An inspiring icon in science

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FOR some time now, science and technology in our country has been at the crossroads. The issues have remained the same and there has not been much progress.

The many roadblocks remain unresolved. Declining interest in science among students, for example, has not changed much.

In fact, it may have become worse as parents and students do not see much future in science careers.

R&D spending in general has not changed much, hovering around one percent of GDP for many years now. All have been government funded. The business sector has not spent much on R&D except perhaps the palm oil companies. This explains why the market for contract research in Malaysia is almost non-existent. This also contributes to the low level of R&D commercialisation here.

Over the years, the Academy of Sciences Malaysia has churned out many position papers proposing the necessary actions to dismantle the obstacles to science and technology.

In science education, for example, the Academy has been pushing to implement the inquiry-based science education (IBSE) model to schools but the uptake has been slow.

On science governance, the Academy has recommended some policy adjustments to invigorate science. Again, it has been strongly resisted. Why? Because implementing the changes would encroach into the power of some authorities.

A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report may persuade a rethink. That report which was critical of Malaysia’s innovation system has ruffled some feathers. Essentially, the report has been saying what the Academy has been raising all along. It is sad but we listen more to others than to ourselves.

Amid all the chaos, we can take comfort in the fact that there are individuals who have not totally given up on science. They continue to air their concerns whenever they have the opportunity to do so.

One person who has persisted is Tan Sri Dr Ahmad Tajuddin Ali (pic), president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. Looking at his career path, he would easily qualify as the nation’s icon for science and technology.

He will soon finish his two terms at the Academy but this will not stop him from continuing to champion the cause of the country’s science. This is because he is among a few in science who wears many hats.

A product of the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), Tajuddin is an example of an all-round personality. In school, he not only excelled in sports but also demonstrated academic excellence in class. He played rugby for MCKK at a time when no other school in the country could match its strength. Many would shiver at the mention of MCKK and none could beat them, not even Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman (STAR), which overwhelmed most other schools except MCKK.

In MCKK, we had a unique cheering lyric which more or less hypnotised our team to score against the other team. That unique learning and playing environment in MCKK must have been the potent recipe that pushed Tajuddin to excel also in his graduate engineering education in Britain.

He not only obtained a first class honours in his engineering degree but also earned in quick time a PhD in nuclear engineering. He was, on record, the first Malaysian to have earned such academic achievement in nuclear engineering.

It’s no wonder that he rose very fast to become the second man in the then Puspati, now known as Nuclear Malaysia.

His extraordinary talent in managing scientific research was easily spotted by the Government. He was soon appointed controller of Sirim, which he later transformed into a corporate entity. But once the corporatisation exercise was done, he was moved to helm Tenaga Nasional. His service did not end after his retirement, and he now wears many hats, including chairman of UEM, CIDB, UTEM and a string of other companies. Not many scientifically-trained Malaysians can match his exemplary record!

DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia

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