Dear parents, are our children being taught computer coding the wrong way?

Last Thursday, I registered my 11-year-old son Zachary for a free three-hour trial in computer coding. This trial class was held at KidoCode at Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur. This preview class was not just for the child but also for the parents, so that both parents and child would have a general idea of how coding was taught at KidoCode and about the center’s general philosophy on learning, teaching, and social work.

KidoCode is a coding school where students learn on their own by watching proprietary online tutorials and completing certain number of tasks, which are then scored. Trainers are available should the children get stuck or want advice. (Photo from www.kidocode.com)

Alas, at the end of the three hours, I came away disappointed. What I experienced instead strengthened my suspicion and skepticism that our children are being taught the wrong way about coding.

The late Steve Jobs said over twenty years ago that “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” Since then, many others have advocated that our kids must be taught coding, especially in today’s world of ubiquitous technology.

Increasingly more countries today are incorporating coding or computer science into their national school curriculum. Britain, for example, was the first G7 country to do such that for their 5 to 16 year old children. Even Malaysia is cognizant of this importance. As far back as 1988, the then Education Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, announced that coding was to be a part of the national curriculum by 1990. But Malaysia being Malaysia, flip-flop education policies are the norm: Anwar’s national coding policy never materialized. Since then, other similar national coding policies have been reintroduced, only to fail, wane or be quietly abandoned, such as the 2012 1BestariNet project, due to many reasons such as financial and logistics constraints.

Today our national ICT custodian is the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), and at the risk of failing to learn from history, MDEC too announced in 2016 that it had plans to make coding part of the pedagogy of teaching at national schools, particular for science and math subjects by 2017. The year 2017 came and went, and it appeared that MDEC’s policy too have quietly been abandoned, now replaced by a less ambitious plan to create a Digital Innovators School instead by 2019.

So, yes, we are increasingly being told that our children, the younger the better, should learn coding. Coding schools and online self-learning portals (such as code.org and Codeacademy) are becoming increasingly popular with parents looking to enroll their kids for coding lessons. Even most schools today have at least some coding extracurricular activities to promote coding among students.

My problem is not whether children should learn coding; I firmly believed they should. But my problem is about the way our kids are being taught coding. Coding taught at online self-learning portals and coding schools are like ‘pop computing’ – a term coined by Dr. Idit Hazel, CEO of Globaloria, an organization for computer science education. Pop computing refers to a coding culture where coding is taught only to be quick, comfortable, and entertaining but suffers from being superficial, that kids do not have the necessary background or training to develop a deep and independent way of computational thinking.

A popular software to teach kids coding, for example, is Scratch, where kids learn programming by dragging-and-dropping blocks of code in a visual and colorful manner. Fun to use and even more fun to play the game kids develop, but it fails to deliver a multi-dimensional thinking required to apply computer science principles in other contexts.

Scratch is a visual programming platform where children learn programming by dragging and dropping blocks of code. Scratch is created by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab (photo from freeCodeCamp).

My own son once took a Scratch class for seven months, and he immensely enjoyed his classes. He was willing to spend even up to six hours at his then coding school. But even up to today, he still fails to understand, let alone use, fundamental computer coding concepts like logical comparisons, conditional statements, and loops.

In other words, our kids are not taught the fundamentals. Coding learning software such as Scratch and Turtle Logo may make programming fun, but they teach software and computer science concepts in a very superficial manner. The fundamentals are made implicit rather than explicit. Without having a strong grasp of the fundamentals, I fear kids can only build apps they have been “guided” by their schools. MIT researchers Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay remarked that computer literacy is akin to music literacy. Musicians become proficient by listening, improvising and composing, not just playing (or duplicating) other people’s composition. Pop computing risks our kids having a poor foundation in coding. Pop computing, I feel, is a more of a marketing rather than educational tool and more catered to hyperactive children or those with short attention spans to keep them focused long enough at the computer (or mobile) screens to learn … something, anything.

Some coding schools also pack in their curriculum, probably to make their curriculum appear comprehensive and holistic for parents. KidoCode, for instance, aim that their students learn very advanced computer science topics like object-oriented programming, software design patterns, and web programming (such as by using Flask). The school also attempts to teach four programming languages: Python, C++, JavaScript, and HTML. This is extraordinary considering that C++, in particular, is notorious even among experienced programmers for being a difficult language to learn. Also included in their curriculum is building electronic gadgets with Raspberry Pi and Arduino. All of these are to be completed in about 100 hours (which works out to three hours of class per day in a span of only a month).

Consequently, I fear coding schools teach is a case of “a little of this and that” but each topic in a very superficial, inadequate manner.

Furthermore, coding schools may boast of having several hundreds, even thousands, of enrolled students, but nothing is made known to the public about how many of their enrolled students actually follow through to the end of the course or about the quality of their “graduated” students. These schools are also neither accredited nor the quality of their teaching or lesson materials independently accessed.

My son Zachary never has a problem with his attention span, and he would actually want to understand what he is doing rather than just “duplicating” or making small adjustments to the provided coding guide or lesson. So, I see the usual, albeit more fun, route of pop computing is not for him. I have actually started to teach him coding, starting with Python programming.

For instance, for his first lesson, I taught my son the following classic example:

print('Hello, world!')

My son actually sees more meaning in this single line of code than his trial coding lesson at KidoCode such as follows:

tom = Turtle()
tom.shape('turtle')
tom.speed(100)
tom.color('green')
for c in [1,2,3,4]:
    tom.forward(100)
    tom.right(90)

where the concept of object-orientation is actually taught but in an implicit manner. Furthermore, would kids actually understand what [1,2,3,4] or even Turtle() mean? Sure, the above seven lines code help to make a cute animated turtle move and make a square on the screen — but I suspect most kids would secretly wonder about [1,2,3,4] — what sorcery is this?

Herein lies part of the problem: the lack of fundamentals being taught.

There is actually a difference between computer science and coding. Coding is really just our written instructions to the computer so that the computer does exactly what we want it to do. Computer science, on the other hand, is not just about coding but also a way of thinking that involves problem solving through a logical and methodological manner. Yevgeniy Brikman, who is a software engineer and writer on technology matters, went even as far to say that learning about coding or technology is less important than learning how to think. Sure, technology is ubiquitous, Brikman remarked, but that does not mean we must study about technology in schools.

“For example, we all fly in airplanes,” Brikman further explained, “but getting a pilot license is not part of the K-12 [school] curriculum …. but the tools you need to understand how to think about flying should be part of the curriculum.”

In other words, learning the fundamentals is crucial. Learning how to fly a plane should not be compulsory for everyone, but we all should learn the fundamentals related to flying. We should learn physics and math because they teach us about gravity, forces, pressure, velocity, friction, and lift. We should also learn biology because it teaches us about the effects of high altitudes on our human bodies, and we all should also learn history because it helps to explain about the invention of airplanes and their effect and role in societies.

The crux then for my son –  and your children – is to understand the fundamentals, not just learn to duplicate or ‘modify’ guided code (or just build some apps because everyone seems to be doing it now). Once my son has nailed down his fundamentals, then I might consider sending him to coding schools to learn other topics and even build apps. Yes, the school’s lessons would probably be more fun and flashier than his dad’s, but at least my son would actually understand and appreciate what he is doing whilst having great fun.

Updated: 29 June 2018

References




Small acts of resistance

I recently picked up “Small Acts of Resistance”, a book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. This book is a collection of stories around the world about individuals, groups of people, and citizens fighting for change in their countries. As authors, Crawshaw and Jackson, admit “Small Acts of Resistance” is a bit of a misnomer. Some of these acts of resistance may be carried out by one or a few individuals, but their acts have resulted in large and cascading repercussions, some powerful enough to topple governments and dictators.

“Small acts of resistance,” by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, tells of the courage of normal people fighting for change in their countries

Consider some of the following “small” acts of resistance in some countries.

Resistance in Poland

In February 5, 1982, the Polish people in the town of Swidnik decided to boycott watching their TVs because they grew tired of the lies and government propaganda often propagated through their TV sets. But this wasn’t your normal turn-off-your-TV boycott. Some the town folks went for a walkabout on the streets, bringing along their TVs in strollers and wheelbarrows. Some turned the TV so that the screens faced outward towards the window, sending a message that their TVs were broadcasting fictional messages to no one. Additionally, to show support for the banned Solidarity movement, the people in Warsaw, capital city of Poland, flashed their house and apartment lights on and off at pre-determined times of the day. As some witnesses report, the whole city of Warsaw would lite up like Christmas trees, much to the fury of the government.

Resistance in Uruguay

The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985 was very much hated (and feared) by the people. One of the consequences was the Uruguayans’ lack of passion in singing their national anthem. It can be hard to show nationalistic passion when one’s country is ruled by a corrupt and violent military junta. However, to indirectly show support and unity against the junta, Uruguayan football fans would first sing their national anthem with indifference before the start of any football match. However, when the anthem declares “Tiranos temblad!” (or “May tyrants tremble!”), the Uruguayan football fans would shout in unison, “Tiranos temblad!” and waved their flags. After that brief and emotive roar, the fans would resume back to their disinterest tone until the end of the long anthem.

Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America football cup. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Uruguay football fans showed their united hatred for their ruling military junta by singing the country’s national anthem, prior to football games, in a “special” way. (photo by Getty Images)

Resistance in Peru

In May 2000, the people of Peru performed a curious flag washing activity. They would gather every Friday from noon to three in the afternoon in front of Plaza Mayor in Lima (Peru’s capital city) and wash Peru’s red-and-white flag. This weekly flag washing activity was a message that Peru’s flag had become soiled due to the corrupt President Fujimori, who, in 2009, was eventually jailed for 25 years for numerous killings under his rule.

Peruvians performing their weekly flag washing as a sign of protest of the corrupt and brutal President Fujimori (photo from img.timeinc.net)

Resistance in Iran

Taxi drivers in Iran show their disdain for the current Islamic Iranian government by refusing to pick up mullahs (male religious leaders or teachers). So, if you a turbaned man of God in Iran, one thing is for sure: forget about getting a cab ride in Tehran – because they hate you.

