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Time the media promoted the sciences and scientists

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Open your newspaper now, says Francis Loh. Is there any mention of science or of scientists in Malaysia? Why not?

In early February 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, expressed dismay over the declining interest in Science and Mathematics among secondary school students.

A month earlier, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khalid Nordin similarly expressed concern about the declining interest in the Sciences at the tertiary level which could “hamper government efforts to improve technological innovations that would make Malaysia a high-income country”.

Upgrading from a medium-income to a high-income country underscores the New Economic Model that prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has proposed. Accordingly, the Deputy PM has directed the Education Director-General to set up a special committee to study the problem and to recommend ways to achieve the target of having 60 per cent of the students in the science stream and 40 per cent in the arts stream.

Earlier in 2011, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng had claimed that a multinational company, after investigative studies, had decided not to invest in Penang on the grounds that it would find it difficult to recruit the required number of engineers it needed to operate its proposed plant on the island. Alas, the merit of his statement got lost when his detractors claimed that he was simply politicking the issue.

In fact, the problem is more acute. According to a recent report by Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the percentage of students (at the equivalent of eighth grade) in Malaysia who meet the benchmarks set by TIMSS has shown a significant decline at all levels – advanced, high, intermediate and low – between 1999 and 2007.

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Even without conducting any study, one can anticipate some of the reasons for this decline. Perhaps there is not enough funding for the sciences in the schools and universities. Perhaps it has to do with how science subjects are taught? Perhaps scientists and science teachers are not being remunerated adequately compared to their counterparts in business and in other disciplines?

Whatever the explanations the special committee might unearth later, one of them surely has to be the lack of publicity given to the Sciences and to Malaysian scientists in the local media.

Open your newspaper now. Is there any mention of science or of scientists! In Malaysia?

The front pages of all newspapers are full of news, sometimes very irritating news, about the politicians. Even the racist and allegedly corrupt ones get a lot of publicity. Why?

The back pages then highlight our sports people. Some like Nicol David and Lee Chong Wei get the publicity they deserve. Yes, the divers, bowlers, gymnasts, cyclists should get featured too. But most others are at best ‘jaguh kampung’. Why?

When we peruse the middle sections, we read about those in the entertainment industry – the singers, the film stars, the musicians, etc. Often the news is not even about their achievements but the scandals that engulf them. Ever so often, the newspapers may feature a writer, an artist, an indy film-maker deservedly.

Then we have the business pages. On and on, those promoted and demoted as a result of mergers and takeovers are featured. There are pages upon pages of opinions from the captains of industry and finance not only about how their particular sector of the economy is doing, but about how they think the national economy is performing, and even about ‘what makes them tick’. No wonder every other young Malaysian wants to go into business – big, medium or small.

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Then there are the columnists. Some are established in their professions and offer useful comments. But there are an increasing number of them whom we have never heard of. Yet they try to comment about all things. It’s not clear why they have been allocated such space. Whatever the case, it is the odd columnist who writes about science. Probably there are no scientists among all the columnists in all the newspapers in Malaysia.

Now and again the newspapers have reported on how some Malaysian scientists have won gold medals in some world inventors’ contest or exhibition. (Thank goodness, fewer Malaysian scientists bother about these commercialised events these days.) But even when there are such news reports, there is very little discussion about the significance of the invention or discovery that has been awarded the gold medal ‘as science’. Often, the report is simply a news item.

The last time I recall reading about Science in the newspapers is with reference to PPSMI, MBMMBI, PAGE! i.e. the teaching of Science and Mathematics in the schools. Ironically, it’s not about the contents of the syllabus, the quality of the teaching, the standard the students have achieved, but about the language the subjects are taught in!

Dear editors, isn’t it time for you to play a role in promoting the Sciences? There are, admittedly not many, but still, quite a few local scientists who are involved in cutting-age scientific research in our local universities. Some of them have even been featured internationally.

In this regard, maybe it is time that the achievements, but also the difficulties, that Malaysian scientists face in their research, get featured in the local media. Maybe do some serious investigative reporting about the promotion of the sciences in the Ministry, in the universities, in industry, as policy in our development plans and annual budgets.

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Or maybe invite some scientists to contribute towards a regular column, or an occasional article, on the state of science and scientific research in Malaysia. Some might be wacky types but that should be interesting!

Then maybe more young Malaysians will get excited about the sciences and pursue them as long-life endeavours. The 60 per cent science-40 per cent arts divide desired by the Ministry of Education is good. But we must also insist on top quality science.

Dr Francis Loh is only a social scientist

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