Is watering our houseplants with washed rice water really that effective? Here’s the scientific evidence

Our friends, our neighbors, even strangers we meet swear by it. They claim watering our household plants with water from our washed rice is effective, as good as or even better than using fertilizers. My neighbor, for instance, says her house orchids have never failed to bloom because she feeds her plants with that one “special ingredient”: the water from her washed rice.

But where is the scientific evidence that washed rice water is effective?

Surprisingly, there has been no research done on the effectiveness of using water from washed rice specifically on the growth of any plant. Most studies have been about the potential use of washed rice water as a beauty product or about the loss of human nutrients when rice is washed. Studies such as by Malakar and Banarjee (1959) and those reviewed by Juliano (1985, 1993) have reported that washing rice can cause up to half of the water-soluble vitamins and minerals to be lost from the rice.

The exact amount of these nutrient losses would depend on the type of rice, how much water was used in washing of the rice, and how rigorous was the washing done. But generally, washing rice causes rice to lose up to 7% protein, 30% crude fiber, 15% free amino acids, 25% calcium (Ca), 47% total phosphorus (P), 47% iron (Fe), 11% zinc (Zn), 41% potassium (K), 59% thiamine, 26% riboflavin, and 60% niacin.

But what was lost from the rice is now gained by the water. Perhaps these leached nutrients now in the washed rice water could be beneficial to our houseplants.

Let’s find out. I asked one of my final year agriculture students to conduct such an experiment to answer this burning question “once and for all”.

Methodology

Water spinach (Ipomoea reptans), or more widely known as kangkung, was used a test crop. Kangkung was planted in 150-mm wide and 200-mm tall polybags, so each polybag had only one plant. Each polybag was filled with 9 kg of soil (Bungor soil series, which has a rather coarse texture, about 50-60% sand and 20-40% clay).

The treatments were: 1) washed rice water (RIC), 2) NPK 15:15:15 fertilizer (NPK), and 3) control (CON).

The RIC treatment meant that the kangkung plant in each polybag was watered daily with 200 ml of water from washed rice, whereas the NPK treatment was where 5 g of NPK 15:15:15 fertilizer was applied per polybag once (before planting) onto the soil, and the kangkung plants in this treatment were watered daily with 200 ml of tap water per polybag. The CON treatment is the control, where the kangkung plants were only watered daily with 200 ml of tap water per polybag, without any application of fertilizer or washed rice water. Each treatment had five replications.

The RIC and NPK treatments would determine whether washed rice water is as good as or more effective than applying fertilizer in increasing plant growth. The CON treatment is the baseline upon which the kangkung growth in the RIC and NPK treatments will be compared when kangkung is grown without any fertilizer or washed rice water applications.

In this experiment, my student always used the same white rice, and the rice to water ratio was 1.0 : 1.5 L (in other words, for every 1 L of white rice, she used 1.5 L of water to wash the rice). The washing of rice was always maintained in the same way.

The experiment continued for five weeks, after which several plant growth parameters (leaf number, plant height, fresh and dry plant weight, leaf area, and specific leaf area or leaf thickness) and plant nutrient content (N, K, Ca, and Mg) were measured. Additionally, soil properties such as pH, K, Ca, and Mg were measured. Unfortunately, due to faulty equipment, plant P, soil N, and soil P content could not be measured.

Results

Statistical analysis revealed that of all the plant growth parameters measured, only the number of leaves and fresh plant weight (Fig. 1 and 2) were significantly affected (p <0.10) by the treatments. Fig. 1 and 2 show that there was a 90% chance that kangkung grown in both RIC (washed rice water) and NPK (fertilizer) treatments were equal with each other and both of them being higher than that in the control (CON) treatment in terms of their number of leaves produced and fresh plant weight.

Fig. 1. Mean (± standard error) of the number of leaves for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.10) according to SNK test.

Fig. 2. Mean (± standard error) of the fresh (wet) plant weight for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.10) according to SNK test.

On average, kangkung grown in both RIC and NPK treatments had 26% more leaves and were 59% heavier than the kangkung grown in the CON treatment.

The better plant growth in the RIC and NPK treatments were due to additional supply of N and K by the washed rice water and NPK fertilizer. This was reflected in the higher N and K content in the plant and soil in the RIC and NPK treatments (Fig. 3 to 5). Fig. 6, for instance, shows that washed rice water had about twice the amount of K than tap water.

Fig. 3. Mean (± standard error) of the plant N for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

Fig. 4. Mean (± standard error) of plant K for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

Fig. 5. Mean (± standard error) of the soil K for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

Kangkung has a high demand for N and even higher for K nutrient (Susila et al., 2012). Consequently, the supply of additional N and K nutrients from either washed rice water or fertilizer would be beneficial to kangkung and result in better plant growth such as producing more leaves and heavier plant biomass, as observed in this study.

Fig. 6. Mean (± standard error) of the K, Ca, and Mg content in the washed rice water and tap water.

Fig. 7 and 8 show an interesting trend, that in the RIC treatment, soil Ca was the highest but plant Mg was the lowest. This is because Ca and Mg are antagonistic with each other: high Ca content would suppress the plant intake of Mg. Fig. 6 shows that, compared to tap water, washed rice water had four times more and nearly six times less Ca and Mg, respectively.

Fig. 7. Mean (± standard error) of the soil Ca for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

Fig. 8. Mean (± standard error) of the plant Mg for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

Lastly, soils in RIC treatment showed higher pH (less acidic) by about 19% than the soils in the NPK and CON treatments (Fig. 9). The consequence of this pH increase is minimal because soil pH in the RIC treatment still remained rather low, below 5. But perhaps over a longer run with regular additional watering with washed rice water, soil pH could further increase, making more soil nutrients available to the plant as the soil becomes increasingly less acidic over time.

Fig. 9. Mean (± standard error) of the soil pH for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.

So, what do all of these results mean?

Results showed that using water from washed rice is as effective as NPK fertilizer in promoting plant growth, at least in terms of the number of plant leaves produced and the higher plant biomass (fresh).

The implication from this study means washed rice water can replace NPK fertilizer. This study adds credence that, rather than discarding the water after we wash our rice, we can recycle or reuse the water by watering our houseplants with it, and this water is generally as effective as applying NPK fertilizer; thus, we save on fertilizer and energy use and money.

The level of confidence in this study for the plant growth parameters was 90%, not the usual 95% or 99% in most scientific studies. But perhaps with a larger sample size, these results would be statistically significant at a higher level or more plant growth parameters would be found to be statistically significant from using washed rice water.

Nonetheless, the belief that higher plant growth can be encouraged by using washed rice water is supported by the findings of higher N and K content in the plant (as well as in the soil for K). Their level of significance was 95%. Washed rice water do supply the essential nutrients of N and K, which are very much needed by the kangkung plant. With the additional supply of N and K nutrients, it can be expected that kangkung as well as other plants would respond favorably by having increased plant growth and yield.

Potential problems of using washed rice water

Admittedly, using water from washed rice will always be for domestic, household use. Using such enriched water for large-scale or commercial farming production systems would be impractical as it would require too much washing of rice! Nonetheless, domestic use of washed rice water, as stated earlier, is a good way to recycle water in the household rather than just discarding it down the drain.

Reusing water from washed rice can be a part of household campaign to save energy and water and to reduce wastages. (c) Stockgiu @ fotolia.com

The second potential problem is the washed rice water will have to used almost immediately. Leaving the water out in the open would encourage fermentation and create unwanted sour-like smell, though it would interesting to compare between fermented and unfermented rice water on our houseplants.

The third potential problem is whether prolonged use of washed rice water on our plants would encourage the incidence and spread of pests (like rodents) and diseases. This kangkung experiment was only carried out over a period of five weeks, too short to see any potential incidence of pests and diseases.

At the end, I am encouraged by the results of this study – the first perhaps to study in a more scientific rigorous manner if using washed rice water is really that effective in promoting plant growth. This should be a start of more experiments: testing on more plant/crop types (such as fruit or flower plants) and the inclusion of more plant growth and soil parameters.

I like to thank my student, Syuhaibah, for her hard work in this experiment.

References

  1. Juliano, B. O. (1985). Rice: chemistry and technology, 2nd ed. St Paul, MN: American Association of Cereal Chemistry.
  2. Juliano, B. O. (1993). Rice in human nutrition. Rome: International Rice Research Institute Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  3. Malakar, M. C., & Banerjee, S. N. (1959). Effect of cooking rice with different volumes of water on the loss of nutrients and on digestibility of rice in vitro. Journal of Food Science, 24, 751-756.
  4. Susila, A. D., Prasetyo, T., & Palada, M. C. (2012). Optimum fertilizer rate for kangkong (Ipomoea reptans L.) production in Ultisols Nanggung. In A. D. Susila, B. S. Purwoko, J. M. Roshetko, M. C. Palada, J. Kartika, L. Dahlia, K. Wijay, A. Rahmanulloh, M. Raimadoya, T. Koesoemaningtyas, H. Puspitawati, T. Prasetyo, S. Budidarsono, I. Kurniawan, M. Reyes, W. Suthumchai, K. Kunta & S. Sombatpanit (Eds.), Vegetable-agroforestry systems in Indonesia. Special Publication No. 6c. (pp. 101-112). Bangkok: World Association of Soil and Water Conservation (WASWAC) and World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF).



Why we want sex with beautiful people

We can’t help ourselves. Why do we like and favor beautiful people? It’s because we want sex with them. Crude answer, no doubt, but think about it.

What if I told you that the underlying motive for all human behavior, whether in politics, religion, and socioeconomics is about reproductive success, that everything we do, either directly or indirectly, whether we realize it, is ultimately about passing on our genes to the next generation?

If what evolutionary psychologists are telling us are correct, then all our behavior are at the end governed by sex and mating. Reproductive success is the purpose of our biological existence, so they say. We live so we can successfully pass on our genes to the next generation. Sure, we may say we work hard to earn that job promotion or higher salary. But underlying our justification, evolutionary psychologists exert, is actually about creating a more conducive environment that ensures our genes are more successfully passed on to our children and to theirs and so on. In the same way, we may say we ought to choose our life partner with great care. Someone to love, so we say, someone we can grow old with. Whatever our reasons, ultimately, choosing the right life partner (or partners) ensures our genes are successfully and effectively passed on to the next generation.

And to ensure good—not inferior—genes have the greater chance of surviving over many successive generations, nature relies on beauty. Beautiful, good looks are often a sign of good health and fertility in an individual, so evolution has conditioned us to prefer certain looks. This is why we immediately recognize beautiful people.

Admit it, we like beautiful things. We like beautiful houses, beautiful gardens,  beautiful sceneries, and beautiful cars. We prefer pedigree to mongrel pets. Even movies are somehow better when their main actors are beautiful. And, if the world was our oyster, we would likely have more than one life partner, either simultaneously or serially, and all our partners would be strikingly beautiful. And, yes, we would rather have sex with beautiful people than with plain looking people and certainly not with ugly people. Holding everything else constant, we prefer our children to look beautiful too.

Some scientists have established several criteria that defines female beauty such as having a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7 and even how far apart must the eyes be from each other (i.e., optimally 46% of facial width) and how high the eyes should be above the mouth (optimally 36% of facial length). But no one needs to whip out a ruler or measuring tape to determine whether someone is beautiful. We immediately recognize beauty when we see it. More than three decades of research have shown that our beauty detection sensor is innate, built in into our DNA. How do we know this?

Studies have shown that even babies as young as one week to three months old will look more intently and longer at pictures of attractive faces. Infants, twelve months old, were observed in one study to play more and were less distress and less withdrawn when interacting with adults wearing attractive masks than those who wore unattractive masks. Even these infants played more with facially more attractive dolls than those with less attractive faces.

Not only do we immediately recognize beautiful people, but we are also compelled to want beautiful people to be around us. Social experiments carried out by ABC’s 20/20, an investigative journalism for TV, for instance, revealed that attractive people are more likely to receive help from strangers (whether of the same or opposite gender) than less attractive people. Even attractive waitresses earn higher tips, as much as 50% more, than their less attractive colleagues. Such trends are not isolated because other experiments, carried out in a more controlled and scientifically rigorous manner, have observed similar trends, that attractive people often have the upper hand over their less attractive counterparts.

Whether we care to admit it, especially in today’s age of political correctness, being physically beautiful can put us in a significant advantage over those who are plain looking. Being good looking, simply put, makes us more sexually attractive, and this in turn promises us great rewards.

In the animal kingdom, peacocks with large, showy tail get the peahens. The larger and the more showy the tail, the more chances the peacocks would mate and the more offspring they would have in their reproductive lifespan. This is an astonishing phenomenon considering having a large, showy tail carries enormous cost and risk to the peacock. Having such an elaborate tail is costly in terms of resources needed to maintain such a tail, and it also endangers the life of the peacock because such a tail can be more easily seen by predators. But the reward is enormous because the owner of such a large, showy tail gets to mate and pass on its genes to the next generation. Such animal signaling is very common in the animal kingdom. The mating dance of Birds-of-Paradise is only one of the many more examples where the more extravagant and choreographed the dance, the more chance the male bird will successfully mate.

A great cost and risk to its life, the larger and the more showy the peacock tail, the more likely the male bird to mate and pass its genes to the next generation (photo from wired.com).

Rewards of being beautiful: At great cost and risk to its life, the larger and the more showy the peacock tail, the more likely the male bird gets to mate and pass its genes to the next generation. Likewise, our physical beauty makes us sexually attractive with potentially great returns (photo from wired.com).