Resistance in Myanmar

In Myanmar (Burma), the military junta directed that the citizens dress conservatively during the country’s annual water festival in 2009. Some youths, however, thought differently as defiance against the hated junta. The result? See for yourself below.

“Dress conservatively,” the military junta of Myanmar directs the people. Some Myanmarese youths, however, thought otherwise (photo from www.smallactsofresistance.com)

More resistance in Myanmar

In Myanmar, the one-kyat note remains banned even until today. The back of the note is  a drawing of the much revered General Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army. The note designer, however, deliberately soften the general’s face to look more like his daughter: Aung San Suu Kyi, the well known and much feared opposition voice in Myanmar. By the time the military junta discovered the similarities of appearance to Aung San Suu Kyi, it was too late. The one-kyat notes had already been printed and widely circulated, much to the secret pleasure of the Myanmar people and to much of the embarrassment of the ruling junta. The note, however, was eventually banned. It is no surprise then to learn that the Myanmar’s one-kyat note is also called the “democracy note” by some people.

The banned one-kyat note had been subversively modified so that General Aung San’s face features appeared softer and made to look more like his famous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (photo from banknotes.com)

Resistance in the Philippines

In Philippines in 1986, thirty female computer technicians refused to comply when they were asked to omit election vote numbers favoring the opposition. They walked out of the counting hall for a “toilet and rest break” and never returned. After a hasty press conference, they went into hiding. This was the start of the very well known “People Power Revolution” against President Ferdinand Marcus who was subsequently ousted after 25 years in power and replaced by the people’s choice, Corazon Aquino.

People’s choice, Corazon Aquino, overthrows the brutal and corrupt President Ferdinard Marcos through People Power in 1986 (photo from img.timeinc.net)

Resistance in Sudan

In 2002, the women of southern Sudan, tired after endless wars, decided to withhold sex from their partners. Comical it may first appear, this “sexual abandoning” was a powerful drive to force “their men” into working for peace and not for war – and the women’s’ efforts worked. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the warring north and south of Sudan. Recently, on July 9, 2011 (same date as Bersih’s rally), the south of Sudan achieved sovereignty and independence, and this country is now known as The Republic of South Sudan.

Resistance in the Soviet Union

In August 20, 1991, over a hundred thousand people gathered in central Moscow to oppose the ruling Politburo overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader and General Secretary of the Politburo. Facing tanks and the army, these people must have feared for their lives. Although three people died, the coup lasted less than three days, defeated not by violence or by the might of another army but defeated by peaceful and normal protesters who were ready to risk their lives against bullets and tanks.

Resistance in East Germany

In the summer and autumn of 1989 in Leipzig town, East Germany, the number of protesters participating in Monday weekly street marches grew larger by the week. In an attempt to quash these protest marches once and for all, the East German authorities gave a final warning that these marches would no longer be tolerated and be firmly dealt with, even with lethal violence. On October 9, 1989,  seventy thousand people defied government warnings of lethal violence and took to the streets. Reports said that earlier that day live ammunitions had already been distributed among the security forces, but instead of a historic bloodbath, nothing happened. The authorities caved in because they were shocked by the people’s lack of fear. No shots had been fired, and after a month, the East German regime collapsed and made way for Germany’s unification.

On October 9, 1989, 70,000 people defied government’s threats of lethal violence and marched in unison on the streets of Leipzig, East Germany. The East Germany regime later collapsed a month after this event. (photo from alannothnagle.files.wordpress.com)


There are many more such stories in the book “Small Acts of Resistance” – stories about individuals who would risk their lives to fight for change and to correct the many wrongs.

However, I noticed that stories in “Small Acts of Resistance” carry a common theme. They are stories about individuals and collective resistance against highly corrupt and oppressive authorities and governments, where voices of dissent by the people are barely, if at all, tolerated. People with opposing views are often severely punished, even by imprisonment or death.

Note: this article is a modification of my own blog article I wrote way back in 2011. I am republishing it to give this book more of its due.

Updated (7 June 2019): Minor corrections to the article.




We are not special

Let’s face it. We are not special. We like to think we are, that our goals, rants, aspirations, and struggles really matter. But we are stardust, as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us.  Sounds poetic but it is also true. We are made up of molecules constructed from the crucibles of stars from deep space. When these stars exploded, they ejected their elements, becoming building blocks upon which increasingly heavier elements could be formed and finally combining with one another to form matter: new stars, planets – and, yes, little us too.

Look at Earth, our home. A pale dot amidst billions and trillions of other planets out there. A mote of dust, as the late Carl Sagan remarked. And if the entire 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history was condensed into a 24-hour clock, humanity’s history would emerge only less than two minutes before midnight. That is how insignificant we are compared to the grand scheme of the universe. Our 80-or-so years of life on Earth is but a negligible fraction of time.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” – Carl Sagan, in his 1994 book, “The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

But we like to be extraordinary. Today’s sages tell us to. They feed upon our narcissism that yearns to be extraordinary, to do the extraordinary, and to live extraordinary lives. But the advice to be extraordinary is itself contradictory. If everyone was extraordinary, then no one, by definition, would be extraordinary because no one would stand out from the rest.

So, yes, we are not special.

But that should not depress us. Instead, it should drive us to appreciate that our time on Earth is very short and finite. We may not be special, that on the scale of the universe, we are insignificant and our lives a fleeting moment in history, but this does not mean our lives should not matter. The idea that we are not special should humble us. It should challenge us to re-orientate our lives to make it count with what little time we have left, that our lives will make a significant impact on those around us. Because we have lived, others have been changed and have benefited.

So, what then is our purpose in life? What is our legacy, our immortality project? Our life’s purpose is a compass that helps us to distinguish between the important, trivial, and irrelevant in our lives. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It distinguishes between struggles and aspirations that matter, those that deserve our full energy, attention, time, and money and those that we should ignore or at least, emphasize less. Our purpose in life liberates we because it provides us guidance, that we are dedicating our lives on goals or pursuits more noble than ourselves.

But it is not all psychology and pep talk. Having a strong purpose in life cascades down to even at a biological level. A 2013 study by Steve Cole from the University of California found that people with more hedonic lifestyles had genetic expressions similar to those seen in people suffering from loneliness and stress, compared to those with people choosing more eudemonic lifestyle, a life driven beyond self-gratification. And brain scans of people with a higher eudemonic lifestyle showed lower stress response than those with lesser eudemonic lifestyle. In other words, people with long term life purpose live longer and are healthier.

But thinking about our purpose in life, let alone setting one, is hard. It is scary – and as blogger Mark Manson wrote in his book ”The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, we don’t do it because we have no clue what we are doing.

The late Steve R. Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” probably said it best on how we can find our purpose in life: “[Imagine attending your own funeral] … What would you like each of the speakers to say about you and your life? … What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? … What difference would you like to have made in [people’s] lives?”

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.

Our deaths are inevitable, but rather than dreading it, our deaths should warn us of wasting our lives. But change is difficult and fraught with pain, suffering, and struggles. Athletics, for instance, are willing to bear the tedium and pain of training because they know the outcome of their struggles is becoming fitter, stronger, and faster. No one likes pain, but people are willing to face and endure it provided the outcome is worthwhile and fulfills their purpose in life.  Mark Manson says it best: our self-worth isn’t a measure of how we feel about our positive experiences but about how we feel about our negative experiences. Pain is telling us to pay attention and to learn. Our pain, if we respond correctly and are willing to learn, initiates meaningful change. Trying to pursue a pain-free life is instead foolish because it avoids learning and meaningful change, and it leads to inconsequential and perhaps even selfish, self-indulgent lives.

Achieving the extraordinary is then not a target by itself but an outcome, perhaps even by accident, due to our pursuit of our aspirations. We may dedicate our lives in helping the poor, for instance, and our efforts might gain us recognition, awards, and even a celebrity-like status, but they are an outcome, not the goal, of our purpose.

Why am I here? (c) freshideas @ fotolia.com

But what characterizes a meaningful life purpose? Obviously, identifying one’s purpose in life is highly specific to individuals. Mark Manson however offers that a person’s purpose in life should encompass good values, and such values are those that are reality-based, socially-constructive, and immediate and controllable. Honesty is an example of a good value, says Mark, because it is real, it benefits others, and it is under our control, whereas popularity isn’t because it is out of our control (i.e., we need to convince others to like us), may not be real because people may not really see us like we want them to, and being popular is, well, selfish, indulgent, and does little to help others.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.” So, if our lives were to be made into a TV drama, what would our story be, after all the boring, doldrums bits of our lives cut out? Did our lives matter?

References

  1. Burrell, T. 2017. Why am I here? New Scientist. 28 January 2017. p. 30-33.
  2. Fredrickson, B.L., Grewen, K.M. Coffey, K.A., Algoe, S.B., Firestine, AM., Arevalo, J.M.G., Ma, J., and Cole, S.W. 2013. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 33: 13684-13689. [link]
  3. Manson, M. 2016. The subtle art of not giving a f*ck. A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. New York: HarperOne.



Waiting for Bernie Sanders: Igniting a political and social revolution in Malaysia

Let’s face it. There is not going to be political or social revolution in Malaysia anytime soon—not for at least one generation. Here are the facts. Nearly 60% of Malaysians are apathetic to politics, with more than 70% of Malaysian youth aged between 19 to 24 years declared themselves as simply ‘not interested in politics’. Moreover, two-thirds of Malaysians feel they are individually powerless to exert any meaningful changes to the country.

Oddly, though, only one-third of Malaysians feel that the country is moving the wrong direction. Malaysians are strongly segregated along racial and religion lines, where 64% Malays identified with religion first, compared to 11% Indians and 6% Chinese. On the other hand, 71% Indians identified as Malaysians first, followed by 55% Chinese and 26% Malays. No surprise then that different races in Malaysia have a different perspective of this country. The most discontent race is the Chinese, where less than one-fifth of Chinese agree that the country is moving in the right direction. In sharp contrast, however, a whooping 70% of Malays see the country as moving in the right direction.

