The toothpaste analogy


I AM a Malayalee.

Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but something tells me that not all Malaysians will agree.

There are some things that are quintessentially Malayalee. We are the only people in the entire world who spell Moon as “Yem, Oh, yet another Oh, Yen!”.

And we are also the only people who can make a tube of toothpaste last a week longer than anyone else by squeezing the tube so hard that the paste finally gives up with a loud pop of the last bit of air in the tube.

One problem though. In our obsession to make the best use of the tube, often, we squeeze out much more toothpaste than we actually need.

And we learn very quickly that the extra paste can not only be ever put back into the tube but also the tube itself will never ever go back to its original shape. Especially when you are alone and struggling with it at six o’clock in the morning. Try it.

Google defines the toothpaste tube theory as a “jocular metaphor stating that increasing pressure eventually forces some sort of release. It is used to explain social and political behaviour as well as relationships involving abstract concepts”.

The toothpaste analogy has also been used by parents to teach their children the power and honour in words. Like squeezed toothpaste, words once uttered can never be taken back.

Without doubt, Malaysia is now in a pasty situation. Sadly, we do not even have the benefit of nice smelling peppermint as one of the ingredients.

I belong to a fraternity of surgeons, who, historically, have learnt a lot of lessons from the Aviation and Space industry. They have the highest safety standards amongst all professions, but one slight error of human judgment and the consequences are usually catastrophic. 

January 28, 1986. Space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. Six career astronauts and one school teacher perished.

“Obviously a major malfunction” was all that the stunned commentator could say on live TV. But months into the investigations of the tragedy, it became very clear that just one phone call could have averted the disaster.

It was an exceedingly cold day and engineers suspected that the “O” rings which helped seal the solid rocket boosters would fail.

But NASA was under all sorts of pressure for the launch to go ahead on schedule. And in that pressure cooker environment, not a single engineer had the guts to call Gene Thomas, the launch director, to postpone the launch. Potential disasters, I guess, do not tolerate and in fact gladly feed on cowardice. 

February 1,t 2003. Space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flames as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Again, all seven astronauts did not stand a chance of survival.  But many scientists strongly feel that this was a tragedy that was potentially salvageable.

During the launch of the ST-107 mission 15 days earlier, it was obvious that a piece of polyurethane foam insulation had broken off from the shuttle’s external tank and struck the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing.

Opinion was divided as to the severity of the damage but NASA limited the investigation on the premise that the astronauts could not have fixed the problem anyway. Amazingly, the crew were not informed about the incident!

Later however, NASA acknowledged that they could have scrambled a daring rescue mission. It would have been a ground-breaking revelation in space!

Potential disasters, I guess, also do not tolerate poor judgement, incompetence and indecision.

Like Challenger and Columbia, Malaysia is a disaster waiting to happen.  A more grammatically correct sentence would be that Malaysia is a disaster unfolding in front of our very eyes.

Fourteen innocent people perished in the twin shuttle disasters due to human error. Our own less-than-brilliant handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has now seen 9,598 deaths.

Four of the biggest and best public hospitals in the country now see only Covid-19  patients and that too if the patients are lucky enough to secure a bed.

Consider the thousands of non-Covid-19 heart attack, stroke and cancer patients who  are being denied appropriate care and who will die waiting for treatment.

Add to the list the potential 1,600 individuals who are expected to take their own lives this year. That is a lot of dead people. In a war that we have fought dismally, this is indeed the largest number of peacetime deaths in the history of this young nation.

So, what can we do now? Many of us do not understand complicated explanations and complex graphics.  But most of us understand hard work, accountability, honesty and sincerity. And we all use toothpaste (hopefully)!

Whoever is in charge of this tube of toothpaste called Malaysia has to ensure that she is squeezed only the right amount. The paste has to last 33 million Malaysians for generations to come.

The excess paste of racial bigotry, religious intolerance, economic inequality and social disparity, since it cannot be put back into the tube, has to be discarded.

Only then will the halitosis from 64 years of poor brushing disappear and Malaysians can once again leave their homes every morning feeling fresh, confident, clean and smelling good. With sparkling teeth thrown in for good measure.

PS. I do not favour any particular brand of toothpaste.

* Dr Venugopal Balchand reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.



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