Besar 2.0

Location: Shah Alam, Selangor

I’m really happy with the Portrait Mode on my iPhone 11 Pro Max. Sure it may not give the most technically accurate picture, but the results are very pleasant to look at (which is arguably more important).

This here is Besar, or rather Besar 2.0.

When I was a kid, my family used to have a grumpy cat called Besar (which means ‘big’ in Malay) because she was considerably larger than the 2 kittens we also had at the time. The cat in this picture belongs to my mother-in-law, but she looks similar to my old one (the cat, not my mother-in-law!), so to keep things simple I’ve named her Besar as well.

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.

Starbucks

Starbucks cup

Location: Subang Parade, Selangor

Check out this beautifully-designed paper cup by Starbucks. I immediately asked if they sold a mug with the same design on it but unfortunately the answer was no.

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.