Thursday, October 11, 2007

Astronaut or AstroNOT?

In economics, there is a thing called "information asymmetry" which is defined as a situation when "one party to a transaction has more or better information than the other party" (Wikipedia). Hence, the better informed party will more often than not be in a more advantageous position than the ignorant party. This is very true in the context of stock markets or any other markets, where the brokers or insiders usually possess some information which laymen like you and I will not know, and hence be taken advantage of. Putting it to the national context, it is not surprising that the theory holds as well, for haven't we witnessed how judiciary has been manipulated "secretly" for the benefit of some quarters, the evidence only to be revealed to the public recently?

However, pursuant to the technological advancement, particularly the invention of internet, information asymmetry seems to die down a bit as it is now way easier for the people to access to information. Everything is just a click away. Good thing or bad? Depends on which party you are. Of course those who had better manipulation of information would be cursing now. Example? You ask. Look at the recent "Angkasawan" farce. Wait, shall I continue calling Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor an "Angkasawan" after all?

Ever since the Angkasawan program was announced to the public, and that the "Angkasawan" will spin Gasing, eat Malaysian traditional food, observe Muslim rituals in the space (Our religious authority even came out with guidelines adapting religious rules to life on the ISS (International Space Station)), it has drawn negative response from the public, especially those educated middle class people: they are skepticle with regards to the purpose of the program, and most importantly, what is it that the Malaysians have to bear higher and higher petrol price while the Government is spending astronomical figures to send a fellow to the space just to spin Gasing? The Government said this is free as part of a deal where the Ministry of Defense buy 18 Sukhoi 30-MKM jet fighters from Russia. But it doesn't take a genius to understand the quote "there is no free lunch in the world". The cost to go up space is certainly not cheap and you think the Russians are generous enough to absorb the cost? For sure there are lot more about the Sukhoi deal which we do not know (information asymmetry?) but thanks to Raja Petra's Malaysia Today, we know that something fishy is going on. One may argue that what he wrote may not be true. However, the point here is not whether his article is factual, but the fact that we are exposed to a variety of information from different sources and hence can draw our own conclusion and not fully believe in Government's rhetoric utterance.

The gasing-spinning, Malaysian food-eating, Sarong-wearing, etc have drawn laughters and criticisms, and so out of embarassment, the Ministry of Science announced that the "angkasawan" will conduct a few researches, namely to study of the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and microbes, as well as experiments with proteins for a potential HIV vaccine. I'm not a scientist but may I ask what the hell are these researches being conducted in the space for? It raises doubts as to whether significant results can be retrieved within such a short stint in space and even if they could, what is the significant application of a research done in space for the patients on Earth? If it is the U.S. or Russia which conduct the researches, it may seem admissible since they have space stations in the space which enable them to continue their study over time (which also beats me why such studies had never been conducted by them as yet, obsolete, maybe?), but Malaysia? No comment... As for the Islam guide for astronauts, no offence to the Muslim friends but is it really necessary to strictly observe all the rituals even if you are out in space? After all, the guidelines was made by mere human in the name of God, not by God Himself.

Ok, ok. Since the Government insists to go on (how can they abort such high-profile project halfway?), fine. At least, we will have our first "Angkasawan", or first human to eat Nasi Biryani in space, or first Muslim to celebrate Hari Raya in space, first this, first that, etc for us to BRAG about. But hey, according to NASA, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor will only join the spaceship crew as "spaceflight participant", unlike the Commander, Peggy Whitson, and Yuri Malenchenko who are the "flight engineers". As the word "spaceflight participant" suggests, Sheikh merely went up the space in the capacity same as an U.S.-Iranian billionaire's, who spends millions worth of dollar to engage in the space tour. The Press Kit of the Expedition 16, which is available on the website, stated that Sheikh "flies in space under a commercial agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency"(I heard it's free?) and that he will perform "a number of Malaysian science and outreach experiments as part of his stay on the station". And that's all that's mentioned about him in the 96-pages Press Kit. See, the NASA angmos don't even bother about what kind of research you are carrying out.

So, what is the relevance of the information asymmetry I have mentioned earlier on with this? Well, imagine we are in an era where there is no internet, and hence it would be very hard for us to lay our hands on NASA's detailed information and thus find out that our "angkasawan" is indeed not an angkasawan. Therefore, we would be fooled by the authority through the mainstream media that ours is indeed a full-fledged angkasawan, and not a space tourist. And the Government's goal to use this program as propaganda for the very soon election would be achieved. And mind you, our Government is very good at utilizing media to remain in power: making propagandas like the (once) tallest building, Sepang F1, the landing of a Proton car in North Pole (though to date I still wonder what's the point of doing so), etc; keeping down all the scandals which are about to break out by issuing warning to the mainstream media, and so on. But with the widespread use of Internet and the recent rise of bloggers, information which is detrimental to the Government is made available to the public. And no wonder the Government is on the bloggers' trail nowadays. Having said that, Malaysian grassroots are actually buying all these propagandas. Ask the people in rural areas, and they will say that Malaysia is very "canggih" and better off than many countries, all thanks to our Government. And you can't really blame them because unlike urban dwellers like us, they hardly feel the pinch of inflation of almost everything. Worst still, their main source of information is from mainstream newspapers and televisions, which either suffer lack of press freedom, or are a subsidiary of the dominating Party of the country. But being the net-savvy, informative and educated urbanites we are, will we believe in whatever the Government says, for we have seen so many insider information and scandals which broke out from the Net? Now that we can gather information from various sources such as NASA website, are we likely to believe in "Malaysia Boleh" propaganda and follow suit into the space hype and hysteria the Government is creating to instill "feel good" factors among voters? After all, bloggers are "monkeys" which in nature, are rebellious. Notwithstanding, do not expect a political climate change in short-term, as Malaysia is still made out from majority of ignorant grassroots, who would be very proud of Malaysia's "achievement" in space.