Despite falling human rights in Malaysia, oddly more than half of Malaysians see the country as moving in the right direction (c) dizain @ fotolia.com

Despite appalling human rights and deteriorating social unity in Malaysia, oddly more than half of Malaysians still see the country as moving in the right direction. (c) dizain @ fotolia.com

While about half of Malaysians agree that corruption is a major concern in the country, only less than 10% see racial issues as a serious problem. The latter is surprising considering that nearly half of Malaysians agree that national unity has declined over the years. While many other countries are concern about their race inequalities and have attempted to mitigate such problems, Malaysia is rather unique because there is a large disparity in agreement between races on whether all people in Malaysia should be treated and accorded to the same rights regardless of race or religion. You would think having such a fundamental and important human right is a no brainer, that there would be a clear consensus in agreement by all Malaysians. Not true. Only 39% Malays agree that all Malaysians should be treated equally, compared to 64% Chinese.

While the government is guilty of playing the race and religion cards to divide and subdue the people, the opposition parties stand just as guilty as the government and are as crazy as for power as the government is in staying in power.

Malaysia’s future is bleak. Not only are many Malaysians uninterested in political issues, many are unaware that Malaysia is regressing politically and socially into an oppressive, divisive, ignorant, and unenlightened country. Instead, more than half of Malaysians think the country is actually progressing in the right direction, and this trend has been increasing steadily over the years since 2008.

There is no one party or one person in this country who truly represents all Malaysians, regardless of race, culture, or religion and whom is accepted by every Malaysian to champion for their respective rights.

Malaysias future is bleak.

No leader, no political party truly represents all Malaysians regardless of race, religion, or even sexual orientation. Malaysians have also allowed themselves to be strongly divided along racial and religious lines, so distrust between groups of people and racism are sky high. (c) alphaspirit @ fotolia.com

No surprise then that I gradually find myself particularly captivated by the ongoing US Presidential elections. I am captivated by the elections there because they express my desires for Malaysian politics. How I yearn that our country’s politics move closer to that in the US than the quagmire it is now.

I am of course not naïve. US politics, though touted to be the most democratic in the world, is hardly perfect or even free and fair.

In the current (and past) US elections, there have been accusations of election fraud (or at least, election mismanagement), voter suppression, and media blackout of certain President candidates. US politics are also unfortunately heavily influenced by interest groups, lobbyists, and a select powerful few (oligarchy), taking away the power and voice from ordinary US citizens. Consequently, voter turnout in US elections is among the lowest in the world, as many Americans do not see their government as serving their interest. Like Malaysian youth, the American youth too have little to no interest in politics.

But something interesting and profound is happening in the current US Presidential elections that have relevance to us Malaysians. The US is of course the sole superpower country in the world, so whoever is elected to hold the most powerful job position of a US president is of great interest to many countries. Whatever the US does (or does not do), unwittingly or not, will directly or indirectly affect us all, the rest of the world.

Sure, the US Presidential nominations may have started off in the usual, expected way, but over a span of one year, we have seen the current US elections evolving to one essentially about electing a candidate who is either willing to break or keep establishment politics, whether a given candidate wants to break or keep the status quo of a political system heavily influenced by interest groups and oligarchy.

Independent voters, so called for their disenfranchisement and disillusionment of US politics, have suddenly become interested in the current US elections. For many, this is the first time—and for the older folks, the first time in several decades—that they suddenly feel empowered that they have a say to shape the government of their future. The election of Barrack Obama as the US President in 2008 was hailed as a very significant and progressive point in US history, but many Americans have since become disillusioned by President Obama. Some see him as not being liberal enough, still held back by establishment politics. Without doubt, the US have improved under President Obama’s leadership – but the changes or improvements under him, despite over eight years, have not been enough.

In the current US elections, many Americans find themselves being offered three contrasting pathways to their future: to keep or break establishment politics, and if the latter, through divisiveness by Donald Trump or inclusiveness by Bernie Sanders?

I first heard of Bernie Sanders when he participated in one of the early Democratic debate. He, along with the other Presidential candidates, were asked what was the biggest security threat to the US at the moment. While the other candidates gave the expected answers of China, Iran, ISIS, or the instability in the Middle East, Bernie answered climate change. His answer was radical, totally unexpected, and different from others.

Honesty, integrity, consistency, and authenticity are rare attributes for any politician today, but they perfectly describe Bernie Sanders.

Some have called Bernie Sanders as a once-in-a-lifetime politician. Integrity, consistency, honesty, and authenticity are rare attributes for any politician today, but yet they accurately describe Bernie.

It was clear to me then that Bernie has a different mindset from the rest. A simple search on the web would reveal that Bernie has been astonishingly saying and fighting over the same issues for the past four decades. Bernie wants to break big banks, tax the rich, expand Social Security, and improve medical care and education by offering free health care to education to all. Like him or hate him, even Bernie critics cannot accuse him of flip flopping over issues and stance. Honesty, integrity, and consistency are characteristics not normally attributed to politicians. But such attributes do apply to Bernie.

Even when certain issues were unpopular, Bernie stood by his principles. He fought for gay rights in the 1990s when it was very unpopular and potentially a political suicide to do so then.

Bernie was against the Gulf War and Iraq war even before they happened. He was against free trade agreements when they were first proposed. Such free trade agreements have been disastrous to the US because they have cause millions of job losses in the country. Even the so-called Panama Papers controversy have shown Bernie was right when he first opposed to the Panama free trade agreement. He argued that such a trade would encourage money laundering and tax evasions in Panama. At hindsight, Bernie, the prophet, was exactly right.

Everyone can claim to be a genius after all answers have been revealed. It’s easy to say, “I told you so” after the event. For Bernie, however, his genius is his foresight. Bernie has a remarkable clear and steadfast idea of what exactly constitutes social righteousness.

Bernie is now 74 years old, old enough to be the grandfather of many – hardly a model of charisma, youth, and eloquence that would draw people to him, but yet an overwhelming majority of US millennials (ages between 18 and 34 years) have adhered strongly to Bernie. Why? As Cenk Uygur, the host of “Young Turks”, said, “It’s the authenticity, stupid. You can’t fake a 40-year record.”

US millennials are a very progressive lot—and Bernie is as progressive as they are, but not because Bernie has cleverly fashioned his stance and message to appeal to the millennials for winning the US elections. No, Bernie is authentic, fighting for the same values cherished by millennials of today even since the 1960s. Bernie himself have said that his message and views are not radical. He is merely echoing what the 99% of the country are wishing for.

Bernie was active in civil rights even iin the 1960s. Here, Bernie was arrested in 1962 for his protest against racial segregation against blacks at his university.

Bernie was active in civil rights even in the 1960s. Here, Bernie was arrested in 1962 for his protest against racial segregation against blacks at his university.

Like Donald Trump, Bernie is a representation of anti-establishment politics, but in sharp contrast to Trump, Bernie fights for a society that runs on cooperation and inclusiveness and for a government that, for once, represents the common people, not just the few. Bernie rouses and challenges people’s desire for unity and for change towards common good and greater social justice.

Bernie is a Jew, but you wouldn’t know it because he doesn’t make a meal of it. He never pushes for any “Jewish agenda” but instead he supports immigration reform and respect for Islam—even Palestinian rights, something no US politician has ever openly defended—and these are further reflections of his inclusive universalism. No wonder then even the US Muslims have come out to support Bernie the Jew. Championing for only one race, one religion, or one group of people would strongly violate everything Bernie stands for.

As it currently stands, Bernie is trailing his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, and it is very unlikely he would win the party nomination for US Presidency. But Bernie has surpassed all expectations. From initially being just an interesting footnote in the news media, Bernie has mounted a very strong challenge that no one had anticipated. He has strongly fought Hillary for the nomination, winning 18 primaries, and with overwhelming support by the millennials, far more than even Obama had when he ran for the nomination in 2008. In open primaries which allow for independents (not just registered Democrat members) to vote, Bernie has won by large margins.

Bernie Sanders has overwhelming support of US millennials those

Bernie Sanders has overwhelming support of US millennials (those aged between 18 and 35 years) due to his progressive and inclusive ideas. @ fuelingthebern.com

Youth support for Bernie for President is very high. An interesting poll found that more young Americans would rather have dinner with Bernie Sanders than music megastars Kanye West and Justin Bieber combined. @ www.businessinsider.my

Bernie may be 74 years old, but youth support for him as the US President 2016 is very high, even higher than that for Obama in 2008. An interesting poll found that more young Americans would rather have dinner with Bernie Sanders than music megastars Kanye West and Justin Bieber combined. @
www.businessinsider.my

Even many political observers have agreed that Bernie’s campaign has brought important changes to not only the Democratic party but to the country as well. Bernie has forced his opponent Hillary Clinton to take up and even support his issues. Most of all, Bernie has galvanized the youth and independent and first time voters to fight for a more just society and for a government that truly represents the people and not just, as Bernie would say, the 1%. Bernie may at the end lose the nomination, but he has won. He brought change, true change, that whoever forms the new US government of tomorrow can no longer afford to ignore or underestimate the grassroots of the country.

You are saying something right when you get such a large crowd to hear you speak. This was the size of the crowd of 20,000 (with a further 8,000 outside the stadium) at Portland, Oregon to hear Bernie speak in Aug. 9, 2015.

You must be saying something right when you get such a large crowd to hear you speak. This was the size of the crowd of 20,000 (with a further 8,000 outside the stadium) at Portland, Oregon to hear Bernie speak in Aug. 9, 2015.

The US and Malaysian politics are of course vastly different from each other. But from my observations, it is interesting to note that we Malaysians and our leaders can learn a few things from Bernie Sanders on how to start a political and social revolution here in Malaysia. The following are the principles I have gleaned from Bernie’s movement:

  1. Create a shared vision that everyone in the society understands — a vision that is clear and achievable and that brings together everyone, across all races, ages, culture, education, and religion. No such revolution has occurred in Malaysia because Malaysians are still religion or race first, then a Malaysian. We Malaysians are too busy looking out for our own agenda to strive for the common good.
  2. There would be no compromise or settling for less in achieving our vision. So-called Citizen Declaration, for instance, will fail because it lacks long term and clear vision and compromises principles to achieve “vague” goals.
  3. Work for and not against any group of people. Use positivity, not negativity. Rather that a reacting against injustice, create a movement that strives to achieve a better future. Movements like Bersih or those from the opposition parties have not achieved the desired social traction because these movements are always about negativity (like getting rid of current leaders, corruption, social injustice, etc., etc.).
  4. Keep people engaged and allow them to work independently to achieve the goals. Again Bersih and other movements have failed because people are always “waiting for instructions” and cannot work independently. To keep people engaged, the use of social media and alternative news media are absolutely imperative to keep the momentum.
  5. The support and involvement of the youth are crucial. They can break or trigger the revolution. The youth are full of energy and creativity but require a vision to empower and trigger them into activity. As someone once said, “the old are full of vision but lack the energy. The youth are full of energy but lack the vision.”

