Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman

November 26, 2015

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman


Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything

Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

by Christopher Riley

In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway — a suburb of New York – in May 1918, but his path in life was forged even before this. “If he’s a boy I want him to be a scientist,” said his father, Melville, to his pregnant wife. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, he’d taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus, and in his last year of high school won the New York University Math Championship, shocking the judges not only by his score, but by how much higher it was than those of his competitors.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

Such talents led to him being recruited to the Manhattan Project in the early Forties. Together with some of the greatest minds in physics in the 20th century, Feynman was put to work to help build an atom bomb to use against the Germans before they built one to use against the Allies. Security at the top-secret Los Alamos labs was at the highest level. But for Feynman — a born iconoclast – such control was there to be challenged. When not doing physics calculations he spent his time picking locks and cracking safes to draw attention to shortcomings in the security systems.

“Anything that’s secret I try and undo,” he explained years later. Feynman saw the locks in the same way as he saw physics: just another puzzle to solve. He garnered such a reputation, in fact, that others at the lab would come to him when a colleague was out-of-town and they needed a document from his safe.

Between the safe cracking and the physics calculations, the pace of life at Los Alamos was relentless. But for Feynman these activities were a welcome distraction from a darker life. His wife, Arline, who was confined to her bed in a sanatorium nearby, was slowly dying of TB.

When she died in the summer of 1945, Feynman was bereft. This misery was compounded, a few weeks later, when the first operational atom bomb was dropped on Japan, killing more than 80,000 people. His original reason for applying his physics to the war effort had been to stop the Germans. But its use on the Japanese left Feynman shocked. For the first time in his life he started to question the value of science and, convinced the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust, his focus drifted.

He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.

William Hurt as Richard Feynman in a BBC drama based on his role in the Challenger disaster report

His other method of relaxation in those years was music; his passion for playing the bongos stayed with him for the rest of his life. Physics had slipped down his list of priorities, but he suddenly rediscovered his love for the subject in a most unexpected way. In the canteen at Cornell one lunchtime he became distracted by a student, who had thrown a plate into the air. As it clattered onto the floor Feynman observed that the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. It made him wonder what the relationship was between these two motions.

Playing with the equations which described this movement reminded him of a similar problem concerning the rotational spin of the electron, described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. And this, in turn, led him to Dirac’s theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED); a theory which had tried to make sense of the subatomic world but had posed as many questions as it answered. What followed, Feynman recalled years later, was like a cork coming out of a bottle. “Everything just poured out,” he remembered.

“He really liked to work in the context of things that were supposed to be understood and just understand them better than anyone else,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who sits today at Feynman’s old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. “That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition – an insight into what was really going on.” Applying this deep insight, Feynman invented an entirely new branch of maths to work on QED, which involved drawing little pictures instead of writing equations.

Richard’s sister, Joan, recalls him working on the problem while staying with her one weekend. Her room-mate was still asleep in the room where Richard had been working. “He said to me, ‘Would you go in the room and get my papers, I wanna start working’,” she remembers. “So I went in the room and I looked for them, but there was no mathematics. It was just these silly little diagrams and I came out and said, ‘Richard, I can’t find your papers, it’s just these kind of silly diagrams’. And he said, ‘That is my work!’” Today Feynman’s diagrams are used across the world to model everything from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the motion of planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos.

Applying them to QED, Feynman came up with a solution which would win him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. Almost half a century later QED remains our best explanation of everything in the universe except gravity. “It’s the most numerically precise physical theory ever invented,” says Carroll.

Discovering a law of nature and winning a Nobel Prize, for most people, would represent the pinnacle of a scientific career. But for Feynman these achievements were mere stepping stones to other interests. He took a sabbatical to travel across the Caltech campus to the biology department, where he worked on viruses. He also unravelled the social behaviour of ants and potential applications of nanotechnology. And he was active beyond the world of science, trading physics coaching for art lessons with renowned Californian artist Jirayr Zorthian. (While at Caltech he also began frequenting a local strip club, where he would quietly work out his theories on napkins; he found it the ideal place in which to clear his head.)

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early Sixties, Cornell invited him to give the Messenger Lectures – a series of public talks on physics. Watching them today, Feynman’s charisma and charm is as seductive as it was 50 years ago.

