M. Bakri Musa
This burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threat can crop up well beyond our formative years and at the most unexpected venues.
At one Alif Ba Ta Conference a few years ago, organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in which I discussed self-affirmation and stereotype threat, a group of students confided to me their experiences in the special matriculation class preparing them for American universities. Midway through that class they were given a test. Those who excelled were sent abroad earlier.
Even though the class was filled predominantly with Malays, for the group selected to leave earlier, non-Malays were over represented. How do I explain that, the students inquired? I immediately sensed their burden of stereotype threat – Malay ineptitude in academics.
So I asked them what they had done between their school examination in November the preceding year until they were enrolled in that special class the following July. To a person they all replied “Nothing!” Yes, nothing!
Then I also asked them whether they had discussed with their successful and predominantly non-Malay classmates how they managed to do so well, specifically what were they doing from January till July when they started their matriculation classes together. The Malay students could not answer me. Obviously they never thought to ask or were too embarrassed to discuss that sensitive topic with their non-Malay classmates, or their teachers. For their part, their matriculation teachers, unlike my Mr. Peter Norton at Malay College in the 1960s during my Sixth Form years there, merely accepted the fact as it was.
Whenever I meet Malaysians at elite American campuses I always try to discern through casual conversation what schools they attended (in particular their matriculation classes) in Malaysia and what made them choose America and pick that particular university. Invariably those students (even Malays) came from other than our national schools, reflecting the quality of such schools. Further and far more crucial, they had spent the six-or seven-month hiatus following their November SPM examination enrolled in private pre-university classes.
So when they were selected into the government’s special matrikulasi class, they were already six months ahead as compared to their Malay classmates who did “nothing.” That is a significant advantage in what would typically be a two-year course at most.
Malay College recently (July 2011) started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program after over a decade in planning. Again, the students were those who did well in their SPM the previous November. Apart from its radically different learning and teaching philosophy, IB is all English. Meanwhile those students had spent the previous 11 years in Malay medium. I suggested to those in charge that they should enroll the students earlier (as in January) so they could have six months of “pre-IB” where they could improve their English and other skills.
The response? No funds lah! I hope the first batch of students had done well. Should they fail or even just not excel, then expect those ugly stereotypes to be resurrected. The burden would fall not only on them but also on those following and on Malays generally. They will certainly not blame the teachers or the organizers of the program!
The government had already spent hundreds of millions of ringgit to set up the IB program, yet it could not secure extra funds to ensure that it would succeed.
Meanwhile in the business sphere, when Bank Bumiputra collapsed in the 1990s, ugly stereotypes on Malay aptitude for and competence in commerce were again resurrected, and not just by non-Malays. That too was very ugly, and the public behaviors of the key players merely reinforced those stereotypes. Conveniently forgotten was that the bank failed not because it was run by Malays, but because of corruption, incompetence and political patronage, the very same afflictions that burdened GLCs in China (CITIC), India (Air India), and America (Freddie Mac).
Today a generation later, the same tragic story is being repeated with 1MDB, another GLC, this time at a much greater cost and with the nation’s highest leader involved. Again here the main players are Malays. Just in case the point is missed, they brought in a non-Malay to resolve the mess. Never mind that he was no more successful than his predecessor.
The 1MDB scandal again resurrected yet another stereotype, this time on the Chinese. One of the players, the few except of course for Najib who came out like bandits literally, was a Malaysian Chinese character close to Najib’s family. Here we have the all-too-familiar story of a scheming Chinese taking advantage of a dumb Malay leader. Well, that dumb Malay leader part of the stereotype is true. At least Malaysians should be comforted by that fact. Imagine if we had a Malay leader who was smart as well as corrupt. The damage he would inflict could be horrendous! Count your blessings, Malaysians!
Linked to stereotype threat is the maintenance of the integrity of self-affirmation. When we see something that threatens our self-image, for example, Malays not doing well academically, we shift the focus elsewhere. Thus we say we do not care for “secular knowledge;” we are more into “spiritual” and “real” knowledge, the kind that would get us into Heaven. In that way we protect ourselves as non-Muslims would certainly not be competing with us in that field. If Muslim Chinese and Indians were to later beat us and excel in the same field, then we would have to spin yet another fanciful narrative.
When I see Malays focused on religion and the Hereafter and neglect their worldly obligations, I see that as nothing more than a manifestation of this threat to their self-affirmation rather than a genuine love for religious knowledge or concerns with personal salvation.
A similar phenomenon is seen in children. When kids run a playground race, those who are left behind would rationalize that they are not really “racing” or competing. Or, it’s only a “practice.” Likewise when I am sailing; I am always racing, that is, when I am overtaking the other sailboats. When I am being overtaken, well, I am out just for a leisurely afternoon cruise!
Both stereotypes and self-affirmation threats can be remedied. We do not have to be resigned to being their victims. To do that however, we first have to free up our minds from those cluttered and unproductive mental patterns. We have to create new or modify existing narratives to be more reflective of reality, one that would also be more useful and productive.
We can learn much from the insights of modern neuroscience on how to do that. In the next few essays I will review some of those exciting studies and how they could be applied to better understand and appreciate our current particular dilemmas.
Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.