Dirty, rotten, immoral, godless, evil atheists

I was recently interviewed by a journalist from Free Malaysia Today (FMT), in which she asked me on what I thought about the recent 2017 study by Gervais and his associates regarding the near worldwide bias against atheists. The prejudice against atheists isn’t really news to me, but what was news was Gervais’s study reported that even atheists were found to be unconsciously biased against their fellow atheists, thinking them immoral.

My FMT interview was published today [PDF article], but sadly a great deal of what I said in the interview was not published. Consequently, the FMT article was a little emasculated. So, I think it wise to publish my full opinion and remarks here for posterity.

The strong distrust of atheists should not really surprise us. There is a tendency in many countries, including secular ones, to be biased against atheists. In the US, for instance, the Gallup poll in 2015 revealed that atheists were the second least trusted group of people, and the American people would rather have a Muslim than an atheist as their President. Bias against atheists is even stronger in highly religious countries like Malaysia, where for one to come out as an atheist can be socially very detrimental. A recent statement by a Malaysian government minister, for instance, have called all atheists, in his own words, “to be hunted down vehemently”.

The recent results from the study by Gervais and his associates are not unique because they are supported by the findings from other studies. But unlike previous studies that were smaller in scope and limited to only participants in the Western countries, Gervais’s recent study is much more comprehensive, covering over 3,000 people across 13 countries (including secular and religious countries) in five continents.

Gervais’s study reveal our preconceived notions or bias against atheists, that atheists are morally bad. But we need to be careful not to extrapolate or misinterpret Gervais’s findings to mean something they are not. They cannot be taken as evidence that atheists are indeed morally bad –- or even good. Science is not a democratic-like process. Just because the majority share the same opinion does not make the opinion factually true. Instead, science often reveals what seems at first to be common sense or intuitively right to be at the end inaccurate, if not entirely erroneous. A 2016 study by CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for instance, reported that nearly two thirds of Australians said it was “common sense” that climate change was not real and even if real, not human-induced.

Studies like Gervais’s are really, at the fundamental level, asking us two questions: why is religion so important to us, and what is morality and is it only derived from religion?

How many gods have we humans worshiped, past and present? One encyclopedia of religions I read says 2,500, another 4,000 to 5,000, and if we include the various Hindu gods, one estimate even reported over 33 million gods. The world has currently over 7 billion people, and about 85% of them hold onto some sort of religious beliefs. Atheism is growing in some parts of the world, but the religious still far outnumber the atheists. Why are we humans so religious? Why has religion survived and thrived throughout human history? Some religions, like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, have persisted for centuries, but this is not true for most religions. The average lifespan of a religion is 25 years. Religions literally come and go, but our desire to worship “something” persists. Religion is not a fluke, a one-off, short random event in our human history.

Religion is evolutionary by-product of human cognition. We use religion to help us to find meaning, to make sense of our world and our purpose. Unlike animals, we have an innate propensity to find meaningful patterns out of seemingly random or chaotic events. We seek to understand how our world works, why it works –- and who caused it. It is insufficient for us just to know the “hows” and “whys”. We also seek to find explanations of events in terms of agents; that is, determining who or what have caused those events. Even children as young as three years tend to invoke supernatural reasoning to explain phenomena they do not understand. And these agents are perceived by children to act for a purpose and not by chance -– and these agents need not be visible. Children find it easier, for example, to accept that plants and animals are brought about for a reason rather than they arose by chance or for no reason. In other words, we tend to be religious rather than not.

Religion is important to many people because their identity, hopes, culture, and moral system are derived from their religion. To many people, morality is by default some very complicated code of conduct that requires supernatural definition, justification, and guidance.

Many believe our morality can only be derived from supernatural code of conduct. (c) Stéphane Bidouze @ fotolia.com

But morality is actually a very simple concept, so simple that many people find hard to believe it at first: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This so-called Golden Rule is essentially: if we want to be treated nicely by others, then be nice.

Even primates have shown to have some sense of morality too. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have been observed to drown in zoo moats trying to save others, and they have also been observed to console others. In a classic experiment where given the chance to obtain food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to another, rhesus monkeys would rather starve themselves for several days than cause pain to their companions.

Morality in animals? In a classic experiment where rhesus monkeys would rather starve for several days than cause pain to their companions because pulling a food chain brings food to them but delivers electrical shocks to their companions. (c) ake @ fotolia.com.

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

At the end, the results from Gervais’s recent study is interesting and important, for they highlight how strongly inclined we are toward religion and how many of us still see morality on a supernatural basis.