“He loved a big stage,” says Carroll. “He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally.”

Recognising this ability, in 1965 Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create and the accompanying textbooks still represent the last word on the history of physics. The lectures themselves were brimming with inspiring “showbiz demonstrations” as his friend Richard Davies describes them. Most memorably, Feynman used to set up a heavy brass ball on a pendulum, send it swinging across the room, and then wait for it to swing back towards him. Students would gasp as it rushed towards his face, but Feynman would stand stock still, knowing it would stop just in front of his nose. Keen to capitalise on these talents for engaging an audience, Christopher Sykes made his film for Horizon. “He took enormous pleasure in exploring life and everything it had to offer,” remembers Sykes. “More than that, he took tremendous pleasure in telling you about it.”

In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

A series of operations kept Feynman alive and well enough to work on one final important project. In 1986, he joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the entire crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought bureaucratic intransigence and vested interests to uncover the cause of the accident: rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that failed to work on the freezing morning of the launch. At a typically flamboyant press conference, Feynman demonstrated his findings by placing a piece of an O-ring in a glass of iced water. But the inquiry had left him exhausted. With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988.

His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’” Twenty-five years after his death, thanks to the web, Feynman’s prophecy has more truth than he could ever have imagined.

Christopher Riley is a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln. His film ‘The Fantastic Mr Feynman’ is on BBC Two on Sunday.

Thanks Loess74

Defying the Islamic State–Congratulations to Malaysia’s Zunar

November 24, 2015

Defying the Islamic State--Congratulations to Malaysia’s Zunar and other Journalists in the front lines

November 23 at 2:59 PM

RECENTLY THE Islamic State in Raqqa sent an ominous message to an exiled Syrian journalist. Tell us who is filing covertly from the occupied city, the terrorists warned, or we will execute your father. The editor refused to name names. His father was shot to death.

We heard this story last week from AbdAlaziz Alhamza, who works for the same journalism collective as the grieving editor: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. With a dozen reporters still filing from Raqqa, risking their lives every day, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is one of the few sources of independent news from inside its terrorized land of lashings, slavery, beheadings and crucifixions.

The collective is one of four 2015 International Press Freedom awardees who will be honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City Tuesday. They reflect both the lengths dictators will go to silence free speech — and the creativity and almost unimaginable courage that journalists summon in response.


In addition to the online collective of mostly anonymous Syrian reporters, the honorees include a Malaysian cartoonist, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known by his pen name, Zunar, whose work appears only online because the government allows no newspaper to carry his work; the Zone 9 bloggers, an Ethio­pian collective that came together as their government decimated the independent press; and Cándido Figueredo Ruíz , a Paraguayan journalist who shines a light on drug cartels and the corruption they engender. A reporter for ABC Color, one of his country’s largest newspapers, Mr. Figueredo holds perhaps the most traditional job among the winners. But there is nothing conventional about his bravery: He has been shot at numerous times, and now lives under constant police guard, as does his wife.


Zunar with Nathaniel Tan and Steven Gan (Malaysiakini)

Mr. Zunar, 53, will return to Malaysia to face a December court date on charges of sedition that could lead to a prison sentence of 43 years. The Ethio­pian bloggers too have been imprisoned and still have judicial proceedings hanging over them. Why go back, we asked Mr. Zunar?

“We do it for reform,” he told us during a visit to The Post. “We have been governed by the same ruling party for 60 years. Corruption is huge. There are so many injustices. . . . I know it is an uphill battle. I’m not sure when it will end, or will I see the change in my lifetime. It’s like an endless marathon, but as long as I’m on the track I’m the winner.”

Anwar Ibrahim

Mr. Zunar shared with us the cartoon he planned to post later that day: a drawing of President Obama, who traveled to Malaysia on Friday, stretching his arm around a prison full of political dissidents to shake hands with the Malaysian leader he has praised and golfed with, Najib Razak. For those of us who can take our freedoms for granted, the cartoon held a useful message: We should never forget the political prisoners, like Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, nor the journalists like Mr. Zunar and his co-winners who bravely take up the cause of freedom. “One of the great supports is to know I’m not alone,” Mr. Figueredo said.