But animal signaling is not just constrained to the animal kingdom. We too behave in such a way. Being physically attractive is our version of animal signaling. In the intense competition of the workplace, first impressions do matter. Our face and our body are our ambassadors, instantly recognizable, whether we want it, because being good looking quickly conveys our potential worth: that we are competent, talented, trustworthy, intelligent, and superior. Our resumes or certificates can only take us so far, so says Allison Wolf, British economist and author of “The XX Factor”. Our worth will also include face-to-face evaluations—and being physically attractive, in addition to how we dress, can heavily tip the balance in our favor.

Life, so it appears, is unfair. Daniel Hamermesh, author of “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful” remarked that while many people are concern of discrimination over race, religion, and gender in the workplace, favoring attractive people over others is a much lesser known but just as important form of discrimination. Even employers who say they would not discriminate over people’s appearance will unwittingly go ahead and do so, as studies revealed. This is because, as stated earlier, we are all hardwired to respond favorably to attractive people. According to Gordon Patzer, author of “LOOKS: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined”, we tend to find attractive people more talented, kind, honest, and intelligent than less attractive people.

The victims are then the unattractive women and men, who according to Allison Wolf, tend to suffer just as much as each other in the workplace. However, it is the obese women, in particular, who tend to suffer more for their weight than men for their short height, according to a survey, cited by Allison Wolf in her book, of the labor market in the US and UK.

To further rub salt into the wounds of unattractive people, their attractive counterparts really do tend to be smarter, richer, and more successful.

The research led by Satoshi Kanazawa from the London School of Economics, for example, studied more than 52,000 people in the US and UK over many years and found that attractive men and women scored respectively 13.6 and 11.4 points higher in IQ tests than the sample average. Furthermore, a 1994 study by Hamermesh and Biddle observed a positive relationship between attractiveness and the labor market earnings across a variety of occupations. Attractive individuals, they found, earned 5% more than those with average looks, and less attractive individuals earn 5 to 10% less.

Attractive people tend to more successful in their careers than their less attractive colleagues (© leungchopan @ fotolia.com).

People tend to see attractive people as being more intelligent, talented, confident, and having more positive beliefs. Consequently, attractive people tend to be more successful (for instance, earning higher salaries) than their less attractive colleagues at work (© leungchopan @ fotolia.com).

Other surveys since then have observed the same trends. A US survey cited by Catherine Hakim in her book “Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom”, for instance, found that good looking lawyers earned 10 to 12% more than less good looking lawyers. Similarly, a survey among MBA graduates found up to 15% difference in earnings between the most and least attractive people in the group. Even in courts, more attractive defendants tended to receive more lenient sentences (or even escape conviction entirely) or more likely to win their case and get larger financial settlements.

Taller men are perceived to be more attractive and have greater strength, energy, and resources. No surprise then that a study by researchers at the University of Florida, University of North Carolina, and University of Pittsburgh found that taller men tended to do significantly better in the labor market than shorter men, after controlling for differences in education, class, race, and general health.

However, that good looking people tend to be smarter, more confident, and more successful than their less attractive people could be a result of a so-called cumulative effect, according to Lisa Walker and Tonya Frevert, two social psychologists from the University of North Carolina. Because attractive people tend to be looked upon favorably by others, they are often given more opportunities and challenges in which to cultivate and demonstrate their talents, knowledge, confidence, and other positive beliefs. So, it is perhaps not so much that attractive people are innately better than the less attractive people, but more because more doors are opened to attractive people. Less attractive people are simply not given as many opportunities than their attractive counterparts to excel.

But what exactly constitutes beauty? What makes a person beautiful? One popular misconception is that the media defines beauty for us based on some arbitrary standards, that girls, for instance, like to be slim and dye their hairs blonde because the media has arbitrarily defined slim blonde girls as beautiful. But this is simply untrue. Beauty as portrayed by media and ads are the consequence rather than the cause of what people find as beautiful. Although different cultures have different standards of beauty, there is a great deal of overlap or similarities between these various so-called beauty standards.

A popular misconception: The media and ads do not set the standard of beauty on us. What we see on the media and ads are a consequence of what we ourselves desire in beauty (photo from koreanindo.net).

A common misconception that the media and advertisements set or enforce the standard of beauty on us. What we see on the media and ads are instead a consequence of what we ourselves desire in physical beauty (photo from koreanindo.net).

A series of studies in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that regardless of culture, race, geography, and level of exposure to Western media (or its lack thereof), people remarkably agree with one another on whom they find as attractive and whom they do not. When photos of Victoria’s Secret lingerie models were shown to the men from the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, the men remarked that these models were moko dude (or ‘perfectly ripe’ for mating).

Different cultures have very similar ideas on what constitutes beauty. Yamomami men, when shown photos of Victoria's Secret lingerie models remarked that these models were 'perfectly ripe' for mating (photos from ).

Different cultures have similar views on what constitutes beauty. Yanomami tribal men, when shown photos of Victoria’s Secret lingerie models, remarked that these models were ‘perfectly ripe’ for mating (photos from Ariana Cubillos/AP and Victoria’s Secret).

In 1989, David Buss from the University of Michigan, surveyed more than 10,000 male preferences of females across 37 highly diverse cultures in 33 countries. Regardless if the males were from urban, Western societies or from traditional societies such as the Ache of Paraguay or Shiwiar of Ecuador, males consistently place a high premium on the physical attractiveness, in particular on youth, of potential female mates. On average, men all over the world found women most suitable as mates at 25 years of age. Studies by Langlois and his associates at the University of Texas in 2000 and in particular those spanning the late 1980s to 1990s carried out by Michael Cunningham from the University of Louisville consistently showed that people within the same culture or across different cultures were still able to agree with one another about whom was attractive and whom was not. Work by Cunningham and his colleagues showed that men found female faces with the following characteristics to be physically very attractive: relatively small chins, large eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips.

Controversial evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, co-author of “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”, went further by distinguishing six characteristics that define the ideal image of female beauty: youth, long hair, small waist, large breasts, blonde hair, and blue eyes, and there is an evolutionary logic, though some contentious as admitted by Kanazawa, to each of those six characteristics. Women with long hair, small waist, large breasts, and blonde hair reflect youth and good health, and in turn high reproductive value (the expected number of children a woman could have over her reproductive age) and high fertility (average number of children a woman would have at any given age).

Ideal female beauty: Blonde and long hair, high cheekbones, large and blue eyes, petite nose, and small chins (© kjekol @ fotolia.com)

Ideal female beauty I: Blonde and long hair, and blue eyes (© kjekol @ fotolia.com)

 

Ideal female beauty: small waist and large breast. All these characteristics signify good health, youth, and peak fertility (© kjekol @ fotolia.com).

Ideal female beauty II: Small waist and large breasts. All these characteristics signify youth, good health, and peak fertility (© kjekol @ fotolia.com).

A 2004 study led by Grazyna Jasienska from the Jagiellonian University, Poland, for example, showed that Polish women, aged 24 to 37 of age, with small waists and large breasts have greater reproductive potential, as indicated by their higher levels of reproductive hormones, over those with larger waists and smaller breasts. And the light blonde hair of young girls tend to turn darker and eventually into brown hair as the girls mature into older women. So blonde hair is often an indication of a woman’s age. A woman who still retains a blonde hair often means she is still young and at peak fertility. Similarly, women with long hair indicate good health. Older or unhealthy women tend to have shorter and less lustrous hair due to less than optimal health. Consequently, men find women with long hair, especially if the hair is lustrous, to be highly attractive because such women radiate good health and good fertility.

Even without looking at a woman's face, hands, or body, we can often tell accurately if the woman is young, healthy, and good looking merely by looking is she has long lustrous hair (photo from hairfinder.com).

Even without looking at a woman’s face, hands, or body, we can often tell quite accurately if the woman is young, healthy, and good looking merely by looking if she has long lustrous hair like in this photo (photo from hairfinder.com).

But why we find people with blue eyes to be  most attractive is still open to conjecture, but one possible reason is the color of the eye is related to how easily we can tell the size of the eye pupil. Our eye pupil increases in size when we see something interesting or captivating. See an attractive woman and our eye pupils dilate. So, compared to dark colors like dark brown or black, blue is the brightest color for human iris and such, blue makes it the easiest for us to tell the size of the eye pupil and thus, if the person is attracted to us. Perhaps not a coincidence then that studies in the 1960s and 1970s have found that some people describe people with light brown eyes as ‘mysterious’, but those with dark brown eyes are instead disliked by many, presumably because such a dark eye color makes it difficult for us to ‘read’ the emotions of the other person.

Blue eyes are most attractive perhaps because blue is the lightest color that allows us to 'read' people (photo from cnn.com).

Blue eyes are most attractive perhaps because blue is the lightest color that allows us to ‘read’ people’s interest in us (photo from cnn.com).

Other properties define beauty too, one of which is bilateral symmetry of a face. People find symmetrical faces more attractive because facial symmetry (where the left side of the face looks the same as the right side) indicates good genetic health and fertility. Ill people or people with genetic disruptions or those born in environments with high exposure to parasites, pathogens, and toxins tend to have less than symmetrical faces and are often regarded to be less than attractive.

Having mixed parentage may also endow us with exotic, good looks. Mixed or interracial marriages are an effective way to breakdown racial barriers and racism, but with several more added benefits. Children of mixed parentage are often attractive, sometimes much more so than their parents. Such good looks are a consequence of hybrid vigor or heterosis, a theory first put forth by Darwin in 1876. Heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred offspring to have enhanced traits or better genetic quality than both its parents. Canadian actor, Kristin Kreuk, among many others, is one such example of being stunningly beautiful due to mixed parentage. Even the facial features of Americans are expected to change by 2050 due to increasing popularity of mixed marriages there.

The stunningly exotic, good looks of Canadian actor, Kristin Kreuk, the product of mixed parentage, a Dutch father and a Chinese mother.

The exotic and stunning good looks of Canadian actor, Kristin Kreuk, the heterosis product of her mixed Dutch and Chinese parents (photo from CBS Portraits).

 

The future face of Americans by 2050 as mixed marriages become increasingly frequent in the US (photo from National Geographic).

The future ‘average’ face of an American by 2050 as mixed marriages become increasingly frequent in the US (photo from National Geographic).

Recently in 2015, researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia used an innovative approach to mimic evolutionary selection of female beauty. Using computerized images of female bodies and with the help of more than 60,000 online participants, female bodies were evolved over eight generations. Evolution of successive generations of female beauty was shaped by ratings given by online participants based on how much they liked the current generation of female beauty. At the end of the experiment, these Australian researchers found that female beauty evolved as we had expected, that female shapes considered beautiful are those characterized by small waists, long legs, and large breasts. Nonetheless, these researchers found that it is not any given female trait that makes a female shape beautiful but rather how well the various beauty traits are collectively expressed. In other words, it is not so much that large breasts makes a woman beautiful, but the combination of two more beauty traits such as the large breasts, small waists, and long, slender legs that ultimately makes a woman highly desirable.

Being beautiful, however, has its downsides. While attractive men can be considered as better leaders, sexist prejudice can work against attractive women, as opined by Lisa Walker and Tonya Frevert, social psychologists from the University of North Carolina. So, while attractive women can have the upper hand over their less attractive counterparts in certain levels of jobs, attractive women can be discriminated against in acquiring high-level jobs that require authority and strong leadership. Moreover, jealousy can occur among attractive people in the workplace, causing discrimination or loss of opportunities.

Justin Trudeau, the recently elected Prime Minister of Canada. He is popular, not only for his liberal and progressive ideas, but also for his youth and good looks. But had Justin Trudeau been an attractive woman instead, the outcome of 'her' election could have been quite different. Sexist prejudice can discriminate attractive women from holding high level posts that require authority and strong leadership.

Justin Trudeau, the recently elected Prime Minister of Canada. He is hugely popular, not only for his liberal and progressive ideas, but also for his youth and good looks. But had Justin Trudeau been an attractive woman instead, the outcome of ‘her’ election could have been quite the opposite. Sexist prejudice can discriminate attractive women from holding high level posts that require authority and strong leadership.

But our perception of beauty is changing. Social norms of what should be considered beautiful are now emphasizing more on social fairness, sensitivity, and realism.

Falling sales of Barbie dolls by 20% between 2012 and 2014 has seen Mattel, the doll maker of Barbie, do a makeover of its once highly popular Barbie. In 2015 Mattel introduced 23 new Barbie dolls with eight skin tones, 14 facial structures, 22 hairstyles, and 18 eyes colors. And on Jan. 28, 2016, Mattel has further introduced three types of Barbie dolls: curvy, tall, and petite. The curvy doll in particular has noticeably fatter thighs and protruding tummy and behind.

Slumping Barbie sales meant that in 2015 and 2016, Mattel revamped its popular Barbie line by introducing Barbie dolls with different skin colors and physical attributes, notably including a curvy, petite, and tall versions of Barbie (photo from Mattel).

Slumping Barbie sales meant in 2015 and 2016, Mattel had to revamp its popular Barbie doll by introducing Barbie dolls with different skin and eye colors and physical attributes, notably including a curvy, petite, and tall versions of Barbie. The curvy Barbie, in particular has fatter thighs and a protruding tummy and behind (photo from Mattel).

Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old fashion model, is yet another example of a change in people’s perception of beauty. What makes Madeline story inspiring and highly unusual is she has Downs Syndrome.

