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The Language Of Mathematics

In my previous post, I touched on the importance of mathematics and statistics in science. Naturally, I’m not the first person to have said this; others have put it in a much more elegant manner.

Take for example, Galileo, who said that the book of the Universe:

Cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to understand the alphabet in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wonders about in a dark labyrinth.

Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)

I found this quote in the book I’m currently reading (re-reading, who am I kidding?) which is ‘Science: A History‘ by John Gribbin. Incidentally, the bookmark that I’m using is a Magic: The Gathering card called ‘Magical Hacker‘. Printed on the card is this message, which I will let you try to decipher:

1|=y()u(4|\|r3@d7#][5, y0|_|/\r3@IVI0N$+3|2&33|<
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Seni Berfikir Yang Hilang

Saya sebenarnya sudah lama ingin membeli buku ‘Seni Berfikir Yang Hilang (SBYH)‘ karangan Ustaz Hasrizal Abdul Jamil ini, tetapi hanya dapat berbuat demikian minggu lalu apabila saya pergi ke Kedai Buku Kinokuniya di Suria KLCC.

Seni Berfikir Yang Hilang

Buku ini bukannya berdiri sendiri, sebaliknya merupakan ulasan Ustaz Hasrizal tentang sebuah kitab karangan Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi bertajuk Thaqafah Al-Da’iyah. Di sini saya ingin mengucapkan jutaan terima kasih kepada penulis kerana tanpa buku-buku seperti SBYH ini, tentu sukar untuk insan seperti saya yang tidak fasih Bahasa Arab untuk memperoleh manfaat daripada kitab-kitab ilmuan tersohor umat Islam seperti Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi.

Baiklah, pertama sekali, apa pengajaran paling penting yang saya dapat daripada buku ini? Tidak lain tidak bukan adalah 3 bekalan yang diperlukan dalam dakwah iaitu:

  1. Bekalan Iman
  2. Bekalan Akhlak
  3. Bekalan Ilmu

Tujuan buku ini ditulis adalah untuk menghuraikan dengan lebih lanjut 6 cabang ilmu yang perlu dipelajari oleh setiap individu Muslim demi memenuhi bekalan dakwah yang dinyatakan di atas. Berikut adalah 6 bidang ilmu yang disentuh dalam karya tersebut:

  1. Ilmu agama (Al-Thaqafah Al-Diniyyah)
  2. Ilmu sejarah (Al-Thaqafah Al-Tarikhiyyah)
  3. Ilmu sastera & bahasa (Al-Thaqafah Al-Adabiyyah Wa Al-Lughawiyyah)
  4. Ilmu kemanusiaan (Al-Thaqafah Al-Insaniyyah)
  5. Ilmu sains (Al-Thaqafah Al-‘Ilmiyyah)
  6. Ilmu hal ehwal semasa (Al-Thaqafah Al-Waqi’iyyah)

Saya tidak berniat untuk menulis panjang lebar tentang setiap cabang ilmu di atas. Mana mungkin sedangkan saya sendiri bukannya mahir dalam kesemua cabang ilmu yang disenaraikan. Sebaliknya, saya ingin berkongsi beberapa komen tentang buku ini.

Asas Kepada Bekalan Ilmu Adalah Bekalan Agama

Setuju 100%. Malah, pada pendapat saya cabang ilmu itu sepatutnya bukan 6, tetapi 1 + 5. Dalam erti kata lain, ilmu agama itu perlu dijadikan lensa untuk melihat, mengkaji, dan memahami bidang-bidang ilmu yang lain. Tidak keterlaluan jika saya katakan, tanpa adanya asas yang kukuh, manusia akan cenderung untuk mensia-siakan, atau lebih buruk lagi, menyalahgunakan ilmu pengetahuan yang ada pada mereka. Sebagai contoh, sekiranya seorang doktor itu tidak memiliki iman dan akhlak yang baik hasil daripada didikan agama, mudah saja untuk mendapat keuntungan lebih dengan mempromosikan rawatan yang mahal tetapi tidak berkesan kepada pesakitnya. Begitu juga seorang ahli falsafah yang terlalu mengagungkan keupayaan minda manusia, silap-silap ajaran sesat pula yang dibawanya.