Malaysia– Respecting the Dignity of Difference

November 18, 2015

Malaysia– Freedom, not Policing and Respect for Difference

by FA Abdul


Diversity is Malaysia2

They Need Space for Creativity

Have you ever wondered how a house is built? What holds up the ceilings and the walls? What keeps the rain out? What parts go into making a house? How many different people are involved in building a house? How do we actually go about building a house?

Houses may look very different from the outside. Some are box-like and functional. Some are sprawling mansions. Surprisingly however, despite their outward differences they are amazingly similar. They generally have a pitched roof, walls, windows and doors. Their insides are divided into rooms like the kitchen, the living room, bedrooms and bathrooms.

However different they may end up looking, the building process is very similar. The site is cleared of any trees, rocks and debris and levelled if necessary. Then the builders focus on the foundation. Trenches and holes are dug and concrete is poured into them. Only then does the focus shift to the floor, the walls, the windows, doors and the roof.

Jafri's Building

What is more important is the Human Character, not more Policing

Today, in our country, even before we build houses, we are already consumed with the interior of the house. We fuss over the layout and agonise over the furnishings – What type of bed will we get? How big a television? What about the curtains? What colour should the walls be? And what about our living room furniture? Do we go for solid colours? Or a floral print?

With just an empty piece of land staring at our faces, we find ourselves running around, imagining what goes where. “The fridge should be here. The washing machine there. Over here shall be the walk-in wardrobe. And a nice dressing table just next to it.”

We often fail to get our priorities right. That is almost always how we do most things in our lives. Take religion for example.More than 60 per cent of our population are Muslims. To deal with matters which concern this majority group, we have many organisations and departments. They take care of religious matters and ensure that the principles of Islam are adhered to.

We have people making sure we do not commit close proximity. We have people making sure we fast during the holy month of Ramadhan.

We have people making sure we do not gamble or consume alcohol.We have people making sure everything we see, touch, eat, smell and dream is halal in nature.

We have people continuously preaching to us about Islam and how to behave as good Muslims. We build our ‘houses’ with ‘fences’ raised all around us supposedly to keep us grounded and protected.

We live our lives within the rules and laws set out for us by others so as to reserve a spot in the afterlife. Yes, dreaming about Jannah (heaven) is what most of us do and all the while our ‘home’ is shaky and incomplete.

We so easily forget the one vital thing – the solid foundation of Islam. While every child born into an Islamic household grows up as a Muslim, how many of us have a good foundation and knowledge of the religion we profess to follow?

From the self-confessed liberal to the ‘pak turut’ Muslim to the closet extremist, our faith may be the same but our foundation of Islam differs. We follow one Holy Book yet our thoughts and thinking are so different.

We all seem to want to build our dream house – with fences as high as they can go. We visualise the beautiful interior, however, our foundation remains shaky. But how do we make a home out of a house built with an unstable foundation?

To make matters even more complicated, we live among our non-Muslim brothers and sisters whose understanding of Islam is limited to what they see portrayed around them – what we choose to show them. As such, these unstable houses with high fences are all they see.

While we pride ourselves in having the tallest fence and the biggest house, our non-Muslim friends build their houses without any fences but on sturdy grounds of humanity. And all the while we look down on them openly and they too look down on us, in secret. This is how we live our lives in this neighbourhood we call Malaysia.

The truth is, we all need a good solid foundation, floors, walls and roof. All houses need solid foundations be they bungalows in upmarket areas or huts in the forest. Sadly, we continue building houses even though we see the flaws – leaky roofs, squeaky floors, shaky walls. And when our non-Muslim neighbours point out our flaws, we snap.

A stronger nation would work on improving these flaws. But here we are – instead of choosing to rebuild our houses with sturdy materials and strong foundations, we continue to build higher fences. How silly of us. No wonder we are where we are!

Beyond Economics– First Fix the Political Elephant in the Room

October 5, 2015

Beyond Economics:  First Fix The Politics

by Dato’Seri Nazir Razak

Nazir Razak at Khazanah Megatrends

The theme of Khazanah Megatrends this year is around “innovation” and “creative disruption.”

In the next 30 minutes I would like to share with you some personal stories and anecdotes, and perspectives about why Malaysia remains frustrated in its quest for greater creativity and innovation, risk and adventure taking, ethics and integrity in our economy, and how thinking about this problem leads me to the same conclusion as when I think of many other pressing national issues – we must address the “elephant in the room”.