But perception is not proof. Our perception is limited by our personal experience and myopic perspective, and it is strongly influenced by our bias. Science have instead shown that the link between the absence of religion and moral deficiencies is not as clear, strong, or straightforward as the majority of us like to believe.

TN50 (National Transformation 2050): What do Malaysians really want?

Race and religion strongly define us Malaysians. They define who we are, who we friend, who we marry, where we live and work, and who we support. Our country leaders, including those from the opposition, strive instead to encourage and strengthen these racial and religion lines, polarizing Malaysians into distrusting groups.

TN50 or National Transformation 2050 is a crowd-sourced national plan for our country from 2020 to 2050, but I am doubtful if this whole initiative will be meaningful because it ignores the elephant in the room: the growing us-vs-them mentality between Malaysians simply on the basis of one’s race and religion.

What would happen, for instance, if Lim Kit Siang, leader of the DAP political party, were in a room full of PAS supporters in the heartland of PAS? What could he possibly say that to these PAS supporters that would invoke them to genuinely cheer and applaud him? Similarly, what would Dato’ Seri Haji Abdul Hadi bin Awang, leader of the PAS political party, say to a room full of Chinese that would make these Chinese willingly stand up and give the PAS leader an honest and rousing applause?

In our current political and sociological climate, there is nothing these two leaders could say, without lying or betraying their own party, race, or religion, to their respective audience to win their admiration and support.

Yes, our mindsets are defined by our race and religion. But look closer – dig deeper. You will find we are not that different from one another in our basic needs.

We Malaysians, regardless of our race and religion, want the same things. We desire a country that provide us with ample opportunities to lead good, comfortable lives. We want an environment that provide us with opportunities for good education, work, health care, and opportunities to find love and grow old with our loved ones. We want an environment that allows us to find and develop our skills and opportunities for us to express these skills for the good of the society and even for the good of our religion and god. We desire an environment that is fair, that we are not oppressed or exploited, and that we are not cheated of our opportunities and rights.

So, yes, we Malaysians are different. One may be a Chinese, another a Malay, or one a DAP supporter but another fervent champion of PAS or UMNO – but all of us really, at the end, want the same things. No Malaysians want chaos or anarchy. No Malaysians really want to annihilate or kick out people of other races or religions. Malaysians want a tolerant society. Ultimately, our fundamental desires are what unites us all.

Until we Malaysians and our leaders understand and truly appreciate this and learn to respect one another’s race and religion and learn to downplay personal and selfish agendas to create the kind of aforementioned kind of environment, the TN50 initiative, whatever grand plans it dreams up, will be a futile exercise.

Malaysians use 3 billion plastic shopping bags per year, so why is limiting or even banning their use still a grossly inadequate strategy?

Intuitively, it seems a good idea to charge Malaysian shoppers for the use of plastic shopping bags to reduce our nation’s plastic wastes.

A study published in Science by Jambeck and his associates in 2015, for instance, estimated that, out of 192 coastal countries in the world, Malaysia is the eighth largest producer of mismanaged plastic wastes.  (wastes that are not adequately disposed or recycled). This study estimated that in 2010 Malaysia had produced 0.94 million tons of mismanaged plastic wastes, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tons may have been washed into the oceans. Thirteen percent of Malaysia’s solid wastes are plastics, of which 55 percent are mismanaged.

Malaysia is the 8th larger producer of mismanaged plastic wastes in the world. It is estimated that between 0.14 to 0.37 million tons of our plastics may have been washed into the oceans. (c) aryfahmed @ fotolia.com

But how much of these mismanaged plastic wastes are from plastic shopping bags? Unfortunately, no rigorous study has been conducted to determine this amount – or even how many plastic shopping bags Malaysians use in a year. For the latter, various estimates do exist, but they vary widely with one another, swinging from a total of 9 to 22 to even a whopping 55 billion plastic shopping bags per year.

That Malaysians use 55 or even 22 billion shopping bags in a year seems disproportionately very large, especially when you compare our use with other countries. All 27 countries in the European Union, with a combined population of about 500 million, used a total of 86 billion plastic shopping bags in 2010 – but Malaysia’s population is only 6 percent of EU’s. The problem with Malaysia’s estimates is that most of them, if not all, were derived from informal observations at supermarkets.