At the end, Malaysia still has some hope. Not much, but a potentially nascent one. A survey carried out by Cenbet (Centre For A Better Tomorrow) in 2015 showed that the youth between 18 to 25 years were the most open and accommodating than the older groups. Despite a high 40% of these youth admitting that they are racists, 91% of Malaysian youth have friends from other races and 63% of them are willing to vote for a leader from a different race. Even 26% of the Malay youth surveyed would accept a notion of having a non-Malay Prime Minister. An overwhelming proportion of Malaysian youth felt merits were more important than race when it comes to awarding projects, hiring of staff, and other business-related fields. Even 62% of the youth were comfortable with having a relative bringing in a partner of a different race to the family.

Malaysian youth are the future of the country. They are the most open minded and accommodating than all other age groups. @ sdfg.com.my

Malaysian youth are the future of the country. They are the most open minded and accommodating than all other age groups. @ sdfg.com.my

Malaysia’s future lies with its youth. They may be uninterested, even disillusioned by local politics, but Malaysia needs a Bernie Sanders-like leader to break them out from their slumber and start a political and social revolution that would truly shake the establishment to its core.

As Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “A government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Radical idea? As Bernie would answer, “No, it isn’t.”

Where is the Bernie Sanders leader of Malaysia? (c) wellphoto @ fotolia.com

Where is the Bernie Sanders leader of Malaysia who is able to draw in all Malaysians to strive for a common, unifying goal of a greater well-being country? (c) wellphoto @ fotolia.com

References

    1. Merdeka Center Survey (2010) Malaysian political values survey 2010. Public opinion poll. Highlight of findings. Bangi, Selangor.
    2. Merdeka Center Survey (2011) Perception towards ethnic relation: Sentiments, interaction and public policies. Bangi, Selangor.
    3. Merdeka Center Survey (2013) Issues of voter concern. Bangi, Selangor.
    4. Noor, N.M., Leong, C-H (2013) Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore: Contesting models. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37: 714-726.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References




Courage: How much is your PhD worth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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




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.




The many ways to kill a communist: Indonesia’s communist purge 1965-66

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is the most unsettling documentary I have ever watched. This documentary focused on a group of men in North Sumatra who were involved in Indonesia’s purge of communists in 1965-66.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a history of violence in dealing with communists in the country. But unlike Malaysia, Indonesia’s fight against communism strongly suggested one involving mass genocide.

In 1965, the Indonesian government led by President Sukarno was overthrown by the military. The new leader, President Suharto, called for a purge of communism from the country. Union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese — those who opposed the government— were sometimes accused of being “communists”, and being accused of such often meant death without trial. The Indonesian army used paramilitary groups and gangsters to hunt down and execute suspected communists.

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of "The Act of Killing".

Joshua Oppenheimer, director of “The Act of Killing”.

No hidden cameras, no undercover agents, and no coercion needed in “The Act of Killing”. Executioners and government officials spoke frankly and freely – and sometimes with pride— about Indonesia’s atrocities.

This film mainly focused on Anwar Congo, a gangster who became famous and much feared after his violent role in Indonesia’s struggles against communism. Also in focus were Anwar’s fellow executioners, Adi Zulkadry and Erman Kotto.

The main focus of "The Act of Killing" was on Anwar Congo (right) and his fellow executioners such as Adi Zulkadry (left).

The main focus of “The Act of Killing” was on Anwar Congo (right) and his fellow executioners such as Adi Zulkadry (left).

Anwar Congo (left) and Erman Kotto (right) were among the people who shared and reenacted their involvement of the killings of communists.

Anwar Congo (left) and one of his fellow executioner, Erman Kotto (right) .

Anwar and his friends were also given the unique opportunity to reenact, in whichever way they liked, their involvement in the killings for “The Act of Killing”.

Anwar Congo

Anwar Congo and his friends were given the opportunity to reenact their involvement in the killings of communists in whichever way they liked for “The Act of Killing”.

Communist executioners were given the opportunity to reenact their involvement of killing of communists.

Seen here is a surreal musical video, directed by Anwar Congo and his friends, to honor their own deeds during Indonesia’s purge of communists.

In one surreal scene directed by Anwar and his friends, for instance, had dancers gyrating to John Barry’s hit song “Born Free”. On a hill slope stood Anwar and Erman with some pale-looking dead communists. One of these dead communists then gave a medal to Anwar before shaking Anwar’s hand, and incredulously, thanking Anwar for killing and sending him to heaven.

As dancers danced to "Born Free" song, Anwar and Erman stands as if to receive adoration in "The Act of Killing".

As dancers danced to the tune of “Born Free”, Anwar and Erman stands in the center, as if to receive adoration for their actions in “The Act of Killing”.

A dead communist, played by an amateur actor, gives a medal to Anwar -- thanking Anwar for killing and sending him to heaven.

A dead communist, played by an amateur actor, gives a medal to Anwar — thanking Anwar for killing and sending him to heaven.

Anwar Congo accepts the medal for killing communists.

A gold medal for Anwar Congo for killing communists.

This scene is surreal, but it actually depicts how people such as Anwar Congo and his friends, as well as paramilitary groups (such as Pancasila Youth), are celebrated in Indonesia as the nation’s heroes and as the legitimate killers of communists.

During a Pancasila Youth function, for example, Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla equated paramilitary groups to gangsters but not akin to “bad men” but akin to “free men” (thus, the reason for the song “Born Free” chosen by Anwar). These “free men” are still seen as essential by the Indonesian government because they work outside the system to help to enforce peace and security.

Gangsters can create either chaos or peace, the governor of North Sumatra, Syamsul Arifin, explained in the documentary, so it was important for Indonesia to work with these gangsters and to use them for help.

No surprise then paramilitary groups and gangsters had a free reign of terror during the Indonesia’s purge of communists. These death squads were literally the judge, jury, and executioner. There were no court trials and no careful collection and examination of evidence. Further aided by members of the local Press, suspected communists were rounded up, interrogated, and, sometimes immediately thereafter, executed.

One such member of the Press who was involved in the identification and interrogation of communists was Ibrahim Sinik, the chief editor of Medan Pos newspaper. “Whatever we asked [the suspected communists], we’d change their answers – to make them look bad. As a newspaper man, my job was to make the public hate them. That’s all.”

Ibrahim further boasted about his power over life and death, “One wink from me, and they are dead.”

Anwar Congo reenacting what takes place during an interrogation of a communist. Executions are shown to take place immediately after interogation.

Anwar Congo reenacting what takes place during an interrogation of a suspected communist. Executions are shown to take place immediately after interrogations. There is no court of law. Paramilitary groups and gangsters are the judge, jury, and executioner.

And death for these communists did not come humanely but in various morbid ways. Anwar Congo’s colleague, Adi Zulkadry, further clarified, “We shoved wood in their anus until they died, we crushed their necks with wood, we hung them, we strangled them with wire, we cut off their heads, and we ran them over with cars.

“We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed…there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it.

“Maybe I’m trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

Adi does not see his killings as a war crime but justifies them because his actions were similar to what the US Presidents did when they went to war with other countries.

“War crimes are defined by the winners,” Adi explained. “I am a winner, so I can make my own definition … I don’t care about international definitions. And more importantly: not everything true is good. Some truths are not good, like re-opening this case.”

“But why focus just on the killings of these communists?” Adi asked. “Start with the first murder case: Cain and Abel … Americans killed the Indians. Has anyone been punished for that? Punish them!”

Unlike Adi who claimed not to be disturbed by his past killings, Anwar at least admitted to having nightmares and sometimes doubted the legitimacy of his killing acts.

But Anwar appeared mostly calm, talkative, and eager to share in the documentary. In one scene, Anwar led the documentary film crew to the rooftop balcony of a building where executions had been carried out.

“There’s many ghosts here because many people were killed here,” Anwar explained. “They died unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy. When they got here, they were beaten up … and died … dragged around … and dumped.

“At first, we beat them to death. But there was too much blood,” Anwar explained calmly. “There was so much blood here. So, even when we cleaned it up, it still smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system … Can I show you?”

With the help of a volunteer, Anwar simulated for the film crew his method of bloodless killing: death by strangulation using a stiff wire.

Anwar Congo simulates for the documentary how he developed a bloodless technique to strangle communists with a stiff wire.

Anwar Congo simulates for the documentary how he developed a bloodless technique to strangle communists to death using a stiff wire.

A prolific killer, Anwar remains well known and much feared even to today. Word about Anwar’s involvement in “The Act of Killing” documentary soon spread, leading Anwar and his friends to be appear in a local TV talk show. This scene of their interview sets one of the most surreal scenes in the documentary.

“So, you brought the communists straight to your office?” the TV host, a young lady, asked Anwar.

“Yes and after we interrogated them and decided they shouldn’t be alive … we had to kill them.”

“And was your method of killing inspired by gangster films?”

“Sometimes!”

“Amazing!” the host exclaimed. “He was inspired by films!”

Laughter and claps from the audience, nearly all of them were Pancasila Youth members.

“Each genre had its own method,” Anwar added. “Like in mafia movies, they strangle the guy in the car, tie him up, then dump the body. So, we did that too.”

“Which means,” the host interjected, “Anwar and his friends developed a new and more efficient system for exterminating communists. It was more humane, less sadistic, and avoided excessive violence … But at the end you just wiped them out!”

More laughter and claps from the audience.