As a 25-year banking veteran, I would be the first to admit that banks have been poor at supporting not just innovation, but many creative ideas.

Some who survived to tell the tale include two young Malaysians who some years ago came to see me about buying an airline for RM1 to build a regional low-cost carrier. I showed them the door very quickly and quite rudely, and was only nice to them when AirAsia was successful and going for its IPO.

Similarly, our experiments at banking start-ups and technology companies did not go well. Banks are by definition conservative, highly regulated and staffed with bankers.

In the mid-1990s, in response to the perceived lack of access to capital for technology start-ups, I was asked to chair the “Industry Action Committee” to set up Mesdaq, the Malaysian Nasdaq.

Even before we had venture capital and proven technology companies, we decided to set up a stock exchange. And lots of money was spent on the new exchange when really it should have just been another board at Bursa; it would have been a far cheaper failed experiment. Till today, I regret not saying no to this project, but it was a good early lesson for me and probably why I do find it hard to keep my mouth shut.

As banks and the capital markets fell short, the government availed lots of money for technology and start-ups in general. Funds like MTDC and several venture companies were seeded by the government. Money itself has never been the problem. The problem was that we never had the institutional capabilities to allocate the money effectively, bias as we were to local intermediaries who lacked experience and networks, and prone as we were to proliferating agencies rather than building large institutions with economies of scale and partnerships with international experience and networks.

Today however, I do think that from a capital standpoint, there is much less frustration on the part of budding entrepreneurs and creative disrupters. Equinas, for instance, has scale and leverages professional fund managers well.

GLICs have evolved to apply best international standards in investing and now hire – and pay – a much better cadre of professionals for themselves and at investee companies. There has also been a proliferation of private equity and venture capitalists to supplant banks and offer more effective risk and reward structures.

There is room for improvement, of course. I would like to see more funds made available to smaller companies and more focus on how to encourage large GLICs to better support small companies or small deals.

I would also urge that we look at how to make it less punitive for banks to become investors in PE funds given the difference in the needs of our emerging economy versus the more developed markets where these new rules are being written.

Mentoring and international perspectives

Innovation is about three things – insight, idea and implementation. Beyond capital, entrepreneurs need guidance to help them build their ventures. Malaysia has had Technology Park Malaysia and others, and lately MaGIC, with varying degrees of success.

I feel that one thing lacking has been the international element to mentoring. It is unrealistic to think of building sustainable businesses based purely on domestic dynamics in this era of Asean economic integration and an increasingly borderless world.

This is why a few other individuals and I set up the not-for-profit organisation Endeavour Malaysia in 2013. In partnership with Endeavour Worldwide we search for entrepreneurs via a rigorous selection and interview process by first the local management, then the local board and finally the international Endeavour board.

Successful entrepreneurs are badged “Endeavour”, allocated local and international mentors, and are given access an international network of businesses – about 1,100 Endeavour companies worldwide.

Endeavour Worldwide is all about successful business people eager to give back by supporting new entrepreneurs. It does take an entrepreneur to know one and it takes knowledge from all over the world to assess the prospects of the best ideas.

Local mentors for Malaysian Endeavour companies include my co-founders Afzal Rahim, Mark Chang, Brahmal Vasudevan and Tony Fernandes.

Endeavour’s “mentor capitalist” model has worked extremely well in Latin America, where its biggest success story is MercadoLibre, the eBay equivalent. Marcos Galperin started the company in 1999 and was selected by Endeavour that year itself.

He expanded the business across the continent and the company is now listed on the Nasdaq with a market cap of about US$4 billion. Marcos is the perfect example of how a high-impact entrepreneur can have an outsized impact on the ecosystem around him or her. He subsequently became a founder and board member of Endeavour as well role model, mentor or direct investor in a whole string of emerging companies.

I hope that we can rapidly add to the six Endeavour companies that we have so far, but overall Malaysian entrepreneurs now have reasonable choice of ecosystems to help them.

Beyond economics

If we define access to capital and ecosystems as economics, then I would say we have over the years largely addressed the economic issues, but there is still no real breakthrough.

Recent data shows national productivity growth slowing down from 2.7% between 2006 and 2010 to 2.1% between 2011 and 2014. And other worrying data points include the story of two recent big Malaysian innovation success stories – GrabTaxi and HappyFresh – they started in KL but have effectively moved to Singapore and Indonesia for various reasons.

