaths per 100,000 population, which is nearly the same as Tonga’s 6. However, when expressed as the number of road deaths per 100,000 vehicles, Tonga has 103 whereas Australia 7. Such contradictions occur because road safety indexes, as mentioned earlier, do not fully encompass all factors of road safety, one of which is exposure to accidents.

Consequently, the use of single indexes to compare the road safety between countries can be misleading. Comparisons between countries is only valid if the countries being compared have similar levels of motorization (number of vehicles per population), transport system, population densities, and socio-economic factors.

There are many factors to road safety, but they can be grouped into three dimensions: exposure, risk, and consequences. Simply put, a country’s road safety level is related to how exposed people are to accidents during their travels on the roads and how likely of them surviving these accidents should they occur.

The farther we travel, for instance, the higher the probability we would encounter an accident. Consequently, many researchers suggest that a more useful measure of road safety is to calculate the number of road deaths per vehicle-kilometer traveled in a year. This index is calculated by dividing the number of road deaths by the total distance traveled by all motor vehicles in the country in a year.

Unfortunately, many countries do not collect such data. However, those that do include Malaysia and 22 other countries (such as US, UK, Denmark, Australia, and Germany), and their data are kept in the International Road Traffic and Accident Database (IRTAD) under the OECD Road Transport Research Programme.

Of the 23 member countries in the IFTAD, Malaysia's road safety is the third from bottom, only higher than Korea's and the Czech Republic's. Unfortunately, data are not available for many countries, making wider comparisons difficult (photo from ).

Of the 23 member countries in the IRTAD, Malaysia’s road safety is the third from bottom, only higher than Korea’s and the Czech Republic’s. Unfortunately, data are not available for many other countries, making wider comparisons with Malaysia difficult (IRTAD, 2014).

Malaysia’s road safety level, as expressed by the number of road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometer, shows a declining trend from 33.6 in 1997, 26.3 in 2000, and 13.4 in 2012. However, Malaysia’s road deaths still remain high in comparison to other countries. Most of the 23 countries in the IRTAD have less than 10 road deaths per billion vehicle-kilometer in 2012. Only three countries: South Korea (18.4), Czech Republic (15.7), and Malaysia (13.4) have more than 10 road deaths.

A more accurate measure of road safety is to express the number of road fatalities on per total distance travelled by all vehicles in the country per year.

A more accurate measure of road safety is to express the number of road fatalities on per total distance traveled by all vehicles in the country per year. In this case, Malaysia’s road safety improves steadily every year since 1997.

More complicated and comprehensive measures of road safety exist. Several researchers have attempted to encompass the three dimensions of road safety (exposure, risk, and consequences) into a single representative measure.

In 2005, Al Haji from the Linköping University, Sweden measured the road safety levels of ten ASEAN countries from 1994 to 2003 and found that the road safety levels among these countries differed widely from one another. Malaysia in particular was ranked third for having the safest roads among the ASEAN countries, but ranked far ahead of us at the first and second positions were Singapore and Brunei, respectively. Al Haji also found that Singapore and Brunei also had similar road safety level with Sweden’s, a highly developed nation. In contrast, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were determined to have the least safe roads among the ASEAN countries.

No doubt the number of road deaths or fatalities in Malaysia is rising every year. In 2012, there were 6,917 road fatalities, compared to 6,035 in 2000. But this increase is partly due to the country’s rise in population and the number of vehicles on our roads. Since 2000, Malaysia’s population increases by an average of 2% per year to 29.3 million people and the number of vehicles by 6.6% per year to 22.7 million registered vehicles. Rapid motorization in this country meant that in 2012, there were 1.3 persons to a vehicle, compared to 2.2 in 2000, 3.9 in 1990, 5.7 in 1980, and 10.8 in 1974.

Malaysia's total annual road deaths increases every year. In 2012, the number of fatalities is 6,917.

Malaysia’s total number of road deaths increases every year. In 2012, the number of fatalities was 6,917.

Malaysia's rising population and rapid motorization means increasingly more people are owning motorized vehicles (such as cars and motorbikes). With their rise, the number of road fatalities would increase in tandem.

Malaysia’s population, number of registered vehicles, and motorization.

Malaysia’s road safety trends actually follow those typically observed when a country experiences greater economic development and social wealth, leading to increasing urbanization and ownership of vehicles. Malaysia’s road safety levels have actually been improving over the years — but not quickly enough. Malaysia’s road safety level is still far below those of many highly developed countries which have less than 10 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. If Malaysia is to achieve this target of 10 or lower deaths per 100,000 vehicles, we Malaysians have to be ready to make some personal sacrifices. So, it isn’t just what the government should do but also what we should do if we want to see our roads safer.

As a country develops, the number of road fatalities would decline due to rise in motorization (Al Haji, 2005).

As a country develops economically, it is usual to see a decline in the number of road fatalities on per vehicle or per vehicle-kilometer basis (Al Haji, 2005).

Social awareness and political will drive improvements in road safety which would otherwise decline every year. Likewise, Malaysia's road fatalities (per 100,000 population) showed annual increases until about 1996, after which Malaysia's road fatalities have started to decline since then (Al Haji, 2005).

Greater social awareness, improvements in engineering and road safety technologies, and national policies can drive improvements in road safety. Likewise, Malaysia’s road fatalities (per 100,000 population) showed annual increases until 1996, after which Malaysia’s road fatalities have declined annually (Al Haji, 2005).

One way to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads is to expand the public transport coverage in the country and encourage more use of public transport in the people’s daily commute. But are Malaysians willing to give up their cars and motorbikes – or at least, greatly reduce their use? This is easier said than done.

Local researchers Na’asah and associates in 2013 carried out a survey on 384 car owners from several Shah Alam neighborhoods. They reported that more that half of these Shah Alam residents see owning cars as something that provides convenience, reliability, freedom, and security . More than half of these respondents also see owning cars as a status and masculinity symbol. Admittedly, the results of this research are limited only to those staying in the Shah Alam area, but I believe the sentiments expressed by these Shah Alam residents would not differ much if this research was to be expanded to include more areas in Malaysia.

Consequently, the much-touted solution of increased use of public transport is not the panacea to increasing Malaysia’s road safety levels. Moreover, as Malaysia aims (and is on target) to be a high income country by 2020, we can only expect greater ownership of cars due to increased wealth and awareness of social status among Malaysians.

Increase coverage and use of public transport can reduce the number of road fatalities. Just don't expect public transport to be the only solutions to increasing road safety levels. We Malaysians have a strong love affair with our cars (photo from weiliklee.blogspot.com).

Increase coverage and use of public transport can reduce the number of road fatalities. Just don’t expect Malaysians to willingly embrace public transport — Malaysians have a love affair with their cars (photo from weiliklee.blogspot.com).

In 2012, 60% of road fatalities in Malaysia involve motorbikes. The popularity of motorbike ownership in Malaysia are due to the low cost of owning a motorbike here and that motorbikes here can be used all year round, unlike other countries that have cold seasons that would make the use of fully exposed motorbikes uncomfortable. So, trying to reduce motorbike ownership and use in Malaysia would be a challenging and polarized issue.

One effective solution to increase road safety is much greater road traffic enforcement such as increasing the use of Automated Enforcement System (AES). Unfortunately, the introduction of AES in Malaysia has been greatly delayed and remains controversial. Some Malaysians see these AES as money-making machines for the government which would ultimately increase the burden of the people. This is a baseless and cynical viewpoint especially when research by MIROS showed that since the introduction of AES in 14 areas in the country, people’s compliance with speed limits and red light stops have increased to 90% and 98%, respectively.

