Thursday, December 13, 2012

B Ark candidates: Maths and Science in Malaysia

The Trends in Maths and Science Study 2011 (TIMSS 2011) has revealed that Malaysia's appalling academic showing in the field of Maths and Science is trending in the wrong direction.

This reminded me of a possible fate of Malaysians and the possible types of skill sets that Malaysians may end up being good at given this trend as indicated by the TIMSS 2011 survey.

The scenario may be played out as such-

“I mean, I couldn’t help noticing,” said Ford, also taking a sip, “the bodies. In the hold.”
“Bodies?” said the Captain in surprise.
Ford paused and thought to himself. Never take anything for granted, he thought. Could it be that the Captain doesn’t know he’s got fifteen million dead bodies on his ship?
The Captain was nodding cheerfully at him. He also appeared to be playing with a rubber duck.
Ford looked around. Number Two was staring at him in the mirror, but only for an instant: his eyes were constantly on the move. The first officer was just standing there holding the drinks tray and smiling benignly.
“Bodies?” said the Captain again.
Ford licked his lips.
“Yes,” he said, “All those dead telephone sanitizers and account executives, you know, down in the hold.”
The Captain stared at him. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.
“Oh they’re not dead,” he said, “Good Lord no, no they’re frozen. They’re going to be revived.”
Ford did something he very rarely did. He blinked.
Arthur seemed to come out of a trance.
“You mean you’ve got a hold full of frozen hairdressers?” he said.
“Oh yes,” said the Captain, “Millions of them. Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, you name them. We’re going to colonize another planet.”