When I asked several entrepreneurs whether if given the choice they would choose to be based in Malaysia, most said no, and those who said yes tended to strongly espouse their nationalistic sentiment. Even though it is just my crude dipstick survey, it is worrying because we are at risk of losing the best companies that we nurture.

So I asked those who said they would move away what their concerns are, without fail, they go beyond economics to the big picture, and relate not just their own concerns but perception of their potential international financiers and partners.

Role of the government

The heavy presence of government in the economy is one issue they highlight. We have spoken and agreed ad nauseam in various other platforms about reducing government involvement in business, yet the data from the past few years show quite the opposite.

Even more important is the role of government in overseeing business competition – the rules of the game in each sector. Much of this has been covered in the New Economic Model, and we are making progress with the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and Aviation Commission, for instance. But much, much more needs to be done.

The more sensitive area of concern is the perception that people or businesses are not equal before the government and even when one can accept preferential treatment based on our affirmative action policy, the rules are often not clear. Added to that is a culture of top down decision-making, even in the sphere of innovation.

Let me share with you one personal anecdote. In 2004, I was appointed to the board of the infamous InventQjaya, set up by a self-described genius innovator, generously funded by the government with cash and a super smart building in Cyberjaya.

I joined two other independent directors, Tan Sri Shahril Shamsuddin and Datuk Sidek Ahmad. From early on, we sensed things were not right and when we conducted our own technical due diligence there were a lot of question marks around the intellectual property the company had expensively acquired from the genius innovator’s own company back in the US.

The turning point for me was when he showed us his “killer invention” – a glass window which would turn opaque at the touch of a button. Well, massage parlours in Korea had had them for years – so I was told!

Shahril and Sidek, who were both more literate in science than me, also found other dubious inventions. So finally, together with MoF official Datuk Rahim Mokti, we decided that enough was enough, we had to do the right thing.

Truth be told, if we knew how painful blowing the whistle was going to be, I’m not sure if we would have done it!

Etched in my memory is the day Shahril and I went to report the case at the A-G’s chamber. After spending a couple of hours showing all the evidence, the officer calmly asked “Did you bring your toothbrush?”

He said, based on his experience, people who make accusations are often the real crooks so perhaps he should detain us! So then we spent another couple of hours explaining that it wasn’t us –thankfully, we were convincing enough.

After triggering the institutional processes, we were advised that we had to see and explain ourselves to Tun (Dr) Mahathir who had firmly backed the project. After the A-G Chamber experience, we were too afraid so we ran to the master salesman Tan Sri Nor Yakcop and begged him to carry the news for us. I was told Tan Sri Nor did a splendid job, Tun agreed that we were doing the right thing and we were safe.

The authorities never managed to build the legal case against the inventor. A lot of money was wasted, but a great deal more would have been lost had we, the directors appointed by the government, not done our fiduciary duty and been willing to tell truth to power.

I have never fully traced the history of how and why InventQjaya started, but I was told it was by navigating the corridors of power and convincing the PM. Tun’s idea of a government-backed R&D centre was good, the problem was how it was implemented.

There could have been a tender open to scientists across the globe, for instance, as opposed to one man’s full trust in another who went on to liberally use the threat of his access to power to get his way.

I am sure there are other similar stories. So we need to recalibrate how the corridors of power work, re-establish processes and reaffirm institutional checks and balances. Over the years, power has become too concentrated and system checks and balances are not functioning as they should.

Human capital and education

Another issue that the entrepreneurs highlighted was human capital.I will not delve into education reform as many of our finest, Tan Sri Azman, Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Tony were part of the National Education System Evaluation Panel set up in 2011, and from what I gather, the issues are well-understood.

There is of course plenty of research that show correlation between national propensity to innovate and the right educational policies. It’s the political realities of education reform that seem to have held us back. On the wider issue of talent retention or drain itself, again much has been discussed via TalentCorp, etc, but then when I speak to the brightest overseas Malaysians, the most often cited reasons for not coming home are socio-political.

Politics–The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room is politics and the socio-economic structures that have evolved in tandem over the years. As we have seen over the last two general elections, the dominant political party system that we have had since independence is at risk.