Automated Enforcement System (AES) seen here is a speed camera placed at several locations along hihways to reduce speeding (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Automated Enforcement System (AES) seen here is a speed camera placed at several locations along highways to discourage speeding (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Malaysians want safer roads, yes, but I suspect not many are willing to give up their personal comforts to achieve safer roads. Safer roads in Malaysia mean lower private vehicle ownership and use, greater use of public transport, more extensive and stricter subjection to road traffic enforcement, and higher costs of owning private vehicles (more expensive road toll rates, more establishment of road tolls, higher fuel prices, and higher car prices). These solutions may be unpopular, but they are necessary if we wish to see safer roads. Malaysians cannot simply expect cheaper cars, lower fuel prices, no road tolls, no more new highways to be built, and no AES, but yet still expect our roads to be safer than before.

Malaysians want increases in road safety but are unwilling to subject themselves to stricter and wider road safety enforcements. Seen here is AES camera vandalized by red spray paint (photo from aesdtector.blogspot.com).

Malaysians say they want more road safety but yet are unwilling to subject themselves to stricter and wider road safety enforcement. Seen here is AES cameras vandalized with red paint (photo from aesdetector.blogspot.com).

Safer roads in Malaysia? Of course we want them. But are we willing to pay the price?

Sources

  • Al Haji, G. 2005. Towards a Road Safety Development Index (RSDI). Development of an International Index to Measure Road Safety Performance. Linköping University, Norrköping, Sweden.
  • Hawa, M.J., Akmalia, S., Sharifah, A.S.S.M.R. 2014. The Effectiveness of Automated Enforcement System in Reducing Red Light Running Violations in Malaysia. Pilot Locations. Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS), Kajang, Selangor.
  • IRTAD. 2014. Road Safety Annual Report 2014. OECD/ITF. Paris, France.
  • Na’asah, N., Abd Rahim, M.N., Harifar, M.N. Yusfida, A.A. 2013. Urban residents’ awareness and readiness for sustainable transportation case study: Shah Alam, Malaysia. Asia Pacific International Conference on Environment-Behaviour Studies University of Westminster, London, UK, 4-6 September 2013 “From Research to Practice”.



Flying anxiety (or fear of flying): How not to die in your next flight

Okay, I will come right out and say it: I do not like flying. My experience today is so different from that when I was younger. Encountering air turbulence then was like a fun ride on a roller coaster. Heck, I could even finish a 300-page novel in one of my 13-hour flights. But today, I would be lucky to finish even one chapter. I cannot sleep in the plane because I feel like I am falling. I have tried Alprazolam, but this calming medication fails to sufficiently dull my senses.

In the US, one in three people suffer from flight anxiety. I failed to find a figure for Malaysians, but I suspect just as many of us also (silently) suffer from flight anxiety. Former local pilot Captain Lim Khoy Hing, who runs the popular “Ask Captain Lim” web site, often fields questions from Malaysians on their fear of flying in his site.

By 2016, the aviation industry would welcome nearly 3.6 billion air passengers. The number of air passengers increases by 5% each year. With increases in the number of air passengers and flights as well as longer flights, flying anxiety is expected to become an increasing problem (photo from airtravel.about.com).

By 2016, the aviation industry would welcome nearly 3.6 billion air passengers. The number of air passengers increases by 5% each year. With increases in the number of air passengers and flights as well as longer flights, flying anxiety is expected to become an increasing problem (photo from airtravel.about.com).

Former local pilot Captain Lim Khoy Hing is frequently asked by Malaysians about their fear of flying in his website "Ask Captain Lim". His book "Life in the Skies" tells of his experience as a pilot as well as dispenses advice about flying (photo from askcaptainlim.com).

Former local pilot Captain Lim Khoy Hing is frequently asked by Malaysians about their fear of flying in his website “Ask Captain Lim”. His popular book “Life in the Skies” tells of his experience as a pilot as well as dispenses advice about flying to air passengers (photo from askcaptainlim.com).

Moreover, our flying anxiety can suddenly become a problem despite our years of non-anxious flights. Former pilot Captain Tom Bunn, the creator of the effective program called SOAR (Seminars On Aeroanxiety Relief), remarked that the experience of even a single bad flight or accumulation of stresses can cause us to quite abruptly become anxious about flying.

Malaysia’s recent twin air disasters, involving flights MH370 then MH17, was not only shocking but astonishing as well because they had occurred within a span of just four months of each other. News about air disasters often get wide and intensive scrutiny by the media, and they can easily bias our perception that flying is unsafe. But it is exactly because flying is so safe that whenever an air accident does occur, the incident is splashed around the world due to the rarity of the event. In 2011, there was one fatality for every 7.1 million air travelers. Put in another way, there was one global air accident for every 1.6 million flights. Moreover, air fatality rates have fallen by over a third between the periods of 1990-2006 and 2007-2011. In other words, flying has become safer.

Unprecedented air disasters. On March 8, 2014, Malaysia airline MH370 disappeared.  Four months later, another Malaysia airline MH17 was shot down over Ukraine air space (photo from differenthdwallpapers.blogspot.com).

Unprecedented twin air disasters. On March 8, 2014, Malaysia airline MH370 disappeared and have yet to be found. Four months later, another Malaysia airlines MH17 was brought down over Ukraine air space, presumably due to a surface-to-air missile fired by Ukraine rebels (photo from differenthdwallpapers.blogspot.com).

Flying has become safer because of improvements in aircraft, avionics, and engine technology. Pilot training, air navigational aids, and air traffic management have also improved. We are also now better in weather forecasting and in our understanding of weather phenomena. Another important reason is our reactive approach to air accidents. Whenever air accidents occur, they are investigated thoroughly to determine their causes, then to devise correctional methods to prevent such accidents from reoccurring.

Researchers Oster Jr. and his associates in 2013 observed that pilot error followed by equipment failure were the two most common causes of aviation accidents in 1990-2011 (they caused 40% and 38% of the total accidents, respectively). But Oster Jr. and his team were careful to remind us that although pilot error and equipment failure are the main causes of accidents, aviation accident rates, as mentioned earlier, have actually fallen over the years. Moreover, aviation accidents are rarely caused by a single factor. Instead, accidents are often the culmination of a sequence of events. Had any of the individual events in the sequence been different, then the accident would not have happened. For example, a plane might have been brought down due to engine failure, but had the engine problem been detected early by the ground crew or had the flight crew responded correctly to land the plane safely, then the accident would have been averted.

Since the 1980s, plane crashes and fatalities have been steadily declining (photo from www.ibtimes.com).

Since the 1980s, the number of plane crashes have been steadily declining. The number of fatalities also show a general declining trend (photo from www.ibtimes.com).

Pilot error and equipment failure are the two most common causes of air accidents from 1990-2011 (from Oster et al., 2013).

Pilot error and equipment failure are the two most common causes of air accidents from 1990-2011 (from Oster Jr. et al., 2013).

In 2012, the UK TV Channel 4 screened a documentary named “The Crash” which showed a spectacular experiment which involved crashing an unmanned Boeing 727-200. The purpose was to determine the safest part of a plane during a crash. The aircraft flew by remote when it approached its intended crash site. The plane hit the ground at 230 km per hour, with a descent rate of 460 meters per minute, and upon impact, the plane broke into several sections including a ripped cockpit. The experiment revealed that the front section of the plane (which usually seats the first and business class passengers) was the most dangerous part of  the plane, experiencing an impact force of 12 G. Moving to the back of the plane meant the impact force was reduced to 6 G, leading to the conclusion that those seated at the plane rear would have a higher chance of surviving a plane crash than those seated at the front.