Pendek kata, ilmu agama-lah yang akan memberi makna dan perspektif untuk menilai cabang-cabang ilmu yang lain.

Bagaimana Mengejar Yang 1+5

Satu soalan yang mungkin timbul dalam diri kita adalah “Bagaimana mungkin saya boleh menguasai semua cabang ilmu ini?”

Jujurnya, walaupun saya ini agak ‘nerd‘ dan minat belajar (masih lagi status pelajar pada usia 36 tahun), tetapi saya yakin saya tidak akan mampu menguasai kesemua bidang ilmu yang disenaraikan di atas. Namun saya juga faham, bukan itu tujuannya.

It’s not the destination, but the journey that matters!

Maksudnya, walaupun kita tidak mungkin sampai ke tahap berjaya menguasai kesemua cabang ilmu tersebut, yang penting adalah usaha kita. Masa yang telah Allah SWT beri kepada kita, haruslah kita manfaatkan untuk belajar dan terus belajar. Cuma, kita perlu peka, apa sebenarnya yang sedang kita pelajari?

Saya sendiri sering terperangkap dalam persekitaran kognitif yang selesa. Sebagai pakar perubatan neurologi dan kini pelajar dalam bidang neurosains klinikal, saya lebih gemar membaca artikel-artikel berunsur saintifik. Jika ada masa lapang, saya juga minat membaca buku-buku sejarah dan hal ehwal semasa. Tetapi saya sedar kelemahan saya di mana saya sering mengabaikan bidang ilmu lain yang tidak kurang pentingnya seperti ilmu agama, sastera, bahasa, dan kemanusiaan. Untuk memperbaiki keadaan tersebut, saya mengambil keputusan mengatur strategi baru.

Prinsip yang saya ambil mudah sahaja.

Saya pastikan, dalam bahan bacaan saya, mesti ada yang mengajar saya ilmu agama. Mesti ada juga yang menyentuh hal ehwal semasa. Tidak dilupakan buku sastera, kemanusiaan, dan sebagainya. Jadi boleh dikatakan pada setiap masa, saya akan membaca 4-5 buku yang berlainan (bukan serentak, tentunya, tetapi bergilir-gilir dalam sesi bacaan yang sama).

Seni Berfikir Yang Lebih Baik

Kembali kepada buku SBYH ini, saya dengan rendah hati ingin mengemukakan dua cadangan untuk memperbaiki penulisannya.

  1. Seimbangkan isi kandungannya. Ustaz Hasrizal sendiri menulis:

Menurut hemat saya, pengagihan kandungan kitab tersebut agak kurang seimbang. Walaupun ia membincangkan tentang enam ilmu, ilmu yang pertama sahaja telah mewakili dua per tiga kitab. Manakala lima ilmu yang berikutnya berada dalam satu per tiga yang terakhir.

Mungkin disebabkan ketidakseimbangan dalam karya asal (Thaqafah Al-Da’iyah), buku SBYH ini juga lebih memberi tumpuan kepada ilmu agama dan ilmu sejarah. Cabang ilmu lain seperti hal ehwal semasa seperti di’anak tiri’kan kerana hanya mendapat 3 muka surat sahaja.

Dalam bab ilmu sains, misalnya, jika saya boleh menambah sedikit apa yang ditulis, saya akan tekankan betapa pentingnya memahami sedikit sebanyak ilmu matematik dan statistik untuk hidup dalam dunia moden. Ambil sahaja contoh COVID-19:

Andaikata ujian COVID-19 itu berjaya mengesan 99% kes, dan ditakdirkan anda positif setelah menjalani ujian tersebut, apakah kebarangkalian yang anda benar-benar menghidapi COVID-19?

Jawapannya bukan 99% ya! Klik di sini jika ingin belajar lebih lanjut bagaimana untuk menjawab soalan yang amat penting ini.