While we can point to many other countries where the transition to a multi-party system happens peacefully, Malaysia has a unique and complex with a potentially toxic mix of race and religion deeply embedded in the political system, so we can’t take that for granted.

Meanwhile, crucial reform proposals by many of our cleverest people like the NEAC which presented the NEM that proposed major structural reforms, have been frozen by politics.

I won’t try to predict the consequences of continuing with the current trajectory of Malaysian politics. But I will predict that if we don’t undertake major structural reform of our socio-economy soon, we may well lose the international economics game.

Way forward

I propose that we go back in history. Not to the early, joyous, optimistic days of the initial post-Merdeka years.

Instead, let’s travel back to the devastating blow we suffered on May 13, 1969 – a day of infamy in our short history as a nation. A day that punctured our innocent idealism and introduced us to the Hobbesian nature of reality.

In the wake of that tragic and horrific blood-letting, the government declared emergency rule and set up a National Operations Council led by Tun Razak to run the country after Parliament was suspended indefinitely.

Eight months later in January 1970, Tun Razak chaired the first National Consultative Council, or NCC, meeting to examine the ethnic, political, economic and cultural sparks that provoked the May 13 episode and undermined national unity.

The NCC’s members consisted of just three ministers – Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Sambanthan – as well as representatives from state governments, members of religious establishments, professional bodies, unions, teachers associations and political parties – a balanced representation of the population.

The NCC’s deliberations over a few months produced two extremely significant documents that guided our nation in the post-May 13 years: the New Economic Policy or NEP, and the Rukunegara.

Parliament was subsequently reinstated while the NEP spurred the growth of the government’s involvement in business with the establishment of many agencies to facilitate the rebalancing of wealth among ethnic groups and poverty eradication initiatives, with considerable success. The NEP epitomised what this conference is all about – innovation, creative disruption and inclusivity.

So, here we are today.  The NEP that was set to be a 20-year programme remains 44 years on, albeit in a much mutated form. In the meantime, the world and our place in it have changed, not least with the advent of the knowledge economy and the shift in economic power from large corporates and institutions to individual talent and entrepreneurship. The near future looks even scarier as articulated this morning by Charles Leadbeater.

Supply chains have shifted dramatically and creative disruptors flourish in economies where vested interests are not protected by governments and politics. Is our economic system substantially designed in the 1970s able to cope with the demands of today?

We all seem to know major reforms are needed – there is already much good literature on reforms from the government itself – but implementation has been trapped by realpolitik. Recent events are surely symptoms of systemic strain.

I believe that just as in the post-May 13 era, we are now facing a national challenge. Back then, the fundamental issue was national unity. Today, in the 21st century, the parameters have widened. National unity and the forging of a Malaysian identity are still very much works in progress. But added to them are a plethora of problems ranging from the ethical to the practical, and even our quest to spur innovation and creative destruction leads us to this fundamental national challenge.

We urgently need a new social and economic re-engineering programme to suit today’s challenges and for today’s Malaysians. My humble suggestion is this: the time is ripe for the setting up of a council similar to the NCC. Let’s call it the National Consultative Council 2 or NCC2.

To borrow a leaf from history, let us once again bring together the best and brightest among us Malaysians to huddle and deliberate our options. Let the NCC2 be no different from the first NCC in terms of participation from all members of our Malaysian society.

Its membership should be inclusive, its deliberations wide-ranging, and its reports succinct and practical to implement. And it should be led by someone or some people with the moral authority to bring the good and the great to the table for the sake of the nation’s new future.

My own ideas on how the NCC2 would function are still evolving. Offhand, I would suggest the setting up of six panels to deliberate on the following critical issues, namely:

1) Constitutional reforms;

2) Electoral reforms;

3) Economic reforms-affirmative action, role of government;

4) National unity and the social contract;

5) Preserving and strengthening the integrity of the federation; and

6) Institutional integrity – checks and balances between various branches of government and within government itself.

I make no apologies for adopting NCC from my late father. As I have written earlier, he was a Malaysian to the core, a public servant to the extreme definition of that. I believe his legacy of an inclusive, deliberative, and Malaysian vision and identity, is even more relevant today than it was in the dark days after May 13.


As I said at the start of my speech, there are adults who consider my views on current affairs as unsuitable. And they will look for 1,001 motives behind my suggestion of NCC2 instead of what I have just articulated. That is their prerogative.