So, how many plastic shopping bags do Malaysians use in a year? To answer this question, I used the internet to scour for data of plastic shopping bags use by various countries along with the countries’ respective GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (Table 1). I figure that countries with a higher economic activity or growth would lead to a higher use of plastic shopping bags. Some countries, however, do have existing plastic shopping bags bans or charge, so to get a better representation between GDP and plastic shopping bags use, I did not consider countries that have some forms national plastic shopping bags bans or charge, such as Taiwan, Australia, UK, Canada, Ireland, Estonia, Bulgaria, UK, Germany, and Denmark.

Table 1. Number of plastic shopping bags (PSB, in billions) used per year by countries
CountryYearPSB (billion)
Czech Republic20103.07
Hong Kong20129.80
New Zealand20120.87
South Africa20128.00

The result is what you see in Fig. 1.  It turns out that there is a linear relationship, albeit a weak one, between GDP and plastic shopping bags use.

Fig. 1. Relationship between the annual number of plastic shopping bags used and gross domestic product (GDP) of countries.

Using the linear regression equation and Malaysia’s mean GDP for the past five years from 2011 to 2015, I estimate that Malaysians use a total of 3 billion plastic shopping bags, rounded to the nearest 1 billion, per year. This number is incidentally the same as for our immediate neighboring country, Singapore. But since Singapore has a smaller population than Malaysia, this means a Singaporean use nearly six times more plastic shopping bags per year than a Malaysian. However, Singapore is ten times more efficient in managing their plastic wastes compared to Malaysia. As stated earlier, 55 percent of Malaysia’s plastic wastes are inadequately disposed or recycled, compared to Singapore’s outstanding five percent. So, despite Singapore’s greater use of plastic shopping bags per capita than Malaysia’s, Singapore’s mismanaged plastic wastes per capita are actually 28 times lower than that for Malaysia’s.

Malaysia’s nationwide No Plastic Bag Campaign Day every Saturday and similar such campaigns elsewhere in the country are unfortunately a knee-jerk response to our country’s waste management problems. Limiting plastic shopping bags use will indeed reduce plastic wastes but one question we often neglect to ask is: “What is the alternative to plastic bags?” We still need to carry home our purchased items.

Research have shown that plastic bag alternatives such as paper bags and cotton tote bags are actually more environmentally unfriendly than plastic bags. One of the most comprehensive studies, published by the Australian government in 2007, showed that paper bags, because it is thicker than plastic, have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags. Also because of paper’s greater thickness and weight than plastic, paper take up more space in trucks and transport vehicles would burn more fuel transporting paper than plastic. A 2011 research by a British agency estimated that a paper bag has to be used by at least four times to equal the carbon footprint of that a conventional plastic bag.

Existing alternatives to plastic bags have far higher negative environmental impact than conventional plastic bags. Instead of paper or cotton tote bags, good alternatives are bags made from recycled plastics (photo from greenyatra.org).

Another alternative is the cotton tote bag but which fares even worse because cotton is a resource-hungry crop. Less than three percent of the world’s cropland is cotton, but yet cotton accounts for about one-fifth of the global market of insecticides and one-tenth of pesticides. Moreover, to produce one kg of cotton requires 20,000 L of water. A cotton tote bag is estimated to require an average of at least 150 number of reuse to equal the environmental impact by a single plastic bag. This number of reuse is nearly 40 times higher than that for a paper bag.

In other words, replacing plastic shopping bags with existing alternatives may be a case of reducing one problem but greatly exacerbating another.

So, yes, charging for plastic shopping bags use is a good idea but only because it raises awareness among the public about our fragile environmental, but this strategy cannot stand alone. It cannot be the onus of the Malaysian public to fight the large amount of plastic wastes our country generates every year. To do this is to ignore the larger problem.

As stated earlier, Malaysia’s has a large plastic disposal and recycling problem, where 55% of our plastic wastes are mismanaged. The key strategy is then to increase our recovery of plastic wastes through greater reuse of our plastics. Malaysia’s economy, like any middle high income countries, is growing rapidly but this growth is not matched by greater effectiveness of managing our wastes.

Unfortunately, how much Malaysia recycles is also uncertain. Estimates vary from none (0 percent) to 17  percent. A 2011 report for the Malaysian Ministry of Housing and Local Government put our country’s annual recycling rate at only 7 kg of wastes per capita. If this estimate is accurate, this means our country recycling rate is less than 2 percent, placing Malaysia at the lower end of the countries in the world that practise nearly no waste recycling. Also consider the following: the average recycling rate of the top 20 countries with the highest recycling rate in the world is 35%, nearly 20 times higher than that for Malaysia’s. Austria and Germany are two countries with the highest recycling rates in the world, both countries recycling about 62 percent of their wastes (Fig. 2). And again, our nearest neighbor, Singapore, has one up on us. Singapore is the fourth highest recyclers in the world, with an impressive recycling rate of 59 percent.