  1. Huraikan dengan lebih lanjut bagaimana untuk memupuk semula seni berfikir yang sudah hilang ini. Mungkin lebih sesuai dijadikan judul buku yang baru, tetapi saya lebih cenderung untuk melihat ini sebagai buku ‘Seni Berfikir Yang Hilang 2.0’ di mana Ustaz Hasrizal boleh menjawab soalan yang tentunya akan ditanyakan para pembaca: “Jika ini seni berfikir yang telah hilang, bagaimana boleh saya menjumpainya semula?”

Kesimpulan

Akhir kata, saya ingin mengucapkan jutaan terima kasih sekali lagi kepada Ustaz Hasrizal kerana telah berusaha untuk memperkenalkan kitab Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi ini kepada lebih ramai pembaca. Saya tidak kenal Ustaz Hasrizal secara peribadi, cuma saya telah mengikuti penulisan beliau sejak zaman pelajar perubatan lagi. Penulisannya kali ini menarik dan mudah dihadam, sehingga saya membeli dan habis membaca buku SBYH ini pada hari yang sama. Saya doakan semua pihak yang terlibat dalam menghasilkan buku ini dirahmati Allah SWT dan dimurahkan rezeki mereka, inshaAllah!

P/S:

Setelah mencapai senaskhah buku SBYH ini di Kinokuniya tempoh hari, saya pergi pula ke rak buku sejarah. Dalam mencari buku yang menarik untuk dibeli, saya perasan ada 2 orang berdiri di rak sebelah, namun hanya seorang yang sedang meneliti buku-buku yang ada, manakala seorang lagi berdiri tegak di tepi.

Saya curi pandang, dan terbukti benar, bukan calang-calang orangnya! DYMM Paduka Seri Sultan Perak Darul Ridzuan, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah sendiri yang sedang tekun memikirkan buku apa untuk dibeli hari itu. Hendak disapa, tetapi saya diam sahaja apabila melihat muka pengawal peribadinya. Namun, hati saya amat gembira melihat pemimpin yang cintakan ilmu seperti baginda.

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The Joys Of Learning

When we were young, curiosity was our second nature. The world was not some mundane environment, but an exciting adventure. Slowly as we grew up, this sense of curiosity and wonder started to fade. Education became an automatic act, a way to add on more facts to the overstuffed cabinets of our minds.

I am in my mid-30’s now. I’ve completed my training to be a neurologist and instead of working hard to become a consultant, I chose to spend a few years pursuing a PhD. One of the reasons for going down this path is to discover — or perhaps re-discover — the joys of learning. Alhamdulillah, so far I feel like I’m doing well on that track.

You see, the good thing about being a student at this age is that you’ve done it before. That’s why, when you come across something challenging, or maybe some concept that you’ve never heard about before, you (hopefully) won’t panic too much. Just chill and learn, chill and learn. After all, nobody can ever hope to know every single thing, so why should we be afraid or frustrated when we encounter something new?

Just this week, I gave a brief presentation during my research group’s lab meeting. I talked about one of the things that’s been bugging me as someone studying cerebral small vessel disease — the question of how exactly to diagnose the condition. One can write at length about this topic, but suffice it is to say that the diagnosis of cerebral small vessel disease is still somewhat subjective, and nowhere near as straightforward as it should be ideally. While researching the topic, I came across this paper by Sundaresan et al. entitled:

Automated lesion segmentation with BIANCA: Impact of population-level features, classification algorithm and locally adaptive thresholding

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116056

You may wonder why I’m talking about this paper. Well, the reason is because I stumbled upon something new while reading the paper that reminded me of the joys of learning.

Voronoi diagrams.

Those of you who are mathematicians or computer scientists may be laughing at me now, but I genuinely did not know of the existence of Voronoi diagrams before.

And yet, they are an elegant solution to many problems that occur around us, for example, if you had 10 post offices in a given area, how do you determine the optimal coverage area for each branch?

Similarly, when doing automated segmentation of lesions in the brain (in this case, attempting to segment and quantify white matter hyperintensities), one way to improve the technique is by using Voronoi tesselation to produce what are effectively Voronoi polygons in the brain. This allows you to apply local thresholding to generate a better binary mask of white matter hyperintensities.

Simple, right? Ha ha ha…

Anyway, despite struggling with the concept initially, I came away with something rare, a feeling that ‘Hey, I learnt something completely new today!’

