Monday, 27 April 2009

Waterboarding and Torture

The recent release of CIA Interrogation Memos has caused great consternation among many both in the US and around the world. The memo described the interrogation techniques used against suspected terrorists, authorised by the previous Bush administration.

The most controversial technique is waterboarding. Here, the prisoner's body is strapped on a board, legs fully stretched and hands tied behind his back around the board. The board is slanted to one side to position the prisoner’s head lower than his feet. The prisoner’s face is covered with a wet cloth and cold water will be poured over and over the prisoner’s face. With the cloth covering the face, the prisoner is not in danger of drowning but the prisoner will feel as if he is drowning and going to die. What the interrogators hope to achieve is that the prisoner will eventually succumb, beg for the procedure to stop and agree to cooperate with his captors.

US attorneys declared in 2002 that waterboarding causes "no pain or actual harm whatsoever". Therefore, it cannot be considered torture because it does not result into any "severe pain and suffering". Other US government officials claimed the technique will not cause any negative psychological effects and it is essentially the same technique used in US military trainings.

No matter how some people may want to twist it, waterboarding is indeed a method of torture. It is in fact something that has been practiced for at least a few hundred years, most notably during the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, World War II and the Vietnam War.

People have justified the use of such technique by citing the need to extract vital information from captured prisoners (click here to access an interesting presentation on the morality of waterboarding). I sympathise with such views and will not totally dismiss it despite my overall objection to the use of torture.

Some people here in Malaysia may think that this happens elsewhere only, not in this country. Well, you might just want to do some research on prisoners and detainees here to catch a glimpse of what has been going on in this 'peaceful' country of ours. One important reference is Dr. Syed Husin Ali's book Two Faces. Currently the Deputy President of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Malaysia's main opposition political party), Dr. Syed Husin Ali who was then professor of anthropology at the University of Malaya, and member of the now defunct Malaysia's People Socialist Party (Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia) was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for six years from 1974 to 1980.

In his book, Dr. Syed Husin described how he was slapped, punched and kicked repeatedly, and made to stand shirt-less while cold air from the air-condition was blasting straight towards him. Apparently, one of the things his interrogators wanted him to 'confess' was that Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia) was a communist agent! The good professor of course did not comply and had to endure detention under the ISA for his lack of cooperation.

During my brief stint working at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here in Kuala Lumpur, I heard worse accounts of tortures endured by illegal immigrants. I have no way to verify them of course but these stories, if indeed true, are real proof of Professor Philip Zimbardo's chilling theory on how easily ordinary human beings can be so evil and cruel to others.

All-in-all, let's hold on to one of the foundational values in all religions of the world: 'do onto others what you want others to do onto you'.

Related Article: Torture in detention: Guantanamo to Malaysia by Josh Hong

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Dreams: To Believe or Not To Believe?

Someone once confided in me about his wife's pledge to never again see her own mother. The wife had been ill for quite some time and the doctors were not able to explain why. Eventually she decided to seek advice from a spiritual figure, a sheikh, who then told her to perform solat istikharah. The sheikh told her that the cause of her illness will be revealed in a dream immediately after. What she saw in her dream on the same night she'd performed istikharah was her own mother! And since she had absolute faith in her sheikh, she began to believe that the cause of her prolong illness was indeed her mother. She believed her mother had put black magic (sihir) on her because she was still displeased with her for marrying someone she did not approve.

I know of other people who dreamnt about marrying certain individuals, again upon performing solat istikharah. And again, since they believed these were 'clear signs' from Allah, they were convinced that the persons they saw in their dreams were destined to be their future husbands or wives. From then on, they put themselves under tremendous pressure waiting to be married to the identified persons, ignoring and rejecting marriage proposals from other individuals. Once the pressure became unbearable, they revealed their dreams to the persons they dreamnt about, hence passing the pressure to them to accept their 'destinies'.

There are quite a number of studies on dreams in Islam (click here to access an entire book by Dr. Umar Azam who wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject). As explained in a hadith narrated by Imam Muslim, there are generally three different types of dreams, (1) righteous dreams (rahmani) which are from Allah, (2) dreams that causes sadness (syaitani) which are from the devil, and (3) dreams from the ramblings of the mind (nafsani).

Many people are quick to conclude that just because the content of their dreams were positive, they must fall under the first category of gladtidings from Allah. What more when they had these dreams immediately after solat istikharah, a practice based on a number of authentic ahadith.

I will never question the authority of these hadith but I would definitely question our abilities to truthfully understand and interpret dreams. Interpretation of dreams is a complex art, much more complex I'm sure that just putting on the keywords like what we have here. Some dreams may have a negative manifest content, but the interpretations and meaning behind them could very well be positive. Some dreams may seem to indicate we should decide in a certain way but the interpretation may actually be an advice to decide completely the opposite.

To believe, or not to believe? In the end, I believe one should consult more than one spiritual figure to really understand his/her dreams. I do believe there are people of impeccable levels of spirituality among us but they are not infallible. At least, ask for a second opinion.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Nuclear-Free World

US President Barack Obama has expressed his vision of a nuclear-free world. Speaking in Prague, during his first official visit to Europe, President Obama explains that although the goal may not be achieved anytime soon, the United States, as the only country in history to have ever used nuclear weapons, has the moral responsibility to lead the mission and ensure the framework is firmly laid for other countries to follow.