Fig. 2. Countries that most recycle their wastes (2015).

What then can Malaysia do?

Limiting plastic shopping bags through outright bans or charging for their use is vastly inadequate. Why? As mentioned previously, Malaysia generates about 0.94 million tons of mismanaged plastic wastes a year, and I estimated we use approximately 3 billion plastic shopping bags a year. A plastic shopping bag weighs between 4 to 7 g, so taking the upper limit of 7 g, this means 3 billion plastic shopping bags would weigh a total of 21,000 tons. So even if we cut down our plastic shopping bags use to completely none (i.e., zero plastic shopping bags use), we would have only reduced our mismanaged plastic wastes by a maximum of only about 2 percent.

What Malaysia needs to do is then to greatly increase our recycling of plastic wastes. The same 2011 report for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government recommended the following for greater plastic wastes management in the country:

  1. More tax incentives be given for companies that undertake waste recycling management,
  2. Members of the public be given rewards and redemption for turning in recyclable plastics,
  3. Companies should be encouraged to buy back their plastics, such as buying back empty plastic bottles, containers, wrappings, and other forms of packaging,
  4. Recycling infrastructure in the country should be improved, and
  5. Innovation on the use and reuse of plastics should also be prioritized.

Our efforts ought to be diverted so that we instead recycle more of our plastic wastes, rather than just limiting our use of plastic shopping bags. (c) Aisyaqilumar @ fotolia.com

Unfortunately, recycling is not only unpopular but poorly implemented in Malaysia. Starting September 2016, for instance, households in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and several other states would have to separate their solid wastes into three categories: paper, plastics, and miscellaneous (which includes glass, metal, and organic wastes). Failure to do so risks a penalty of between RM50 to 500. This is a positive step in the right direction, but it suffers from poor implementation.

Despite good intentions, recycling of trash is poorly implemented in Malaysia. Malaysian households, despite mandatory instructions to separate their trash, still have their separated trash dumped together (photo from nst.com.my).

My family and I live in KL, and we have been separating our wastes as per given instructions since Day 1, but until today, our three plastic bags, each containing the separate groups of wastes, are still collected and dumped together. We are disheartened to see that despite our efforts to separate our wastes as instructed, our three bags are still treated as equal and dumped together.

So, Malaysia needs to identify and rigorously implement the most effective solutions to reduce our plastic wastes. Limiting the use of plastic shopping bags is a good start, but alone, it is grossly an inadequate strategy. Cliché it may be, our strategy can simply be summarized as this: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Rather than focusing so much of our energies on limiting the use of plastic shopping bags, Malaysia needs instead to greatly increase the recycling of our plastic wastes. (c) aryfahmed @ fotolia.com

Update (2 Mar. 2017): A condensed form of this article was published today in the New Straits Times newspaper [link].


  1. Are plastic-bag bans good for the climate? by Ben Adler, Jun 2, 2016 (http://grist.org/climate-energy/are-plastic-bag-bans-good-for-the-climate/)
  2. Billions of plastic bags still being used (http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2016/08/22/billions-of-plastic-bags-still-being-used-six-years-have-gone-by-since-the-government-launched-the-n/#MhaHPEvvUByM2ywv.99)
  3. Edwards, C. and Fry, J.M. 2011. Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006. Report: SC030148. Environment Agency, Bristol.
  4. Environment: Commission proposes to reduce the use of plastic bags (https://www.euractiv.com/section/sustainable-dev/news/eu-to-halve-plastic-bag-use-by-2019/)
  5. Golden Ecosystem Sdn. Bhd. 2011. A study on plastic management in Peninsular Malaysia. Report for the National Solid Waste Management Department, Ministry of housing and Local Government Malaysia. Golden Ecosystem Sdn. Bhd., Petaling Jaya.
  6. Jambeck, J.R., Andrady, A., Geyer, R., Narayan, R., Perryman, M., Siegler, T., Wilcox, C. and Lavender Law, K. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, 347: 768-771.
  7. Managing KL’s rubbish (http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2016/05/30/managing-kls-rubbish-residents-in-the-city-are-more-conscious-of-the-amount-of-waste-they-generate-a/)
  8. Miller, R.M. 2012. Plastic Shopping Bags: An Analysis of Policy Instruments for Plastic Bag Reduction. MSc. Sustainable Development Thesis. Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands.
  9. Recycling rates worldwide in 2015, by select country (https://www.statista.com/statistics/516456/rate-of-recycling-worldwide-by-key-country/)
  10. The good and the bad of plastic bag bans: Research review (https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/pollution-environment/plastic-bag-bans-grocery-shopping-environment)

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. @

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


    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.