Killing people ala gangster and Mafia style? More efficient and humane way to kill people? I watched this whole TV interview scene, feeling incredulous and wondering if the TV host and the rest of Indonesia really understood what killing a person actually entailed.

The TV interview show in "The act of Killing" is one of the most surreal scenes. Here, Anwar Congo tells the TV host and audience that his killing methods were based on Hollywood portrayals of Mafia's executions.

The TV interview show is one of the most surreal scenes in “The Act of Killing”. Here, Anwar Congo tells the TV host and audience that his killing methods were based on Hollywood portrayals of Mafia’s executions, much to the delight of the host and audience.

Seen as heroes who served their country, Anwar and his friends remain as powerful men with connections to paramilitary groups and political leaders in Indonesia.

Mass killings in a “communist” village were even reenacted in full hatred by Anwar and his friends. Even Indonesia’s Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, Sakhyan Asmara, wanted in on the action. Coming down to the film set on the day of reenactment, the Deputy Minister gave a pep talk to the amateur actors. “We must exterminate the communists. We must totally wipe them out,” the Deputy Minister reminded, “but in a more humane way … This is the true story. That’s what we want, right?”

The Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth, , gives a pep talk to the amateur actors before they reenacted the mass killings of people in a communist village.

“We must totally wipe them out!” the Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth, Sakhyan Asmara, gives a pep talk to the amateur actors before they reenacted the mass killings of all people in a “communist” village.

Yes, we do want the “true story”, but the true story is hardly “humane”. Anwar’s reenactment presented disturbing scenes where everyone in the village – men, women, and children – were slaughtered in ways that included brutal beatings, strangulation by wire and being hacked by machetes.

“Kill them all!” Anwar repeated several times, as he walked through the carnage of screams and deaths. In the reenactment climax, the villagers’ homes were burned down for real. No survivors, no mercy, and no law.

Reenactment of mass killings in a "communist" village.

Reenactment of mass killings in a “communist” village.

In the reenactment, all men, women, and children in the "communist" were all killed in violent ways by the paramilitary group.

In the reenactment, all men, women, and children in the “communist” village were killed in violent ways by the paramilitary group. The houses were later burned down for real.

Boasts that women and girls were even raped during such excursions came voluntarily from Safit Perdede, a local leader in Pancasila Youth.

“If they are pretty, I’d rape them all,” Safit boasted to his friends prior to the reenactment film shoot, “especially back then when we were the law. Fuck ‘em. Fuck the shit everyone I meet…especially if you get one who is 14 years old. Delicious! I’d say, it is going to be hell for you, but heaven on earth for me.”

Indonesia’s paramilitary groups such as Pancasila Youth are hardly the shining beacons of morality, righteousness, and discipline. Marzuki, a member of the North Sumatra parliament and who himself is a Pancasila Youth member, freely admitted in the documentary that Pancasila Youth are involved in illegal activities such as gambling and night clubs (both illegal in a religious Muslim country like Indonesia), as well as smuggling and extortion.

The paramilotary group, Pancasila Youth, is shown in "The Act of Killing" as a corrupt, inhumane, and immoral organization.

The paramilitary group, Pancasila Youth, has three million members. “The Act of Killing” shows this group as corrupt, inhumane, and immoral.

From the documentary, we learn that Pancasila Youth openly committed extortion and intimidation. We witness, for instance, Haji Hanif, a wealthy businessman and a Pancasila Youth leader, admitting indirectly to the film crew that his recently acquired land, which he had converted into a nature park, was obtained through intimidation of previous land owners by using Pancasila Youth.

Meet Haji Hanif, a wealthy businessman and Pancasila Youth leader.

Meet Haji Hanif, a wealthy businessman and Pancasila Youth leader. He is standing in his newly acquired land which he admits indirectly that he got by using Pancasila Youth to intimidate previous land owners.

We also witness Safit Perdede (who had earlier boasted of raping even girls) leading the film crew into a local market as he collected protection money from several Chinese traders. In one scene, we witness a trembling Chinese trader handing over to Safit ever increasing Rupiah denomination notes until Safit was satisfied with the amount. Safit even had the gall to ask another of his other victims if the protection fee was given out of the victim’s sincerity.

Safit Perdede, another Pancasila Youth leader, is seen here extorting money openly from a Chinese trader.

Safit Perdede, another Pancasila Youth leader, is seen here extorting protection money openly from a Chinese trader.

From the documentary, we learn that democracy and freedom of expression are growing in Indonesia today. But we also learn that some Pancasila Youth leaders and government officials are unhappy over this new development. They attribute the rise of free speech in Indonesia as the actions by the children of the slain communists – without realizing the contradiction in labeling these democracy advocates as communists.

From the documentary, we finally learn about Anwar’s own admission that the communists were not as bad or cruel as that portrayed in government propaganda films and in his own reenactment scenes in “The Act of Killing”.

I am no communist sympathizer. As mentioned earlier, Malaysia too had its share of violent atrocities committed by the communists within the country. But watching “The Act of Killing” disturbed me. In its fight against communism, Indonesia had chosen a path that involved anarchy, mass killings, witch hunts, and vigilante killings. Indonesia had chosen to outsource the fight to corrupt and inhumane paramilitary groups and gangsters.

Of those Indonesians identified and killed (some figures say between half to 2.5 million killed) I wonder how many of them were actually communists and, even if they were, ought to have been killed.

Anwar Congo feeling some remorse and doubts over his past deeds. This is the last scene in "The Act of Killing".

Anwar Congo feeling some remorse and doubts over his past deeds. This is the last scene in “The Act of Killing”.




Manipulating the net: How much can we trust what we read on the net?

Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusions: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” is one of the most important books I have read. Having read it two years ago, I now often treat web news, in particular those coming from social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), with plenty pinches of salt.

Recently, another important book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday reaffirms my view that the web can be a dark and dangerous place to obtain information.

These two books show that we are naïve. We believe the web is a boon to democracy because it gains us access to more information, more empowerment, and more opportunities for social activism. We believe the web, through its propagation of information, create “shared awareness” such that we not only better understand a situation but also better understand what others are thinking too. Through shared awareness, we believe the web coordinates loose groups of people into collective action to demand change.

“Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday.

“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday, Portfolio Hardcover, 2012.

But the truth is the web does not free us from information bias, conflicts, manipulation, and sensationalism. To believe otherwise is not only naïve but also utopian.

We are naïve to think the web reveals the truth. Instead of the truth, we can be subtly manipulated to react in a desired manner (photo from rapgenius.com).

We are naïve to think the web reveals the truth. Instead of the truth, we can be subtly manipulated to react in a desired manner (photo from rapgenius.com).

Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is the first book of its kind. It is an exposé of a self-confessed and (partly) reformed media manipulator. Ryan Holiday’s job involves the dark arts of carefully creating, packaging, and feeding false information to the web. He would then sit back as his false information spreads virally to achieve its intended outcome.

Ryan Holiday, self-confessed online media manipulator (photo from bewareofimages.com)

Ryan Holiday, self-confessed online media manipulator (photo from bewareofimages.com)

Holiday is the person you would hire to manipulate information on the web for some specific purpose, such as to promote a product brand, to create controversies (when there is initially none), or to target your enemies with fake information or rumor. What is worse is Holiday is not alone. There are many such media manipulators out there and whose identities are unknown even to seasoned Holiday.

So, yes, we the web users are naïve, and we have been subtly duped and exploited many times over.

In his book, Holiday writes that news on the web is not a critical investigation of issues, but engineered to hook, distract, and cause us to react in certain desired manner. With the advent of the web, standards of what constitutes news, how news are vetted for validity, longevity of news, and the tone news are presented have changed for the worse.

We have been taught to believe that written information have validity, but with the advent of web, this belief has been corrupted by media manipulators. Web news are speculations, impulsive, exaggerated, distorted, and misleading.

The result is what Holiday calls as “unreality”, a situation whereby we cannot distinguish truth from fiction, real outcome from what was staged, relevant from trivial. Furthermore, false information in the web do not stay false; they evolve to become accepted as real.

Unreality occurs because of the so-called link economy and the delegation of trust. This is a case when a news or story is linked by multiple sites, and each site assumes the story has been verified by the source from which this story was taken. In other words, trust has been delegated to other parties. Web sites commonly rely on other sites to provide stories, to borrow stories from one another. A site may perhaps add a few commentaries on a story it linked, but essentially, the story is taken in verbatim, often with no or little verification.

About 16 million or  65% of Malaysia's population are internet users, of which 12 million people use Facebook and nearly half a million use Tweeter. Social media sites are accessed at a rate of about 19.4 million times per hour (photo from humanwebsite.com.my).

About 16 million or 65% of Malaysia’s population are internet users, of which 12 million people use Facebook and nearly half a million use Tweeter. Social media sites are accessed at a rate of about 19.4 million times per hour (photo from humanwebsite.com.my).

Multiple site linkages to a story gives appearance of credibility, akin to multiple citations to a scientific paper. But unlike in science where evidence is verified independently and repeatedly, web articles receive no such cross checks. Instead, in the world wide web, the false can morph into real if the false is disseminated by enough people (or sites). False information are often not taken down quickly and can even persist for years in the web.

Holiday gives several reasons why the web is an easy breeding ground for manipulation. Web sites are driven by traffic and advertisements, which ultimately determines the site’s revenue. Consequently, quality of information is less important, as long as the information triggers traffic or better still, goes viral. The value of information is not determined by its accuracy or helpfulness but by its “spreadability”. If the information is not shared, the information is regarded as useless. Furthermore, the quick turnover of information on the web places enormous pressure on sites to produce news, which leaves little time for research or verification.

This kind of environment makes it easy for media manipulators to feed false information that have been designed to arouse powerful emotions in people so that the information goes viral. But arousing just any emotion will not do. Holiday cites a research by Berger and Milkman in 2011 who found that of all emotions, anger was found to be the most powerful criterion that causes people to share information. In short, anger – not sadness, depression, or mixed emotions – makes information viral. Similarly, the research by Lang in 1996 found that people were provoked more emotionally, paid more attention, and had better memory recall of negative than neutral video footages.