Madeline Stuart, the Downs Syndrome fashion and runway model (photo from Madeline Stuart Facebook).

Madeline Stuart, the 18 year-old doing what was previously unthinkable: being a fashion and runway model and having Downs Syndrome. She is in the 2016 New York Fashion Week (photo from Madeline Stuart’s Facebook).

Lane Bryant, a popular US retail store on women clothing, has recently been aggressively promoting a campaign celebrating women of all shapes and sizes. Print and video ads by Lane Bryant featured black-and-white pictures of six models, all of them plus-sizes.

Lane Bryant's celebration of women in all shapes and sizes (photo from Lane Bryant).

Changing the perception of beauty: Lane Bryant’s celebration of women in all shapes and sizes, featuring all plus-sizes models (photo from Lane Bryant).

And what makes the 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated (SI) Swimsuit different this year from the other years is the appearance of 28-year-old Ashley Graham, a plus-size model.

Plus-size model, Ashley Graham, will feature in the 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition (photo from SI).

Plus-size model, Ashley Graham, will feature in the 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition (photo from SI).

So, blonde women who are slim and tall and who have small waist, large breasts, blue eyes, high cheekbones, petite nose, full lips, and small chins may be considered as highly desirable by men. But such beauty standards are increasingly seen today as too idealistic, that most of women would not be endowed with one or more such features for beauty perfection. The society is instead beginning to accept imperfection because that is more real and fair. Perhaps one day then, meritocracy based purely on people’s intelligence, talent, and experience will no longer be skewed by physical and social attractiveness.

What is beauty then? It comprises outer and inner beauty. Focusing too much on our appearance can itself be detrimental, even if we are considered attractive, because it creates stress and anxiety. While our outer beauty fades with time, our inner beauty, in contrast, develops, and as it matures over time, we become an increasingly wonderful human being.

References




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.



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.



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.




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”.



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.



My Bella TV interview: Malaysia’s falling proficiency in English – Should we be worried?

A recent survey by Education First, a Singapore-based English school, found that Malaysia’s competency level in English was the highest in Asia (beating even Singapore), and Malaysia was ranked an impressive 11th-position out of 60 countries. A similar excellent result for Malaysia was also obtained in the first survey in 2011.

Prawn cock dish, anyone? Evidence of poor command of English in Malaysia. "Cock" here probably meant "cooked".

Prawn cock, anyone? Yet more evidence of poor command of English in Malaysia.

The problem is, few Malaysians believe it – and rightly so. This is because EF’s two surveys contradict sharply with what we Malaysians experience everyday about our English language command.

The main fault with EF’s survey is this survey is done via online with no random sampling of participants. In Malaysia, most online users are urbanites with a higher command of English than those in more rural areas. Moreover, those who voluntarily take the EF’s survey are most probably those who already have a good command of English. Ask ourselves this: would someone with a poor command of English voluntarily take EF’s survey? I don’t think so.

Education First's (EF) two survey show Malaysia is ranked high in English competency. Unfortunately, even Malaysians do not believe their results (photo from ).

Education First’s (EF) two surveys (2011 and 2013) show that Malaysia is ranked impressively high in the world in English competency. Unfortunately, even Malaysians do not believe these findings (photo from harimaucapitol.com).

I was recently invited for a second time to Bella ntv7 show (Nov, 26, 2013), hosted by Elaine Daly. I came to this show willing to talk about the standard of English in Malaysia and why our command of this language is so poor.

Below are the questions given to me prior to the show. Although I was not asked some of these questions, I placed them here with my answers for my blog readers.

On Nov 26, 2013, I appeared on Bella ntv7 programme to speak on the falling standard of English in Malaysia, my experience at my university, and what we can do about it.

On Nov 26, 2013, I appeared on Bella ntv7 programme to speak on the falling standard of English in Malaysia, my experience at my university, and what we can do Malaysia’s falling competency level in English. Also invited were Haris Hussain (Assoc. Editor of NST Production) and Chook Yuh Yng (Country Manager of Jobstreet). Seated far right is the Bella host, Elaine Daly.

So we keep on hearing that the undergraduates are lacking on English proficiency. But whose fault is that? Where does this problem start?

The underlying problem lies in the social element. Malaysians communicate with one another in the language in which they are the strongest and most comfortable. And the language Malaysians choose to use to communicate typically isn’t English but their mother tongue: Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. According to a survey in 2001, only 2% of Malaysians (less than 400,000 people) have English as their first language.

Malaysians are proud of their mother tongue and will defend it because their mother tongue is a part of their culture. Malaysians in general have no problems of learning English as an additional language, but they will put English in its place; that English is a foreign language , that people who speak English frequently are the elite minorities, and that English is typically useful only in international relations such as in international business or politics.

In other words, Malaysians learn their mother tongue and English in two different contexts: one as part of their culture (their mother tongue) and another (English) as a foreign language to be used only in official or formal occasions.

Another important problem or reason why English proficiency is low in Malaysia is the lack of practice among Malaysians. The mastery of any language requires frequent and prolonged practice. It is not enough just to learn English during English period at school. We need to apply a language in our everyday lives by practising speaking and writing the language outside school as well. This is what is lacking in this country.

However, we need to understand that Malaysia’s problem isn’t unique just to us. The same worries about declining English proficiency exist also in Hong Kong, Japan, Philippines, and India. The governments there have spent a lot of money and resources to increase English proficiency among the people but with little success. I suspect the reason for this is the same as in Malaysia: lack of practice in English and seeing English as a foreign language to be used only in certain specific and narrow circumstances.

The falling standard of English in Malaysia. Hmm ... you might have better luck reading a English-language book instead, ladies (photo from thestar.com.my)

The falling standard of English in Malaysia. Only for the camera: you would learn better reading a English-language book instead, ladies (photo from thestar.com.my).

It is agreeable that education starts at home. But there’s so many that the parents can do especially when they have to work and maintain the household. Isn’t it the school’s responsibility to
brush up our child’s English skills? Isn’t that why we send our kids to school in the first place?

It is wrong to think that education only starts and ends at schools. The home and the parents can have a large impact, sometimes an even bigger impact, on their children’s education success. Yes, parents cannot always teach everything because some subject matter are out of the expertise or know-how of the parents. But what is more important is the parents must be aware of what is currently being taught at school and how their child is progressing in school. That way the parents can remedy any shortcoming or conversely, encourage any key learning strengths in their child.

Interestingly, studies have shown that the most important factor in the success of a child’s learning isn’t the size of classroom but in how well the parents monitor their child’s learning. In other words, the parents’ awareness and involvement of their child’s learning progress is very important.

Parents may be busy working but that is no reason to neglect their children’s education or to outsource all or a large part of their education to schools or someone else.

Three students were also interviewed about their experience on English during their college studies.

Three students were also interviewed about their experience on English competency levels in their college.

Speaking on behalf of the parents watching, maybe the parents don’t have good command in English as well. And that is why they don’t practice it at home and expect a more professional education (school) to do that job. What is your opinion on this?

Yes, if the parents don’t speak English, their children are in a disadvantage because they may not be able to practise English at home. But this isn’t a critical, unsolvable problem. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the parents’ involvement in their children’s learning progress is very important. Parents cannot teach everything; no one can. Parents don’t have to have PhDs in mathematics to encourage the love of mathematics in their children. So why the different standard for English language?

There are ways to ensure that their children’s weaknesses in learning can be overcome. To increase English proficiency, the children can be enrolled in English classes or in social activities where English is widely spoken among members or participants. Put the children in an environment where English is spoken intensively. English-language reading materials with genre which the children enjoy can be bought to strengthen reading and language skills.

Some young adults are embarrassed to speak in English, especially when they are not sure on their grammar/pronunciation and afraid they might say the wrong thing. Can’t we relate to that problem? How do we overcome this?

Yes, it is true that some – but not all – youngsters would feel embarrass to speak English for fear of being evaluated by their teachers or by native speakers. But there is simply no shortcut or some secret technique to a successful proficiency in English. It still takes hard work and practice, practice, and more practice.

When I first started working as a university lecturer, I remember having one freshman (first year undergraduate) telling me that he wouldn’t be able to speak to me any more. I was of course surprised by his admission. When I asked him why, he replied that he wasn’t used to speaking in English. Lo and behold, six months later when I met him again, he was conversing with me with fluent English. I think some students underestimate their ability in English. It sometimes takes some coercion to force them to speak and they will readily speak in English. It might not be perfect English, but it is seldom as bad as they had initially thought. Besides, their English would often improve after some practice.

As the three students were interviewed, the other guests and I were seated to one side as some questions were also directed at us.

As the three students were interviewed, the other guests and I were seated at one corner as some questions were also directed at us.

That said, however, I had a Malay student many years ago who tried to speak to her other Malay friends in English. But she was treated as an outcast because her friends felt it uncomfortable and strange to speak in English among friends, outside class. Unfortunately, it is similar to the Chinese who feel a Chinese who speaks English too much is like a banana: yellow on the outside but white in the inside.

This again comes back to the social element on why English proficiency is declining in Malaysia. Many Malaysians see English like a foreign language, not part of their culture, a language used only in official or international activities, and a language used only by elite minorities.

In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake that most young adults make when it comes to mastering English? Are they unwilling to seek the extra help, are they unwilling to consult the dictionary, are they embarrassed to make mistakes?

Most youngsters are not fully aware of the importance of English in their careers. Yes, they understand the importance of English, but they fail to fully appreciate its importance of English mastery in their career and learning. They might believe that English proficiency can be achieved later or when they need later in their career. But English language mastery takes years to achieve; it takes hard work and lots of practice.

This is a shame because youngsters are self sabotaging their careers.

Many young adults can relate to this. Since young, we are taught mostly from books. It is not a surprise when we are stronger in writing than speaking. How do we overcome the problem of stronger in writing than speaking?

I am always skeptical when people tell me that they are better in writing than speaking in English. I think people often underestimate their verbal proficiency and overestimate their writing proficiency in English. I have some students telling me the same thing, but when I read their written work, I am often an English teacher first and a science teacher second.

I spent more time correcting their English grammar or rewriting their sentences than checking their scientific facts, analysis, interpretation, and discussion of their work. I also have students expressing their confidence in the written English but only to be found out when they take international English exams such as TOEFL or IELTS. They can’t even meet the basic competency level.

We need to understand the difference between spoken and written language. When we learn a language, we often learn to speak the language first. Sometimes speaking comes naturally especially after exposure for prolonged periods to the language. But writing (and reading) needs to be taught. Writing is not speech written down on paper. Writing is harder because spelling and grammar must be correct. Speaking uses more informal and simpler sentences than writing. Speakers receive more immediate feedback and respond correspondingly in case the spoken message is misunderstood or unclear. Writers, on the other hand, work in solitary, receives no immediate feedback, and must consider the level of interest and knowledge their readers needs to know about a given topic.

So, it is untrue that one can be more competent in written than in spoken English.

The show ended by having all three of us to the hot seat to have our closing remarks.

The show ended by having all three of us back to the hot seat to have our closing remarks.

In your opinion, what needs to be fixed quickly? What can the schools do? Or the parents do?

Malaysians can be a pampered lot, always asking for things either to be free or as cheap as possible. But Malaysians need some tough love: a kick, so to speak, to be coerced to master the English language. A simple pass in English is not enough. Job promotions, civil service jobs, university entrance, and scholarships should require mandatory and higher competency level in English. Even salaries can differ depending on how proficient a person is in English.

There are some parents who has this mindset of “We live in Malaysia, we work in Malaysia, so why English is THAT important?” How would you address this kind of mindset?

Such parents are naïve because they fail to see the world today has evolved. It is no longer like before. In the 1980s and 90s, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were favorite places for the manufacturing sector because goods produced here were cheaper with lower costs and wages. However, such competitive advantage is never for long because wage costs will inevitably rise. Today, it is China that offers the lowest cost of production.

Today Malaysia needs to focus on high value activities such as research and development (R&D) activities. Consequently, it is very important that the educational level of the country’s workforce increase to maintain Malaysia’s competitive advantage as we lose our advantage in less skilled areas to countries in lower development chain. And it isn’t just Malaysia thinking like this. Many countries like Norway, India, and Singapore are aiming to enhance critical thinking and creativity in their respective citizens. This knowledge-based economies require smarter people, and a handicap in English can be a stumbling block in achieving this goal.

We talk about the importance of English proficiency in Malaysia, but our country also needs to be proficient in science. Consequently, there is a close relationship between science and English, at least for Malaysia. This is because English is the lingua franca of science. Books, magazines, scientific articles, and documentaries are mostly in English. Malaysians unfortunately do not write many books either in English or in another language, and Malaysians do not also translate many books.

Consequently, low levels in English proficiency means Malaysians are missing out on current and important issues. Malaysians will have to wait until the information gets translated from English into our comfortable language, if it gets translated at all.

So, in many ways, Malaysia should worry. Low proficiency in English and coupled with low reading levels and low science literacy are harming our nation’s future and growth. Two international assessment on science literacy paint a disturbing trend for Malaysia. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) separately showed that the science literacy among Malaysian students have been declining steadily throughout the years, so much so that Malaysia now ranks among the lowest in the world in science literacy.

So when you observe such a declining trend, it is no surprise then that the Malaysian government has reverted back from using English to the Malay language as the medium of instruction in schools. Malaysia have attempted to kill two birds with one stone. Instead of teaching science and mathematics separately from English, it was hoped that the English language could be taught simultaneously as science and mathematics are taught. While this system worked in some European countries like Finland, this approach was not successful in Malaysia.

