Saturday, March 21, 2020


Tomorrow is Israk and Mikraj and I hope our policymakers are prepared. 

While the army will be deployed by tomorrow morning at 12 01 am to help PDRM enforce the Restricted Movement Order (RMO), we need to find a solution which is more holistic that can target human behavior by helping them deal with their routines better. 

I would like to use this video about an elderly Indonesian who insisted that the mosque must be open for Friday prayers as a platform to explain my idea. The elderly man finds it hard to break his routine. The routine is likely one that he has been practicing for the last 70 years. We need to practice mercy and understanding and must not simply see him as someone who is foolish and unruly. There are more to the problem here than meets the eye. The elderly man is simply following his habit. 

A habit is an established, settled and regular tendency or practice,one that is especially hard to give up. Habits are choices we deliberately or unconsciously made in the past, but after a while stop thinking about but continue the practice. We act on them automatically – as our auto-responses or default settings. Habits follow the Cue-Routine-Reward loop. The elderly man is simply living out his habit.

Cue = Friday afternoon: Routine = Jumaat Prayer: Reward = at peace with God and Self

Until policymakers help with introducing another routine, like for example re-channeling the cravings through following prayers live over television, many like this elderly man will feel unfulfilled, cheated and angry. This will be repeated every Friday. Perhaps the Muftis may want to propose a temporary Fatwa allowing individuals to follow a Friday prayer from the home only limited to during this ‘keadaan darurat’ (emergency situation) and provide a special ‘Niat Solat Jumaat’ (declaration of Friday prayers) for the purpose. The Quran provides conceptual and specific examples for flexibility in prayers at Quran 4: 101-103.

We must take a more holistic approach and look at the bigger picture. To change people’s behavior, punishment and prohibition using law is a key component of action. But to help individuals and groups better, we need to give them another routine to deal with their cravings. 

This behavioral pattern is not the monopoly of the Muslims. In Sarawak, two of the COVID19 clusters are from two separate churches. In the USA, pro-Trump churches for example, are resisting to cancel their services.  Most organized religions set routines (rightly or wrongly) as routines provide stability and help the faithful anchor their hearts to a secure base. 

Tomorrow is a big religious day for Muslims – The Israk and Mikraj. Many may not follow the RMO as it is a yearly routine that has a strong cue and is perceived to provide them with a hefty reward. The Subuh period will see many thronging the mesjids as the Solat Sunat Israk and Mikraj is right after the Subuh prayer. Many will want to perform their prayers in a congregation especially in the mesjids, as the ‘reward’ is perceived as far greater in group prayers. What kind of strategy have the policymakers and religious leaders put in place to mitigate this? Can we have RTM and all of the other available media to provide another option to the Cue-Routine-Reward loop?

As I have suggested earlier, this is not the monopoly of the Muslims alone. April 4th is Cheng Beng (Ancestor’s Day or Tomb Sweeping Day). Are we ready for another mass exodus so soon after March 31st? Cheng Beng is a very important tradition among our Chinese brothers and sisters. Honoring one's deceased ancestors is a big Cue: Routine: Reward pattern that is hard to simply avoid. April 13th is Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year and April 14th the Puthandu the Tamil new year where the tradition is to visit homes of family and friends and the temples. Imagine is Thaipusam is just around the corner! I believe you get my point.

I have confidence in our police and army managing the situation but they need help to make their job easier and less hurtful. I hope our policymakers and religious leaders will spend more time strategizing on how to alter human behavior by providing alternatives to the accepted routines. Look for the cues first, like important festivals and rituals. Understand the routines and reward system and provide an alternative. Please work with behavioral scientists. Get their guidance on how to help deal with human behavior better. The exodus to ‘balik kampung’ after the RMO announcement could have been mitigated if we did a proper potential problem analysis about the behavior of Malaysians when they are given a chance to not work at the office (that is why at zubedy, my outfit, anyone going back to the hometown would be considered as taking annual leave and not working from home and as such is required to fill up the leave form).

Individual habits are hard to change. Customs (group habits), are even harder. But traditions, the apex of these behavioral patterns, are the hardest to deal with. Policymakers will need all the help and advice they need. It is not enough to listen to the usual. Please think out-of-the-box and listen to more experts. We need to work harder at this.


Anas Zubedy
Kuala Lumpur.

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