Furthermore, fake stories are designed to additionally anticipate for user comments. Media manipulators do not want stories that are too safe, too well written, or complete in information because such stories elicit no comments. Fake stories have to be incomplete, incendiary, and even misleading to provoke people to comment. Media manipulators would not only create fake stories, but also create fake comments to supplement the fake stories. Made-up comments from fake users are given to stage a scene of a heated and polarized debate on the fake story. These media manipulators may also send fake emails to reporters or web publishers to give an impression that some trivial issue has turned “hot”.

Errors in news are propagated quickly and widely in the web. But corrections are seldom done and even if done, these corrections are seldom highlighted, noticed, or remembered. Errors remain “sticky” in people’s minds. Holiday cites a research where corrections do not fix errors. Instead, corrections were found to fortify and entrench people’s misconceptions. That corrections amplify misconceptions is surprising. It is as if people regard corrections as a cover up on deception.

A good example of the futility of correcting errors is Malaysia’s opposition street rallies, collectively called as “Blackout 505”, which is so named in response to the perceived blackouts that had occurred in some vote-counting stations. Even though these blackouts were shown later to never have occurred, this misconception still persists, perhaps even amplifying in people’s minds that these blackouts were further evidence of election fraud.

Blackout 505: Despite being shown that blackouts had not occurred, anti-government street rallies continue to call themselves as Blackout 505. Corrections to misconceptions have been shown to backfire by making misconceptions stronger and more permanent (photo from malaysianreview.com).

Blackout 505: Despite being shown that blackouts had not occurred, anti-government street rallies continue to call themselves as Blackout 505. Corrections to misconceptions have been shown to backfire by making misconceptions stronger and more permanent (photo from malaysianreview.com).

Another serious problem with news from the web, Holiday adds, is some sites practise “interactive journalism”, where, information are published first, then verified later. Such news are updated frequently by relying on others to validate the facts, to send in updates, or to send in additional sources for contact. Interactive journalism does not create finished articles, but create articles that remain work-in-progress, awaiting further input. This kind of journalism encourages misinformation, allegations, rumors, half-truths, shoddy reporting, needless information, and endless projections and predictions. Interactive journalism also encourages sensationalism. If stories are anything but sensational, why would anyone read these so-called interactive news and participate by sending in updates?

The problem with interactive journalism is the information presented at any one time may be inaccurate or even downright wrong. The news may be updated frequently, but people see only a snapshot of the information at a point in time. Even the crowd-sourced and collaborative Wikipedia has been fed with false information by media manipulators, which has led to false information being propagated by other sites as fact. Although the wrong information was later corrected or deleted from Wikipedia, the false information continued to persist in some news sites. If you have not been following the Wikipedia updates or corrections, you may take these false information at face value and accept them as true.

So, at the end, what hope do we as web users have? Holiday offers little hope or resolutions in his book. Far from freeing people with greater access to information, the web polarizes people, exacerbating differences between groups of people by filtering of information and by helping to present information on what people only want to see. The web, Holiday remarks, is hardly the place for revealing the truth; instead, the web is a place for cultural catharsis, made up of online lynch mobs, attack blogs, smear campaigns, cyberbullying, and trial by comments.

Perhaps it is time, Holiday suggests, that we demand quality of information and not quantity. We cannot expect instant news and yet expect it to be done well. No one owns or controls the information flow on the web, not completely anyway. Media manipulators, Holiday admits, are manipulated too on the web. After years of misusing and exploiting the web, Holiday has become frightened of what the web has become.

Drawn over a century ago, this drawing depicts the manipulation of media news, often resulting in increasingly larger lies, deceit, and harm that ultimately goes out of control. Ryan Holiday sees himself as

Drawn over a century ago, this drawing depicts the manipulation of media, often resulting in increasingly larger lies, deceit, and harm that ultimately goes out of control. Ryan Holiday sees himself as “the fool who feeds the monster” (photo from Ricardo Galli via Google+)

Holiday’s book uses several examples of media manipulation in the US, but it is not difficult to find similar examples in Malaysia. Government-hired blogs, the mysterious Red Bean Army, and lone operators have been working anonymously in the background to manipulate the web for devious, ulterior purpose.

An alleged cybertrooper member of the Red Bean Army who broke ranks by revealing the Army's activities of misinformation and intimidation, all to serve DAP's purpose (photo from mole.my).

The mysterious Red Bean Army, opposition-sponsored media manipulators to spread misinformation and intimidation? (photo from mole.my).

The web can indeed be a dark and dangerous place to obtain information.

Sources

  1. Berger, J. and Milkman, K.L. 2011. What makes content viral? Journal of Marketing Research: 49: 192-205.
  2. Brendan, N. and Reifler, J. 2010. When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32: 303-330.
  3. Lang, A. 1996. Negative video as structure: emotion, attention, capacity and memory. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts, Fall 1996: 460.
  4. Shirky, C. 2011. The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011.



Malaysia General Election 2013: Ubah? Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it

Some say ignorance is bliss. But that is not true. Ignorance makes us stupid, and stupid people make wrong decisions. But in the coming General Election 2013, I am afraid we Malaysians are voting out of ignorance.

Malaysia's General Election 2013 is too close to call.

Malaysia’s General Election 2013 is too close to call.

Those voting for the opposition vote more out of blind optimism, based on a dangerous assumption that that things would get better with change—any change—instead of voting out of real hope based on clear and achievable proposals. Issues like Hudud law, encroachment of Islamic regulations into non-Muslims’ way of life and rights, unstable alliance between opposition parties, unachievable populist promises, and dubious moral standards of their de facto leader appear curiously understated by the opposition supporters.

No toll? No AES? Free water? Free internet? Free education? Cheaper cars? Lower fuel prices? Lower electricity rates? Higher salaries? Yes, please, yes. But take a step back. Look at the larger picture. Consider what are the consequences of such populist demands? Have we become so self-absorbed, shortsighted, and simple-minded that our selfish pleasures must be served first and placed above all?

Malaysians have become selfish. Instead of asking “what we can do for our country”, we have become “what the country can do for us”.

A good government is an establishment that does not only manages well a country, but much more importantly, it is one that steers the country into a path of sustainable development in terms of education, economy, culture, and collective responsibility. Without a clear sense of direction or purpose, people work, contribute, toil, love, live, and fight with little sense of connection and meaning to their country.

A government, as I see it, acts in some ways like a parent who listens patiently and with empathy to the citizens, but, in wisdom and courage, acts for the greater and ultimate good of the people even if these acts are unpopular among some people. A government is weak if it bows only to populist demands without considering the repercussions.

Unfortunately, those voting for the present government are also voting out of ignorance. Unresolved questions over rising crime rates (even if statistics oddly point to the other direction) and corruption are the black eye of this current government. Lack of avenue for public debates and lack of information have deprived us of invaluable data with which we can form our decisions.

This election has become an exercise of who can shout the loudest on issues of corruption and blame. Lots of mud-slinging and sex videos, but almost no important issues discussed by any political side.

So May 5, 2013 has become an important day for all Malaysians. I have already decided whom I am going to vote, but my decision, as do most Malaysians, I suspect, is based heavily on corrupted and missing data. God help us …




Where’s my water? Water rationing and water shortages in Selangor

Update (Jun 28, 2012): This blog entry was published today in the New Straits Times newspaper.

There may be talks about water rationing soon in this country, but for my family and I, our neighborhood in Selangor has already been experiencing water rationing as early as February this year. The water to our home would often be turned off in the mornings and would remain as such until after midnight. We would sometimes experience water rationing as long as 12 to 15 hours in a day.

Recent hot, dry weather in Selangor means precious water like this is either being rationed or coming out of the taps in low pressure (photo from www.visiting-singapore.com)

Our situation has now worsened during this current prolonged dry and hot weather. Whenever water to our home is finally turned on, the water that comes out of our taps has such a low pressure that the water is unable to feed into our washing machine.

Most Malaysians are naïve about the scarcity and value of water. For some people, politics have taken priority over science—such as in the case for Selangor’s water.

As long as it is cheap or free. An example where politics, not science, dictates a policy (photo from teresakok.com)

Although Earth comprises 70% water, only 0.6% of our planet’s water is directly usable to us. Malaysia may have abundant annual rainfall of between 2,000 to 3,000 mm, but our rainfall is not uniform throughout the year. There would be months of dry weather. The largest consumer of water worldwide is the agriculture sector that consumes 85% of total water in the world. Malaysia, for example, uses 1.7 million liters of water per second to grow crops!

Selangor specifically uses 0.13 million liters of water per second to grow crops. This amount of water is equivalent to 20% or one-fifth of Selangor’s rainfall. Moreover, this amount of water does not include the amount of water required in the processing and other downstream activities of agriculture raw products. To produce 1 kg of oil palm bunch in Malaysia, for example, requires 500 liters of water. And to extract and process the oil from the oil palm bunches would require an additional 4,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of palm oil. Consequently, a lion share of Selangor’s rainfall goes into farming and the agriculture industry, with the leftovers for other economic sectors and domestic users.

Perhaps Malaysians and our authorities should look at our neighbor, Singapore, which is regarded by some as the world leader in urban water management.

Singapore has become an example to the world on urban water management (photo from www.downtoearth.org.in)

In 2009, Malaysians consumed more than 300 liters of water per capita per day, which is more than double from that recommended by U.N. (140-150 liters per capita per day). Our daily water consumption rises at a rate of about 8 liters per capita every year. At this rate, Malaysia would have nearly no water reserves left by 2025. In contrast, Singaporeans’ daily water consumption reduces by about 1.3 liters per capita every year to reach 155 liters per capita per day in 2010. Furthermore, Singapore aims to reduce their daily water consumption further to 140 liters per capita by 2030.

Unlike Malaysians who treat water as a low-value commodity, Singaporeans view water as their nation’s lifeblood: a precious resource to be cleaned, harvested, and recycled. Water runoff from about two-thirds of Singapore’s land area is funneled into water supply systems. Changi airport, for example, have facilities to harvest rainwater and collect runoff. Marina Barrage further collects water runoff from a land area nearly the size of Malaysia’s Tioman Island.