Bonus: check out this Medium article on making ‘Artistic Voronoi Diagrams in Python‘ by Frank Ceballos. The colours are gorgeous!

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Why Stroke Matters

A picture says a thousand words.

I wish Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili the very best of health as he recovers from his “extreme exhaustion”.

From the article:

KOTA KINABALU: Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Sabah and Sarawak Affairs) Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili has shared a picture of his daughter visiting him in hospital where he is being warded due to “extreme exhaustion”.

Ongkili’s absence on the first day of the highly-anticipated Parliament session earlier this week was not due to a stroke.

Since the article mentions stroke as a possible cause of the Minister’s “extreme exhaustion”, I think this would be a good opportunity to educate the public on stroke.

First of all, why does stroke matter in the grand scheme of things? According to the World Stroke Organization:

  • This year 14.5 million people will have a stroke, 5.5 million people will die as a result.
  • 80 million people have survived stroke worldwide.
  • Many stroke survivors face significant challenges that include physical disability, communication difficulties, changes in how they think and feel, loss of work, income and social networks.

Time Is Brain

In managing heart attacks, medical students are taught early on that ‘time is myocardium’, in other words, the faster you treat the condition, the more heart tissue is saved.

Similarly, in stroke cases, ‘time is brain’.

In fact, researchers have calculated that someone who has just had a stroke loses about 2 million nerve cells for every single minute that the stroke is left untreated!

So then, how do you recognise a stroke?

One of the easiest ways is to use the FAST test, where:

F is for Face
A is for Arms
S is for Speech
T is for Time

Basically, the idea is that whenever you see someone having problems (for example, weakness or numbness) with their face, arms or legs, and/or speech, then please call the ambulance and bring them to a hospital as soon as possible.

Here is a video showing you how to do the FAST test.

Granted, these are not necessarily the only symptoms and signs of a stroke, but the FAST test is a pretty decent way for someone with no specialist knowledge to spot a stroke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in helping out with stroke in Malaysia, the Malaysia Stroke Council is one avenue where you can contribute. Thank you for reading.

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Moving Away From Facebook

I had originally wanted to give this post the title ‘Leaving Facebook’, but in reality, it may not be as easy to do so for various reasons outlined below.

But first, let me tell you what I initially thought of Facebook, all the way back in 2005 when it was still a platform only certain people had access to (you had to have a university email address, and only some universities were on the list).

Basically, I didn’t see the point of it!

Sure it was fun to check your friends’ brand new profiles, give them a ‘poke’, and see your friend count increase, but the novelty tends to wear off after a while. I mean, seriously, who on earth wants to know what you had for lunch three days in a row?

This is an important point because a site like Facebook can only survive if people spend a lot of time on it. It’s not enough that you go on it once a week, they want you to be on Facebook every single day for as long as possible.

Which brings me to the reasons why I’m moving away from Facebook: it pushes me towards narcissism, and it encourages me to care about trivial things.

Hey, Look At Me!

Let’s face it, nobody just posts everything that happens to them unfiltered on Facebook. Your profile is a carefully manicured lawn, a polished mirror, a room that’s been Marie Kondo-ed to perfection, because deep down everybody cares what someone thinks of them (even if they don’t care what everyone thinks of them).

When I post something on the site, it is with the intention of getting attention. Facebook, like its sibling Instagram, actively exploits this by tweaking a hundred and one things on its site. Now I’m not saying they’re doing it because of some nefarious plan to dominate the world or anything, instead they’re doing it because they want to drive engagement with the site. Engagement is difficult to define, but basically it revolves around the idea of making Facebook central to how people experience the Internet.

Looking for news? Go on Facebook.

Something good happened to you? Tell your friends about it on Facebook.

Starbucks barista misspelled your name? Moan about it on Facebook!

Stuck in a boring meeting? You know what you need to do…

I’m not going to speculate how other people feel or use this (or any other) social media platform, but for me personally, the more I’m on it, the more narcissistic I become. Deep down, I do care how many people like or comment on my post. This is one of the main reasons for me wanting to move away from Facebook.

OMG Will You Look At This?