Should we, religious Malaysians, indoctrinate or teach our children religion or protect them from it?

We as parents want the best for our children. We strive hard to provide the resources and opportunities to our children to discover and build up their strengths. Our hope is that our children become meaningful contributors to the society, who make full use of their lives to become a positive change and influence on others and on the society, country, and even the world.

One skill our children need to master is in critical thinking. Few parents would disagree on this. But most parents have an incomplete or erroneous understanding about critical thinking. Critical thinking is not merely about acquiring knowledge, but also, in large part, about the process of analyzing the acquired knowledge. This skill involves questioning ideas, even those that are accepted as norm. Critical thinking involves breaking down a problem into simpler chunks to be analyzed. It also involves looking at a problem from different perspectives and coming up with good solutions.

Critical thinking is an essential skills our children must muster, without which our children have difficulty distinguishing facts from nonsense and a poor understanding of the world and their surroundings (c) Creativa Images @ fotolia.com.

Critical thinking is an essential skill our children must muster, failing which our children have difficulty in distinguishing facts from nonsense, reality from fiction, and have a poor understanding of their surroundings and the world (c) Creativa Images @ fotolia.com.

Critical thinkers are open-minded, who are mindful of alternatives, curious, well-informed, and good judges of credibility. Such thinkers may be open-minded, but they are also skeptical. They are cautious about immediately accepting norms, assumptions, and reasons about a given stance or a belief system. They are cautious about drawing any conclusions without rational reasoning first.

Critical thinking cannot be reconciled with religious thinking because the latter involves accepting superstitions (such as “magical events”) that violate physical laws and causal relationships.

So, though we as parents say we want our children to think critically, yet many of us allow religious beliefs to be implanted and inculcated into our children, often with our blessings. In other words, we parents may be skeptical and protective of our children’s minds when it involves unusual claims, ideas, or hype, yet religion often gets a free pass to influence our children. Why is that?

Wendy Thomas Russell, author of “Relax, It’s Just God”, says this is because many of us look to religion for answers to four fundamental questions about life, which are: 1) how did the world come to be, 2) what happens when we die, 3) how should we behave, and 4) why do bad things happen? In other words, many of us turn to religion to answer questions related to the purpose in life, morality, and justice.

"Relax, It's Just God" by Wendy T. Russell discusses on what parents should do about teaching religion to their children.

“Relax, It’s Just God” by Wendy T. Russell discusses on what parents should do about teaching religion to their children.

And we Malaysians are among the most religious in the world. About 80% of us are religious, and nearly two-thirds of those religious are fundamentalists: people who adamant that their religion is the one (and only one) true religion. And while people in the rest of the world would generally become less religious as they grow older, we Malaysians are religiously devout throughout our lives.

We Malaysians are highly religious, among the highest in the world. 80% of us are religious and two-thirds of the religious are fundamentalists. And religion is central to many Malaysian lives. (c) Tan Kian Khoon @ fotolia.com

We Malaysians are highly religious, among the highest in the world. 80% of us are religious and two-thirds of the religious are fundamentalists. And religion is central to many Malaysian lives. (c) Tan Kian Khoon @ fotolia.com

There is a risk children brought up in a pious religious background may affect their critical thinking skills. Scientific studies, in particular by Corriveau and her research team in 2015, have shown that there exist differences in the perception of reality between religious and secular children (below 6 years). Secular children were reported to have a keener sense of reality, who, for instance, understood that magical events in any story they read could never happen in reality. In contrast, religious children had more difficulty differentiating reality from fiction. For instance, they were more receptive that magical events in stories they read, whether these stories had any religious background, could actually happen in real life.

Nonetheless, one important caveat from such studies is all children they studied were all aged below 6 years. Children’s perceptions of reality, including those from religious background, would likely improve as the children develop more complex critical thinking skills, especially with increasing education in science at schools.

No doubt that even religious parents do value critical thinking in their children, but these parents would not hesitate to expose their children, even at a very young age, to religion. And the religion to which these children are exposed is very often only a single religion – their parents’ religion. Rarely do religious parents  expose their children to other religions. Religious parents indoctrinate their children, whether wittingly or unwittingly, that their religion is the only one worth believing. All other religions are often claimed to be false, inferior, or even evil and thus should be avoided.