So, while I understand the government’s decision to revert back to Malay as the medium of instruction, we should also be aware that an outlet to increase English proficiency has been sacrificed in the process.

Increasing globalization means it is not only important to learn and master the English language but to be mutillingual as well (photo from focis.wayne.edu/globalization).

Increasing globalization means it is not only important to learn and master the English language but also to be multilingual as well. Parents need to understand and appreciate this (photo from focis.wayne.edu).

In your opinion, what is the standard of English that the employers are looking for?

The higher we go up the corporate ladder into increasingly upper management levels, the importance of English proficiency becomes increasingly more important. In fact, English proficiency can be one of the criteria for job promotions. This is true in Malaysia and even in Hong Kong. Employers expect not only high levels of knowledge and technical skills, but also the ability to communicate, think, and learn; ability to work in teams; and the person’s attitude and adaptability.

As I mentioned earlier, the world today has evolved. Globalisation is not some buzzword or a theoretical idea, but it is already happening right now, whether we like it or not. Exchanges of goods and services, transfer of knowledge, and mobility of people from one country to another is today more rapid, seamless, and extensive. So while we talk a lot about mastery of English, the challenge today is also the mastery of two or more languages.

It might be surprising to some to learn that English is only the fourth most widely spoken language in the world. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language. But if we include the number of speakers for the second language, English moves up the rung to the second most widely spoken language with Mandarin still firmly anchored in the first spot.

Interestingly, the number of English native speakers are declining steadily over the years. Likewise for Mandarin native speakers. Instead, the number of native speakers for languages such as Arabic, Hindi, and Spanish see a steady increase. In the 1990s, more than 80% of the web content is in English, in 2000, the proportion was 50%, and in 2005, 30%. Most students who opt to study overseas still go to universities where English is widely spoken, but the number of students opting to go to non-English universities are also rising. So while English remains the most dominant language, it is a mistake to believe mastery of a single language such as English is sufficient. Globalisation means multilingualism proficiency is essential.

Many nations are looking to China. The country is fast growing into the world’s largest economy. China is also pushing Mandarin as a foreign language to some countries, just as English is a foreign language to other countries. But at the same time, China is also pushing to increase the people’s proficiency in English. English is a compulsory language for students beginning Year 3, and in some schools, Year 1. Job promotions for Chinese police officers pre-requisite some basic level in English proficiency.

So at the end, globalisation means it is not enough just to learn English. We need another language or two. We need to be multilingual. So, in this perspective, Malaysia, a multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation, is in an advantageous position.

Malaysia is in an advantageous position, being a multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation. However, Malaysia needs to be proficient in these languages and in English to compete in the world (photo from theagora.blogspot.com).

Malaysia is in an advantageous position, being a multi-cultural and multi-lingual nation. However, Malaysia needs to be proficient in these languages and in English to compete in the world (photo from theagora.blogspot.com).


You can watch this Bella episode for free at tonton.com.my, Episode 231.




My Bella TV interview: Encouraging children to read, the importance of reading, and what to do with the reluctant reader

I was very fortunate to be invited to appear on Bella, a TV programme by ntv7, on my opinions about ways to encourage a reading habit in children, the importance of reading, and about reluctant book readers.

So, on Oct 13, 2013, 2:30 pm, my family and I made our way to the ntv7 studio in Glenmarie, Shah Alam. There we met the Bella TV crew and the lovely host, Daphne Iking.

Prior to the show, I was given a set of questions that could be asked by Daphne during the interview. The following are questions that were more-or-less asked during the pre-recorded show.

In your opinion, do magazine and comics book count as reading?

Yes, they do. If our children are reluctant readers, then it is better that they read comic books than nothing. But bear in mind that there are many types of reading materials. Comic books are only one such type. Each reading type has its own function and effectiveness in building what I call our “mental muscles”.

I was asked about ways to encourage reading in children, the importance of reading, what I thought about public libraries, and my experience as a lecturer at the university.

I was asked about ways to encourage reading in children, the importance of reading, what I thought about public libraries, and my experience as an educator at my university.

Some people join a gym or fitness club – or buy an exercise bike or treadmill – to build up their physical fitness level. They want to be healthier, to lose or even gain weight, or to build up their muscles. Likewise, reading is an exercise for our minds, to build up our mental muscles; that is, our mental facilities for better thinking skills.

Zachary and I are waiting in the visitors' lounge while the TV crew prepare for the show. Zachary was amazingly calm!

Zachary and I are waiting in the visitors’ lounge while the Bella TV crew prepare for the show. Zachary was amazingly calm!

Yes, reading gains us knowledge and builds up our language skills, but perhaps most people are unaware that reading also gains us comprehension, awareness, understanding, appreciation, and empathy over a wide range of issues, be they issues on social, economics, politics, environment, and science.

Reading makes us more open-minded, not so open-minded that our brains fall out, but open enough to understand that other perspectives to an issue exists, that world issues are seldom black-or-white as some people tend to see.

So, different reading materials have different effectiveness to train our mental muscles. Comic books are useful and fun, but, as parents, we need to encourage our children to also read more advanced texts, those with more complex ideas that will cause our children reflect more deeply on ideas.

We can introduce to our children more advanced reading materials that have the similar genre or theme as the comics our children love to read.

A good example is a news article I read some time ago. There was an award-winning book author who has an interesting past. As a child, he hated reading and would never read the books his mother bought for him. However, he loved playing football, so his mother, on a whim, bought him a book about football. That book triggered his reading passion. Suddenly, here was a book that he enjoyed reading because it was about football, in which he was passionate. He enjoyed reading so much that he started to write, and who would have guessed that many years later, he would go on to win a book award for young adult fiction.

Daphne Iking, the host of Bella TV programme by ntv7

Daphne Iking, the host of Bella TV programme by ntv7.

Daphne is asking the kids questions about their favourite reading books and why reading is important to them.

Daphne is asking the kids questions about their favourite reading books and why reading is important to them. Each child is from a different parent. Zachary is seated farthest away from Daphne, at the far right.

As an educator, how do you see your students? Do they read books that are other than those required (textbook)?

Unfortunately, students seldom read beyond than the provided lecture notes. Moreover, lecturers, such as myself, would be evaluated by the students on whether the provided lecture notes are suitably comprehensive. So, lecturers cannot just come to class and teach without lecture notes, as done by some lecturers in the past. This “no notes provided” lectures certainly cannot happen today.

Yes, I could force the students to read books by saying materials from one or more books would be tested in their exams. However, this coercion would work only until the exams. Once over, the students would stop reading books. In fact, such coercion would probably enforce the idea in students that reading books is only for exams – a detriment to lifelong learning skills which we wish to inculcate in students.

From your observation, do students who read have better command in English?

Well, reading books is not about English but about command of a language. Reading would certainly improve our language command in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and expression of ideas and thoughts. So, a person who reads a lot would certainly speak and write better.

My interview lasted perhaps about 10 to 15 minutes.

I hope I got all my points across. It is not easy to highlight all the important points during my interview as time was rather limited.

But what drives English proficiency in students is typically the students’ background. Local studies have shown that students living in urban areas and whose parents have higher socio-economic status would not only use English more but read more English-language books.

Some people use reading as a way to improve their English. When they tried to improve their English, there are some cases where people start to make fun of them (for showing off). What is your comment on that?

This is very unfortunate because it is true. According to a 2001 survey, less than 2% Malaysians (less than 400,000 people) use English as their first language. English is seen by many as a language used only by elite minorities or for professional, official, or international purpose.

The Chinese see speaking English as abnormal, and someone who speaks English is said to be a “banana”: yellow on the outside but white inside.

I once had a Malay student who decided to speak English to her Malay friends. For her effort, she was seen as a pariah. Her friends felt uncomfortable to speak English among one another. The same goes for the Chinese.

I think this is the largest hindrance to increasing English proficiency among Malaysians. It isn’t about lack of English teachers or lack of schools hours on learning English. Although Malaysians understand the importance of English, they are not willing to master the language due to social – and political – barriers.

Unfortunately, what we see in Malaysia is not unique to just this country. Philippines and Hong Kong also see declining competency in English despite their government efforts to encourage English usage and even making English a compulsory language course in schools.

In the last segment, all parents were brought together for our final remarks. These parents are bloggers about parenting and child care.

In the last segment, all parents were brought in together for our final remarks. These parents are also bloggers about parenting and child care issues.

Do you see any significance difference between students who like to read and those who don’t?

Definitely. You can tell the difference between a person who reads and one who does not. And this difference is not subtle. A person who reads a lot will talk, speak, think, and behave differently than one who does not read.

One essential skill reading imparts is the ability to self-learn. As a lecturer, I am sometimes frustrated that I cannot count on books to help my students when they come to me with their problems. I cannot, for example, tell my students to read this or that chapter in a particular book. Students who do not have a strong reading habit suffer from some kind of mental block when they read text containing complex ideas. They may understand the individual words that make up the text but yet fail to understand what the whole text is trying to tell them.

In other words, a strong reading skill enables students to understand complex ideas. Research have shown that children who read a lot understand more complex ideas than children who do not read even if these children are computer or IT savvy.

The amazing product of inculcating reading in children is when they pick out their own books and start to read on their own and to do this without prompting.

The satisfying result of inculcating a reading habit in children is when they pick out their selected books from the shelves and start to read on their own — without coercion.

A fictional storybook can cost more than RM 30. Do you think the price of books is a contributing factor of poor reading habit among children?

This is a common excuse people use for not reading. High price of books is only a small contributor to lack of reading among Malaysians. People are willing to spend so much money on buying the latest IT gadgets such as smartphones and tablets, but yet are unwilling to spend money on books.

Moreover, with their latest IT gadgets, they can buy eBooks which are much cheaper than print books, but do they buy these eBooks? Unlikely.

Public libraries are also available, and book sales are becoming increasingly common. So, the excuse that books are expensive does not hold water.

The real reason why Malaysians seldom read is reading is slow. Reading takes effort especially when reading text with complex ideas that forces us to reflect on its message. Reading is difficult because it is like exercising but for our minds. As some people do not like to physically exercise, some people will not like to read.

It is interesting to note that a baby can learn to speak without being taught. The baby can hear and learn to talk even without us teaching the baby. But reading must be taught. A baby cannot just learn reading on his or her own. Reading takes effort and it is hard work – but the returns are priceless and lasts a lifetime.

My books are this wide and this tall ... Zachary's amazing collection of books!

My books are this wide and this tall … Zachary’s amazing collection of books! We started to read to him since he was only a month old.

When it comes to reading, would you advise parents to encourage their kids to read light materials (Enid Blyton, Sweet Valley, and Harry Potter) or go for heavier and more informative materials (Shakespeare / biography), and why?

It is important that we do not force our children to read books that they do not enjoy reading. Reading should be a pleasurable activity and that our children do not associate reading books to only school work or exams.

But at the same time, we must ensure our children read a wide range of interests or issues. This will expand their outlook on life. We should try to encourage our children to read books on science, geography, and history.

There are so many good books out there that “teach” various important topics without making it too academic.

What is your opinion about the facility of public libraries in Malaysia? What are the things that need to be improved?

School and universities would be all right because these are places of learning. They would continue to see users who patronize these libraries for school or university work. However, public libraries would become obsolete if they continue as they are. Increasingly more books are in the digital format.

Even today, we see bookshops closing down or downsizing. So, in the future, I see a change in our libraries from those that carry printed books to those that carry books in digital format instead. No doubt we will witness an interesting future, to see how libraries evolve or adapt to changes.

Mom reading to Zachary in a bookshop. Ensure your child can see the pictures and words while you read to your child. As you read, point to the words you are currently reading so your child can track your reading.

Mom reading to Zachary in a bookshop. Ensure your child can see the pictures and words while you read to your child. As you read, point to the words you are currently reading so your child can track your reading.

This interview would be aired on Oct 29, 2013 (Tuesday) at 11:00 am on ntv7. You can also watch it for free on tonton.com.my.




Crime statistics: Are Malaysia’s rising crime levels a consequence of the country’s growing economy and democracy?

Many Malaysians are concern about the rising crime in the country. Difficulty in accessing the latest crime statistics has made it difficult to gauge exactly the crime levels in the country or to understand the reasons behind these criminal activities.

Rising crime in Malaysia. How much is the crime rising and what are the causes? (photo from http://my.news.yahoo.com/malaysians-feel-the-country-is-a-more-dangerous-place-to-live-in.html)

Our brave boys in blue. How much is crime rising and what are the causes for this rising trend in Malaysia? (photo from my.news.yahoo.com)

Newspapers and other mass media frequently report about violent and petty crime acts. This has led the previous Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Haji Ismail Omar, to retort that the rising crime levels in the country were only a matter of perception. The former IGP was criticized by some quarters for his comment. Nevertheless, he does has a valid point.

Talk about an issue long and hard enough and the issue can appear more important than it really is. As any psychologist will tell us, we are prone to many types of cognitive biases. We have a tendency, for instance, only to remember outcomes that support our perception, while forgetting the many other outcomes that failed to agree with our perception. We are also prone to follow the crowd because we tend to believe that mass perception is correct.

Risk of overstating an issue and selective reporting by the mass media and ubiquitous sharing of news through the social media (such as Facebook) can encourage our cognitive biases; thereby inflating the true level of significance and prevalence of an issue.