The Crash’s experiment results concurred with the more comprehensive study by Popular Mechanics. In 2007, the magazine Popular Mechanics surveyed all fatal plane crashes since 1971 and found out that passengers’ chances of survival were 69% if they were seated at the rear of the plane, 56% at the wing, and 49% in the front. In other words, the front of the plane was, on average, the least safe section of the plane, with a slightly lower 50-50 chance of survival in a fatal plane crash.

It is safer at the back. Survey of plane crashes from 1971 to 2006 by Popular mechanics magazine revealed that thoe seated at the plane rear had, on average, the highest chance of survival. In contrast, those seated at the front had the lowest avarege chance of survival (photo from ).

We have an average chance of more 66% (two-thirds) surviving a fatal plane crash if we sit at the rear  (photo from www.popularmechanis.com).

So, the next time you pick your plane seat, you might want to increase your odds of survival by choosing one of those seats at the rear.

But statistics or so-called “head knowledge” seldom bring relief to many sufferers of flying anxiety. The moment the cabin door closes for takeoff, their feelings of helplessness and claustrophobia set in. Unlike a car, for instance, a plane cannot just stop in midflight or land immediately to rectify a problem. For most sufferers, it is this loss of control that triggers their flying anxiety. This could explain why the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, suffers too from flying anxiety. Although His Majesty is a pilot and parachutist, he recently admitted in a newspaper interview that he becomes anxious while flying especially through air turbulence – but only if His Majesty is not piloting the plane.

Interestingly, the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Iskandar Sultan recently admitted that he suffers from flight anxiety but only when he is not piloting the plane (photo from ).

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar recently admitted that he suffers too from flight anxiety but only when he is not piloting the plane (photo from batamtoday.com).

The riskiest phases of flying are taking off, descending, and landing. Two-thirds of the fatal accidents in 2002-2011 had occurred during these phases. In contrast, the safest part of flying is when the plane is cruising with 11% of fatal accidents in 2002-2011 occurring during this phase.

The riskiest part of flying are takeoff, descending, and landing. Together they have caused two-thirds of air accidents in 2002-2011 (from Oster et al., 2013).

The riskiest part of flying are takeoff, descending, and landing — and the safest is cruising (from Oster Jr. et al., 2013).

So, although the cruise phase is the safest part of a flight, it is ironically during this period that people most feel anxious. This is because the cruise phase takes up the bulk of the flight time (57% in 1.5-hour flight), and it is during this cruise phase that planes typically encounter turbulence.

Turbulence is among the most common reasons people become anxious during flights (photo from www.traveller.com.au).

Turbulence is among the most common reason people become anxious during flights (photo from www.traveller.com.au).

Air turbulence is perhaps the most common reason for flight anxiety although turbulence was not the cause of any of the global aviation accidents that occurred between 1990 and 2011.

Turbulence however is expected to become worse due to climate change. UK researchers Williams and Joshi in 2013 estimated through computer simulations that by 2050 climate change would increase the occurrence of turbulence in the North Atlantic flight routes in the winter by between 40 and 170%. The strength of turbulence is likewise expected to increase by 40%. In other words, we can expect bumpier flights.

Areas of predicted increased in turbulence (red) in the North Atlantic flight routes in the winter due to doubling of carbon dioxide in 2050 (photo from news.nationalgeographic.com).

Areas of predicted increase in clear air turbulence (red denotes highest turbulence) in the North Atlantic flight routes in the winter due to doubling of carbon dioxide in 2050 (photo from news.nationalgeographic.com).

However, as Williams and Joshi noted, this issue of increased turbulence is a concern more on comfort than safety because airplanes today are built to withstand even severe turbulence. In addition, research by Oster Jr and his associates in 2013, as mentioned earlier, revealed that no aircraft fatalities had occurred in 1990 to 2011 due to turbulence.

A sudden encounter with a strong air turbulence sent this Singapore Airlines SQ308 (from Singapore to London) plunging for 20 meters. The turbulence caused chaos during breakfast service as evident in this photo (photo from edition.cnn.com).

A sudden encounter with a strong air turbulence sent this Singapore Airlines SQ308 (flying from Singapore to London) plunging for 20 meters. The turbulence caused a chaotic mess during the breakfast service as evident from this photo (photo from edition.cnn.com).

For me, I am unsure what exactly triggered my flying anxiety, but I am learning to overcome it. In my last flight, for instance, my plane encountered a rather bad patch of air turbulence. While my plane shuddered and wobbled for nearly half and hour, I was amazingly calm. During the flight, I practised the 5-4-3-2-1 method as taught by the SOAR program to help me refocus my mind’s attention. I also know that a plane ride, even a turbulent one, often feels less bumpier than a car or bus ride. For instance, try drinking from a cup of water in a plane, and we will find this task often much easier to do in a plane than in a moving car. And the analogy of trying to dislodge a pineapple trapped in gelatin, as so wonderfully given in the SOAR program, also helps put things in perspective that, in turbulence, a plane ought to, well, fly fast.

SOAR (Seminar On Aeroanxiety Relief) is an effective program to conquer flying phobia. This program was initiated by former pilot Captain Tom Bunn (photo from www.amazon.com).

SOAR (Seminar On Aeroanxiety Relief) is an effective program to conquer flying phobia. This program was initiated by former pilot Captain Tom Bunn (photo from www.amazon.com).

There is no single bullet or method that would work for all sufferers of flying anxiety. This is because flight anxiety has a variety of causes, depending on the person. As someone who has to travel overseas due to work, I am learning to cope with my anxiety, and I like to think I am winning.

Sources

  • Bunn, T. 2013. Soar: The breakthrough treatment for fear of flying. Globe Pequot Press, CT.
  • Oster Jr., C.V., Strong, J.S., Zorn, C.K. c2013. Analyzing aviation safety: Problems, challenges, opportunities. Research in Transportation Economics, 43: 148-164.
  • Williams, P. D., Joshi, M. M. 2013, Intensification of winter transatlantic aviation turbulence in response to climate change. Nature Climate Change, 3: 644-648.
  • How Many Planes Crash Every Year, And How Many People Die In Plane Crashes? by International Business Times, March 10, 2014.



3, 4, or 5 fan blades? Do ceiling fans with more blades give more airflow? The science behind your ceiling fan design

Recently, my family and I were looking for new ceiling fans. We would be moving into our new apartment soon, and one of our undertakings was to furnish our home with affordable ceiling fans that not only looked good, but most importantly, were also effective in moving air.

Good looking fans, yes, but how do we determine how effective are they in generating airflow? What's the science behind their design? (photo from blog.sndimg.com)

How many fan blades? How do we determine how effective these fans are in generating airflow? How do we choose our right fan? (photo from blog.sndimg.com)

The last time I went shopping for a ceiling fan – believe it or not – was when I was still a bachelor. Back then, ceiling fans were simpler, having lesser frills. But today the designs of ceiling fans have become much more varied: they look more modern, distinctive, stylish, aesthetic – and more bewildering.

So, how do we choose the right fan that can move large amounts of air? Obviously, a more powerful motor would be able to spin the fan blades faster, and the faster they spin, the more air these blades would move. But wouldn’t a faster fan also be noisier and consume more energy? And what about the number of fan blades? It is today common to find ceiling fans fitted with between four to as many seven fan blades. Some ceiling fans even have two tiers of fan blades! Intuitively, more blades would “chop” more air; thus, creating more air movement, right? But where’s the evidence?

3, 4, or 5 blades? More blades, the more the airflow? But why some fans like this Enigma fan from Fanimation have only, gulp, one blade? (photo from www.fanimation.com).