Many religious parents expose and teach only one religion to their children, leading to a myopic understanding of other people from other faiths (and those without any) (c) Distinctive Images @ fotolia.com.

Many religious parents expose and teach only one religion to their children, leading to a myopic understanding of other people from other faiths (and those without any) (c) Distinctive Images @ fotolia.com

Parents who are non-religious often also expose their children to religion. These parents fear that if their children are not taught about religion, then their children risk leading immoral, wasteful, and aimless lives. They also fear that depriving their children of religion could deprive their children of spiritual guidance and comfort in times of trouble.

At the other end of the extreme, secular or atheist parents fear of indoctrinating their children with religion, or that teaching religion to their children would backfire by making their children religious instead and believe in superstitions at the cost of rational thinking. So, some atheist parents completely shield their children from religion, having no patience and zero tolerance—a “religion blackout”—on any religious ideas.

Should we instead protect our children from superstitious, religious thinking? (c) Thomas Perkins @ fotolia.com

Should we instead protect our children from superstitious, religious thinking? (c) Thomas Perkins @ fotolia.com

So, what are we as parents to do?

Regardless whether we are religious, our children should still be taught religion, but not just on a single religion but on a variety of them. The idea of teaching our children religion is not to convert our children to a particular religion but to develop religious literacy in our children, that our children have a much greater understanding about how religion plays an important role, past and present, in the society, arts, media, music, literature, politics, and building architecture.

By having greater religious literacy, our children learn about differences between groups of people and why people behave as they do. Through greater religious literacy, our children learn about tolerance and appreciation on human differences. Religion may not be important to us or to our children on a personal level, but it is important to some people, so it is important our children understand this, regardless whether our children believe in any of their religious teachings.

Through greater religious literacy, our children would also better understand what drives religious violence, hatred, racism, intolerance, sexism, and terrorism in the world today. If our children are ignorant about religions or are myopic to only a single viewpoint of one religion, then it is difficult to get our children to understand why things happen as they do in the society and world.

So, yes, we should teach religion – not just one but many religions – to our children. But we as parents need to do this on our own, without relying on others or hoping the Malaysian government would suddenly become progressive to allow the teaching of comparative religions at schools. The latter, even if well-intended to promote greater tolerance and harmony among people, would probably be abused by certain people who would indoctrinate our children. Recall that many Malaysians are highly religious, and it is easy to see how a well-meaning policy of teaching multiple religions at schools would lead to abuse, discrimination, and bias by teachers with their religious and personal agendas.

As Wendy Russell, in her book “Relax, It’s Just God”, says, “Religion isn’t rocket science.” Every parent, regardless of religiosity (or lack of it) is able to impart the generalities about any religion: on its beliefs, traditions, practices, and celebrations. Such information can easily be obtained from the web. Children books about religions of the world, free from judgement, are also available, such as those listed in Wendy Russell’s book.

Our children are our precious gifts. But our children should not be miniature versions of us but who would blossom into mature and independent individuals, capable of using critical thinking based on reason to decide for themselves on their belief system. Our children should derive their conclusions about their beliefs without coercion, indoctrination, or having been force-fed by us with our own belief systems. But to achieve such goals, our children’s critical thinking skills need to be honed. Having poor critical thinking means our children will have difficulty separating facts from nonsense or too accepting of all sorts of beliefs including dubious ones.

Inculcate a strong critical thinking based on reason in our children. Teach them to think, reason, and question everything (c) DragonImages @ fotolia.com.

Inculcate a strong critical thinking based on reason in our children. Teach them to think, reason, and question everything, even accepted norms. Critical thinking is a priceless gift we can endow our children (c) DragonImages @ fotolia.com.

As the late Carl Sagan said, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.


  1. Corriveau, K.H., Chen, E.E., Harris, P.L. 2015. Judgments about fact and fiction by children from religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 39: 353-382.
  2. Russell, W.T. 2015. Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Brown Paper Press, California.
  3. Stern, M.J. 2014. Is religion good for children? The Slate (link).


Do robotics activities help our children learn better?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zachary having a go with his Lego Mindstorms set.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Who are they, these unbelievers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geetha, age 27 and a physiotherapist

Geetha, age 27 and a physiotherapist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Do we have the right to wear what we want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War on drugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Number of drug-related arrests in Malaysia.

Number of drug-related arrests in Malaysia.

Drug use decriminalization and drug legalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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