Turning things on their heads
JULY 13 — He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living from hand to mouth. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We’ve all heard the cliché, “Think out of the box.” Well, this clever suggestion is most often used when we are trying to overcome a very difficult obstacle or find a solution to a set of very difficult problems. Then, some smart alec will come along and say, “Let’s not look at them as obstacles or problems, but challenges...”
Thank you, Sir.
Now, Malaysia — and the rest of humanity, to varying degrees — has faced persistent problems with crime and illnesses, both physical and mental. Why is it that we, human beings, with about 10,000 years of civilisation and more than 100 years of modern medical science, have yet to really address these two problems effectively?
Indeed, these so-called “challenges” seem to be getting worse by the day in many parts of the world and, if I’m not mistaken, in Malaysia, too (I am a cynic when it comes to government statistics).
From anecdotal evidence as well as newspaper reports, we can see that incidences of all sorts of crime seem to be on the rise, as well as illnesses like cancer, heart diseases, kidney failures, depression, schizophrenia, etc.
So, what have we and many people of other nations done to address these problems? Hire more cops? Enact more laws? Place mobile police stations in busy areas? Train more doctors? Build more hospitals? Give out more free medication?
These may seem like silly questions and/or silly solutions, depending on how you look at it. Whatever it is, my point is that we have turned things on their heads and completely missed the point.
Begin with the end in mind
When it comes to crime, is our objective to catch more criminals or improve safety and order? If our objective is to catch more criminals, hiring more cops, enacting more laws and having mobile police stations will definitely help.
However, if our objective is to improve overall safety and order of our communities, these “solutions” are like applying Band-Aids to a victim of a heart attack. A heart attack does not occur just like that. It may seem to attack all of a sudden, but the cause has been building up through years of unhealthy living. Even if the heart disease is hereditary, it most probably can be prevented through healthy living.
Before I come to the solution(s), let’s take a look at the more obvious example of illnesses, both physical and mental. Some of the more common solutions are already mentioned above, which I believe many people can already see that they only deal with symptoms but not root causes of the diseases.
Indeed, I find it amazing that people actually attempt to treat mental illnesses with medication. To reverse the analogies, wouldn’t that be akin to constantly giving a serial killer sleeping pills so that he does not prowl the streets to look for his next victim?
Again, what is our objective here? To control illnesses, or to promote good health? When we put things this way, the solutions seem easier to identify, no? Of course, most of us can already roll off the answers from the tips of our tongues: eat better, exercise more, avoid stress, etc.
Thus, the other cliché — begin with the end in mind — is part of the solution here. So far, what we have been doing is providing knee-jerk and short-term solutions to problems that require more in-depth study and analysis. Instead of taking a “teleological approach” to resolving some of these fundamental problems that plague us, we have been taking the easier “symptomatic approach,” which only postpones or perpetuates the problems.
Thinking (and evaluating) out of the box
And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good—
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
~ Robert M. Pirsig
Having said that, have we thought out of the box here? Not quite. Indeed, we may not even need to think out of the box to find better answers. We have Google.
Jokes aside, the Human Development Report 2006 of the United Nations Development Programme states that, “[p]rogress in education is critical for human development in its own right and because of the links to health...” By the way, the annual Human Development Reports also ranks countries according to their Human Development Index (HDI), which is a composite statistic based on health, education and income data.
Anyway, why will better education make a difference to our health? Well, in a nutshell, better-educated people generally make better and more informed decisions, and are less prone to succumb to misleading advertising campaigns telling them how good sweets are... Well, I did say “generally.”
Thus, instead of formulaic campaigns with cheesy songs to encourage people to eat better, exercise more, so on and so forth, the government can achieve more by improving educational standards. And I mean real educational standards, not just reducing the scores needed to get an “A” in SPM or STPM.
Of course, when it comes to crime rates and education, the correlation is not that straightforward. If you checked the countries with the lowest homicide rates in the world, you will find high HDI ranking countries like Iceland and Norway, as well as lower HDI ranking countries like Singapore and Morocco.
Interestingly, both Iceland and Norway do not practise capital punishment whereas both Singapore and Morocco do. This is neither the most scientific of research methods nor is it an academic exercise, but let me say this: Of the two things that regulate human behaviour — laws and values — the latter is by far the more effective one.
As for Malaysia, I am increasingly concerned with recent developments whereby the government seems to be doing their level best to impress the people with things like mobile police stations, free medical clinics, scholarships for students with straight A’s, etc. Perhaps the 13th general election is indeed coming soon, but are we really building a better future for ourselves or deluding ourselves with Band-Aids?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.