Consequently, mass media coverage level and social media news cannot always be reliable sources to gauge the crime levels in this country or to understand the reasons for their rise. Fortunately, many scientific studies have been done on crime and its factors.

Arab-Malaysian Development Bank founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi to hospital. He was killed by a gunman in the heart of Kuala Lumpur on July 29, 2013 (photo from malaymail.com)

Recent spate of shootings in Malaysia. Pictured here is the Arab-Malaysian Development Bank founder, Hussain Ahmad Najadi, who was killed by a gunman in Kuala Lumpur on July 29, 2013 (photo from themalaymailonline.com)

Studies have shown that the poor economic condition of a country (such as high levels of unemployment, low income, and political instability) would exacerbate crime levels. A study by Fajnzylber and associates in 2002, for instance, showed that a country’s rising GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita was associated with declining robbery rates in 15 industrialized, 11 Latin American and the Caribbean, 4 Eastern Europe, 3 Middle East, and 12 Asian countries.

That said, however, rising economic performance can also increase crime rates. Stronger economic growth leads to increase in wealth and higher level of transferable assets, which in turn leads to more lucrative targets or opportunities for potential criminals.

So, could it be that Malaysia’ rising crime levels are due to the country’s tenacious pursuit of a higher income and developed nation status?

Malaysia’s Gross National Income (GNI) has increased rapidly to USD9,970 in 2012 from USD6,700 in 2009. Compare these figures to Malaysia’s GNI of a mere USD670 in 1970. If Malaysia’s GNI continue at its current growth rate, the country’s per capita income would hit USD15,000 by 2020, successfully making Malaysia a high income and developed nation by then.

Crime statistics compiled by Habibullah and Baharom in 2008 showed that the crime rates in Malaysia in the last three decades (1973-2003) rose between 1 to 8% per year. More than 80% of the crime committed during this period were related to property crimes such as burglary, vehicle theft, and larceny.

Statistics on criminal activities in Malaysia, 1973-2003 (from Habibullah and Baharom, 2008)

Statistics on criminal activities in Malaysia, 1973-2003 (from Habibullah and Baharom, 2008)

But worryingly, violent or serious crimes (such as murder, robbery, rape, and assault) have increased by a larger margin of between 4 to 10% per year. In 1973-82, violent crime contributed 9.5% of the total crime in Malaysia, but its contribution has risen to 13.5% in 1993-2003.

Habibullah and Baharom further found that Malaysia’s rising economic performance, as measured by real GNP (Gross National Product) per capita, was associated to higher crime levels. More specifically, when real GNP per capita increased, crime levels due to murder, rape, assault, and burglary increased likewise. This positive association between real GNP per capita and crime rates could be due to increasing wealth and transferable assets in Malaysia, giving rise to more criminal activities, as mentioned previously.

The crime statistics released by the Department of Statistics, Malaysia showed that most of the crime from 1999 to 2003 and 2011 occurred in densely populated and wealthier states: Kuala Lumpur, followed by Selangor, then Johor and Pulau Pinang experienced the highest crime rates for both property and violent crime categories in Malaysia.

Higher economic growth and higher income disparity may have contributed to Malaysia’s rising crime levels. Malaysia’s distribution of wealth, as measured by the Gini Coefficient Index, stands at 0.43 in 2012 (note: Gini of 1 measures perfect equality in distribution of wealth, whereas Gini of 0 denotes perfect inequality of wealth distribution).

Smash-and-grab at a traffic light (photo from )

Smash-and-grab at a traffic light (photo from investvine.com)

From a Gini score of about 0.5 in the 1970s, Malaysia’s Gini’s score has since stagnated at about 0.45 since the 1980s. Malaysia’s income disparity is one of the highest in Asia and which is higher than India, Thailand, and Indonesia. And many studies have showed that when the gap between the rich and the poor widens, crime rates tend to rise.

Property crime rates (per 10,000 people) in each state in Malaysia, 1999-2003 and 2011 (from www.statistics.gov.my)

Serious or violent crime rates (per 10,000 people) in each state in Malaysia, 1999-2003 and 2011 (from www.statistics.gov.my)

Average annual total crime rate (for every 10,000 people) in Malaysia, 1999-2003 and 2011 (from www.statistics.gov.my)

Average annual total crime rate (for every 10,000 people) in Malaysia, 1999-2003 and 2011 (from www.statistics.gov.my)

Income disparity (as measured by Gini index) in Malaysia (photo from http://econsmalaysia.blogspot.com/2012/04/documenting-income-inequality-malaysian.html)

Income disparity (as measured by Gini index) in Malaysia. Malaysia’s GNI has stagnated since 1980s at a score of about 0.45 (photo from econsmalaysia.blogspot.com)

Another possibility for the rising crime levels in Malaysia is — contentiously — the greater democratic freedom now experienced in the country. The national election results in 2008 and 2013 have compelled the Malaysian government to allow increasingly more democratic freedom in the country. Some opined that greater democracy would lead to lower crime levels because of the existence of greater social responsibility and discipline and the establishment of a judicial system with more appropriate punishment system.

However, the study by Lin in 2007 showed that the relationship between democracy and crime is not straightforward. Lin observed that non-democratic countries are more aggressive in enforcing laws against minor crimes than major crimes compared to democratic countries. Furthermore, the fear of crime is lesser among the people in non-democratic countries than in democratic countries. Some countries like Russia, Bulgaria, and Hungary have experienced greater difficulty in imposing harsh criminal punishment system that would otherwise be easier before they had adopted a higher level of democracy.

Using crime data collected from the Interpol for 18 countries and for the period 1971-1996, Lin found that greater democracy levels were associated to lower rates of homicide but higher rates of robbery, burglary, car theft, all theft, and total crime. The relationships between democracy and rape and between democracy and serious assault were, however, weak.

Lin also found that democratic countries have shorter prison lengths than non-democratic countries. The prison length for homicide and minor crimes in democratic countries were shorter by 20% and 80%, respectively, than that in non-democratic countries. This disparity supports Lin’s findings that democracy is generally associated with higher minor crime rates (due to lower deterrence to commit minor crimes).

Comparison of crime rates for low and high democracy based on Interpol data, 1971-1996 (from Lin, 2007)

Comparison of crime rates for 18 low and high democracy countries based on Interpol data, 1971-1996 (from Lin, 2007)

Malaysia is undergoing rapid transformation. In pursuit of a high income and developed nation status by 2020, as well as increased allowance of democratic freedom, means Malaysia is changing economically, politically, and socially. Malaysia’s aspirations are to be lauded, but these aspirations may carry detrimental side effects to the society such as rising crime levels. If left unchecked, crime can jeopardize Malaysia’s aspirations.

The challenge for Malaysia today is to achieve her goals and at the same time mitigate the detrimental side effects of greater wealth and democracy.

Malaysia's aspirations for high economic growth to achieve high income and developed nation status by 2020 (from )

Malaysia’s aspirations for high income and developed nation status by 2020 could be why crime levels are rising in the country (from malaysiasdilemma.files.wordpress.com)

References

  1. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia. 2012. Buletin Perangkaan Sosial. Malaysia 2012. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia
  2. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia. 2005. Buletin Perangkaan Sosial. Malaysia 2005. Jabatan Perangkaan Malaysia
  3. Habibullah, M.S. and Baharom, A.H. 2008. Crime and economic conditions in Malaysia: An ARDL Bounds Testing Approach. MPRA Paper 11910, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  4. Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D. and Loayza, N. 2002a. What causes violent crime? European Economic Review 46, 1323-1357.
  5. Fajnzylber, P., Lederman, D. and Loayza, N. 2002b. Inequality and violent crime. Journal of Law & Economics 45, 1-41.
  6. Lin, M-J. 2007. Does democracy increase crime? The evidence from international data. Journal of Comparative Economics, 35, 467-483



How effective are window tints in cooling our cars?

Update (Dec. 11, 2013): I wrote a series of two articles on the science of car window films:

  • Part 1 discusses why our car cabin warms up so rapidly and what methods we can use to cool the car cabin temperature.
  • Part 2 discusses how window films work and how to choose the right window film for our cars in Malaysia.

I recently had to replace my car’s front windshield which also meant I had to re-tint my windshield. I was curious exactly how effective are car tints in cooling our cars.

Yes, we know tints make our car cooler, but exactly by how much? If car tints are effective, why is it that some people curiously complain that their car tints, even reputable and expensive tints, do not “seem to work”? And my final burning question was: which side of our car windows allow in the most heat? Intuitively, the most critical car window should be the largest window piece which is the front windshield. The larger the window piece, the more the area is exposed to the sun, which in turn meant increasingly more heat would be let in. The manager from a car tint shop I asked confirmed this rationalization – but again, where is the evidence?

How hot can it get inside the car? How effective are tints anyway? (photo from images.quickblogcast.com)

But before I discuss about the effectiveness of car tints, I like to highlight that the colour of your car can make a significant impact on your car cabin temperature. In 2005, the TV show Mythbusters (Episode 38) measured the car cabin temperature of two exact car models, differing only in their colours: one was white and another black. These two cars were parked under the hot sun, and car cabin thermometers revealed that the black car was hotter than the white car by as much as 5 degrees Celsius.

Mythbusters, a popular TV programme, showed that black cars are hotter than white cars by as much as 5 degrees Celsius

Choose a white car. Mythbusters, a popular TV programme, showed that black cars can be hotter than white cars by as much as 5 degrees Celsius (photo from mythbusters.com).

A scientifically more rigorous experiment in 2011 by Levinson and associates confirmed that car colours do matter in terms of the amount of heat they let in. The difference in car cabin temperature between a black car and a silver car (same exact Honda car models) ranged between about 0.5 to 10.5 degrees Celsius, with an average between 4 to 5 degrees Celsius.

A black vs. silver car: which is hotter? (photo from ).

A black vs. silver car: which car is warmer? (photo from Levinson et al., 2011).

What these two works summarize is that even without tinting your car windows, you can reduce your car cabin temperature significantly, possibly by as much as 10 degrees Celsius, simply by choosing a lighter over a darker coloured car.

Levinson and associates confirmed that darker coloured cars are warmer than lighter coloured cars. Shown here are car cabin temperature fluctuations during heating (without any aircon) and cooling (with aircon) cycles for a black and a silver car. "Black-silver" denotes differences between the tempratures of black and silver car (photo from ).

Levinson and associates confirmed that darker coloured cars are warmer than lighter coloured cars. Shown here are car cabin temperature fluctuations during heating (car aircon off) and cooling (car aircon on) cycles for a black and a silver car. “Black-silver” denotes the difference between the temperature of black and silver car (from Levinson et al., 2011).

Our car cabin does not warm uniformly. In a typical hot day in Malaysia, the dashboard can reach a scorching 80 degrees Celsius, the front windshield 70 degrees Celsius, and the interior ambient air 50 degrees Celsius.

Car cabin does not warm uniformly, where the dashboard experiences the highest heating. Sunshade (placed behind the front windshield) lowered the temperatures of the dashboard and front ambient air, but had less colling effect on the rear windshield and rear ambient air (redrawn from Al-Kayiem et al., 2010).

Car cabin does not warm uniformly, where the dashboard experiences the highest warming. Sunshade (placed behind the front windshield) lowered the temperature of the dashboard and front ambient air, but the sunshade had a less cooling effect on the rear windshield and rear ambient air (redrawn from Al-Kayiem et al., 2010).

Al-Kayiem and associates in 2010 found that using a reflective sunshade on the front windshield could reduce the dashboard and front windshield temperature by as much as 30 and 20 degrees Celsius, respectively. The front-placed sunshade could also cool the front ambient cabin air by as much as 10 degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, given enough time, the car cabin temperature under the protection of a sunshade would eventually reach the same heat levels as that without a sunshade protection. Without sun protection from the rear, a sunshade placed only in the front of the car had less cooling effect on the rear windshield and rear cabin.

The work by Jasni and Nasir in 2012 is interesting. Similar to that observed by Al-Kayiem and associates, they observed that the car dashboard temperature could reach a maximum of more than 80 degrees Celsius, and by using a sunshade (placed on all car windows, not just on the front window) could cool the dashboard by an average of 22 degrees Celsius (with a maximum reduction of 30 degrees Celsius).

Jasni and Nasir (2012) showed that sunshade (placed on all car windows) cooled the dashboard the most, but it had little cooling effect on car ambient air (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Jasni and Nasir (2012) showed that sunshade (placed on all car windows) cooled the dashboard the most, but it had little cooling effect on the car ambient air (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Average maximum temperature achieved in the car cabin (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Average maximum temperature in the car cabin. Baseline is that without any car cooling methods (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Average and maximum reduction in temperature by sunshade and tint compared to without any cooling methods (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Average and maximum reduction in temperature by sunshade and tint compared to without any cooling methods (baseline) (redrawn from Jasni and Nasir, 2012).

Interestingly, window tinting did not cool the dashboard by as much as that cooled by the sunshade. Car tint cooled the dashboard by an average of only 7 degrees Celsius (with a maximum reduction of 12 degrees Celsius).

However, window tinting was more effective than sunshade in cooling the car cabin temperature (front and rear ambient air). There was little difference between the car cabin temperature with and without the sunshade protection. The sunshade only cooled the car cabin by an average of 2 degrees Celsius (with a maximum reduction of 6 degrees Celsius), whereas the tint cooled by an average of 5 degrees Celsius (with a maximum reduction of 8 degrees Celsius).