3, 4, or 5 blades? More blades, the more the airflow, right? If so, why do fans like this Enigma fan from Fanimation have only, gulp, one blade? This fan moves 5,800 CFM (cubic feet per minute) of air, making this fan comparable with other fans that have more number blades. What’s the science? (photo from www.fanimation.com).

A ceiling fan design must be such that the fan generates large amounts of air movement but yet performs its task quietly and consumes low amounts of energy. Since I was shopping for ceiling fans, I was curious to know the science behind the design of a ceiling fan. In other words, what makes an effective ceiling fan?

A ceiling fan with six blades arranged in two-tiers! Surely this fan generates massive airflow, right? We need to be skeptical because too many blades, especially one set rotating in an upper tier and the other in the lower tier might experience too much drag and create too much turbulence to give high or even a smooth airflow in the room (photo from deka.com.my).

A Deka ceiling fan with two-tiers of blades! Surely this six-blade fan model would generate massive airflow, right? Hmm…perhaps not. A fan with too many blades, especially with one set of blades rotating in the upper tier and the other in the lower tier might experience too much drag and create too much turbulence to give a high or even a smooth airflow in the room (photo from deka.com.my).

But let me however first clear one common misconception about ceiling fans. Ceiling fans, in contrast to air conditioners, do not lower air temperature or air humidity in our rooms. Ceiling fans cool us, but they do this only by increasing the air movement or airflow in the room. With increased air movement, our body sweat evaporates easier. And as our sweat evaporates, it takes away some of our body heat; thus, cooling us.

Fans do not lower room air temperature or humidity. They generate air movement which helps to remove our body sweat faster, giving us the cooling effect. Only air conditioners can lower air temperature and humidity (photo from klimatedi.by)

A common misconception: fans do not lower room air temperature or humidity. They increase air movement which helps to remove our body sweat faster, cooling us. Only air conditioners can lower room air temperature and humidity (photo from klimatedi.by).

Airflow profile

Ceiling fans do not move air in the room in a homogenous manner. Bassiouny and Korah in 2011 studied the airflow patterns in a room due to a single rotating ceiling fan. They found that airflow was the lowest at two locations: at the ceiling fan hub (i.e., fan center) and at the fan blade tip. It is somewhere between the fan center and fan blade tip that airflow was the highest.

So, if we plot the airflow velocity (speed) at various distances along the fan blade length, we would observe that the airflow generated by a ceiling fan would increase from the fan center, reach maximum at somewhere midway of the fan blade length, and then decline moving towards the fan blade tip. This change in airflow velocity which rises then falls along the fan blade length is the so-called humped airflow profile.

Humped airflow profile, where airflow velocity increases from the fan center before reaching maximum (i.e., hump) at about midway of the blade length, then decreases along the blade length (Schmidth and patterson, 2001)

All ceiling fans display the so-called humped airflow profile, where airflow velocity increases from the fan center before reaching maximum (i.e., hump) at about midway of the blade length, then decreases farther along the blade length (Schmidt and Patterson, 2001).

This is why when we stand directly under the ceiling fan center, we would feel little air movement. But shift slightly to our left or right and the airflow suddenly picks up, particularly if we stand at a distance of about midway between the fan center and the fan blade tip where airflow here is the highest.

The humped airflow profile means if we stand directly under the fan center, we would feel little airflow in contrast if we stand somewhere in the middle between the fan center and fan blade tip (photo from www.gossamerwind.com).

The humped airflow profile means if we stand directly under the fan center, we would feel little airflow in contrast if we stand somewhere in the middle between the fan center and fan blade tip, where airflow here is maximum (photo from www.gossamerwind.com).

Earlier work by Schmidt and Patterson in 2001 and Ankur and his associates in 2004 also reported similar airflow patterns.

Computer simulated airflow profile in a room with a single rotating ceiling fan. The

Computer-simulated airflow velocities (speed) in a room with a single rotating ceiling fan. The “X” marks the center of the ceiling fan. Airflow is lowest near the fan centre but increases outward up to a certain distance from the ceiling fan. Note the various “circular” airflow velocities (Bassiouny and Korah in 2011).

Studying the airflow patterns generated by a given ceiling fan is important because it allows us to understand how effective a ceiling fan design is in moving large amounts of air. And how effective a ceiling fan moves air depends on several factors, one of which is the fan blade characteristics.

Blade characteristics

Fan blade size and the number of fan blades do matter. The bigger (e.g., wider or longer) the fan blade, the more airflow the blade is able to generate. Likewise, having more blades moving through the air would generate more airflow too. However, this ignores the effect of drag or air resistance. Whenever an object moves through air, it experiences an opposing force to motion called as drag. It is this drag that slows down motion, reduces airflow, and increases energy consumption of a ceiling fan.

Consequently, there is a tradeoff between the blade size and the number of blades to have in a ceiling fan. Having fewer blades or smaller blades may reduce drag but may also generate little airflow. But increasing the blade size or fitting more blades to a fan may not necessarily generate more airflow because of the larger drag. This increased in drag would also mean a more powerful – and presumably, a more energy-hungry (and noisier)— fan motor is required. Having more blades also adds weight to the ceiling fan and again, a more powerful fan motor is required.

Falahat is one of the few researchers who reported the effect of the number of fan blades have on airflow generation. In his 2011 study, he compared the airflow generated by an axial fan fitted with between two to six fan blades. He found that maximum airflow was generated when the fan was fitted with four blades, and the blades ought to be tilted between 45 to 55 degrees to the airflow direction. In Falahat’s study, the angle of blades to the airflow direction can be regarded as the blade pitch. Blade pitch is one key factor that affects how much air a ceiling fan can move.

Falahat and his team in 2011 found that four blades was optimum and these blades should be tilted between 45 to 55 degrees, as shown in this chart (Falahat et al., 2011).

Falahat and his team in 2011 found that four blades was the optimum number of fan blades, and these blades should be tilted between 45 to 55 degrees, as shown in this chart. There was little difference between 4, 5, and 6 blades in airflow generation (Falahat et al., 2011).

Imagine the fan blades as oars of a rowboat. Rowing the boat with the oars would require the oars to be slightly tilted or slanted. If the oars were parallel (horizontal) to the surface of the water (i.e., 0 degree blade pitch), then very little movement would be created by rowing the oars. However, tilt the oars and they would push away more water and move the boat farther. Tilting the oars even more would move the boat even farther as more water would be pushed away. However, rowing the boat would become increasingly difficult if the oars are tilted to increasingly steeper angles.

Likewise, increasing the blade pitch would generate more airflow but at an increasing cost of having a more powerful fan motor to move these blades.

Falahat’s finding of 45 to 55 degrees as optimum blade pitch range is far from that found in some commercial fans. These fans often have a blade pitch no more than about 16 degrees because after which, a more powerful fan motor would be required especially for high-speed rotations.

Falahat may have used a powerful fan motor in his study: a fan that is able to spin even six blades at high speeds. Falahat’s study suggests if the fan motor is powerful enough and not treated as a factor in ceiling fan design, then the optimum number of fan blades to have is four, and these blades should be tilted between 45 to 55 degrees from vertical for maximum airflow generation.

A few ceiling fans have a curious feature where their fan blades appear to be curved or bent upward. The angle between these bent blades and the horizontal plane is called the rake angle.

Some ceiling fans such as this Kichler's Maiden model have their blades bent upward. Besides for aesthetic reasons, these bent blades can generate more airflow (photo from lumes.com).

Some ceiling fans such as this Kichler’s Maiden model have their blades bent upward. Besides for aesthetic reasons, these bent blades can help to generate more airflow (photo from lumes.com).

