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Author: Zurairi AR

Zurairi AR is a journalist and columnist for Malay Mail Online. He is an advocate of humanism and scepticism.

Stop Lynas, save Malaysia… but from what?

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Quick, name me another politician who is as passionate in opposing Lynas as Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh.

How about this instead: name me a politician who dared to break ranks on this Lynas issue. Besides that “nuclear scientist” guy. (His name is Che Rosli Che Mat by the way, and he taught nuclear science in UKM.)

If you are like the general public, you might have trouble naming names. Hence, the moment Tan Keng Liang of Gerakan demanded that Pakatan Rakyat politicians just shut up and agree with Che Rosli’s opinion unless they possess scientific arguments, he created an impasse that drew silence from most of his detractors.

Our elected representatives’ poor grasp on science (in this case, some basic nuclear physics) proved to be their undoing. As a result, both sides decided to either opt out or just toe their respective parties’ lines. A crucial environmental issue had effectively transformed into a political row with the government on Lynas’ side and opposition on the other.

To put things into perspective, let us recap what rare earths are, and what they are not. Rare earths by themselves are not radioactive. The by-product from their extraction, however, can contain thorium, and is radioactive. Thorium emits alpha-particles, instead of beta-particles — used usually for cancer treatments — or gamma-particles — the most dangerous of all, or in fiction, turns one into a green angry giant.

Alpha-particles cannot even go through human skin, but materials emitting it are harmful once eaten or breathed in. So, when people talk about the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) being radioactive, they should actually mean its waste is radioactive, not rare earths or the plant itself.

Che Rosli had a point when he accused his colleague of being unscientific. The same accusations can be directed towards a segment of public with anti-Lynas sentiments too, who are prone to exaggerations and scare-mongering with their appeals to emotions. It is understandable though that they would go to such lengths. After all, the consequences might be too big to bear. But are such tactics justified?

Teach me about sex

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Forget that when people think about sexual prowess, they don’t automatically think keropok lekor. Forget that the amount of Tongkat Ali additive available in health supplement products is too little to work. The fact that Terengganu thinks it’s a prudent idea to sell Tongkat Ali-laced keropok lekor reflects that there is a sizable demand for it.

Perhaps it is time to admit that our society is obsessed with sex. More accurately, we are obsessed with ubat kuat-kind of sexual performance, but not so much the aspects that would benefit from sex education.

Last month, my fiancee and I attended the nationally-mandatory two-day kursus kahwin. If anything, we were looking forward to the class about sexual health, in particular family planning. Instead, we were left unsatisfied (your mileage might vary).

How many kids do you think can a woman bear in her lifetime? Six? 10? By some dubious mathematics, a preacher suggested that women can bear 30 kids in their lifetime, and therefore the participants must breed as many children as biologically possible.

“If you don’t breed, we Malays will be over-run in numbers by the non-Malays. We will then lose our voting power,” he explained. “Just look at Singapore, where Muslims are the minority.”

It sounded like a bad joke, but many of the participants took the advice to heart. The preacher also warned against masturbating: “Your testes are gifts from God, the human race will disappear if you don’t take care of your sperm.”

“You only have 30 million sperms in your ejaculate, you need as many of them as possible to inseminate the egg,” he urged sternly. I hesitated to tell him that’s not exactly how it works.

This emphasis on performing as a way to prove your manliness, and delivering babies upon babies is in stark conflict with the attitude towards unmarried couples who are expected to remain chaste.

In denial over evolution, in denial over science

Published in The Malaysian Insider

“Malays have no problems embracing science when it supports their pride, but they won’t even acknowledge the theory of evolution,” a friend remarked after reading the news on proto-Malays. It might sound like a broad sweeping statement, but it is obvious that most Malaysians, and by extension most Malays, have strong disagreement with the subject despite being poorly educated on it.

When asked “Did human beings develop from an earlier species of animals?”, slightly over half of Malaysians answered “false”, a mere 17.4 per cent answered “true” and the rest were unsure. This statistic was then published in the most recent report on scientific and technological awareness by the Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre (Mastic) in 2008.

In comparison, almost half of those surveyed back in 2004 answered “true”, 21 per cent answered “false”, and the rest unsure — a complete opposite of 2008’s result.

Suspiciously, Mastic decided that the correct answer to the question is “false”, contrary to the answer in the American and European version of the survey. The decision was, according to them, “for many different reasons not to be mentioned in this report.” By their own admission too, this had eliminated any fair international comparison for the survey.

It is no secret that there are some of our medical students overseas who purposely skip their evolutionary biology lectures “in protest.” Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London, claimed that an increasing number of Muslim students in UK had been boycotting his lectures.

In TV AlHijrah, we have a government-owned (read: taxpayer-backed) Islamic TV channel which freely airs pseudo-scientific and pro-creationism drivel such as the show “Signs of Creator”. This is just one of the many works by cult head Adnan Oktar, more known and idolised in Malaysia by his pen name Harun Yahya. I tried watching it the other day, but lost my patience by the time it got to the “Miracles by Prophets are Proofs that Evolution is Wrong” section.

What in the name of Darwin happened here?

Proto-who? On the origin of Bumiputeras

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Fresh from being told that Hang Tuah — the icon of Malay resilience (“takkan Melayu hilang di dunia”) — did not exactly exist, some Malays may be shocked to learn that they were originally Africans. Suddenly, it dawns on them that those they have mocked freely with names like “Awang Hitam” and “Dayang Senandung” might turn out to be their ketuanan compatriots.

At least, that’s the claim made at a conference known as Konvensyen Asal Usul Melayu: Induknya di Alam Melayu (literally Convention on the Origin of Malays: Ancestry in Malay World). With a RM1.4 million grant from, of all people, the Higher Education Ministry, it is hard to argue with them.

Or is it?

To be precise, a presentation in the convention posited that the ancestral people called proto-Malays originated from Africa before migrating to the Sunda Shelf, the mass of land covering the area of Southeast Asia. It is believed that the proto-Malays then survived the supervolcanic eruption of Danau Toba in Sumatra by living in places not affected by the volcanic ash.

The Toba event happened between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago, which would make proto-Malays among the only 10,000 humans estimated left during that time. The event is an important explanation for the bottleneck in human evolution, which answers how the human race actually descended from a very small population.

Fleeing from global warming that flooded the Sunda Shelf into different islands 25,000 years ago, the people would have migrated north to the rest of the world, populating, among others, India, China, Japan and the United States. In short, these proto-Malays might be the origin of human life on Earth.

This, of course, flies in the face of the previous three theories on proto-Malays, which suggested Yunnan, New Guinea or Taiwan as their point of origin, which means they were northern people migrating south. These three theories were mostly based on archaeological findings and linguistic studies, as opposed to genetic studies which became the reference for the latest theory.

A Sceptic’s Tale

Skeptical Cat is fraught with skepticism
The truth about sceptics is that we were all believers once. We just stopped after a while, usually with a little help from rational thinking.

The other day just before New Year, @badastronomer asked his followers on Twitter for some stories of what they used to believe in before they turned sceptic. Those tweets were tagged #SkepticTale.

I tweeted some too, and delighted at reading others’ tales.