One could of course argue that using a tint with a higher heat rejection rate would cool more the car. The tint used by Jasni and Nasir is on the lower end of quality. The infrared rejection of the tint used by them was 85% for the front windshield and 65% for the rear windshield and all side windows (no TSER or Total Solar Energy Rejection values were given).

Unprotected against the sun, the car cabin temperature could be as high as nearly 60 degrees Celsius. So, even if a good quality tint could reduce the cabin temperature by as much as 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (nearly double that reported by Jasni and Nasir), the car cabin would still feel uncomfortably warm at about 45 to 50 degrees Celsius. Perhaps this is why some people feel that their car tint “does not appear to work”.

But which car window allows in the most heat? As mentioned earlier, I thought the front windshield, being the largest window piece, would allow in the most heat. Measurements by Al-Kayiem and associates confirmed my hypothesis. Measurements revealed that solar irradiance (that is, the amount of incoming energy from the sun) was the highest for the front windshield, followed by the rear windshield. Computer simulations further revealed that the hot spots within a car cabin are at the front and rear windshields, as well as the ambient air immediately beneath the car roof.

At the end, results from these two studies show that car-cooling methods like a simple sunshade and window tinting do work. Window tint is overall more effective than the sunshade in cooling the car cabin and that window tint cools the car cabin more uniformly than the sunshade. However, the sunshade is unexpectedly far more effective than tint in cooling the car dashboard.

So, here is the bottom line: if you are looking to cool your car cabin, choose a tint with a high heat rejection rate and place a reflective sunshade on the front windshield during parking. If you are on a tight budget, install a tint with a higher heat rejection rate on your front windshield, and if possible, on the rear windshield as well. The side windows can have lower heat rejection rates. Oh yes, and pick a light coloured car too. Caveat: bear in mind that such a setup is not perfect; it would not completely insulate your car from heat. You should still expect your car cabin to feel a little warm, perhaps even uncomfortably so, especially after long hours of parking under the burning sun.

References

  1. Al-Kayiem, H.H., Sidik, M.F.M. and Munusammy, R.A.L. 2010. Study on the thermal accumulation and distribution inside a parked car cabin. American Journal of Applied Sciences, 7: 784-789.
  2. Jasni, M.A. and Nasir, F.M. 2012. Experimental comparison study of the passive methods in reducing car cabin interior temperature. In: International Conference on Mechanical, Automobile and Robotics Engineering (ICMAR’2012). Penang, Malaysia, pp. 229-233.
  3. Levinson, R., Pan, H., Ban-Weiss, G., Rosado, P., Paolini, R. and Akbari, H. 2011. Potential benefits of solar reflective car shells: Cooler cabins, fuel savings and emission reductions. Applied Energy, 88: 4343-4357.



Are you prepared for a research postgraduate study (Masters or PhD) in Malaysian universities?

Update (15 May 2013): I was interviewed by Samantha Joseph from the New Straits Times newspaper on my views on postgraduate studies in Malaysia. “The realities of postgraduate education” was published today in NST Postgraduate Supplement issue (pg. 2).

Some students go through a self-inflicted torrid time during their Masters or PhD programme in local Malaysian universities. There are many reasons for this, but they can be grouped into two issues. These students often have: 1) a wrong evaluation of their interests and capabilities, and 2) a wrong expectation of the amount of self-reliant work required from them in their postgraduate studies.

Yes, you are interested a research postgraduate degree in a Malaysian university. But are you ready for it? (photo from www.wtsinternational.org)

Yes, yes, you are interested in a research postgraduate degree in a Malaysian university, but are you really prepared for it? (photo from www.wtsinternational.org)

So, before you fill in the postgraduate study forms, you need to ask yourself the following questions.

1. Why do you want to do a research postgraduate study?

This is the most important question students should to ask themselves, but yet, students often neglect to do so. Doing a postgraduate study is not a customary progression after completing your first degree. And you should not do a Masters or PhD simply because some of your friends are doing it, or because you cannot find a job, or because you feel aimless after graduation.

Research work often involves plenty of lab analyses (photo from www.upm.edu.my)

Research work often involves plenty of work in labs (photo from www.upm.edu.my)

Unbelievably, one of my former (and failed) students once disclosed that she wanted a PhD simply because she like the title “Dr.” to precede her name! Some students also do a PhD with the belief that their employers would increase their salaries or their social status would rise.

A research postgraduate study should only be pursued if (and only if) you are interested in research or academic work. What you might be unaware is doing a research postgraduate study would limit your career options to only those in research and teaching. And even if you do find a job that is unrelated to research, do not expect your employer to pay you according to your highest training level. In other words, you would be paid according to your first-degree level. But in most cases, your job application would likely be rejected because you would be deemed over-qualified.

2. Do you have sufficient money?

Another often neglected question is to ask is if you have sufficient funds to support your postgraduate study. A Masters study would take two years, and a PhD four years. Shockingly, some foreign students have little qualms coming to Malaysia with insufficient money. God willing, they might say, part-time work or additional money would come later.

Shockingly, some students pursue their postgraduate studies with insufficient financial means. Although plenty of scholarships are available to local Malaysian students, these scholarships are typically unappreciated. These scholarships actually act to cause students to be lazy and slow down their work progress (photo from www.themalaysiantimes.com.my).

Shockingly, some students pursue their postgraduate studies with insufficient financial means. Although plenty of scholarships are available to local Malaysian students, these scholarships are typically unappreciated. These scholarships actually act to cause students to be lazy and slow down their work progress (photo from www.themalaysiantimes.com.my).

When you are stressed out thinking of money, is there any room left in your concern for your research?

To put it simply, you must have sufficient funds to pay the tuition fees, accommodation, food, and other expenses.

And, no, part-time work is never a good option for additional income. The job, even though part-time, steals your precious time from research work. You must be fully focused on your research work. My students who have part time jobs have never been able to give their best effort in their research or to complete their studies in time – never.

But what about scholarships?

3. Can you get a scholarship? And would you even appreciate the scholarship if you get it?

Supervisors in Malaysian universities are blessed with ample research projects and with ample financial support for student scholarships. However, these scholarships are competitive. There is no guarantee you would get it because supervisors often have more than one student under their wings. Do not be surprised that a supervisor can have as many as five to twelve students at any one time.

My university, UPM, along with five other universities, is recognized as a Research University. This means, UPM gets additional funds to offer scholarships to postgraduate students. Local Malaysian students find it relatively easy to obtain one form of scholarship or another. Now, ironically, comes the problem with abundant scholarships. With plentiful of scholarships available to Malaysian students, you might think this would make these students work even harder and more appreciative, right? Wrong. Easy access to scholarships only makes some Malaysian students lazier and slower in their research work.

Foreign students have it harder. The only scholarship available to you in Malaysia is through your supervisor’s research funds. You need to ask your prospective supervisor even before you apply for a postgraduate study if he or she has sufficient funds to support you.

4. Is your family or partner supportive of your studies?

What most students fail to realize is doing a Masters and particularly a PhD can disrupt your family life and social relationships. I have seen more than one case where parents threaten to disown their children because their children wanted to pursue a postgraduate study. This is because some parents fail to appreciate or are naïve about postgraduate studies. These parents think a postgraduate study is an unnecessary and additional financial burden to continue to support the children’s seemingly never-ending studies.

Support from family members and/or your partner can be crucial in your postgraduate study. They can derail your studies as easily as they can support you (photo from www.mc.vanderbilt.edu)

Support from family members and/or your partner can be crucial in your postgraduate study. They can derail your studies as easily as they can support you (photo from www.mc.vanderbilt.edu).

I have seen one of my former students receiving ridicule from relatives and even from family members when they compare her to her ex-course mates who have already graduated (from Bachelor) and who are earning good money while she still slogs through a Masters programme.

I have seen a marriage end up as a divorce because the wife cannot stand being alone for long periods whilst the husband was busy at the field or lab. I have seen a long-term relationship break up due to one partner (girlfriend) pursuing a PhD, while the other partner (boyfriend) was not. Intellectually, it appeared, they grew apart. On a personal note, my own ten-year-old relationship with my former girlfriend broke down because of my long absence while I pursued my PhD in the UK while she remained at home in Malaysia (no, long distance relationship do not work).

I have seen one student who was so completely stressed out from his PhD that he was admitted to a hospital mental health ward … twice. And I have seen both husband and wife (both PhD students at the same time) stressed out of having to take care of their newborn baby, their financial difficulties, and their respective research; so stressed the husband was that he was close to tears as he disclosed his troubles to me in my office.

Doing a research postgraduate study is stressful because it competes with your family or your partner for your time, energy, devotion, and concentration. So, you may be ready to do a PhD, but is your family or partner ready?

5. How is your English?

English is the lingua franca in academia. Unfortunately, the level of English among students (both Malaysians and foreigners) in Malaysian universities often range between poor to atrocious. Yes, English courses (even from British Council) are easily available, but the level of English proficiency required in science is much higher than what can be taught in these English language centers. It is one thing in being able to read and speak conversational English such as:

“I would like to see my supervisor. May I know when he is free to see me?”

and wholly different in being able to read scientific text and actually understand what the whole text is saying, such as:

“…factors of aggregate stability can interact with one another; meaning that a factor may not, by itself, have a unique contribution to aggregate stability. Instead, it jointly contributes with another factor or factors to affect aggregate stability. Such jointly contributions cannot be measured by simple linear regression or by correlations…”.

So, if your command of English is less than desired, how far are you willing to work to improve it? You simply cannot escape achieving at least a good level of English language proficiency in science.

6. Are you willing to learn to read and write a lot?

Laziness to read and write scientific papers is a key problem among postgraduate students. Part of this problem is the poor level of English proficiency among the students.

Plenty of reading is required in research postgraduate study (photo from srpp.com.au).

Plenty of reading is required in research postgraduate study (photo from srpp.com.au).

You need to start reading—and read a lot—early in your research work. You need to understand the problems, gaps in knowledge, issues, and latest findings in your research area. When you read enough, you feel more confident and competent in your work. Instead, students often start to read only when it is time to write their thesis.

And how much should you read? One journal per day, as once pledged by my former (and failed) student? No. You read as much as you can or as needed. Contrary to a common notion among students, you do not have to read a book or journal paper from front to back like a novel or story book.

You only read parts of a book or paper that are relevant or for information you require. Yes, there would be books or papers which you will read front-to-back and many times over because they are most relevant to your research, but certainly not all documents should be treated as such.

Unfortunately, poor comprehension and low concentration skills hamper reading. Students may understand the individual words that make up a text, but yet fail to understand what the whole text means.

Lastly, you need to write. You must get your research published, but not just in any journal, but also preferably in high impact journals. Unfortunately, there are many so-called scientific journals out there, ready to publish your work, sometimes as fast as within a week. These journals require payment, which itself is not unusual because some high impact journals do carry page charges, but the problem is these so-called journals carry low quality research papers, sometimes complete with grammar and spelling errors and missing references.

Students must publish theirs work in good journals (photo from www.agronomy.org)

Students must publish their work in good journals (photo from www.agronomy.org)

7. Are you self-reliant?

Self reliance is a very essential ingredient in all good research students. Masters and PhD study is a test on independent work. You must plan your research work and keep to the schedule. It isn’t your supervisor’s duties to accompany you to the lab or to the field all the time.

Self reliance is crucial in research. It means able to go out to the field to collect data, for example. Research planning and schedule are crucial.

Self reliance is crucial in research. It means able to go out to the field to collect data, for example. This was one of my previous research with my former student.

It is your supervisor’s duties to provide financial support for your research (such as to purchase chemicals or research equipment) or networking assistance in any research collaboration with external organizations. But, ultimately, it is you who have to plan and setup the lab and/or field experiments, collect and analyze the data, and interpret the results. This includes solving problems that often crop up unexpectedly in research work.

Your supervisor guides and advises you in your research but not do all of your statistical work and interpret your analyses.

Self reliance is such an important criterion that it cannot be stressed often enough. Used to being spoon-fed with information and work being carried out for them, students often struggle to prepare, let alone execute and complete, a series of experiments on their own. Deadlines are never self-imposed, so their work is often completed late and shoddy, lowering the quality of research.

Self reliance also means self study, where you learn to overcome your knowledge deficiencies through reading, consultations, and hands-on practice. No one knows everything or is talented in all aspects. The crux is being able to seek out the relevant information and to do it diligently to overcome our knowledge or technical skill weaknesses.


Consequently, these seven questions are essential questions you need to ask yourself. This article is not about the nitty-gritty details about postgraduate application, as universities’ websites carry those information, but it is about whether you should be pursuing a Masters or a PhD programme.

My PhD student, Mohsen, and I discussing some finer points in our research.

My PhD student, Mohsen, and I (left) discussing about some finer points in his research project.

Stress, difficulties, sleepless nights, and delays are part and parcel of any research work. In fact, they are to be expected. But what becomes an unrewarding Masters or PhD experience is when students come unprepared in terms of insufficient financial means, wrong attitude and expectations, and inadequate basic knowledge and skills.




Tanarata International School, Year One, First Term: Review/comments from a parent

My son, Zachary, just completed his first term of Year 1 at Tanarata International School about a week ago. Zachary is only five years old when he entered Year 1, and I did worry whether he would be able to cope with the more academic setting of a school versus his more playtime setting at his Beaconhouse Preschool.

Last day of the school term meant a parents-teacher talk with Zachary’s teacher, Mrs. Ann. This is an important meeting, not only because Zachary’s report card would be given to us, but also because we could discuss Zachary’s performance with his teacher.