Ford wobbled very slightly.
“Exciting isn’t it?” said the Captain.
“What, with that lot?” said Arthur.
“Ah, now don’t misunderstand me,” said the Captain, “we’re just one of the ships in the Ark Fleet. We’re the ‘B’ Ark you see. Sorry, could I just ask you to run a bit more hot water for me?”
Arthur obliged, and a cascade of pink frothy water swirled around the bath. The Captain let out a sigh of pleasure.
“Thank you so much my dear fellow. Do help yourselves to more drinks of course.”
Ford tossed down his drink, took the bottle from the first officer’s tray and refilled his glass to the top.
“What,” he said, “is a ‘B’ Ark?”
“This is,” said the Captain, and swished the foamy water around joyfully with the duck.
“Yes,” said Ford, “but …”
“Well what happened you see was,” said the Captain, “our planet, the world from which we have come, was, so to speak, doomed.”
“Oh yes. So what everyone thought was, let’s pack the whole population into some giant spaceships and go and settle on another planet.”
Having told this much of his story, he settled back with a satisfied grunt.
“You mean a less doomed one?” prompted Arthur.
“What did you say dear fellow?”
“A less doomed planet. You were going to settle on.”
“Are going to settle on, yes. So it was decided to build three ships, you see, three Arks in Space, and … I’m not boring you am I?”
“No, no,” said Ford firmly, “it’s fascinating.”
“You know it’s delightful,” reflected the Captain, “to have someone else to talk to for a change.”
Number Two’s eyes darted feverishly about the room again and then settled back on the mirror, like a pair of flies briefly distracted from their favourite prey of months old meat.
“Trouble with a long journey like this,” continued the Captain, “is that you end up just talking to yourself a lot, which gets terribly boring because half the time you know what you’re going to say next.”
“Only half the time?” asked Arthur in surprise.
The Captain thought for a moment.
“Yes, about half I’d say. Anyway — where’s the soap?” He fished around and found it.
“Yes, so anyway,” he resumed, “the idea was that into the first ship, the ‘A’ ship, would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, you know, all the achievers; and into the third, or ‘C’ ship, would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things, and then into the `B’ ship — that’s us — would go everyone else, the middlemen you see.”
He smiled happily at them.
“And we were sent off first,” he concluded, and hummed a little bathing tune.
The little bathing tune, which had been composed for him by one of his world’s most exciting and prolific jingle writer (who was currently asleep in hold thirty-six some nine hundred yards behind them) covered what would otherwise have been an awkward moment of silence. Ford and Arthur shuffled their feet and furiously avoided each other’s eyes.
“Er …” said Arthur after a moment, “what exactly was it that was wrong with your planet then?”
“Oh, it was doomed, as I said,” said the Captain, “Apparently it was going to crash into the sun or something. Or maybe it was that the moon was going to crash into us. Something of the kind. Absolutely terrifying prospect whatever it was.”
“Oh,” said the first officer suddenly, “I thought it was that the planet was going to be invaded by a gigantic swarm of twelve foot piranha bees. Wasn’t that it?”
Number Two spun around, eyes ablaze with a cold hard light that only comes with the amount of practise he was prepared to put in.
“That’s not what I was told!” he hissed, “My commanding officer told me that the entire planet was in imminent danger of being eaten by an enormous mutant star goat!”
“Oh really …” said Ford Prefect.
“Yes! A monstrous creature from the pit of hell with scything teeth ten thousand miles long, breath that would boil oceans, claws that could tear continents from their roots, a thousand eyes that burned like the sun, slavering jaws a million miles across, a monster such as you have never … never … ever …”
“And they made sure they sent you lot off first did they?” inquired Arthur.
“Oh yes,” said the Captain, “well everyone said, very nicely I thought, that it was very important for morale to feel that they would be arriving on a planet where they could be sure of a good haircut and where the phones were clean.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Ford, “I can see that would be very important. And the other ships, er … they followed on after you did they?”
For a moment the Captain did not answer. He twisted round in his bath and gazed backwards over the huge bulk of the ship towards the bright galactic centre. He squinted into the inconceivable distance.
“Ah. Well it’s funny you should say that,” he said and allowed himself a slight frown at Ford Prefect, “because curiously enough we haven’t heard a peep out of them since we left five years ago … but they must be behind us somewhere.”
He peered off into the distance again.
Ford peered with him and gave a thoughtful frown.
“Unless of course,” he said softly, “they were eaten by the goat …”
“Ah yes …” said the Captain with a slight hesitancy creeping into his voice, “the goat …” His eyes passed over the solid shapes of the instruments and computers that lined the bridge. They winked away innocently at him. He stared out at the stars, but none of them said a word. He glanced at his first and second officers, but they seemed lost in their own thoughts for a moment. He glanced at Ford Prefect who raised his eyebrows at him.
“It’s a funny thing you know,” said the Captain at last, “but now that I actually come to tell the story to someone else …I mean does it strike you as odd Number Two?”
“Errrrrrrrrrrr …” said Number Two.
“Well,” said Ford, “I can see that you’ve got a lot of things you’re going to talk about, so, thanks for the drinks, and if you could sort of drop us off at the nearest convenient planet …”
“Ah, well that’s a little difficult you see,” said the Captain, “because our trajectory thingy was preset before we left Golgafrincham, I think partly because I’m not very good with figures …”
“You mean we’re stuck here on this ship?” exclaimed Ford suddenly losing patience with the whole charade, “When are you meant to be reaching this planet you’re meant to be colonizing?”
“Oh, we’re nearly there I think,” said the Captain, “any second now. It’s probably time I was getting out of this bath in fact. Oh, I don’t know though, why stop just when I’m enjoying it?”
“So we’re actually going to land in a minute?”
“Well not so much land, in fact, not actually land as such, no … er …”
“What are you talking about?” said Ford sharply.
“Well,” said the Captain, picking his way through the words carefully, “I think as far as I can remember we were programmed to crash on it.”
“Crash?” shouted Ford and Arthur.
“Er, yes,” said the Captain, “yes, it’s all part of the plan I think. There was a terribly good reason for it which I can’t quite remember at the moment. It was something to do with … er …”
Ford exploded.
“You’re a load of useless bloody loonies!” he shouted.
“Ah yes, that was it,” beamed the Captain, “that was the reason.”
The ‘B‘ Ark was programmed for a hard landing, not a crash landing. It was designed to deliver its passengers safely to the target planet, but to cripple itself beyond repair in the process, thus removing any possibility of a return trip.
The target planet was prehistoric Earth. The occupants of the ‘B’ Ark went forth, crowded out the local Neanderthals, and became the ancestors of humanity.
Meanwhile, back on the home planet, the other two-thirds of the population “led full, rich and happy lives until they were all suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.”

The above extracted is sourced from this blog.