Another reason for my increasing aversion towards the site is because it makes me care/worry/rage/think about trivial things. On the Internet, someone is always angry about something. These days, more often than not, that thing ends up on Facebook. OMG some random uncle cut into the supermarket queue in front of you? Take a photo of him and post it to your friends and followers. Watch as the condemnations pour in! Revel in your superiority over these uncouth people!

Sure, that’s a slightly more extreme example, but social media really is full of unnecessary debate over trivial things. Your time should be precious to you, so why should you waste it caring over what some celebrity is doing? Why should it bother you that someone got into a fight at their office and is now rage-posting about it?

You may argue that this is all just harmless fun. But try looking around you the next time you’re at a restaurant. How many families are sitting together at a table without anyone making eye contact or talking to another family member, because every one is so engrossed with the little screen in front of them? Pick your poison: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, WhatsApp, YouTube etc. We’re all guilty of it!

Focusing On What Really Matters

Ultimately, these are MY reasons for moving away from something that is toxic in my life. Other people may feel differently, of course. Maybe Facebook is how you make your living. Maybe you do gain a lot of benefit from it, but for me, the negative aspects far outweigh whatever good comes out of spending time on the site. Even so, I haven’t deleted my profile, I’ve merely deactivated it. The sad reality is that some things just aren’t possible to do without being on Facebook. I get that, and I’m resigned to the fact that from time to time I may need to log back in to check on some information that’s ONLY been posted to the site.

I still want something better though.

I want to spend my time with my family. I don’t want to sit down for dinner with my kids only to end up scrolling my News Feed half the time. I want to care about more important things in life, like the question of what memory is, the nature of consciousness, how do we train better doctors and scientists, how to nurture good habits among our children. These are the issues that deserve our time and attention.

When Albus Dumbledore saw Harry Potter staring at the Mirror of Erised, this was the advice he gave Harry:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

I fear in our time, this needs to be modified for when Dumbledore sees Harry furiously refreshing his News Feed:

It does not do to dwell on Facebook/Instagram, and forget to live.

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Aston Martin DB11 V8 Coupe

Aston Martin DB11

Location: Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur

Look, all I’m saying is that if ever someone feels like buying me a surprise birthday gift, I’d never say no to an Aston Martin.

Price: RM 808,000.00 (excluding duties and taxes)

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Productivity During A Pandemic

As more and more people start to return to work, I am beginning to ponder the issue of productivity during a pandemic.

The question of how productive you are is a difficult one to answer even at the best of times. Previously, I could perhaps say that I had had a productive day if I managed to see >10 patients in my neurology clinic, or finished writing a manuscript, or brought along multiple groups of medical students for their clinical supervision.

When everyone is under lockdown, however, trying to estimate how productive you are using conventional means is an exercise in futility.

I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if I’ve ‘wasted’ the last few months at home. But then again, I look at what else has happened in these last few months, and remind myself: there is a time and place for everything. Sure, I have barely done any research work apart from learning MRI analysis, but I have also gotten the chance to spend a lot of time with my family.

I’ve taught my kids to ride a bicycle. Played basketball and football with them frequently. Helped them with homework. Supervised them while they’re having their online classes. I look back at all these things with happiness in my heart.

Sometimes we are too busy chasing ‘urgent’ achievements that we forget, or neglect, the truly important things in life. Medical training, to me, is one example of how something that feels urgent (as in I really need to finish my training and become a specialist) can come at the expense of things that are far more important in the long run e.g. family. The struggle to become a specialist is brutal, requiring long hours, mountains of motivation, willingness to tolerate abuse, neglect of family members, frequent sanity checks etc. It’s far from ideal, but having gone through the process myself, that’s probably the most honest way I can describe it. YMMV obviously! I don’t think it needs to be this way though, but more on that in a future blog post inshaAllah.

For now, I am just thankful that I’ve been given the chance to spend some quality time with my family before returning to Oxford to continue my DPhil. All of these things (family, memory research, clinical work etc) matter tremendously to me. May Allah make this journey a beneficial one not just for me but also for my family, colleagues, patients, and the rest of society.