Zachary and his class teacher, Mrs. Ann

Zachary and his class teacher of class 1B, Mrs. Ann

The last day of the school term was the parents-teacher meeting.

The last day of the school term was the parents-teacher meeting

I am glad that Mrs. Ann, Zachary’s teacher, noticed Zachary’s key strengths without having us to tell her about them. She found him to be very well behaved, friendly, and has no problems with social interaction. Even Zachary’s love of reading was well noticed by her. No surprise then that Zachary did exceptionally well in English. My wife and I have been promoting a strong reading habit in Zachary since he was only a month old through a daily routine of reading aloud (and picking the right children books). As Mrs. Ann mentioned to us, the ability to read and a strong vocabulary are the foundation of learning, without which a child would be severely hampered in learning. My wife and I are proud of Zachary’s wide range of vocabulary and his ability to describe his experiences in his own words.

Zachary did very well overall for his subjects. He scored an A for English, Science, Maths, and Mandarin. He obtained a B in both Art and Computer. However, he scored a C in swimming which is not entirely surprising because Zachary fears dipping his head in water. This something I have to teach him to overcome.

A view of Zachary's class, 1B, from outside

A view of Zachary’s class 1B from outside

Zachary's class Year 1B

Zachary’s class Year 1B

Unlike most schools, in particular Chinese schools, Tanarata do not rank the students’ performances, so there is no the best student, second best student, or, gulp, the worst student in the class. However, the school does give out awards for the overall best student and the most improved student in school.

Tanarata's entrance to the class rooms for Year 1 to 6

Tanarata’s entrance to the class rooms for Year 1 to 6

Zachary with his report card for the first term of year 1

Zachary with his report card for the first term of Year 1

I like this non-ranking system Tanarata practices. I know parents who are obsessed that their children sent to Chinese schools rank at least Top 3 in their class every term. I very much dislike this kiasu-system style. It places pressure on the children, not to learn, but to outrank others. Good if your child is in Top 3, but what if your child is in the mid-table or in the Bottom 3? It kills your child’s confidence especially at such a young age.

In Tanarata, exams are given out to students even for those in Year 1. However, for the first two terms for Year 1, the exams are less formal although the exams are still conducted to ensure that the students complete the exams on their own, without discussion with their friends. This kind of assessment would continue until the third term of Year 1. In other words, Year 1 students are gradually eased into a more formal setting of assessment or evaluation.

The Malay language is a compulsory class for all Malaysian students. In addition to Malay, the local students can choose another language class. Tanarata offers four foreign languages: Mandarin, French, Spanish, and Hindi. Zachary opted for Mandarin. Like all international schools, the level of Mandarin taught in Tanarata is rather low. Good enough for conversations, but if you wish your child to fluent in Mandarin, you would need to enroll your child in external Mandarin classes.

The maximum number of students per class is set at 20, and there are two classes for each year. Zachary is in class 1B (the other class is 1A – again no ranking is implied in naming the classes 1A and 1B). Both classes are split rather evenly, with 16 students in Zachary’s class. More than half of Zachary’s classmates are local Malaysians, and the rest are from motley of countries: Korea, India, Sudan, China, and Uzbekistan.

Tanarata has a rather low student population, and it is purposely set that way for “quality rather than quantity,” as one school staff mentioned to me. The classroom size is small for more personal attention by the teachers, and the school does not feel crowded. One notable point is Tanarata is more Asian-oriented, so there are significantly less students from Western or European countries. This can be an important criterion for some parents. One parent recently told my wife and I that one reason she pulled out her son from the Australian International School was because of her son could not mix well with his classmates, most of whom were not Asians.

One strong positive of Tanarata is I did not notice any cliques among students based on race or nationality. In other words, there was no cliques of only Indian, Chinese, or foreign students. I observed that Tanarata students mixed freely among themselves. English is also widely spoken among the students in sharp contrast to other so-called international schools.

Another strong positive of Tanarata is the school welcomes parents’ involvement in the school activities. This is particularly true for the Halloween party organized by the school. Parents were asked to contribute gifts as well as their time in decorating the school. I do not see this as free labour but as a good way to make the parents feel a sense of belonging to the school as well as promoting interaction between parents. Judging by the well-decorated school during the Halloween party, these parents really put in their best effort.

Zachary with Mom and the, err, disciplinary teacher during Tanarata's Halloween Party

Zachary with Mom and the, err, disciplinary teacher during Tanarata’s Halloween Party

Zachary, dressed as a vampire, for the school's Halloween Party. Here posing with Zachary and Mom are the school teachers.

Zachary, dressed as a vampire, for the school’s Halloween Party. Here posing with Zachary and Mom are the school teachers.

Tanarata parents have also setup the Tanarata Community Club (TCC), or the “PTA” in Tanarata School. Unfortunately, my wife and I did not attend a single of their meetings as their meetings were often held when both of us were working. But it is good to know that TCC is not some dead club filled with inactive members. My wife and I were once asked by email sent by them if we had any issues or concerns to bring up to the school authorities.

Tanarata also maintains an active web social presence via Facebook that they use to post the school activities. Parents can also make comments on their Facebook and for all to read – which is a very good thing.

There was one unfortunate incident where a parent’s car was stolen right out of the school parking lot! In response, the school fitted several CCTVs around the school in particular at the school entrance, driveway, and parking lot. While this crime incident raised eyebrows, I am glad that the school responded quickly and correctly by installing the extra security measures – not just to protect the cars but also to protect our precious children.

In his first term, Zachary joined two ECA (extra-curricular activities) classes: drums and dancing. I wanted him to join Speech and Drama class too, but I noticed he was too tired from the other two ECA classes, so I pulled him out from the Speech and Drama class.

Tanarata school fees for Year 1 is RM3,600 per term inclusive of the school building fund. This fee does not include ECA fees, which is a good thing because it means we can choose which ECA we want our children to participate. ECA fees can range as low as RM60 to as high as RM450. Music classes like drums cost RM450 but the dancing class, if I remember accurately, is only about RM100 per term.

Various ECA classes are offered per term. But these ECA classes can generally be grouped into three: music (like vocal, drums, guitar, and piano), physical activities (like karate, tae-kwan do, dancing, football, swimming, and badminton), and scholastic (like web design, speech and drama, chess, and magazine and photography). Most of these ECA classes are out-sourced by the school. The speech and drama class, for instance, are handled by the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy.

Zachary enjoyed his drums classes but not so much the dancing class. He was expecting less formal dance routines (something akin to Gangnam style dancing) but what he got instead was “too much stretching” dancing like he was always warming up to dance instead of doing the dancing itself. Oh well…you won’t know until you try.

I am planning to send Zachary for the Speech and Drama class since this was what he took when he was at Beaconhouse Preschool, and he said he had lots of fun then.

There is a closer interaction between parents here in Tanarata than in larger schools or in government schools. Part of this reason is the smaller student population in Tanarata School.

There is a closer interaction between parents here in Tanarata than in larger schools or in government schools. Part of this reason is the smaller student population in Tanarata School.

Zachary's mom talking to a parent from China whose son share the same class as Zachary

Zachary’s mom talking to a parent from China whose son is Zachary’s classmate

Lastly, the school canteen is satisfactory, not great, but satisfactory. The meals there are prepared well and diverse. The canteen operator also allowed pre-paid meals, meaning that I deposit some amount of money (say, RM50) which would then be deducted each time Zachary orders a meal. That way, Zachary does not have to carry money to school or work out paying for his meals. However, the school is getting a new canteen operator next term, so I will wait and see if this operator is better than the previous one.

Overall, I am glad to report that Zachary enjoys going to school and meeting his teachers and friends. Once he was sick, and he had to miss two days of school. Since he was sick including over the weekend, he felt as if he did not attend school for over a week. To that, he once asked us, “I miss school. Is school still closed today?” This is so different from my own school experience. Being sick for me then was to be celebrated because it meant a doctor-certified excuse not to go to school.

I am overall happy with Tanarata. It is not a school for everyone. Tanarata is one of the cheapest international schools around, so their facilities may not match those from more expensive schools. This is not to say that Tanarata facilities are poor, but if you are a parent looking for Olympic-sized swimming pool, a school gymnasium the size of a shopping mall or free Wi-Fi at every school corner, then Tanarata would not be able to match your expectations.

Tanarata may have cheaper school fees, but I feel it is also selective in their student intake. This explains the low student population in the school. The green lush of vegetation and oil palm trees that surround this school makes learning here quiet, pleasant, and unique from other more concrete-based schools. Zachary’s teachers are great: most of them are friendly and experienced in handling young children, and some of them, well, quite fierce. Ah, but that is only to be expected. When was the last time you had a school without at least one much-feared teacher?

I am under no illusions that Zachary’s education is complete at Tanarata. Whichever school Zachary attends, my wife and I would still have to monitor closely his learning progress in school. My wife and I would still have to identify weaknesses in his learning and ensure he overcomes them. Teachers at a good school can only do so much. We, as parents, are still the most important factor in Zachary’s education.

But for now, I am pleased with Tanarata, and I look forward to Zachary’s second term.

Also read: Zachary’s entrance examination into Tanarata.




Review of car security systems to reduce risks of car theft in Malaysia

Update (26 Feb. 2013): My two blog articles on car security and car theft statistics in Malaysia were used in ntv7’s The Breakfast Show today (Episode 41). Go to tonton (search for the show — free registration and free viewing) to view the show’s segment on car security (at about 42:20 minutes).

One of the most harrowing experience for any car driver is to walk to your parked car, only to find an empty lot where your car used to be. One of your first thoughts must be, “I parked my car here, right? … Right?” Then it quickly dawns on you that your car has been stolen.

I had previously written in one of my blog entries about car theft in Malaysia. My simple analysis showed that a private car is stolen every 24 minutes in Malaysia and that the chance of recovery is a mere 10% on average.

Furthermore, 55% of car theft in Malaysia is by hot-wiring (that is, the thieves break into your car and somehow drive off your car without requiring your car keys). Carjacking (hijacking cars) is the next most common manner at 30% by which your car is stolen. Your car can also be the “lucky bonus” when your house, for example, is broken in by thieves, and they find your car keys. Taking advantage of their lucky find, the thieves take off with your car, perhaps even using your car to help to carry out your home possessions. This last manner by which your car is stolen forms 15% of car theft in Malaysia.

Various ways car are stolen in Malaysia (photo from www.netstar.com.my)

Car theft crime rate rises about 6% every year in Malaysia, and local cars, Proton and Perodua, continue to be the two most stolen cars in Malaysia. This is followed by Toyota (especially the Hilux model) and Honda (especially the Civic model) cars.

Top 10 most stolen cars in Malaysia in 2012 (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

I did some research via the web and even in car forums about car security. There is an adage in car forums that goes something like this: “If the thieves want our car that badly, they will get it whatever car security system we have, no matter how expensive or sophisticated the system may be.”

There is some truth in this adage, but before we feel helpless, I offer my own adage:

“The point of choosing a car security system is not to eliminate, but to reduce the risks of car theft. The better the system, the lower the risks.”

In other words, it is all about lowering (not eliminating) the chances of our cars being stolen. Let’s us now examine some car security features, starting with the most basic and common.

Window etching

This is where our car license plate number (some owners prefer engine chassis number) is etched onto a  car window. The more windows that have this etching, the better. This is because if your car is to be re-sold, the thief would have to replace all the windows that have the etched identity numbers. This is an additional cost that may deter a thief. This method, however, does not help if the thief wants your car only for its spare parts.

Sandblasting to etch the car registration number onto the car windows (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

Car security window tint

Car windows are the weakest link in the car security system because they can be easily smashed. To make it more difficult to smash and break the windows, car security window tint ought to be installed. The security tint come in various thickness (measured in unit mil where 1 mil = 0.001 inch), and the thicker the tint, the stronger the protection the tint gives to the glass. Security tint 4 mil are usually installed for cars. You can opt for a thicker (which would also be more expensive) tint for higher protection. However, tints thicker than 8 mil for cars are rarely needed (as a side note, security tint 15 mil is installed for increased resistance against bomb blasts and earthquake).

Install a security tint to make it harder to smash your car windows (photo from ilovedeals.my)

Car security window tints are particularly resistant against blunt blows such as someone using a motorcycle helmet, baseball bat, or rock to smash the window. But these tints are instead vulnerable to blows from sharp objects such as from a screwdriver, ice pick, or any strong and sharp objects. Witnesses have reported car thieves have successfully smashed a car window fitted with security tint by using only the sharp point of an object. The thieves only took only a few seconds to compromise the security tint.

That said, security tint are useful in particular in protecting us and our belongings against smash-and-grab. See the video below for one example where a security tint could have been proven useful.

Drive-by smash-and-grab. A security window tint may have prevented the robbery.

Hidden ignition switch (or kill switch)

This is a very cheap and yet effective way to deter car theft. A switch is fitted to the car ignition and the switch hidden somewhere in the car. To start your car, you need both car key and to turn on the hidden switch. Without the two, your car won’t start.

Installing a kill switch is cheap and effective against car theft (photo from www.car-theft.org)

Some creativity is needed to hide the switch or even fool the thief. The switch can be hidden under the dashboard or in some crevice in the car. Some people have made dummy switches or even requiring toggling on two switches (instead of one) before the car can be started.

