[Paleopsych] CHE: Malaysia's Stagnation
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Thu Nov 17 20:42:17 UTC 2005
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.11
Ethnic quotas and a byzantine bureaucracy hamper the country's attempt
to become a scientific powerhouse
By MARTHA ANN OVERLAND
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
After graduating from medical school in Canada in the 1970s, Eng Hin
Lee was eager to return home. The young Malaysian doctor wanted to be
closer to his family, and he was tired of the harsh Canadian winters
that never seemed to end. He also missed the simple pleasures of home,
such as eating Chinese dim sum, which means "to touch the heart."
Dr. Lee knew that Malaysia, a young country hobbled by poverty, could
not match the opportunities and salaries paid abroad. But he felt
strongly that there was a place for him there. So the young doctor
packed his bags and moved home.
"I wanted to go back to help," says Dr. Lee. Yet when he returned it
became obvious it would be difficult to pursue his research goals.
Biomedical science in Malaysia was in its nascent stage. Labs were
pitifully equipped. There was no significant scientific environment in
which to grow or contribute.
After two frustrating years, he packed his bags again. But it wasn't
because of the money. It wasn't because of the labs. Dr. Lee, who is
ethnically Chinese, did not feel welcome in his own country. Racial
policies that had been put in place while he was away made it clear to
him that he would never advance.
For years the Chinese community in Malaysia had excelled in education
and in business. The majority Malay community of farmers and fisherman
controlled little of the country's wealth. Following anti-Chinese
riots in 1969, however, Malaysia aggressively put into place national
policies to promote the country's Bumiputra, or "sons of the soil."
Quotas governing everything from education to employment suddenly put
the brakes on the aspirations of the country's minorities.
"It was obvious you wouldn't get very far if you weren't the right
race," says Dr. Lee.
Today he works at the National University of Singapore, where he is in
charge of a huge lab that is conducting cutting-edge research in
stem-cell biology. Dr. Lee, an orthopedic surgeon, leads a team of top
scientists culled from all over the world.
"Having come here I think I made the right choice," says Dr. Lee,
referring to Singapore's premier teaching hospital. In Malaysia, "I
probably would not have become a head of department and dean of the
Faculty of Medicine."
Malaysia's racial policies have changed little since Dr. Lee left 30
years ago. Today Malays are practically guaranteed admission into
public universities, and they receive nearly all of the scholarships
despite performing lower academically than other ethnic groups. By
law, Malays are given most of the government jobs and are awarded most
of the business contracts. Bumiputra even pay lower interest rates and
Unable to gain admission into the few quality universities in the
country, each year tens of thousands of young Chinese and Indian
Malaysians leave to attend institutions abroad. With few jobs open to
them if they were to return, the best and brightest rarely come back.
Efforts to lure Malaysian-born scientists home through its Brain Gain
schemes, begun 10 years ago, have been an embarrassment.
A Losing Proposition
Yet Malaysia, like neighboring Singapore, is banking on becoming a
biotechnology hub. Hoping to offset its declining electronics
manufacturing industry, the nation has invested millions of dollars to
build science parks and research facilities. And like Singapore, it
has launched a major campaign to lure top-notch scientists to its
But Malaysia's ethnic policies have come back to haunt it.
Despite the similarities between the two countries, which until 1965
were one and the same, the results could not be more different.
Malaysia has failed to attract even a tiny fraction of the 35,000
scientists the government says it needs to become a biotech
powerhouse. In fact, Malaysia has lost far more people to brain drain
than it has been able to hire from abroad.
Even efforts to bolster Malaysia's science infrastructure have
attracted few takers. Projects such as the Multimedia Super Corridor
have ended up as fancy office space for foreign high-tech companies.
The once much-touted BioValley, envisioned along the lines of
Singapore's Biopolis, remains an empty dirt lot two years after it was
announced. And though the government is spending more money on
research and laboratory facilities, even the Ministry of Science,
Technology and Innovation grudgingly admits that the number of patent
applications has barely budged from where it was 10 years ago.