Bending the blades upward is not just for aesthetic reasons because varying the rake angles can produce varying amounts of airflow. Afag and his associates in 2014 experimented between 0 to 10 degrees rake angle of a ceiling fan. They discovered that 6 degrees rake angle generated the most airflow, with the additional benefit that the fan motor did not have to work any harder.

Some ceiling fans even have winglets at the tip of the fan blades, similar to the winglets found on airplane wings. The purpose of these winglets is to smoothen the flow of air around the blades by decreasing the air vortices (turbulence) at the blade tip which in turn reduces the overall drag and energy use.

Winglets at the fan blade tip help to smoothen airflow around the fan blades which would lower drag and increase airflow (photo from www.modenus.com).

These winglets at the fan blade tips help to smoothen airflow around the fan blades which would lower drag and increase airflow. Also note the slanted fan blades (photo from www.modenus.com).

The material from which the fan blades are made is also another important factor because a heavier material would add weight and would require a more powerful fan motor. Schmidt and Patterson in 2001 compared the airflow generation and energy consumption of nine ceiling fans fitted with metal, wood, and plastic fan blades. They found that ceiling fans with wooden fan blades generated the least airflow and yet consumed among the highest amount of energy. But due to the lower airflow, wooden fan blades were quieter than the rest. Schmidt and Patterson further found that ceiling fans with metal blades generated the most airflow but were also among the noisiest.

Today the ceiling fan market is inundated with many modern-looking fan, some having rather complicated designs. But I suspect some if not most of these modern-looking ceiling fans have been designed more for form over function; that is, they have been designed to look good but may not move a lot of air. Developing a ceiling fan that generates a large airflow and yet is quiet and low energy is a challenge because it requires a more thoughtful design that incorporates one or more key blade design features as previously discussed.

Some efficient ceiling fans, for instance, have fan blades that are irregularly shaped. Their blades can be sharply tapered, curved, spiraled, or twisted so that the blades do not have a constant blade width, rake angle, or blade pitch. Instead, these three properties vary along the blade length. The idea is to smoothen the so-called humped airflow profile, as mentioned earlier, so that airflow velocity remains more uniform along the blade length and at the same time, lessen the drag and noise.

But it is not easy to determine how good a ceiling fan is simply by examining the fan’s individual design features. It is the net or combined effect of these individual fan features that determines how much airflow can be generated. For instance, Falahat’s study, as previously discussed, revealed that four blades were the optimum number of blades. However, a two-blade ceiling fan could still generate more airflow than a four-blade ceiling fan. One way is to increase the blade pitch of the two-blade fan until the pitch is large enough to generate more airflow than the four-blade fan.

For instance, I recently bought a two-blade NSB Infinity fan and a four-blade Deka fan. At their respective highest speed settings, the four-blade Deka fan spins noticeably faster than the two-blade Infinity fan – but yet, the Infinity fan generates noticeably more air movement than the Deka fan. Why? This could be because the Infinity fan has a larger blade pitch than the Deka fan.

My four-bladed Deka fan has four blades and spins faster but yet generates lesser airflow than my two-bladed NSB Infinity fan. Why?

My four-blade Deka fan has more blades and spins faster but yet generates lesser airflow than my two-blade NSB Infinity fan. Why?

My NSB Infinity two-bladed ceiling fan spins slower than my other four-bladed fan, but yet the former fan generates more airflow than the latter (photo from www.nsb.com.my).

Being slower does not necessarily mean lesser airflow. Despite having only two blades, the NSB Infinity fan’s larger blade pitch could have allowed this fan to generate more airflow than the faster-spinning four-blade Deka fan (photo from www.nsb.com.my).

To tell how effective is a ceiling fan, we need to make actual measurements of how much airflow can be generated by the given ceiling fan. But as ordinary consumers, we have to rely on information provided by the fan designers on how effective are their fans.

Ceiling fan efficiency: CFM and power consumption

The two most important information we need are the amount of air movement generated (represented by the unit cubic feet per minute or simply as CFM) and the power consumption (in Watts or W) by a ceiling fan.

On average, a ceiling fan has an airflow generation of about 5,500 CFM and consumes 70 W. Dividing the airflow generation by the power consumption gives the ceiling fan’s efficiency. In this case, the average ceiling fan efficiency is 5,500 CFM / 70 W or about 79 CFM per W.

Averaged over 2,000 ceiling fans showed that the ceiling fans typically move about 5,500 CFM, consume 70 W, and have a fan efficiency of 79 CFM per W (photo from www.hansenwholesale.com).

Averaged over 2,000 ceiling fans showed that ceiling fans typically move about 5,500 CFM of air, consume 70 W, and have a fan efficiency of 79 CFM per W. A good ceiling fan is one that has 6,000 CFM or more, consumes 30 W or less, and have an efficiency of 200 CFM per W or more (photo from www.hansenwholesale.com).

Therefore, these two information pieces give us some sort of baseline upon which we can use to determine how well a given ceiling fan can move air and yet remain energy efficient. A good ceiling fan is typically those that can move 6,000 CFM or more air, have a power consumption of 30 W or less, and have a fan efficiency of 200 CFM per W or more.

Aeratron ceiling fan in an award-winning fan. Only with three blades but with careful design (such as the little winglets and twisted blades), this fan generates more than 6,000 CFM, consumes about 15 W, and have an outstanding fan efficiency of 383 CFM per W. This fan is also very quiet (photo from aeratron.org).

Aeratron ceiling fan has won awards for its very quiet operation and high energy efficiency. Only with three blades but with careful design (such as using winglets and twisted blades), this fan, at top speed, generates about 5,800 CFM, consumes about 15 W, and has an outstanding fan efficiency of 383 CFM per W (photo from aeratron.org).

Unfortunately, information about a ceiling fan’s CFM and power consumption are not always supplied or even measured by the fan designers or manufacturers. If such information are missing, it can mean that the given ceiling fan may have been designed more for looks rather than for the objectives of achieving high airflow generation, with low noise and energy consumption (i.e., a case of form over function).

There are of course many other factors beside the design of the fan blades that affect airflow, some of which are the height the ceiling fan is positioned from the ceiling, fan motor, and even the room size. However, this article discusses on a topic of fan blade design that interest me the most.

Exhale fan is a unique ceiling fan because it has no blades, so it operates very quietly. Its developers claim airflow is also more uniform within the room. Exhale fans can move about 3,200 CFM and consumes 34 W, so its fan efficiency is 94 CFM per W (photo from exhalefans.com).

Exhale fan is a unique ceiling fan because it has no blades, so it operates very quietly. Its developers claim that with Exhale fan, airflow is more uniform and gentler within the room. Exhale fans can move about 3,200 CFM, consumes 34 W, and its fan efficiency is 94 CFM per W (photo from exhalefans.com).

I have to admit that at the end of my research, I feel a little helpless. While I am now more aware on what makes an efficient ceiling fan, I am also aware that it is difficult to tell if a ceiling fan is efficient simply based on its individual design features. As mentioned earlier, these individual design features all act simultaneously to give the net outcome on whether the given ceiling fan is efficient.

Consequently, it should be a requirement that all fans be sold with information regarding the fan’s overall performance in terms of CFM and power consumption, so we would be able to make a more informed shopping decision.

All ceiling fans must be sold with information about its CFM, power consumption, and efficiency, so that we can make comparisons between fans (photo from www.energyvanguard.com).

Compulsory labelling. All ceiling fans sold in Malaysia should come with information about the fans’ performance: their CFM, power consumption, and efficiency, so that we can make intelligent comparisons between fans (photo from www.energyvanguard.com).