Most hidden ignition switches are DIY (do-it-yourself), but many car accessory shops can do this for you for a small charge. The drawback is the accessory shop people would know where the switch is hidden in your car.

Steering wheel lock

This kind of lock is perhaps the most commonly found. What it does is it fits on your steering wheel, locking it, and making it very difficult to steer the car while the lock is still fitted.

Steering wheel locks may not considerably slow down a car thief from stealing your car, but its greatest strength is it is a visual deterrent. A thief who sees your wheel lock would stop and consider if it is worth the additional time and effort to break your lock and steal your car. A car with a steering wheel lock makes it more attractive for the thief to steal another car that doesn’t have the wheel lock. Of course, if a thief wants your car that badly, your steering wheel lock would only be a mild irritant to him.

That said, however, not all steering wheel locks are alike. Most locks are near worthless, but there are two locks in particular that give considerably better protection.

The problem with nearly all steering wheel locks are that they allow the thief to cut one or two places in the steering wheel to disengage the lock. So, you may have a lock that can withstand a meteorite impact, but the thief can still easily disengage the lock by merely attacking or cutting the steering wheel to which the lock is attached.

You need a lock that prevents the steering  hub (center) and the wheel from being tampered by the thief. A good lock is one that physically covers the hub and the surrounding wheel, so that the thief cannot remove the whole steering wheel or cut any part of the wheel.

And forget about those steering wheel locks that can emit an alarm. The sound would be too faint to be heard by other people. At most, it would make the thief slightly deaf for a few seconds before he  promptly disengages the lock and throws out the blaring wheel lock out of the window as he drives off your car.

As far as I know, only two steering wheel locks offer the kind of complete physical protection to both steering hub and wheel: Stoplock Ultima and Disklok, where the latter lock can be found in some car accessories shops in Malaysia. These two locks are not perfect, of course. They can still be compromised but only with a lot of noise and effort on the part of the thief. A well known UK security expert, Giles Verdon, took nearly two minutes to compromise both these locks. That he took two minutes might not seem long, but compare this period to 20 seconds or less Giles took to compromise other steering wheel locks.

Stoplock Ultima covers the hub and cannot be removed even if the steering wheel is cut, provided the lock is installed correctly. Disadvantages: heavy and expensive and does not fit all wheels. No longer sold in Malaysia. (photo from www.cartuningparts.co.uk)

Disklok covers the steering hub and wheel completely. Disadvantages: expensive and heavy. However, it comes in three sizes to fit different steering wheel sizes. (photo from www.overlandrs.co.uk)

Pedal lock

Pedal locks work similarly to steering wheel locks in that the former locks the brake and gas pedals, preventing the thief from using the pedals to drive off your car. Unlike steering wheel locks, pedal locks are harder to compromise because it is more difficult to cut the pedals than the steering wheel. The pedals are made from much stronger steel (to withstand all that feet stomping forces on them), so they are very difficult to bend or cut. Moreover, the thief has a smaller space to work on the pedals than on the steering wheel. This smaller space translates to more effort and more time needed to compromise the pedal lock.

There are several pedal lock brands in Malaysia. Some well known brands are Locktech and Locktat, where the latter is a local copycat version of the former lock from Thailand. Both these locks not only lock the car pedals, they also prevent the car from starting should you forget to unlock the pedals first. This is a safety feature particularly for automatic cars to prevent you driving  while both car pedals are still immobilized. Another common pedal lock is Autolock.

Locktech pedal lock (photo from static.lowyat.net)

Nonetheless, these pedal locks have been compromised rather commonly. I have read from the internet about more than one car owner sharing that, despite these pedal locks, their cars were still stolen. The Autolock pedal lock also has a rather well known weakness that enables the thief to twist and turn the lock in such a way to disengage the lock from the pedals, without needing to cut anything.

Solex pedal lock. Ugly but effective. (photo from img384.imageshack.us/img384/5918/solexnw1.jpg)

Gear lock

Gear locks prevent the thief from shifting gears; thereby, preventing your car from being driven off.  Unlike steering wheel and pedal locks, gear locks are much less common. Perhaps they are much less common that I have not come across any stories from car owners reporting that their cars were still stolen despite having their gear locks. Could it be that gear locks are the best alternative to steering wheel and pedal locks?

I only know of two gear lock brands sold in Malaysia: Construct (from Czech Republic) and Yuubi (a local brand). Purely from my observation, Yuubi appears physically more convoluted and poorer in quality than Construct. Moreover, Yuubi lock is about RM200 more expensive than Construct lock.

The elegant gear lock by Construct (photo from i767.photobucket.com/albums/xx316/nathan_low/construct.jpg)

The Construct gear lock only works using their proprietary key, which means it is nearly impossible to duplicate the key anywhere else except by them. Moreover, unlike steering wheel and pedal locks, Construct gear lock is fitted inside the gear construction box, so the only visual sign of its existence is a small keyhole beside the gear. This might be an important issue to some luxury car owners who would not like to “spoil” their luxury car look by fitting an ugly steering wheel or pedal lock.

Car alarm system

Car alarm system comes by default in all cars nowadays. However, there are many third party car alarm systems out there, ranging from a few hundred to few thousand ringgit, depending on the brand and what the system additionally provides in terms of security features.

The car alarm system at the most basic level should raise the alarm (by sounding the car horn) whenever a door, trunk, or hood is opened. Car alarm systems typically add other security levels such as engine immobilizer (to prevent hot wiring because they key must be present to start the car), vibration or shock alarm (for example, when a car window is being smashed), and car tilt alarm (to prevent the car from being jacked up to have your car towed away or your car sports rim stolen). Some alarm systems can also warn you if you have forgotten to turn on the alarm.

As stated earlier, there are many car alarm brands out there. The more expensive ones are such as Viper, Clifford, Python, and Steelmate brands. Car alarm systems are particularly vulnerable to having their power source cut off (i.e., car battery) or the car horn disabled. Because of this possibility, some car alarm brands like Viper has its own battery and horn backup which would kick in and sound the alarm if the car battery is cut off.

Viper car alarm system (photo from www.kklau.com.my)

So what about the OEM car alarm system that came with our cars? This is an issue for new car owners because replacing their OEM alarm system nullifies the car warranty without a doubt. My recommendation is if you are going to replace your OEM alarm system, do it only by installing an alarm system that has more security features than your current OEM one.

If you can afford it, don’t save a few ringgit. For a peace of mind, go for the full range of security features: those that can sense forceful movement, breaking glass, and car being towed or jacked up.

However, bear in mind that even the most expensive car alarm system can be compromised as revealed by several car owners. One car owner revealed to me recently that his RM2,000 car alarm system was compromised. The would-be car thief was only defeated by his humble pedal lock.

Hood lock

Car hood (bonnet) locks are fitted to lock the car hood; thereby, preventing car thieves from accessing your car battery and car horn (to disable the car alarm, for example). Some car models (like Perodua’s Myvi model) have hoods that are quite easy to open from the outside (that is, without requiring to pop the hood from inside the car).

Hood locks such as these can be found in Malaysia but would require some search in car forums for the right contact person (photo www.zerotohundred.com)

For some reason, however, hood locks are no longer popular in Malaysia. Consequently, it can be difficult to find anyone who both sells and installs hood locks here. It is a case of buying a hood lock from someone and giving it to someone else to install it for you. Finding a seller and an installer can be a challenge as they do not advertise themselves or have a permanent shop.

Some car accessory shops I have been to have not even heard of hood locks! See the video below on how one thief managed to open a car hood by pulling the hatch release cable via one of the front wheel chambers. It took him less than two minutes.

Car battery thieves took less than a minute to open the car bonnet.

Car tracking system

A car tracking system helps to locate the whereabouts of your car after it has been stolen. This system doesn’t prevent theft but helps you find your car should it be stolen. No other car security system does this.

Car tracking systems use GSM and GPS to determine the location of your car. GSM is a mobile telephone network system. A tracking system communicates with the nearest GSM telephone tower to obtain the car’s location. Consequently, the location relayed back is not the car’s true position but rather the position of the tower that is closest to your car. GPS, on the other hand, provides more accurate location because it uses at least three satellites to triangulate your car’s true position. GPS, however, relies on GSM network for tracking purposes.

Car tracking systems help to track the location of stolen car (photo from www.i2ko.com)

Unfortunately, GSM  is vulnerable to frequency jamming (yes, such jamming devices do exist, and they are easier to obtain than we think). This means car thieves can jam the GPS/GSM system, rendering it useless and giving time for the thieves to locate and remove the GPS/GSM tracking box from your car. GPS/GSM system would also often fail if your car is parked underground (like in shopping basement car parks), or if the car thieves drive your car into a shipping container or road tunnel.

Car tracking systems are maintained by two groups of people: 1) the car owners themselves, and 2) companies. There are several advantages and disadvantages of having to either maintain the tracking system yourself or having someone else (companies) to do it for you.

Captor and Cobra Connex are the two most well known companies in Malaysia that offer car tracking systems as well as car recovery. One advantage of having these companies maintain the tracking system for you is these companies have experienced people and, most importantly, the resources to help track your stolen car. They also work closely with the police to track and apprehend the perpetrators. By golly, these companies even have a helicopter to help track your car, although I doubt they use their copter unless you own a Bentley or Lamborghini that has been just stolen.

Going solo, however, means you have to track your stolen car yourself and then work to convince the skeptical police when you have actually found your car. Captor’s experience, in contrast, has meant that 80-90% of cars stolen are recovered by them within an average of four days.

Nonetheless, going solo has one advantage: privacy. If the tracking system is maintained by a company, they would know your whereabouts at all times. However, unless you are some secret agent, criminal, or celebrity, this loss of privacy is a minor issue to most normal people.

One disadvantage of Captor or Cobra is although they can remotely disable your stolen car, they would often only do so when their recovery team has a sighting of your car and decide it is safe to disable the car. I can understand this protocol because remotely disabling a car may cause traffic accidents. Imagine a stalled car (your car) that has been remotely disabled while on the fast lane of the highway. Good for you because the thieves are prevented from continuing their journey in your car, but bad for the car driver behind your stolen car who is driving at 120 km per hour.

Comparing between Captor and Cobra is difficult. It would be nice to compare their recovery effectiveness. Cobra offers compensation for unrecovered stolen cars by as much as RM10,000, whereas Captor has no such compensation service. Nonetheless, Captor offers RF (Radio Frequency) tracking capability in addition to GPS/GSM network. RF is much harder to jam, unlike GPS/GSM, and RF works regardless if your car is inside a shipping container, a road tunnel, or parked in a parking basement. RF, however, works slower than GPS/GSM. The recovery team also has to work slowly to sweep the area and to zoom in into your car’s exact location.

Miscellaneous

There are other ways to secure your car. The following are some ways you can secure your especially if you are leaving your car for long periods:

  1. Tire lock. These are locks for one of your tires, very similar to those used on illegally parked cars. However, portable and good ones are hard to find in Malaysia and most probably have to be bought from overseas via online. There are China-brands sold in Malaysia, but they appear flimsy.

    Tire clamp/lock is a good way to prevent towing of your car. If the front tire is locked, ensure you park your car facing towards a wall or obstacle. If the rear tire is locked, then park so that your car rear faces the wall or obstacle. (photo from www.easybizchina.com)

  2. Removing the ignition or starter fuse. The fuse for the car ignition can be removed which would prevent the car from starting.
  3. Like above, but this time, the car spark plugs are removed. Do not remove just one plug because a car can still move without one plug, albeit very clumsily. All spark plugs must be removed and kept hidden somewhere (not in the car).
  4. To protect your sports rim, you could install wheel lock nuts. They look like regular wheel nuts, but they require a special key to unlock them. However, they can be comprised quite easily because they can removed using a universal socket called Gator Grip. A much better wheel lock nuts are from McGard, which are unfortunately not sold in Malaysia (but can be bought from overseas via online). However, if your car has a tilt alarm, installing wheel lock nuts are unnecessary because jacking up your car to steal the sports rim would trigger the car alarm.

    Wheel lock nuts to prevent theft of your sports rim (photo from lagisenang.com)

    Gator Grip which are available in Malaysia can be used to remove wheel lock nuts commonly sold in Malaysia (photo from www.jennyreviews.com)

Other approaches to reduce car theft that does not require any equipment are as follows:

  1. Park in well-lit areas. Better still, park in direct line of sight of any security camera.
  2. As you walk to your car, observe your surroundings. Any suspicious people hanging around, looking at you, or following you? They could be car jackers.
  3. Car jackers also try to lure you out of your car. Methods they have used before are such as putting  a note on your rear window or tying some cans under your car. As you reverse or move your car, the note or sounds draws your attention. So, you exit your car to determine the problem. As you move to your car rear, the car jackers enter your car and drive off. Other methods include puncturing one of your tires to force you change your tire in the parking lot. Once you have changed your tire, the car jackers (who have been observing all this while) move in and drive off your car.

Best car security system?

As a minimum (or for the budget conscious), a car should have:

  1. Car alarm
  2. Window etching of your car registration number
  3. Kill switch (hidden)
  4. Steering wheel lock (any model — as a visual deterrent)

But the best:

  1. Car alarm (with all its bells and whistles such as shock sensor and tilt alarm)
  2. Window etching of your car registration number
  3. Kill switch (hidden)
  4. Gear lock
  5. Car security window tint
  6. GPS car tracking system (with car recovery service)
  7. Steering wheel lock (optional, but if you are seriously looking for the best, go for Disklok)

So, there. This has been my take on car security features and what I think is best.