Just as it is my prerogative to say we can and must opt for national – politics, economics and social – recalibration. We have to address the elephant in the room. Malaysia needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to spur innovation and creative disruption in our economy. Malaysia also needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to secure our future and realise the true potential of our great nation. We have done it before, we must do it again.

* Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is chairman of CIMB Group. This is his speech at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur today.

Building a well formed mind: Dr. Shashi Tharoor

October 1, 2015

Dr. Shashi Tharoor On Education

Listen to Dr. Tharoor, an eloquent Educator and maybe we can begin to learn about a well formed mind.

Right now, we teach children by example of the present leadership that cash is king and there is nothing wrong about accepting bribes or becoming a crony or a proxy of some corrupt politician like Dr. Khir Toyo, former Menteri Besar of Selangor who is in Kajang as guest of Duli Yang Maha Mulia Yang DiPertuan Agong. Once a powerful man, Dr. Khir is now a felon who must pay the price for being utterly corrupt. There are still a lot of politicians out there who have yet to suffer the same fate as our convicted broom giver.

It is time we start thinking outside the box and come out with innovative ways of educating our young and showing them ways to lead meaningful and ethical lives. As Socrates said, lead an examined life. Only those engaged in the continual struggle to clarify their thinking and remove the clutter, confusion and incoherence can be said to live free and worthwhile lives. But not all of us are great thinkers or philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The majority of us like me are simple folks who seek to lead a happy life, taking the good with the bad and overcoming adversity by staying always on the side of the affirmative and rejecting the negative and anything in between like the late Sam Berns.

Sam Berns was a Junior at Foxboro High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where he  achieved highest honors and was a percussion section leader in the high school marching band. He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. Sam was diagnosed with Progeria, a rare, rapid aging disease, at the age of 2. Listen to him. –Din Merican

Mr Transformation Blues stays on as Pemandu Chief

September 9, 2015

COMMENT: I respect his decision to stay on as Pemandu Chief. In the face of a gathering economic storm,  his presence at Pemandu will keep the team he assembled in tact to carry on the tasks he sought out to do over the last six years.

din and kamsiah at klinik2As a spokesperson, Dato’Jala has done a good job for the government. It was a difficult one. I for one would admit that transforming Malaysia is a huge assignment. He has been like a captain of an oil tanker was ordered to make a quick change in direction. It is even tougher when he is serving a Prime Minister who lost our trust and confidence. 

The question I want to ask him is this: now that you have decided to press on with your transformation agenda, will it be more of the same, or will you change your implementation strategies in the light of difficult times ahead?

It is not about cherry picking. Life is unfair as the late President John F. Kennedy said. Malaysian critics in particular will attack you in areas where you are most vulnerable. Engage them intelligently since they are not enemy; they are stakeholders.

Today, it is all about our economy. It is about getting our country out of an economic mess created by your boss. Expect more, not less bricks thrown at you and your team. Remember that you are no longer in the Cabinet. As a CEO, your task will be a harrowing one since you are no longer part of policy making. You know well that Malaysia is all about politics. In this case, it is going to the politics of regime survival in the face of mounting public pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign.

So, Dato’Jala, your persistence and courage under fire are admirable. May you continue and finish what you had set out to do, but I hope that having learned the lessons of managing change over the last 6 years, you know how to do it differently. Do not over cook things. Just speak the truth. -Din Merican

Mr Transformation Blues stays on as Pemandu Chief to face a gathering storm

by Idris Jala

All said and done, one thing I know for certain – in life you cannot cherry-pick. It comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is our own volition how we choose to live it, to have the willingness and faith to make a difference for the better. I am hopeful that when the upside comes, we will stand strong and ready to catch that ride.–Idris Jala

idris jalaDURING my childhood growing up in the Kelabit longhouse, my father – always the teacher – would use the word “ketui” to spur me on. Meaning “burning desire to win”, he did not accept half-measures and lukewarm efforts. He was adamant I embody the burning desire, especially when the going got tough.

After serving for six years as Senator in the Prime Minister’s Department, I attended my final Cabinet meeting two weeks ago. The Federal Constitution has a two-term limit for Senatorship, bar none. As I have absolutely no political ambitions, that route in presuming any extension as a Minister has always been closed.

