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Why No Malaysian Scientists?

If we want to make scientists and innovators, our country must have no place for intellectual straitjackets.

Written by johnleemk on 8:43:55 am Jun 11, 2007.

Malaysians have an education in science that is on par with that of many other countries. In our education system, the science stream is prized over all others — there is a direct incentive to specialise in science in school, because there is a perceived correlation between intelligence and scientific aptitude.

However, despite all these encouraging indicators, Malaysia has produced a terrible dearth of scientists. Not a single Malaysian has revolutionised an industry, while other Asian countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have forged ahead.

I think a major reason for this lies in the focus on memorisation, as opposed to understanding that is so central to our education system. This is the Achilles heel of Singaporean education as well, which is why they have had to import their scientists from other countries.

It is not too difficult to see this — more than a handful of people have pointed this out. And yet the response from our leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle has been deafening silence — none have picked up the immensely beneficial political football that education can be.

The whole point of science is to keep questioning and wondering, which is exactly the opposite of what students in our schools are made to do. The answers are given in the book, and hellfire and damnation be upon you if you dare question them. (I once tried to get away with explaining one adaptive feature of polar bears being their thick fur — I got zero marks for that because it wasn't an example given in the text.)

Moreover, this rot is not a relatively recent feature. My father, a PhD-holder, spent his whole life in the education system here without understanding how to apply the scientific method. To him, it was just a series of mechanical steps, words to be regurgitated when requested in the examination paper.

How is our country ever going to produce scientists this way? Our government is trying to produce scientists by designating certain universities as research institutions. Sexy, but it won't work as long as our schools are churning out mindless morons.

If you want to produce scientific results, you must first produce an intellectual atmosphere that is open to inquiry. As the protagonist of George Orwell's 1984 remarked, freedom is the right to point out that 2 + 2 = 4 — from that all else follows.

The intellectual climate in Malaysia at the moment is exactly the opposite, with teachers and lecturers frightened to death of saying anything which might remotely be controversial.

If our faculty are not free to open their mouths, how can we expect our students to exercise such freedom? How can we expect them to wonder, to question, when they see their mentors being stifled so?

It's time to put away sexy measures like building new universities or grand laboratories. What Malaysia needs if it wants to produce scientists and innovators is an education system that is open to intellectual enquiry and freedom of thought — from that, all else follows.