"We definitely don't have our act together," says Lim Guan Eng, the
secretary general of the opposition Democratic Action Party.
Politicians who talk of Malaysia becoming a leader in the sciences are
fooling themselves, he says.
"We have nothing to offer them," says Mr. Lim, referring to Malaysians
who left out of frustration with the country's racial policies. "We
don't have world-class universities. We don't have world-class
teachers. The best people have left the country, and they aren't
Part of the Problem
In Malaysia, the universities are considered part of the problem, not
the solution, explains Charles Santiago, a political economist who
runs the Kuala Lumpur-based group Monitoring Sustainability of
Globalization. Professors, as public employees, have to sign loyalty
oaths. They can be fired for criticizing the government. Spies in the
classrooms help ensure they don't, according to Mr. Santiago and
"Universities are seen as the machinery of the government," says Mr.
Santiago, one of the rare people who will openly criticize the
authoritarian government. "This has stifled academic excellence. Our
Ph.D.'s are not qualified. Our universities and our intellectual life
suffer from credibility. In the end we are unable to compete in the
Yazid Hamid, chief executive of the Academy of Knowledge for
Accounting and Leadership, has seen the effects of that firsthand. His
academy runs basic training programs for employees of Malaysia's large
state-run energy and telecommunication companies. He says his fellow
Malays lack the skills as well as the drive that those firms demand.
Students are spoon-fed through college and expect to be handed a job
when they graduate, he says. Most of them are incompetent, he says,
and that is the main reason that Malaysia has 50,000 unemployed
graduates even though the country has a severe shortage of workers.
Mr. Hamid is one of many Malays who strongly advocate doing away with
the pro-Bumiputra policies. He believes that quotas were needed to
help reverse the fortunes of the Malays, which was long overdue. But
he says the cost has become too high. The country consistently scores
poorly in surveys that measure innovation, R&D capabilities, and
entrepreneurship. He blames it on quotas.
"If you really want to drive this nation, you have to get rid of
quotas," says Mr. Hamid. "Only without regard to ethnicity can we
truly be a global player."
Increasingly, politicians at the highest level are publicly
acknowledging that Malaysia's ethnic policies are partly to blame for
the culture of mediocrity. Fong Chan Onn, Malaysia's human-resources
minister, recently acknowledged that many of the country's unemployed
graduates with degrees in information technology lack the skill or
aptitude to be software programmers.
'Put Down Your Crutches'
Last year, in his first address as prime minister to his pro-Malay
ruling party, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told Malays to put down their
crutches because "we may eventually end up in wheelchairs." He
repeated the call in June, lambasting Malays for squandering the
opportunities offered by the pro-Bumiputra policies. Remarkably, he
still has his job. And for some, that alone is a sign of progress.
After many senior government officials, including the prime minister
at the time, Mahathir Mohamad, recognized the need for reforms,
affirmative action in state universities ended in 2003. Officially,
quotas were dead. But instead of a single examination for all
students, as promised, the Ministry of Education designed a new system
that once again heavily favors Malays.
Bumiputras now take a one-year course before they can enroll in a
college. Most Chinese and Indian students participate in a two-year
program and much more rigorous end-of-year exams. Despite the
disparities, an A in one program carries the same weight as an A in
the other. Last year, under this system, 128 straight-A students were
denied seats in medical school. All of them were ethnic Chinese and
There are no new plans to dismantle the pro-Malay policies. It will
take more political resolve than Malaysia has at the moment.
Meanwhile, the government is now floating a new Brain Gain scheme. The
newest program doesn't require Malaysian skilled professionals to
actually move back to Malaysia. Instead, the Ministry of Science,
Technology and Innovation wants to encourage Malaysians living abroad
to contribute from afar.
It is unclear exactly how such a plan will work or if it will work at
all. But Eng Hin Lee, the Malaysian scientist in Singapore, says the
solution is far simpler than creating yet another doomed Brain Gain
"We would love to go back," says Dr. Lee. "But first you have to make
us feel we are welcome."
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