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Disinterest in science was not overnight
Published on: Sunday, March 05, 2017

By Datuk John Lo
Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid said “Science laboratories in schools nationwide need urgent upgrades to narrow the gap between Science and Arts students in Form Six”.

This announcement of intention, by itself, was good news. On reading more into his statement and reflection, the dire situation of science and technology education and impact on our national interest are very serious.

The Minister has further said that “This year, there are 37,033 students in the Arts or Social Science stream and 6,202 in the Science stream.” Only 16.47pc taking the science stream. After drop outs, the final number of science graduates will be very tiny.

The consolation news is the Minister’s indirect admission of failure when he said “STEM is very important, and we cannot allow the imbalance to continue,” he said. But the Education Minister, like his brother Ministers, has no concrete, holistic plan. Only talk.

I am no expert in education but compelled, as a concerned citizen for future generations and Malaysia’s ability to compete in the globalised world, to express my dismay at things that are going on in our country.

The situation expressed by the Minister of Education is actually quite common in many spheres of our national life.

Not many Federal Ministers have a clear vision of what they are supposed to do or are in sync with the vision of the Prime Minister.

They give the impression that they are operating in isolation and very protective of their little respective kingdoms of “you don’t interfere in my affair and I don’t intrude into yours”.

This is the norm. Amongst them, these Federal Ministers don’t seem to interact, co-ordinate.

Most disturbing is they don’t seem to care about the national big picture often times.

The deeply worrying situation in science education is a perfect example of what I am talking about.

Young Malaysians do not see their future in science!

This serious lack of science students is surely not something that has happened yesterday.

The trend must have first emerged many years ago, increased in intensity, momentum and getting more obvious over time until it has reached to the present disastrous level.

Look at how important is science in our society. Besides the Ministry of Education, which has the primary responsibility in this matter, the following ministries are very much dependent on the quantity and quality of science graduates coming out from the education system for them to carry out their functions effectively for the development and competitiveness of Malaysia: Ministry of Works (MOW), Ministry of Urban Well-being, Housing and Local Government (MUHLG), Ministry of Human Resources(MOHR), Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Ministry of Communication and Multimedia (KKMM), Ministry of Defence (MOD), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE), Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), Ministry of Health (MOH), Ministry of Transport (MOT), Ministry of Agriculture & Agro-Based Industry (MOA), Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (KPPK), Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water (KeTTHA).

Total 14 ministries which affect every aspect of our lives and well being. All these Ministries should have screamed their heads off a long time ago for the lack of good science graduates as this would have impacted their operation many years ago. But they have not made noise for fear of intruding into another minister’s “kingdom”.

This is a serious sickness in Malaysia. Everyone wants to let “sleeping dogs lie”.

Every minister wants to be goodie goodie and buddie buddie. The Federal Ministers are doing this, so the senior officials have no choice but to follow.

This goes down all the way to the bottom. Who suffer? The country, the economy and common Malaysians.

The scenario is very frightening. The future is bleak.

In the first place, the Minister of Education must be faulted for letting this poor response of science from students to deteriorate this badly.

Worse is that the minister is ONLY thinking the ultimate solution is to upgrade the science labs in school.

This concept is over and overtly simplistic and naive. This response is a no-brainer. It won’t work.

His suggestion is like applying a plaster for cancer.

Malaysia has depended on natural resources, especially oil and gas for growth for the last two decades.

South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore have built up powerful economies with quality brains.

Malaysia’s competitiveness and fortune will be determined by brain power which is sorely lacking now and will get very bad if the present trend is not reversed with drastic policies and strong political will.

To do this, the Prime Minister must kick a few ministerial butts and take charge of the co-ordination.

This, the PM must do so that there will be a holistic solution.

Federal Ministers must wake up from their comfort zone, stop acting like feudal lords in their manors and start listening to the needs of the private sector and industries.

For years, the private sector has been screaming at the lack of science and technology savvy workers.

Judging from the Education Minister’s statement, this has fallen on deaf ears.

This holistic approach must start from this most fundamental principle.

Wealth in Malaysia can be accumulated in large amount and quickly by being in politics, having political connections, cronyism and corruption.

Young Malaysians can see the rich and famous Malaysians do not need brain, hard work or ingenuity.

They see people in politics are best positioned to make money. What is the attraction for them to tackle difficult subjects like physics, chemistry, additional maths and biology? We need to change the system and mindset so that people with brains can be rich like Bill Gates!

There is also a heavy bias in favour of people with art, law and humanities at the highest level of decision making in Government.

Look at the Federal Cabinet. Most of them are lawyers and very few of them have a science qualification.

Same goes in the top level of civil servants.

The generalists, who are best at muddling through, are in control. The fate of those who have to slog with science subjects is being decided by the art degree holders.

The politicians are showing a bad example by their actions. The whole system of decision making in government is telling youngsters not to take up science!

Compounding these two factors is the failure of the Federal Government to provide a system of encouragement and financial rewards for scientific and technological innovations.

Hence, Malaysia, with 30 million people and many universities, has produced very few original, ground breaking researches. Australia, with same size of population, is light years ahead.

It is not that Malaysians are incapable of shinning performance in research. They are many who have done well.

The sad fact is that these Malaysians have done well in foreign universities and research establishments – not in Malaysia.

The Malaysian environment is not conducive. This aspect of brain drain is the most serious and damaging to our economy, more than professionals leaving the country.

The loss of initiative in science subjects has persisted for at least two generations.

To reverse this trend, we need quality science teachers in big numbers. How to find them?

Good science teachers are like gold, very rare. British students have been sliding behind students in other developed countries.

For remedial measure, the British Government has employed math teachers from China.

If we want to have an effective quick fix, there is this British case to consider.

Double the size of scholarship money for science subjects over arts for form 6 students up to post PhD degrees.

This will spur the interest in science exponentially.

Give special recognitions to those who have done well in science. The Federal Government must increase budget allocations for selected areas of research and generous tax allowance for private sector to undertake scientific research.

The major obstacle to Malaysia’s achieving greatness in science is the Federal Ministers.

Malaysians of all races have the brain capability to excel in science, technology and innovation.

We are as good as any, even better, in the most advanced countries.

All that is needed for Malaysians is the right environment, with the appropriate education policies and financial rewards for those who wish to take up the challenge of science for their careers.

The Federal Government must get the fundamental principles right in education – take politics and race out of education. Reinstate education to its rightful place. Then and only then will we see the full potential of Malaysians in science.

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