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The Best Way To Think About Science

Check out this ‘Behind the Byline’ interview with Ed Yong, one of the staff writers at The Atlantic who’s written some really illuminating articles in the last few weeks about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s my favourite line from the interview:

…science is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.”

Looking at how science is covered in the mainstream media, one can be forgiven for thinking of it as a series of phenomenal findings.

  • “Neuroscientists find the seat of empathy.”
  • “How your brain looks like when you’re in LOVE.”
  • “5G towers cause cancer!” (okay, joking on this one, stop attacking 5G towers people!)

In reality, scientific progress is often messy and does not lend itself well to simple headlines. Think about that the next time you read about some incredible discovery in the news.

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Black Lives Matter

First things first, if your response to Black Lives Matter is “ALL Lives Matter” then you’re doing it wrong. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the slogan represents, but it is a very easy mistake to make. I made it too, when I first encountered the words Black Lives Matter.

I’m not going to pretend that I am anywhere close to understanding what goes on in the lives of African-Americans in the US, but to me it seems somewhat hypocritical to support this movement without commenting on matters closer to home.

One of the biggest dangers of racism is that it can be invisible, such that people can genuinely believe it doesn’t exist, all while continuing to prop up a system that promotes the differential treatment of people according to what race they belong to. In Malaysia, we have a slew of race-based policies that people continue to justify based on an agreement that was made many generations ago. To question this arrangement is to threaten the very social fabric that holds the nation together (some people say).

I find that line of thinking perplexing, to be honest.

The Islamic perspective

My main objection to these policies stems from my religious belief that all human beings are created equal.

People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognise one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.

Surah Al-Hujurat [49:13]

For me personally, it is hard to justify how one can believe in the above, but also say that someone has to pay up to 15% extra for a house just because it is not a Bumiputera lot and they happen not to be ‘Malay’ at the time of purchase. One justification for these policies is that ‘the other side does it too’. Some businesses, for example, insist on hiring people who are able to speak Mandarin, as a way of ‘filtering’ out candidates from other races. I am not blind to this. But this tit-for-tat approach just doesn’t sit well with me. Imagine if the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said the same during the Conquest of Makkah. These infidels mistreated us, oppressed us even, so let’s pay them back for what they did! Well, Islamic history would’ve turned out very differently indeed, that’s for sure.

Race as a scientific construct

My second objection comes from the fact that ‘race’ itself is often a cover for ignorance. It is, to quote a phrase that appears in the description for the YouTube video below, a ‘pseudoscientific taxonom(y) of humans, almost exclusively based on pigmentation’. That’s quite a mouthful. The real situation is more intuitive. If a Malay person marries a Chinese person, then their offspring, even by the simplest of standards, should really be Malay-Chinese. And yet, we often force people to dichotomise this decision, by labelling them as Malay OR Chinese, whichever way happens to be convenient for supporting our argument.

To be clear, I think this is nonsense.

If we can’t even decide who’s Malay or Chinese based on the simple situation above, what are we going to do with someone who is of Malaysian Chinese-Brazilian parentage but raised instead by a Malaysian-Indian family? Call them White? Come on man, what on Earth have you been smoking?

Oh yes, the video:

The polite guy in me thinks the title is more provocative than it needs to be. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant talk, well-worth watching, and I am indebted to Dr Sofia Toniolo who first brought it to my attention on Facebook.

Lastly, I think in order to address these issues properly, it is important to recognise that racism may happen even without any malice on the part of the perpetrator. This is systemic, or institutional racism, and you can be part of it even without intentionally setting out to be racist. I hope that by highlighting this fact, more people will be willing to have a productive dialogue about what it means to continue the practise of race-based policies.

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Ramadhan 1441H: A Reminiscence

You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.

Surah Al-Baqarah [2:183]

The holy month of Ramadhan has just ended. For some, this marks a return to ‘normal’ life, or at least, a life as normal as can be in this pandemic. For me, however, the passing of Ramadhan this year really feels like losing something valuable. What follows is my humble attempt at recording some of my thoughts on Ramadhan 1441H.

