Wednesday, January 16, 2013


(Joe Chelliah)

The human mind is truly a most amazing thing. It’s learning capacity and even its re-learning capability is almost without limits. A human being learns to react and interact with the environment from the very day of birth itself.  Call it social or cultural conditioning if you so desire but what the immediate environment does to the mind makes a huge difference.  Under most circumstances, it starts from the home and parental and family influences. That is why how one interacts with the environment depends almost solely upon the individual’s earliest experiences at home.

There is an Indian / Sanskrit saying that goes like this – “Matha, Pitha Guru Theivam” which simply means mother, father, teacher and then only God. This is the order of reverence for a human being resulting in the ultimate understanding of God. It is only through the mother first and then through the father that we get connected with God and in the earlier stages of life. The environment is not mentioned in this philosophy as much although we also learn through imitation of what others do which is what social conditioning is all about. Eating with fingers or chopsticks or using the fork and spoon are early manifestations of this phenomenon.

In the Malay language there is a term that would rile up even the meekest Malay to get real mad if someone says to him/her  “kurang ajar”. This literally means and implies that the person it is addressed to has not been well taught and by implication it is a direct insult to his/her parents. Even in English the terms “badly / wrongly” brought up” is no compliment and again reflects on one’s parents but it is not really as biting as the “kurang ajar” label.

In older times parents and elders were looked up to for knowledge and wisdom for guidance to succeed in almost any aspect of life right from traditional skills for survival such as hunting.  With the advent of formal education this social process at home has been very much lessened in function as well as importance. Yet, it is seldom realized that an average child spends only a few hours at school and the rest of the time “outside” the school and mostly at home.  Thus in the first few years of the child he/she is “indoctrinated” on how to speak/talk, behave and socialize. This would include language, body language, social manners and mannerisms besides religious orientation.  That is why I always say I am not proud to be an Indian simply because I had no choice in the matter. What if I was born as in Denmark or England or in Timbuktu or in the mountains of Afghanistan?

Therefore, although we are all conditioned to learn until we breathe our last breath, this seldom is the case.  Why is this so? Essentially, the human mind is also conditioned to be mentally and physically free and unrestrained and resultantly any form of restriction is most often resented. Try hugging a baby for more than say fifteen seconds.  After a few seconds of initial satisfaction from the hug and the resultant burst of endorphins in the brain, the child clearly begins to show its dissatisfaction at being restrained in this way. Similarly, the child would also resent any correction of any of its behavior which it had learnt before whether correctly or wrongly.  Behavioral modification was quite easy to do even via a simple advice or reprimand and sometimes even with a threat of a light beating.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is a common saying in English. The Holy Quran too recommends light beating of the child to correct perceived misbehavior.

Today, what I see in almost everyone from children to the younger generation folks is that they resent any form of correction or even a suggestion to change a behavior. It could even be something against the law or a societal norm.  In short, our modern society has become quite an unteachable lot.  No one wants to be taught or corrected for that matter – even school kids mind you.

When I was a schoolboy in the 1950’s the school had a free hand to discipline me in whatever way the teachers saw fit. Being a naughty chap I was physically "abused" by my teachers as they would say these days. I followed similar disciplining methods  when I became a teacher myself later in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many of my ex-students who are now nearing senior citizens status would attest to my slapping them around for even small offences like eating sweets in the classroom.  Teachers of the time were fully sanctioned as discipline masters by none other than parents themselves.  If a parent just hears that his son was whacked by the teacher, the child would get another beating at home. 

But times have changed and a new word has entered our vocabulary – child abuse. This is an idea that was introduced from the West principally from USA and is now being increasingly adopted in toto by developing countries like Malaysia. USA is already paying heavily for such lax of disciplining their young and we too are getting there.

In Malaysia the common term “kena sound” or “kena menegur”” in Malay means that someone had been advised or told off by someone older or in authority for a wrong or breach of something.  It could have even been a boss advising his worker or a senior citizen telling somebody off for say jumping queue at the post office or ATM.  There have been instances where school teachers and even headmasters have been punched by parents not so long ago – their crime was simply in disciplining children at school. I hear less of such instances now.  Because of such change of parental attitudes classroom teachers today have let problematic kids alone and as a direct consequence, have allowed general school discipline to slide and go to the dogs these days.  These same “kids” then become adults and join society at large with a feeling that no one is qualified to discipline them…..even the police for a criminal offence.  Mat Rempits have even been known to have attacked police stations.

In short, we may have become a society of untouchables and unteachables…..because of our new-found rangi or thimuru” as the Indians would say.

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