References

  1. Afaq, M.A.,Maqsood, A., Khalid Parvez, K. and Mushtaq, A.. 2014.  Study on the design improvement of an indoor
    ceiling fan.  Proceedings of 2014 11th International Bhurban Conference on Applied Sciences & Technology (IBCAST)
    Islamabad, Pakistan, 14th – 18th January, 2014, pp. 279-283.
  2. Ankur, J., Rochan, R.U., Samarth, C., Manish, S. and Sunil, K. 2004. Experimental investigation of the flow field of a ceiling fan. In: ASME Heat Transfer/Fluids Engineering Summer Conference, Charlotte, NC, USA, July 11–15, 2004, pp. 93-99.
  3. Bassiouny, R. and Korah, N.S. 2011. Studying the features of air flow induced by a room ceiling-fan. Energy and Buildings 43: 1913–1918.
  4. Falahat, A. 2011. Numerical and experimental optimization of flow coefficient in tubeaxial fan. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Sciences and Engineering, 2: 24-29.
  5. Schmidt, K. and Patterson, D.J. 2001. Performance results for a high efficiency tropical ceiling fan and comparisons with conventional fans. Renewable Energy, 22: 169–176.



Digital Sabbath: Distraction addiction to the Internet, social media, and our digital devices

This article first appeared in the New Sunday Times newspaper (Feb 16, 2014). Here is my full, unedited article.

Recently from Jan. 25 to Feb. 3, 2014, I underwent a self-imposed Digital Sabbath. For ten days, I stayed offline. I was curious to see how unplugging from the Internet, social media, and my mobile digital devices would affect me.

Digital Sabbath: Taking a break from the Internet, social media, and our digital devices (photo from liahalsall.com).

Digital Sabbath: Taking a break from the ubiquitous and demanding Internet, social media, and our digital devices (photo from liahalsall.com).

In the World Unplugged study in 2010, 1,000 university students from ten countries were asked to stay offline for 24 hours. For some of these students, staying offline became unbearable. They reported a motley of withdrawal symptoms which included anxiety, depression, confusion, and loneliness. Some even reported phantom cellphone vibrations where they mistakenly thought that their phones were vibrating. The withdrawal symptoms were so bad that more than half the study’s participants failed to complete the study.

Unplugging even for a single day can be shown to be stressful experience (photo from ).

Deep entanglement with our devices: Unplugging even for a single day can become a stressful experience (photo from brightlightsearch.blogspot.com).

Studies such as from World Unplugged underscore how deeply and intricately information technology has become entangled with our daily lives.

That we are so entangled with technology is nothing new or revolutionary, writes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book “The Distraction Addiction”. Throughout history, humans have been inseparable from technology. Technology innovations have helped shape and define us humans. Our relationship with computers, however, is unique, different from what we have with other technologies. We tend to become deeply attached to our computers, treating them as extensions of our minds. As computers become increasingly responsive, interactive, adaptive, and in some cases, more social, their capacity to affect us would increase – and our attachment and reliance on them would further deepen.

The Distraction Addiction by Alex

“The Distraction Addiction” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

But the problem with information technology, according to Soojung-Kim Pang, is it is poorly designed and thoughtlessly used. Computers today are faster, but are we writing and reading faster or remembering more today? Or has our workload increased instead?

Technology innovations ironically do not always reduce our workload, as first observed by English economist William Stanley Jevons in 1865 and then by historian Ruth Schwatz Cowan from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983. Innovations such as the Internet and mobile digital devices, for instance, have increased the amount of alerts and messages that are sent and received and that must be acted upon. So, while these technologies have made our work easier, faster, and more efficient, they have also increased our workload and created additional work — precisely because our work have been improved. Thanks to these technologies, the standard by which our work should now be accomplished has also been raised. For instance, we are now expected to be accessible at all times.

With increased workload and work demands, our stress levels would increase in tandem. In 2008, writer Linda Stone observed that whenever people (including herself) checked their emails, people would unconsciously hold their breath. Stone called this condition “email apnea”, and this condition is caused by anxiety when people read their emails, dreading news about deadlines, problems, concerns, or whatever fires that need to be put out. A 2012 study by Mark and his colleagues further found that employees who frequently checked their emails and who received more emails experienced higher stress than those who checked their emails less and who received less emails.

The Internet, social media, and mobile digital devices have changed the way and speed we communicate with one another. Catherine Steiner-Adair, in her book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age”, reveals that while such technologies help us connect to more people than ever, these technologies also paradoxically disconnect us from them. When it comes to relationships, such technologies favor quantity over quality, breadth over depth, and superficiality over intimacy. Increased used of digital devices have caused us to spend more time on these devices and less time relating on a more meaningful way with our family and friends.

"The Big Disconnect" by Catherine

“The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” by Catherine Steiner-Adair

Together connected to others but disconnected from one another (photo from techland.time.com).

Information technology paradox: Connected to others but yet disconnected from them (including those beside you) (photo from techland.time.com).

Because of information technology, we have become more distracted, impulsive, and impatient. Our attention span has declined, and we multitask more. And our reading comprehension has also declined. As pointed out by Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, frequent reading off a computer screen encourages shallow reading where we “scan” sentences: reading quickly but superficially and without reflecting deeply on what have been read.

Our children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the Internet and digital media because our brains take an astonishingly long time to mature. Our prefrontal cortex, for instance, takes 25 years to fully develop. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive and cognitive functions that include functions for regulating behavior, distinguishing between right and wrong, and self-control. That the prefrontal cortex is responsible also for self-control is consequential for two reasons. Firstly, numerous studies have revealed that information technologies cause lower self control in children, and secondly, children’s self-control is found to be the greatest predictor of their adulthood success. Research by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and recently by Terrie Moffitt and his team in 2011 have consistently shown that the more children can delay their gratification (that is, have greater self-control), the more likely these children would be healthy, wealthy, and more intelligent in their adulthood lives.

The landmark study, so-called the Marshmallow Test", by Stanford Walter Mischel showed that children who can delay their gratification (i.e., have greater self control) would likely be successful later in their adulthood lives (photo from www.dailyfinance.com).

The landmark study, so-called the “Marshmallow Test”, by Stanford University’s Walter Mischel showed that children who can delay their gratification (i.e., have greater self control) would likely be successful later in their adulthood lives. Self control is the greatest predictor of a child’s success later in life (photo from www.dailyfinance.com).

Consequently, Steiner-Adair urges parents to be more careful in allowing their children access to information technologies. But instead of limiting their children’s exposure, some parents mistakenly increase it by using computers and other mobile devices as surrogates to educate their children. Digital devices like iPads do help in learning, but they are merely tools and cannot replace the role of direct and personal engagement from parents. In 2010, Rebekah Richert and her colleagues at the University of California showed that children appeared not to have learned any new words after watching educational DVDs on vocabulary for six weeks. Instead, children who were directly taught by their parents and without DVD support learned far more.

Information technology is merely a tool and it cannot replace direct engagement from parents (photo from ).

How children learn best: Information technology is merely a tool, and it cannot replace the direct and personal engagement from parents (photo from pradnya-vedari.blogspot.com).

Information technology has no doubt brought us many benefits. But we need to understand that information technology brings both the good and the bad.

Soojung-Kim Pang encourages “contemplative computing” practice – a blend between science and philosophy – to understand how information technology affects us and how we can create a healthy and more balanced relationship with it. Contemplative computing includes determining our online habits and using social media more mindfully. Even the use of so-called Zenware software such as Freedom and WriteRoom can improve our work productivity by helping to remove distractions that would cause us to multitask.

