The life of an ordinary men is nasty, brutish, and short – 16th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes 

When my eldest brother was in Form 6, he was asked to write an essay that asked a simple question: “Is man admirable”?

It provoked a lively discussion over dinner. My father won the day by pointing out that tuberculosis had been a deadly scourge in India where he’d grown up but not now, when it was all but wiped out. 

Much later, I found out that Jonas Salk, the vaccine’s creator, had been even more admirable: he donated his patent to humanity which must rank right up there as a perfect 10 on the Scale of Goodness.  

It has taken mankind 2.6 million years to progress from the Stone Age to a nuclear one. 

Progress might be an unfortunate word in the context, but it is accurate as the first test of an atomic bomb was so portentous that geologists marked the day as the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch – an age of widespread human influence over the planet. 

That influence is undisputed: cynics might sniff that technological progress has merely equipped us with better and more efficient means of killing one another, but I’d argue it’s been a far more beneficial influence. 

Take disease. Smallpox is the deadliest plague in history because it’s estimated to have killed over 300 million people. Yet, it disappeared by 1977 thanks to a concerted global campaign. 

Such advances have almost always stamped out or negated every life-threatening disease nature’s thrown our way. What’s more, we’re getting better at it. 

It took us 56 years from the start of the 20th century to cure tuberculosis, but it only took two years to reduce Covid-19 from mortal threat to common cold. 

During Lincoln’s time, infant mortality in the US was high with almost half of all babies dying. Now they are as low in Malaysia as they are in the US. And life expectancies keep increasing. 

Did you know it’s 85 in Singapore currently? 

There have always been prophets of doom throughout history, even some with scientific bent. In 1798, for instance, Thomas Malthus predicted that mankind was inherently doomed because food supply only increased arithmetically while mankind multiplied geometrically. Overpopulation, argued Doubting Thomas, was as certain as mankind’s eventual demise from starvation.  

Nope. Food supply has kept growing as technology evolved.  More tellingly, replication rates in all developed countries are well below replacement rates. This is also happening in less developed countries like Malaysia. 

While we can safely conclude that mankind has generally triumphed over disease and famine, the same cannot be said about wars. 

There has been a marked decrease in battlefield deaths over the last century but that doesn’t prove that wars are declining. It might just indicate better medical care.  

Indeed, there is a war currently raging in Europe the first serious one in 82 years. 

But here again, technology has ensured that sanity will have to prevail because the converse is unthinkable. There are no winners in a nuclear war because the outcome is mutual assured destruction, or MAD, and the finish is egalitarian:  everyone will be cremated equal.

What we need are better people, more Salks and less Putins. It could be our next, great evolutionary leap: when we move from man to kind.



I have just found out that today – Friday, November 13, 2020 – is World Kindness Day

It’s a reminder that pro-social behaviour – altruism, benevolence and compassion – does wonders for humanity. I mean, between Mother Teresa and Adolf H, for instance, there’s no comparison.

Unfortunately, most of humanity falls in between the cracks in a sort of “betwixt and between” limbo. We can’t claim sainthood, but neither are we mass murderers.

We could all be a lot better. And healthier, apparently: benevolence reduces stress as it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Certainly, our Members of Parliament can behave a lot better and less disgracefully.

Why on earth do we need a person convicted of corruption and abuse of power as the head of the Backbenchers Club? In other countries, Najib Razak would be in jail now: in Japan, for example, bail isn’t a right by any means.

Here, he’s not only walking about, he’s campaigning and generally promoting the three causes closest to his heart – I, me, mine!

And Parliament thinks it’s an example to other Malaysians?

This government seems to think that informed decision making comes from a long tradition of guessing, and then blaming others for inadequate results. In this tradition, it’s not whether you win or lose, but who gets the blame.

Witness the mystifying spectacle of Sarawak MP Tiong King Sing – who rarely comes to Parliament in the first place – loudly blaming Dr Noor Hisham, the Director General of Health, for the country’s sudden spike in Covid-19 cases.

To compound matters, Mr Tiong does not check his facts claiming, falsely as it turned out, that the good doctor had not visited Sabah, the epicenter of the spike.

Worse still, no government MP, least of all the health minister, came out in defence of Dr Noor. It was the opposition that came to his defence, ironically. Second to hypocrisy, humbug seems to be the biggest industry of our age.

It certainly seems so in the US.

Donald Trump knew that anyone who believed that the truth would set him free had never been in a traffic accident. He found it hard to believe any man was telling the truth because he knew he would lie if he was in his place.

Mr Trump lost to Joe Biden by 4 million votes, yet still claimed to win. On Thursday, election officials said there was absolutely “no evidence” that there had been any fraud as claimed by the President. Ironically, they added that the 2020 election had actually been the “most secure” in US history.

Well, you know what they say: If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. That’s what Mr Trump’s trying to do. But it looks like the writing’s on the wall. Because reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.

Deep down, one suspects he always knew he was going to lose because he kept flagging the point that there would be fraud if he lost. The inference was that he could never lose.

Here’s a newsflash. You lost. Deal with it.

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had an interesting theory about the truth. “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognised: in the first, it is ridiculed; in the second, it is opposed; in the third, it is regarded as self-evident.

Give it time. Even the Donald night embrace World Kindness Day.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

One of the most eloquent passages in literature, the above introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities pretty much sums up our present predicament: a clash of contrasts, of wisdom and folly, of health and disease, of life and death.   

How else are we to make sense of the world we are suddenly confronted with? One day, we were fretting about the usual things; the jams, the mail, the politicians; and the next, we are grimly warned not to pass Go, not to collect $200 and just stay home. 

It turns out that Vision 2020 was house arrest.  

At least, one thing hasn’t changed. We still bitch about our politicians.

More seriously, the stuff that went on in the oil markets earlier this week was frightening. Example:  Oil futures went insane with prices, at one point, dropping to a jaw-dropping minus US$40 that is to say a buyer of one of those contracts would not only have to deliver the oil when the contract comes due, he would also have to pay the buyer for the privilege. 

Markets are supposed to behave rationally, after all: it’s premised on people’s “rational expectations.” But when it starts going bonkers, then you start feeling the earth shift under your feet and nothing’s safe anymore.

It would even strain the “epoch of incredulity” condition laid down by Dickens. 

By now, it seems apparent that things will get worse before they get better. But crisis sits uneasily on people with the worst coming out in many. 

Witness the many cases of racism spreading like a rash across the US, Australia and Europe. There have been riots in South Africa and Paris and some Americans in at least three US states have taken to the streets demanding their economies be opened as per their constitutional rights; social distancing be damned. 

It was an American, Patrick Henry who said, “Give liberty or give me death.” But methinks Mr. Henry was not referring to death by way of a citizen’s right to freely transmit disease because the Constitution allows him the freedom to assemble.   

China, it must be said, deserves praise for its handling of the outbreak and its aid to other affected countries. But it’s also getting lambasted by some Western powers which claim it must be held accountable.

It does not seem the time for recrimination. But China itself is beginning to behave weirdly. You’d think now wouldn’t be a time to flex military might in the South China Sea. But that’s what China’s doing and it’s provoking the US to do likewise. 

The world does not need any of this now. Businesses are going bust and people are losing their jobs. In the last month alone, 32 million Americans have been laid off. It is truly a time of great despair. 

Hope springs eternal, however, a light against the darkness. We see it everywhere: in the myriad kindnesses exhibited by aid providers, health care professionals, millions of volunteers anxious to make a difference throughout the world.

We will overcome for we are the world.