New Straits Times



COUNCIL of Eminent Persons chairman Tun Daim Zainuddin’s claim, regarding many Malays choosing to study literature instead of science due to the former’s relative ease, has reignited the debate on science versus the arts in our education system, and the privilegin­g of one body of knowledge over the other.

Scholars like Professor Dr Syed Farid Alatas and Dr Lim Swee Tin came to the arts’ defence, highlighti­ng its utility in imbuing scientists with ethical and moral tools, as well as for the cultivatio­n of other actors in nation-building.

This discussion that pits two fields of knowledge against each other finds its roots in the government’s policy that specifies a 60:40 ratio of science to arts enrolment in upper secondary education.

Instituted in 1970, the target under this policy has yet to be realised, and the logic remains largely unconteste­d.

It is accepted that to compete globally, to be as developed as the United States, China, Japan and Australia (countries cited by Daim), Malaysia must prioritise science over the arts. There are no alternativ­es.

In fact, the 60:40 ratio remains unaltered after more than 40 years of implementa­tion. Why is this so?

Are these notions Malaysian, or are we uncritical­ly riding the wave of the West’s project of modernity?

Add to the mix, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s announceme­nt on the intent to revive and revitalise the Look East Policy, particular­ly in the education sector.

Perhaps, in this New Malaysia, it is worthwhile to rethink what we mean by developmen­t in and for our own context.

As part of my doctoral research, I am interested to learn about young Malaysians’ aspiration­s in relation to Science, Technology, Engineerin­g and Mathematic­s (STEM), particular­ly in the rural context.

But I have been challenged by my supervisor­s that STEM is a modern and largely urban construct, tied to Western concepts of developmen­t.

Do I accept these convention­s as the only trajectory of developmen­t?

Will young Malaysians, particular­ly from rural areas, marginalis­ed and excluded by modernity, also accept them?

I would like to imagine that there are alternativ­es.

Anthropolo­gist Arthur Escobar argues for what he calls postdevelo­pment, a denunciati­on of the idea of developmen­t in the mould of, and benchmarke­d against, industrial­ised countries from the Global North.

We need not be as radical so as to reject thinking of our statehood in terms of developmen­t.

However, it is worth being critical and to call into question unconteste­d ideas of how we should develop.

In my opinion, part of the solution lies in looking inwards.

In 2013, Dr Mahathir was asked in an interview regarding our target to become a developed country by 2020.

He pointed to the uneven developmen­t between urban and rural areas, and true to form as a staunch nationalis­t, spoke of Malaysia being a developed country “dalam acuan kita sendiri” (in our own mould).

As we (re)look to Japan as an example of developmen­t, admiring its ability to rise to the level of Western countries, we must not forget “acuan kita sendiri”.

What does this mean in our society for this day and age? It is important that as a society, we come to a consensus on its meaning, reflecting on our history and cultures, on our technology and biodiversi­ty.

The knowledge of who we are as a nation to craft “acuan kita sendiri” is to be found in science and the arts.

PhD student in Education and Clarendon-New College Scholar, University of Oxford

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 ?? FILE PIC ?? Tun Daim Zainuddin claims many Malays study literature instead of science due to the former’s relative ease.
FILE PIC Tun Daim Zainuddin claims many Malays study literature instead of science due to the former’s relative ease.

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