Back to basics

In years past, one of the paradoxical aspects of Ramadhan in Malaysia is that it is often associated with excessiveness rather than frugality. The epitome of this is undoubtedly the all-you-can-eat Ramadhan buffets where you can get nasi kandar, nasi tomato, nasi ayam, nasi goreng, mee goreng, mihun goreng, kueyteow goreng, ayam goreng, ayam merah, ayam tandoori, satay ayam…wait, where was I again? Oh yes, excessiveness! Indeed, the Ramadhan buffet for me is the antithesis of what this holy month should be. If you’ve never been to one, I don’t think you can quite appreciate how much food there often is. Sometimes it feels like war in there, especially when there’s only one piece of lamb chop left and many hungry souls eyeing it!

Let me put my hand up and say that I’m equally guilty of partaking in these all-you-can-eat buffets previously. Thankfully, this year all that wasn’t even a concern as most eating establishments were shut anyway. Instead, we had to eat at home (ooh!) with our families (aah!), which automatically limits the amount of food you can bring to the table.

I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to go back to the basics: spending time with my family, eating a simple meal for buka puasa, reading the Quran on Zoom with my batchmates, performing the terawih prayers together etc. Turns out when you strip away all the relentless marketing for more food, more clothes, more things in general, you end up with the truly valuable moments in life. Who knew!

Staying productive

When I flew back to Malaysia in mid-March, I had a plan to stay productive, by keeping up with the latest medical/neuroscience journals and writing up the introductory chapter to my DPhil. I got in touch with my neurology unit to see if they needed my help, but alhamdulillah by the time I obtained approval to return to clinical duties, the situation in Malaysia had improved slightly to the extent that I could just remain on standby and carry on with my DPhil work.

The only problem was trying to maintain productivity while working from home. This term was supposed to be dedicated to analysing the neuropsychological and neuroimaging data I’ve collected thus far, as well as learning about advanced MRI topics like resting-state functional connectivity and diffusion imaging. Honestly, I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to keep up with all the online lectures but this is one area where I’m determined to put in a lot more effort in the next few weeks inshaAllah.

On the flip side, I am now spending so much time with my 3-year-old son that I have officially been upgraded to Best Buddy status.

Social media use

One last thing that I wanted to write about is the role of social media in a pandemic. In a previous post I mentioned how my use of social media was limited to a few platforms, but in recent weeks, this has coalesced even further to basically just Facebook.

Privacy implications aside (something that deserves a blog post of its own), here’s what I like about social media:

Social media allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends while I was overseas. In particular, as the COVID-19 situation in the United Kingdom was steadily worsening and more and more places started to shut down, I could still follow along with developments in Malaysia. I also found social media useful for charity work particularly through IMARET (in which I have a tiny supporting role).

But social media use also comes with its own pitfalls. Two in particular deserve special mention:

  1. Self-righteous posts and public shaming: All of us have seen this. The hastily-taken snap of people queuing up to go into a supermarket, or cars stuck in traffic, accompanied by harsh words about how people should be staying at home. Yes, people should stay at home as much as they can, but I wonder why we are so quick to judge others negatively for doing exactly the same thing we are doing. The people posting traffic jam pictures, implying that they are going to work but these other people are doing…what? Shopping? Sightseeing? This is one area where I think we can benefit from being less judgmental towards other people.
  2. Fear-mongering: In Malaysia, there’s been a lot of hate directed towards Rohingya refugees, blaming them for all kinds of problems from unemployment to COVID-19. I wonder what we would say if our own families were being massacred, our own homes destroyed etc. A friend of mine wrote how we are being tested here, not as the Muhajirin but as the Ansar i.e. not as the people facing trials and tribulations, but as the people responsible for helping these refugees. May Allah open our hearts and fill it with empathy for others.

Conclusion

Overall, this Ramadhan has acted as a reset button for me, allowing me to pause and take stock of the many blessings I have in life. Although I miss being in Oxford, doing neuroscience-y things and pretending like I know a lot more about human memory than I really do, I am also aware of how privileged I am to be able to batten down the hatches and try my best to weather this storm. And because no lengthy blog post is complete without a Tolkien quote, here’s one from the Lord of the Rings:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.


“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Thank you for making it this far.

Selamat hari raya Aidilfitri, maaf zahir dan batin.