And, if you don't already know, it is the seminal work by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Unless we correct our academic trend, future Malaysians may just experience the fate of the men and women on the B Ark.


walla said...

Education is like petrol.

Put poor grade into the tank and even the best engine will under-perform especially when racing in the global war for talent. What you put in will ultimately determine what you can pull out.

A good and enlightened education system with a keen eye on honing competitive skills will never lead a state to depend on just the odd genius or two to make things happen.

It will incubate an entire generation.

We have a domestic market too small in critical mass to sustain breakthrough businesses. Therefore we must make goods and services for export. These will have to compete with the best from others. If they in turn are designed and produced by people who are better trained than us in science and maths, then theirs will command not only bigger market share but also better prices.

Once that happens, it will not only be hard not to lose more market share owing to a weaker reputation but it will also cause a country to lose the entire race for knowledge and skills owing to exodus of the remnant talent needed in the first place. We will then hollow out everything.

And the hollowing out process will be accelerated by slow death of the curiosity, creativity and tenacity that are the mainsprings of scientific and mathematical achievements. The seeping demise is of course caused by our youngsters getting demotivated by their lack of success in applying what little they have learned in order to understand what's really out there which others seem to be better at, language being one causative reason.

Therefore, it all starts with education. Because if those being trained today are trained weakly, then when they become trainers tomorrow they will train the next generations even more weakly than how they have been trained.

And that's because by the time they become trainers, the knowledge they had acquired would have been eclipsed by new ones they have not been equipped to command.

Furthermore, this accumulative property of knowledge and skills causes a secondary reaction. If they are not sustained with some standard in a continuously improving setting, then the experiential learning later in life will be the poorer from lack of facts or confidence in analyzing and applying them.

When we say science and maths, we don't mean just those simple subjects in school which some had perceived before as being of some standard just by a cursory look into local texts and coursework. The survey now out shows that particular comfort zone was actually twilight in disguise.

By science and maths, we also mean engineering, technology, medicine, agriculture, exploration, quantitative investments and business valuations. Even the social sciences like management, economics and psychology need skills in statistics if one is to research specific topics with less arguable ambiguity. Or, for that matter, doers like governments, bankers and investors who need to evaluate proposals that will need scientific knowledge and mathematical computations to determine feasibility.

Otherwise we may even end up nuking the very grounds the next generations have to live on.

walla said...


There are other insidious factors. First, the 21st century will be trendy on micro-sized complexity. Products will become more complicated so that their maintenance will require more precise measurements and solutions. Services will become more specialized so that their delivery will require more value-adding skills applied to an increasingly discriminating clientele. If knowledge in anything is weak, what is there to work on to multiple options in both? Buyers don't buy just words.

Second, our education production line is split. The public sector is weak but it has the bigger budgets for science, maths and technical training; the private sector is more focused on the social sciences because these require lower outlay in investment, especially in expensive training equipment and technical personnel who are also harder to find these days.

Therefore we have a situation where the critical things that must be done are left to the vacuous devices of public educators under the thumbs of arid politicians who are mostly non-science and non-maths in background. In which case the end-product after summing up all factors will be to create more and more management and captains of industry who will be increasingly ill-equipped to handle a more complicated future in which science and maths will be playing paramount and decisive roles.

Knowing this, those who have left the country to study science and maths are less likely to return, compounding what is already a tragic misalignment and neglect.

It is tragic because there are pockets of private attempts to rectify the disparity between what must be done and what is on hand to close the gap. Such attempts include some schools making use of open courseware such as lecture notes from notable institutions like MIT.

However they are constrained by compulsion from screwed-up politicians to toe the official line of retrogressive socialization of education until all discernable standards have been abandoned just to meet politically correct and expedient quotas and numbers pegged to the weakest.

That must somehow explain the crying.

Third, there is an abundant wealth of knowledge out there. As a minor example:

It is therefore tragic that our young who are born bright but are not to be able to appreciate the beauty, magic and power of knowledge which can enrich their minds and inspire them to build better lives for themselves and others. Now they can only amuse themselves with thumb-culture and television fare from opportunistic, jurassic and mindless nincomp00ps.

Well, back to Tobin's 25 Doctrines of Law....