Soojung-Kim Pang further recommends the regular use of restorative spaces or activities, where we can go or what we can do to think and reflect in peace, and the regular practice of Digital Sabbath where we go completely offline. All these are to help us maintain focus, become less distracted, and have a sense of being away and at the same time a sense of being connected to our life ideals or philosophies, without the interference from information technology.

Alex-Pang

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang takes a break too from the online cacophony and distraction (photo from nationaldayofunplugging.com).

Meditating helps too. Far from just some quaint activity done by Buddhist monks, a series of scientific studies particularly by Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz from University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that people who meditate often are less distracted, have longer attention span, and have greater memory. And increasingly more people are meditating too, as revealed by Kate Pickert in her article “The Art of Mindfulness” in the Time magazine (Feb. 3, 2014). She writes about the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) classes. Since its inception in 1979, MBSR has more than 1,000 class instructors in over 30 countries. MBSR teaches people mindfulness techniques that include meditation to cope with the online cacophony and to calm their busy minds.

Meditating has been scientifically shown to improve concentration, attention span, and memory (photo from www.theepochtimes.com).

Meditating has been scientifically shown to improve concentration, attention span, and memory (photo from www.theepochtimes.com).

Time article "The Art of Mindfulness" by Kate Pickert ().

Time article “The Art of Mindfulness” by Kate Pickert (Feb 3, 2014) discusses about the importance of taking a break from digital media. Meditation can be helpful.

Steiner-Adair concludes her book by reminding parents to develop a family philosophy about how information technology would be used, so its usage reflects and supports the family values. The incontrovertible truth, Steiner-Adair maintains, is children need their parents’ time and their direct and personal engagement.

At the end, I came out from my Digital Sabbath more mindful. I have become more self-controlled in using the Internet while I am at work. I have terminated my cable TV because my family and I seldom watch TV anyway. I have downgraded my BlackBerry plan to a simpler broadband plan, and my BlackBerry has been set so it no longer gives an audible or vibration alert when new emails or messages come in. I would again wear a wristwatch after nearly twenty years lest I be tricked into checking my emails if I were to use my smartphone to tell time. I will check my emails and messages when I need to and not because my BlackBerry tells me to.

During the ten days of my Digital Sabbath, I had received over a hundred emails of which more than two-thirds were either spams or scams and the rest were legitimate emails – but none of them needed my immediate response. I had missed nothing.

It would be nice to see this instead: No WiFi zone to take a break (photo from http://adsoftheworld.com/media/ambient/kit_kat_free_nowifi_zone?).

It would be nice to see this instead: No WiFi zone for people to take a break and connect to others in a more meaningful manner (photo from adsoftheworld.com).




How I love thee, robot: Could we fall in love and have sex with robots?

That is what is asked by the movie “Her”, directed by Spike Jonze. The movie tells of a lonely, soon-to-be-divorced man Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself increasingly attracted to his computer’s new operating system (OS), Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson). As an artificial intelligent OS, Samantha displays human-like personality, intelligence, and maturity that she uses to not only help Theodore in his daily tasks but also to meet his emotional needs. As they spend increasingly more time together, they soon fall in love and profoundly, even have sex with each other.

"Her" the movie is a profound and delightful watch because it asks the question if people can love and have sex with simulated humans or even with robots.

“Her” the movie is a profound and delightful watch because it asks the question if people can love and have sex with simulated humans.

So, can we Homo sapiens – biological beings – actually fall in love and even want to have sex with computer-simulated beings or with robots in the same way we would to other humans?

Why the hell not? I can imagine David Levy, book author of “Love+Sex Robots: The evolution of human-robot relationships”, telling us.

“People love people and people love pets,” David Levy argues, “nowadays it is relatively commonplace for people to develop strong emotional attachments to their virtual pets, including robot pets. So why should anyone be surprised if and when people form similarly strong attachments to virtual people, to robot people?”

"Love+Sex with Robots" by David Levy

“Love+Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-robot relationships” by David Levy

David Levy goes to great lengths in his book to show that there are ample of evidence that we humans can have strong emotional attachment to non-humans (such as animal pets) and even to computers – and the strength of these human-non human relationships can sometimes even exceed that of human-human relationships.

In the late 1990s, a handheld computer device called Tamagotchi was sold first in Japan and soon became a worldwide hit. Tamagotchi was conceived by a Japanese mother for her children who could not keep real pets at home due to lack of space. So, instead of real pets, Tamagotchi was developed to allow people to have the next best thing: to keep virtual pets.

Tamagotchi game allows players to keep virtual pets.  It has been reported that even children suffered distress when they learn their virtual pets had died when the pets were neglected for lack of care from the children (photo from ).

Tamagotchi game allows players to keep virtual pets. It has been reported that even children suffered distress when they learn their virtual pets had died when the pets were neglected (photo from www.pop2k.wordpress.com).

What is surprising is although Tamagothi’s virtual pet had barely any elements of character or personality, yet the device became popular because Tamagotchi fed into people’s (mostly women’s) desire to nurture and to have that reciprocated.

Tamagotchi’s phenomenon is not an exception. Robotic toys like Furby, My Real Baby, PaPeRo, and Sony’s AIBO dog again show that strong attachments can occur between humans and nonliving objects particularly if the object displays human- or animal-like personalities. AIBO dog, for instance, can wag its tail and simulate feelings of affection and unhappiness of a real dog.

PaPeRo robot toy (photo from cdn.ubergizmo.com).

PaPeRo robot toy. People find it easier to form deeper attachments to objects when the objects display more animal- or human-like behaviors (photo from cdn.ubergizmo.com).

Sony's AIBO robot dog (photo from cmst1a0765958.blogspot.com).

Sony’s AIBO robot dog can simulate a real dog’s behavior of affection and unhappiness (photo from cmst1a0765958.blogspot.com).

Certain computer games have caused players to have a strong attachment to the game characters. The computer game “Artificial Life”, for instance, allow players to have a virtual girlfriend named Vivienne, a slim and talking brunette, who likes to be taken to movies and bars. She can even be given virtual flowers and chocolates. For a fee (real money), we can even make a real phone call to interact with her. Likewise, the Android game, My Virtual Girlfriend, allows players to choose and customize thousands of virtual girlfriends. The objective is simple: romance the girl until she falls in love with you. Romancing her would involve activities such as taking her to bowling, mini golf, buying her dinner, or even buying her a bikini or lingerie which she would wear for you.

Virtual girlfriend Vivienne from the computer game "Artificial Life" (photo from news.cnet.com).

Virtual girlfriend Vivienne from the computer game “Artificial Life” (photo from news.cnet.com).

Customize your girlfriend through the Android game app, My Virtual Girlfriend.

Customize your girl and win her affection through the Android game app, My Virtual Girlfriend.

Perhaps the most popular female game character is Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider game series. The Lara Croft character exemplifies that boys and men can have feelings of affection, even of a sexual nature, to her even if they know Lara Croft is one of simulation. Lara Croft is sexy, beautiful, and tough, and she responds to gamers’ commands and decisions during the game play with simulated human emotions, personality, and intelligence.

Lara Croft is perhaps the most popular female game character who has captivated many boys' and men's fantasies of having a sexy, beautiful, and tough girlfriends.

Lara Croft is perhaps the most popular female game character who has captivated many boys’ and men’s fantasies of having a sexy, beautiful, and tough girlfriend.

The more believable and lifelike the characters, the more people would feel comfortable and strongly attached to these simulated characters. The more these characters exhibit social cues: intelligence, individuality, sociability, variability, coherence, and conversation ability, the more compelling these characters are to people – and more so if the simulated characters can recognize people’s emotional state and other social cues and provide an appropriate response.