Albert Einstein was the man who was partly responsible for the invention of nuclear weapons. He did not make them of course, but it was his theory of relativity which inspired the idea of such a ferocious weapon of mass destruction. He did however, at the start of World War II, encourage the Americans to develop the bomb. He even exerted some pressure on the Americans to do so as quickly as possible due to his fear of what might happen if Germany and Hitler managed to build it first.

Einstein nonetheless never expected the weapon would be used. He wanted the bomb to be made to scare the Germans off, to prevent them from pursuing their world conquering ambitions. In other words, the bomb was made to make the world safer from the dangers posed by the Germans.

When the bomb was eventually used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein became a very troubled man. He later on said, President Roosevelt (had he been alive) would never have authorised the use of nuclear bombs especially on civilian targets. And a few months before he died, Einstein was quoted to have said that the role he played in the creation of nuclear bombs was the "one great mistake in my life" (quoted in Robert Clark's book Einstein: The Life and Times)

Einstein's initial justification on why the bomb must be made is the exact same logic applied by countries with nuclear weapons today. They acquire nuclear arsenals allegedly not with the intention of using them, but to make their countries safer by preventing others from threatening and attacking them. On a smaller scale, the same justification is used by many countries to build up their military capabilities by allocating billions of dollars annually for their militaries.

Those who are for nuclear weapons and continuous military investment would often argue that the world is infested with bad and evil people. Weapons are needed to battle them. If we don't develop weapons, they will and the world will be in danger. So the good guys must have some weapons to prevent the bad guys from attacking others. And the good guys must also have the most powerful weapon, not for them to use it of course, but to scare the bad guys from causing massive destructions. Therefore, only the good guys must have nuclear weapons, and the bad guys should not.

Problem is, who decides who are the good guys and the bad guys? Who decides that the Indians are the good guys and the Pakistanis not? Who decides that Israel can have nuclear weapons and Iran cannot? What are the criteria used to decide who can and cannot have this and that?

I firmly support President Obama's call for a nuclear-free world. Since we can't really decide on who should and should not have it, everyone should not have it then. Unless of course, some people think we need the bomb to prevent alien invasion!

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Learning To Be Altruistic

Many years ago, when I was walking back home from a grocery store, I went pass a crowded bus stop. As I passed through the crowd of about 30 people, I heard a faint voice asking for help coming from the sitting area inside. I turned my head and saw two young ladies; one of them was resting her head on the other lady's lap. Seeing that I was somewhat responding to her call for help, the second lady pleaded to me to help bring her friend to a clinic. Her friend looked really ill. She was very pale and was breathing heavily.

Without much hesitation, I offered to help and brought the lady to the nearest clinic. I carried her in my arms to a clinic which was about 100 metres away. And while I was doing this, everyone around the bus stop stared at me as if I was doing something wrong.

This happened years ago before I began my studies in psychology. Eventually, I realised what I did that day can be considered an example of altruistic behaviour. On the one hand, yes, I am proud of what I did, but on the other, I am sad to have witnessed a real example of bystander effect. I was clearly not the only person who heard the call for help from the two ladies. But amazingly, not only did none of them there offer to help, everyone of them (including the two people sitting right next to the two ladies) had turned their faces away deliberately pretending not to hear a thing.

I should probably mention here that the two ladies were Indonesians (recognisable by their accent), and they were both wearing shorts. I don't know, probably others thought they were involved in immoral activities but even if that was true, does that mean they did not deserve to be helped?

I never saw the two ladies again. The few people that I've told about this have mostly given me mixed reactions. They praised me for what I did while at the same time scolded me for my supposed naivety. How a small act of helping someone can be considered naive is beyond me. I certainly did not expect anything for what I did, nor did I think it was really praiseworthy.

To be altruistic is to be able to tell ourselves, for whatever we do we should not expect anything (tangible and intangible) in return. I don't know from where really I learned this but this has always been one of the philosophies in life that I greatly cherish. Probably it has even become an obsession of some sort that I often become extremely annoyed whenever I see people demanding for rewards and appreciations for their good deeds.

In studies on organisational behaviour, altruism is a dimension of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB). I've just completed a research project on the work culture of primary school teachers here in Malaysia. One of the variables we looked at was OCB. When we compared the scores on OCB among Malay, Chinese and Indian school teachers, we found Malay school teachers scoring significantly higher than the Chinese and Indian respondents.

Teaching is a tough job, which certainly requires a degree of dedication that goes beyond any extrinsic motivation. Why Malay school teachers here were found to be significantly better on this quality however was difficult for us to explain. Perhaps, just perhaps, their passion for teaching is far higher, seeing it more as a noble deed and service to the society rather than a job that gives them their monthly salaries.

A quantitative cross-cultural comparison study like this unfortunately does not tell us the details about many things. Of interest to me personally is to know how we can teach people to be altruistic. My two small children often demand things in return whenever we (my wife and I) ask them to do something. Yes, they are children but how can I teach them or make them learn eventually that they should not expect anything from anybody? I want them to live by the principle that the most important thing in life is to do what is right, without thinking much (if not at all) about receiving any reward in return.

If only we know how to do this, I'm sure this world would be a far, far better place. Our children, and everyone in the society, from the most common labourers right up to presidents, kings and prime ministers; can thus be taught the mentality that we live to serve, not to serve for a living.