Singapore also boasts of having the lowest water leakages in the world. On average, the world loses 25 to 40% of water through leakages within the water distribution network. Malaysia, for instance, loses 36% of her water through leakages. Singapore, on the other hand, loses only 5%.

Where the Selangor government indirectly encourages water wastage by giving its citizens free water (up to 20 cubic meters), Singapore has taken the message to save water to the nation’s youngsters. Messages to promote the saving and protection of water and rivers are taken to schools and teenagers in Singapore through mascots and lifestyle eco-magazines.

Selangor’s free water sends out a wrong and dangerous message that water is abundant and of little value (photo from thestar.com.my)

Singapore has unwittingly become an example for Malaysia and the world on wise water management. In an aspiration to become totally self-sufficient in freshwater by 2060, Singapore has taken a series of motivated moves to wisely treat and manage its freshwater. The biggest slap for Malaysia would be when Malaysia experiences frequent and prolonged dry taps, but Singapore, in contrast, finally achieves its ambition of water self reliance. Perhaps then Malaysians would wake up when Singapore bids us farewell by saying, “So long, and thanks for all the water.

Additional reading

“Water, water everywhere”  by Fred Pearce. New Scientist.  Nov. 2010

 




Tanarata International School (TiS) – A school in an oil palm plantation

Update (Dec. 14, 2012): Read my review of this school after one school term.

International schools in Malaysia are expected to grow, so says M. Bakri Musa in his article “The impact of growth in international schools” (The Malaysian Insider, June 4, 2012). The Malaysian government has lifted the quota on the number of local students who can study in international schools, as well as granting tax and other incentives to promote the growth of these schools. Some private schools like Sri Sempurna School and some Beaconhouse school outlets are starting to offer international programmes. The reversion from English to Malay language as the medium of instruction in schools would further promote the growth of international schools — and the increase abandonment of national schools in Malaysia.

Finding the right school for our children can be a daunting and stressful challenge to us parents (photo from ordinarypoet.blogspot.com)

The major selling point of international schools, M. Bakri Musa writes, is not that they are “international”. But it is rather that these schools offer English as a medium of instruction and they follow a Western curriculum. Chinese and Indonesian International Schools, in contrast, would see no rush of registration — with quota or no.

Questions about schools are important for my wife and me now. Our only son, Zachary, is five years old this year, and we are looking for the right school for him. There are several factors for us to consider: the school’s environment and facilities, the distance we have to travel to send Zachary to that school, and, of course, the school fees.

We identified some schools to visit: none of them is public schools. Although my wife and I attended public schools, we know public schools, with all their infamous problems, are not right for Zachary. Our son would probably find public school too boring and stifling.

My wife and I visited several private schools: some of which impressed us, and some, not so much. For instance, we went to one international school that felt more like a Chinese school! During our walkabouts in that school, we failed to find a single child talking in English! That school was also too crowded. And in another school, the teacher who entertained us during our visit could barely speak in English! No wonder then those two schools were struck out our list pretty quickly.

At the end, we narrowed in on Tanarata International School (TiS) at Kajang. My wife and I were impressed with the school’s environment. The school is located in the midst of an oil palm plantation! Greenery was everywhere. This was very unlike other schools that had more concrete than greenery. The teachers at TiS spoke English brilliantly, so as the students. The school was also not crowded. In fact, it felt like it was a school holiday! The classroom size is small. Although the limit is 20 students per class, the classes we saw had fewer students than this limit.

Administration building of Tanarata International School (TiS)

Lots of greenery in Tanarata International School (TiS). The school is located in an oil palm plantation.

Fancy a dip under swaying palm trees? The swimming pool in Tanarata International School (TiS).

TiS is not perfect of course. For one, I am disappointed by their library. I doubt even 50 students can sit inside the library, and I think Zachary and I have more books than TiS’s library.

TiS has a website and a site on Facebook, but I was not depending on them for my reconnaissance work on TiS. I was more interested in frank and impartial feedback on TiS. I managed to find and contact one parent who has a child at TiS. Fortunately, this parent was also very willing to share her opinions with us on TiS. She spoke to my wife on the phone for about 20 minutes! She has nothing but praises for TiS. This was the deal clincher for my wife and me.

The school field of Tanarata International School (TiS). The field is surrounded by greenery.

A tennis court doubling up as a basketball court in Tanarata International School (TiS)

A treehouse in Tanarata International School (TiS)

So, yesterday on Thursday (Jun 14, 2012), we sent Zachary for his school entrance exam. Blimey, an exam just to determine if a child could enter Year 1. I think I must have been more nervous than Zachary. Like a trooper, Zachary was actually excited and looking forward to sitting the exam!

My wife and I had very little idea on what topics Zachary would be tested on except that they would be on English and Maths. My wife was in charge of English and me on Maths. My wife ensured he could remember and write his ABCs well. We also found several websites that have a list of words a Year 1 student should know. We printed out the list and made sure he could read and understand these words. To our delight, he could read 95% of these must-know words. I like to believe Zachary’s vocabulary is a product of the Read Aloud system which we have teaching Zachary since he was only a few months old.

On my part, I made sure he could count from 0 to 100. I also made sure Zachary could add and subtract numbers, as well as do simple math word problems such as “The tree has 11 apples. Four apples dropped from the tree. How many apples does the tree have?”

I taught Zachary how to read the time from a clock down to every 5 minutes (such as being able to tell time if the clock showed 11:35). Lastly, I taught him a little “algebra” such as solving: (10 + ? = 13) and (8 – ? = 5).

Zachary could do these math problems very well. But I was worried about cramming too much within a short period. I was afraid how well he could keep all that he has learned coherently in his mind. Would all come unfurling during the test? When I was Zachary’s age, I could not even add or subtract numbers, let alone do: (12 – ? = 7). In contrast, Zachary could add large numbers like: 389 + 458.

I am glad to report that Zachary took only 45 minutes to complete the two-hour exam. The better news is that the school later called us to say that Zachary has been accepted in TiS! Boy, it felt good. It was as if it was I who took the exam. But the best news is that the school further reported that Zachary had a perfect score for English and Maths! In other words, our boy wonder Zachary scored 100% in English and 100% in Maths. No wonder then the school was so quick to offer him a place (within a day)!

Classroom building of Tanarata International School (TiS)

The school canteen in Tanarata International School (TiS)

My wife and I know that sending Zachary to TiS does not mean the end of our part. Whichever school Zachary attends, we must be involved in his learning experience, to ensure he learns well and, most of all, enjoys learning. Finding the right school for Zachary is only the beginning. It is interesting to read in M. Bakri Musa’s article that research shows the most important factor in a successful child isn’t in the size of the classroom but the amount of parental involvement in the children’s education.




Little (or no) difference between petrol brands in Malaysia in terms of fuel consumption (after 1.5 years of measurements)

This blog entry is an update to my first report on my car’s fuel consumption (FC) for various petrol brands.

Background of study

About one and a half years ago, I started to measure the fuel consumption (FC) for my new car (Nissan Grand Livina). Like any new car owner, I was curious about my car’s FC. I then decided to determine if there was any difference in FC between petrol brands in Malaysia. After six months of measurements, I reported my results here in my blog (Read here).

I reported then that there was a difference between petrol brands, notably between Shell and Petronas. I discovered that Shell gave the lowest FC for city driving but Petronas the lowest for highway driving. My results then was surprising because I had always presumed that even if there was any difference between petrol brands, their differences would be too small to be appreciated or noticeable in normal driving conditions.

Which petrol brand in Malaysia gives the lowest fuel consumption? BHP, Esso, Petronas, or Shell? (photo from santainrileks.wordpress.com)

I continued with my measurements because I wondered if my initial findings would remain stable over prolonged time (in other words, was my initial results due to chance?).

This blog entry is to update my results after more than one and a half years of FC measurements.

As before, I like to stress emphatically that my study is in no way of a scientific study setup. There are many weaknesses in my study that can distort (and even invalidate) my findings. For one, to be scientifically rigorous, my study would need more than one car and one driver (at least 12 cars and 12 drivers, to be exact). Second, each car must be filled with only one petrol brand (no mixing of petrol brands in one car). Third, all cars must be driven out for FC testing at the same time, and fourth, all cars must be driven along the same route – akin a caravan of test cars (and the order of the cars randomized for every trip). Many more conditions are required to make my study much more scientifically valid.

So, with that understanding, readers should kindly take the following results as only a rough or speculative indication of the FC differences between some petrol brands in Malaysia.

Overall FC

After a total of more than 100 petrol fill ups, my car’s average FC is determined to be 7.85 L per 100 km (which is equivalent to 12.81 km per L or 30.12 miles per gallon). At the current price of petrol, my car’s FC is 15 sen (cents) per km. Since I drive an average distance of 104.94 km per day, this means I spend an average of RM15.48 per day on petrol.

Fig. 1 shows my car’s average FC for seven groups of daily average distances. Up to 145 km per day of travel, my car’s average FC tends to remain unchanged because the confidence intervals (CIs) for the first four groups of distances overlap one another.

Fig. 1. Fuel consumption for several distances traveled per day (note: asterisks denote insufficient measurements for confidence interval calculation)

But for greater distances (>185 km per day), my car’s FC would improve (i.e., become smaller). Note that for these great distances, I only have one FC measurement for each distance group, so I could not calculate each of these group’s CI (at least two measurements are needed).

Nonetheless, their lower FC averages (6.7-7.0 L per 100 km) compared to that for the shorter distances (7.5-8.1 L per 100 km) suggests that my car’s FC would fall if I were to drive my car for more than 185 km in a day.

That my car’s FC would improve if I traveled greater than 185 km per day can be explained. The further I traveled in a day meant that I was using the highway roads more. Driving on highway roads tends to decrease FC because of better road conditions, lesser traffic, lesser braking-and-accelerating movements, and our cars can be driven at the optimal speeds for longer periods (note: for Nissan Grand Livina, the optimal speed for lowest FC rate is between 70 to 75 km per hour).

Individual FC

Fig. 2 shows my car’s FC based on individual petrol brands. For BHP, my car’s FC would start to fall if I traveled greater than 105 km per day. However, for the other three petrol brands, there was no clear trend of any change in my car’s FC for traveling distances less than 145 km per day.

