There is a phrase that’s still relevant in thought. 

Tabula Rasa literally means “clean slate” and it refers to the absence of preconceived ideas in humans when they are, say, young. 

But it’s not just the young that are easily influenced. On one level, there’s Goebbels and his ideas about propaganda: “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” 

Hitler, Stalin et al have used it successfully. 

But, incredibly, it’s still in use.  

The Deceiver-in-Chief in residence in Washington routinely employs the Goebbels Gospel to downplay the ravages of Covid-19 on the United States. 

Even more incredibly, and despite over 200,000 deaths, it’s believed by enough people literate enough to know better. And this in the US in the second decade of the 21st Century! 

It’s enough to make you believe in Santayana, “History always repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.” 

But this “clean slate” business cuts across levels. Take me, for instance.  Growing up, I lived in a family where my father stressed English, so most of my siblings spoke English. With the exception of the eldest, we only have a rudimentary grasp of Malayalam. 

My father subscribed to two publications at the time: The Straits Times and the Reader’s Digest. Later on, TIME got added to the mix. 

In those days, my father used to insist that we read the editorials in The Straits Times – this was in the 1970s before the two papers separated, news-wise. We did, out of prudence: he occasionally tested us with dinnertime questions.

Add to this a reading diet of Enid Blyton, the Biggles heroics and TV fare like Get Smart and it changes a boy’s worldview. 

At first, the boy believed that only white people had all the adventures; that it was England which was the arbiter of life.  

Only to find out twenty years later, that Ms Blyton wasn’t the kindly, twinkling woman I’d imagined, but an unabashed racist who called a spade just that.    

And that the Battle for Britain wasn’t just won by English pilots like Biggles but pilots from other Commonwealth countries, including India.

The periodicals made me staunchly pro-Alliance and then pro-BN. I remember being annoyed with the University Malaya demonstrators in 1974 for “disrupting” life and business in Kuala Lumpur, as the ST described it then.  

I believed everything I read then in the ST! 

The Reader’s Digest improved my English, made me understand humour as a writing tool, and left me admiring of a conservative, anti-communist US worldview. TIME merely reinforced those perceptions. 

Indeed, I bought McNamara’s Domino Theory and thought the Vietnam War helped protect countries like Malaysia from falling under the communist yoke. 

Reading and experience – I’ve been a journalist for 30 years – have changed my views considerably. 

Still, some things never change.

Before, the last general election, a Malay friend Z was confessing that he had difficulty wrapping his head around supporting the Democratic Action Party.  

This was a successful man with two Western degrees. But I understood: it was the tabula rasa effect all over again

“With your mother’s milk, you have imbibed the notion that the DAP is anti-Malay,” I said and Z, understanding immediately, agreed.