But even with limited artificial intelligence can cause delusional thinking in even normal people. In the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum invented a computer program named ELIZA and found that even with a very limited artificial intelligence, ELIZA can cause people to ascribe human characteristics to the computer program. Via a keyboard and computer screen, human volunteers would interact with ELIZA, and one example of such human-ELIZA interaction is recorded in David Levy’s book:

User: Men are all alike.
ELIZA: In what way?
User: They’re always bugging us about something or other.
ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example?
User: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here.
User: He says I’m depressed much of the time.
ELIZA: I’m sorry to hear you are depressed.

ELIZA’s questions and response are remarkably human-like and interacting with her, especially in short periods, have no wonder caused some human volunteers to believe that they were actually interacting with a real person.

ELIZA, a computer program with limited artificial intelligence, have caused even normal people to believe they are interactive to a real person (photo from www.vintagecomputer.net).

ELIZA, a computer program with limited artificial intelligence, have caused even normal people to believe they were interacting with a real person (photo from www.vintagecomputer.net).

In 2003, MORI (Marketing and Opinion Research Institute) surveyed children and adults in Britain, and they found that 45% of children see computers as a trusted friend and 60% children were extremely fond of computers. For adults, the figures were lower but still significantly large at 33 and 28%, respectively. Surprisingly, 16% adults and 13% children actually talk to their computers. To some adults and children, this survey found, their computers were like their “technological umbilical cord”.

How humans and computers interact have many similarities with each other. Both communicate using words, and both are interactive: able to receive inputs and produce the corresponding outputs based on received stimuli, feedback, or inputs. Moreover, humans tend to relate to computers in the same way as they would to other humans in social situations. For instance, people prefer interacting with computers that have similar personalities or identities as their own.

People also carry over stereotypical views of human gender to their interaction with computers, so a person may behave similarly when interacting with male humans and with computers with a male voice. And in some cases, people disclosed more of their intimate and private details of themselves to computers compared to other people. Computers, as these people deemed, did not judge them and were impartial as compared to other people.

So, if people can form emotional bonds with computers, David Ley argues, it would not require a giant mental leap to accept that people can also have sex with computer-simulated humans or with robots.

But why would people want to have sex with computers or with robots? For several reasons: firstly, for the novelty of the experience; secondly, some people would see robots as a willing lover available wherever needed; thirdly, robots can be a replacement for a lost partner or mate; and fourthly, robots can be a medical aid to psychological recovery process.

Many people, men in particular, can have many acquaintances but very few close friends. Men rarely have a relationship as close or deep as do women to other women. But this is not to say only men would attempt to have sex with robots. Career-minded women, who seek undemanding, private, and safe relationships, may find also find sex with robots appealing.

The possibility of having sex with robots is not shocking when we consider that people have already been using various objects as sex aids. Even as early as the 17th century in Japan, artificial vulva, made from tortoise shell lined inside with velvet, was used to relieve men’s sexual needs. And in the 19th century, sex dolls became popular especially among sailors in Europe. Today sex aids such as blowup and silicone dolls, vibrators, dildos, and Symbian sex machine (or stallion) have been developed and used widely, albeit discreetly.

Sex dolls such as this from Real Dolls, appear remarkably like humans (photo from www.realdolls.com)

Sex dolls such as this can be bought from Real Doll for a whooping USD7000. These dolls appear and are said to feel remarkably as humans (photo from www.realdoll.com).

Computers have even been used as sex aids such as those invented by Howard Rheingold in 1991 and Dominic Choy in 2000. Teledildonics and haptic interface technologies have allowed virtual touches or sex between two or more people to occur over the internet. Sex devices, or so-called sex surrogates, can be controlled via the internet, so that one partner can control the other partner’s sex toy.

Sex websites such as Virtual Sex Machines allow their subscribers to have virtual sex with porn actors using a suction device placed on the subscribers’ penises. The recorded movements and touches of the porn actors are then transmitted over the web into these suction devices that would then translate these inputs into physical sucking sensations, simulating the desired sexual act. FriXion Revolution likewise offers the necessary peripherals and internet setup that allow their subscribers to experience the virtual sensations of holding hands, kissing, and even full penetrative sex with one or more partners via a social web network.

FriXion offers virtual sex between two or more partners over a social network. Seen here is a dildo (left) and (photo from www.FiXion.me)

FriXion offers virtual sex between two or more partners over a social network. Seen here is a dildo (left) and a fleshlight (right). Moving the fleshlight moves the dildo, allowing sexual penetration over a distance between two or more partners (photo from www.FriXion.me).

New Zealand researchers, Yeoman and Mars, from Victoria University of Wellington even proposed that sex with robots is desirable for the sex industry in Amsterdam. By 2050, they predicted, sex with robots in Amsterdam would mitigate a multitude of problems often associated there such as sexually transmitted diseases and human trafficking.

The BBC America TV documentary “Love Me, Love My Doll” highlights several men who see no problems with having sex with their sex dolls. These men say these dolls have increased their quality of life because they each have difficulty forming lasting and deep relationships with women.

One of these men is 40-year-old Davecat. He considers his sex doll, named Sidore, of ten years to be his wife. He has even bought another sex doll, named Elena, to accompany his wife while he is away at work. “…this [being alone and massaging Sidore’s feet] is probably a good gauge when I am happy,” says Davecat in the BBC America documentary, “…that’s the difference between being alone and lonely. I don’t mind being alone at all. However, I cannot stand being lonely…That’s why I have the dolls.”

Davecat and his wife, a sex doll he names Sidore (photo from poserorprophet.files.wordpress.com).

Davecat and his wife, a sex doll he names Sidore (photo from poserorprophet.files.wordpress.com).

But the future isn’t just about having sex with computer-simulated humans and with robots. As David Levy defends, these technologies do fill some important human emotional needs to some people. They can provide a relationship to people who have nowhere else to go or turn to, acting as an ideal partner who understands and who is forgiving and does not withdraw if a mistake is done. In short, these computer-simulated humans and robots can provide a safe haven where people can go for comfort, assurance, and safety.

Nonetheless, building a robot that is almost indistinguishable from a human being is a daunting task that requires advanced engineering, computer, and artificial intelligence technologies.

Repliee Q1 (Q2 version has more advanced or more realistic physical features) is one of the most advanced robot produced thus far. Repliee Q1 and Q2 is invented by Prof. (photo from www.vaasapages.com).

Repliee Q1 (Q2 version has more advanced or more realistic physical features) is one of the most human-like robot produced thus far. She has flexible silicone as skin, rather than hard plastic, and a number of sensors and motors that allow her to react more human-like. Repliee Q1 and Q2 are invented by Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro from Osaka University (photo from www.vaasapages.com).

EveR-1, developed by researchers from the Korea University of Science and Technology, has the ability to mimic human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise (photo from  english.chosun.com and www.geekologie.com).

EveR-1, developed by researchers from the Korea University of Science and Technology, has the ability to mimic human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise. Newer and more sophisticated versions, EveR-2 and EveR-3 have since been developed (photo from english.chosun.com and www.geekologie.com).

But I am reminded by what Kevin Kelly wrote in his book “What Technology Wants”. Kelly argues that technology is like a living entity that evolves akin to human evolution. We have seen that people are ready to form emotional bonds to non-human beings and to objects. And we have seen that people have used and are willing to use objects as sex aids. So, as robot technology incrementally advances and matures –  step-by-step, akin to evolution – it is inevitable that one day human-like robots, both in physical appearance and behavior, would appear. And when that happens, humans would be ready to, well, love them.

"What technology wants" by Kevin Kelly.

“What technology wants” by Kevin Kelly.