Fig. 2. Fuel consumption for various petrol brands and for several distances traveled per day (note: asterisks denote insufficient measurements for confidence interval calculation. Petronas-X is the new formulation for Petronas)

For Petronas-X, only one FC measurement was done for 305-325 km per day, whereas for Shell, one FC measurement was done 185-205 km per day and another for 525-545 km per day. It is unfortunate that I have very few FC readings for these greater traveling distances. Thus, for these great distances, I could not calculate their CIs due to insufficient measurements.

Nonetheless, the lower FC averages for these greater distances (>185 km per day) suggests that my car’s FC would indeed fall. This is especially true for Shell where my car’s average FC was measured at 6.7 L per 100 km. More measurements are needed to confirm this trend.

What about FC differences between petrol brands? Take the first group of 65-85 km per day. The average FC for BHP, Esso, Petronas-X, and Shell for this group was 8.4, 8.2, 7.8, and 7.7 L per 100 km, respectively. Their averages may differ, but their CIs overlap one another – and not just for 65-85 km per day group but also for other groups as well (85-105, 105-125, and 125-145 km per day).

My results show that there is insufficient evidence that one petrol brand is better or worse than another brand. Instead, it is likely that there is no difference between petrol brands in terms of
FC.

Old vs. new Petronas formulation

My first six months of study reported that the old Petronas formulation was best for longer traveling distances. So how did the new Petronas formulation (Petronas-X) stack up against the old formulation?

Fig. 3 shows the FC for the old Petronas formulation (using same data as in my first report, just expressed differently). Compare Fig. 3 with the Petronas-X chart in Fig. 2. Initial examination may seem that the old formulation gave better FC than the new formulation for long traveling distances. For instance, the old formulation’s average FC for the 105-125 km per day group was 6.6 L per 100 km, which is lower than the new formulation’s average FC of 7.4 L per 100 km for the same group. But look at their CIs. The CI for the old formulation was large, and it overlapped with the CI for the new formulation.

Fig. 3. The fuel consumption for the old formulation of Petronas (note: asterisk denotes insufficient measurements for confidence interval calculation)

For the 85-105 km group, both formulations have similar average FCs and their respective CIs also overlap each other. For the 65-85 km group, the old formulation had an average FC of 9.5 L per 100 km, but this value was based only on a single measurement (thus, its CI could not be calculated). Perhaps with more measurements, I might have obtained an average FC more similar to that by the new formulation (7.8 L per 100 km) and a CI that overlapped the CI for the new formulation.

My results suggest that there is little difference, if any, between the old and new Petronas formulations.

Remarks on the results

Unless we can control the environment in which we test the various petrol brands, it is crucial we do many, many measurements over prolonged periods. People often make too few measurements before deciding on the best petrol brand. We cannot also decide on the lowest FC petrol brand simply by comparing FC averages. We also need to compare the petrol brands’ CIs which show the margins of error for the FC measurements.

This update after one and a half years of continuous measurements is more pessimistic than my first (initial) report. With more than 100 FC measurements, my study reveals that there are likely to be little differences between petrol brands in terms of FC. Although my car’s FC would likely fall if I drove more on highway roads, no one petrol brand show any advantage over others.

That said, however, BHP warrants more FC measurements especially for longer daily travelling distances. Fig. 2 shows that BHP tended to give lower FC starting at a shorter 105 km of distance traveled per day. For the other petrol brands, they are only likely to start giving lower FC at further distances of 185 km per day onwards.

Perhaps petrol brands are different from one another, but my study suggests that these differences could be too small to be noticeable in everyday driving conditions. In a controlled environment, these petrol brands may give clear and measureable differences in terms of FC, but in the uncontrolled and varied conditions of the outside streets, these differences may become less pronounced or significant.

New Petronas formulation but improvements not significant enough in everyday driving conditions? (photo from paultan.org )

My study cannot prove or disprove anything due to the lack of scientific rigor in my study setup. As mentioned previously, my study can only offer speculative or tentative findings. I end this update by saying that more measurements are required to verify my results and to determine the stability of my latest round of results.

Use Shell, less fuel, and save money? Study over 1.5 years showed no clear differences between petrol brands in Malaysia (photo from grey.my)

Until my next update, ciao.

Further reading




Newsflash: Malaysian government concedes to Bersih 3.0

“So, how credible is it – this Bersih 3.0?” the Prime Minister looks at the three men in his office.

Yes, it is not just movies that get sequels. Bersih 3.0 is planned for April 28, 2012 (picture from chegubard.blogspot.com)

“Very credible,” the Inspector General of Police answers, “It is all over the internet: in blogs, independent news media, people’s Facebook, Twitter … everywhere. Our informers close to the organizers  also confirm the date. They are serious on April 28, 2012.”

The PM looks at the IGP who shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “And how many do you think will turn up this time?”

“Hard to say. Unlike the previous one, Bersih this time is rallying the people in all major cities and towns in Malaysia, not just in KL. Probably in the thousands again?”

“It’s a bloody nuisance,” the Deputy Prime Minister interjects. “Street rally? Bah! I say we just rally up all the organizers and lock them up as a threat to our national security.”

“Yes, I agree!” the Minister of Home Affairs shouts, almost standing before the PM slowly raises his hands to calm him down.

“Yes, we could do that. But … we won’t.”

“We won’t?”

“No, we won’t,” the PM repeats, “because I am going to give in to their demands.”

“WHA-?”

The PM raises his hands again, this time to calm all three of them.

“Listen. Yes, we could do like before. We could warn police action on those who take part in the Bersih 3.0 street rally. We could set up road blocks and road checks. But I don’t think it will work this time round. Frankly, I am tired. Malaysians are tired.”

The three men could only stare at the PM, who continues, “So, I am giving in. We’ll give what Bersih wants. Everything. Inedible ink? Ok. Free and fair access to media? Ok.  Minimum 21 days campaigning? Ok. And if Bersih makes a new demand that the government gives RM200 book voucher to everyone who votes for Pakatan Rakyat, that’s ok too.”

The three men say nothing. They sit rigid in their sits, wondering if they are witnessing the mental collapse of the PM.

“But in addition to giving in to their demands,” the PM explains further, “I am going to ask that BN joins Bersih’s street rally this April 28. We and our millions of supporters will march down the street, hand-in-hand with Bersih and opposition parties. We will proclaim that we too want clean and fair elections. We will put up yellow banners along all major streets in all major cities and towns. These yellow flags will say, ‘BN supports Bersih. BN wants a clean and fair election for a better Malaysia’ or something to that effect.

“We will also carry out ads and songs on radio and TV, saying that the government has always been supportive of a clean and fair elections, and that we are now showing it … forcefully since the 13th General Election is coming very soon.

“And on April 28, BN will hold street parties. We will invite rock bands and pop stars like, like …”

“Datuk Siti Nurhaliza?” the Home Minister offers.

“Yes! She is our supporter, right?” the PM smiles. “We will invite her, her friends, and others to do simultaneous concerts, paid by us, in all cities and towns on that day. We want all Malaysians to take to the streets for the free concerts on April 28. The day will become a music festival.

“We will also have a nationwide shopping spree, something like Year End Sale, but only for one day – on April 28. I will meet with departmental stores and offer them some incentives if they carry out these huge discounts. We want something like at least 50 to 70% discounts on that day.

“And I’ll also personally meet Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, to try to convince him to release iPad 3 in Malaysia on April 28.”

“iPad 3? Why?” the Home Affairs Minister asks, now looking completely bewildered.

“Yes, why iPad 3 indeed. Do you remember a rather odd but under reported event that occurred during the last Bersih rally?”

The three men stay quiet. The PM takes it as an indication that they do not remember.

“During Bersih 2.0 street rally, when everyone was so busy running around and getting heated up with the police, there was a group of a hundred people or so queuing up in front of an Apple store, seemingly oblivious to what is happening around them. They were waiting for the shop to open so that they could buy the newly released iPad 2 then.

“So I figure I’ll convince Apple to release iPad 3 in Malaysia on April 28, the same day as Bersih 3.0’s rally. And this time, the government will subsidize iPad 3 by 30% for every Malaysian who purchase it on April 28 only. Perhaps we will call it: One Malaysian, one iPad 3.

“I am also going to suggest that the government subsidizes an additional 30% for all petrol and diesel purchases made on April 28 only. Our country already enjoys the cheapest petrol and diesel prices in this region, so imagine a further 30% discount on the prices –”

“Prime Minister, sir, please stop,” the Deputy PM finally speaks. “What has all of this got to do with our problem with Bersih?”

“Why, my deputy, they have everything to do with Bersih.”

“I…we don’t understand.”

“Bersih and its supporters perceive us as being fundamentally corrupt and unwilling to listen to the people, to reform, and to make positive changes.  And they hold this rally on April 28, thinking it will rattle us into making the same old wrong moves. They want attention – but not just any attention. They want to play victim, and they want us to react badly because it would corroborate their story and support their cause.

“But this time we won’t fight them the way they want us to fight them. We will take away their ammo. Instead of a street demonstration on April 28, it would be a street celebration. Instead of people coming to the streets for hate, people would come to shop, eat, and listen to free music all day long. Instead of the sole reason to demonstrate against the government, the street rally is suddenly diverted into multiple reasons.

“People who go into the streets to demonstrate on April 28 suddenly find themselves among others who are not there to demonstrate. In fact, to the others, the street demonstrators have become a nuisance and a distraction.

“You could say, we would dilute Bersih,” the PM says before he sips a little water from his glass. He has finished talking. He looks carefully at each of the three men in front of him. They are quiet. That’s ok, he thinks, because he waiting to see who would get it first – the first to understand his plans.

It is all three of them. They look at one another, as if to confirm telepathically their mutual understanding. They then smile, after which the PM follows suit.

Reverse psychology, they all thought in unison, so, that’s how it would be fought.

Though extremely surprised, Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan is pleased with the government's acceptance of all Bersih's demands, calling it a victory to Bersih and the opposition parties (photo from hornbillunleashed.wordpress.com)