At that session, I was especially overwhelmed by the gracious remarks made by the Prime Minister. As in any epic journey, he was clear we cannot stop midstream. He asked that I continue in my role as CEO of Pemandu, and to see to the successful conclusion of our national transformation programmes.

For months, I agonised over the decision of continuing as CEO of Pemandu or moving on to other pursuits. You can imagine the predicament as many people reminded me about the “trust deficit” in Government, telling me to leave.

There are two ways to drive transformation – via external transformational push for a change of Government or an internal transformation from within. I joined the Government because I felt I could contribute, in a small way, towards our transformation journey.

Our achievements as a country over the last six years are well documented in the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and Government Transformation Programme (GTP) Annual Reports. Though we made progress, we still have some ways to go. The question I grappled with was simple: Given the current problems and controversies, can the ETP and GTP programmes continue?

The answer is an unequivocal YES. Current conditions should not stop us from implementing programmes that will benefit the economy and rakyat. For example, we still need to attract investments, build the MRT and rural roads. Reforms, both fiscal and educational, must endure. The fight against crime and corruption never ceases.

Instead of caving in to despair, I see a silver lining. Percolating issues give us the impetus to push certain things. Getting all political parties to accept reforms on political financing, just as we proposed under the GTP in 2010 is one example. That is why I agreed to work with Dato’ Paul Low who is heading the reform committee on political funding.

Hence, I have decided not to abandon ship in the face of a storming sea. I admit to another motivating factor. In previous leadership roles – be it with Shell or MAS – I had always “inherited” an existing team. I may have hired a few persons but the teams were nonetheless acquired without much room to maneuver.

With the setting up of Pemandu in 2009, for the first time in my corporate and public life, I had the space to assemble my dream team. With no previous organisational baggage, we started out on a clean slate to tackle the hard work of transformation.

Over the years, I have come to love how my team has developed. They are impassioned in wanting to contribute and are prepared to shoulder the load. There are no half-measures to this journey – we have to finish what we started. I cannot imagine walking away from that.

This brings me to our current challenge, the economy. Malaysians must remember we are significantly plugged into the global economy. Shocks experienced globally undoubtedly affect us.

From January 1 to September 2 this year, the ringgit depreciated by 17% against the US dollar. But some perspective is needed – New Zealand, Russia and Australia for example have all taken painful hits in the same period, not just Malaysia.

As a nation that is huge on trading, we tend to be more exposed to external shocks beyond our control. Sniffles and sneezes from key trading partners in the US, China, Europe and Taiwan may cause us to end up with a cold too, as supply and demand patterns swing dramatically.

The Government, as keen observers of the global economic movements, was acutely aware of the need to ramp up on resilience:

  • Goods and services tax (GST) introduced in April this year to broaden the tax base and create a more equitable and sustainable taxation system
  •  Large subsidies, including fuel, have been progressively rationalised to reduce and streamline Government spending
  •  For more economic maneuvering space, we have been steadfast in cutting fiscal deficit from 6.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 3.2% in 2014, while keeping our debt level below the self-imposed ceiling of 55% of GDP.

These are reasons why we are better poised today to face a downturn than we were during the Asian financial crisis:

  •  Our fiscal position has improved significantly, investments are at record levels, and trade numbers remain better than most countries
  •  We remain one of the best performing economies in ASEAN, having recorded a healthy GDP growth of 5.3%
  •  Under the Economic Transformation Programme, all sectors (National key economic areas or NKEAs) registered growth, reducing our reliance on oil and gas revenue from 40% in 2009 to 29% in 2014.

I am writing this article in Jerusalem while on a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. My family and I have dreamt about this for years. We traveled for 10 days through Jordan, into Palestine and Israel. Battered by centuries of wars and conflicts, they simply do not have the kind of peace, which we take for granted in Malaysia. I was moved to see gripping images on CNN about the ongoing migrant crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Hungary, waiting to get into Europe for a better life. For these people, it is a harsh and cruel world. I am just grateful I am a Malaysian.

All said and done, one thing I know for certain – in life you cannot cherry-pick. It comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is our own volition how we choose to live it, to have the willingness and faith to make a difference for the better. I am hopeful that when the upside comes, we will stand strong and ready to catch that ride.

Dato’  Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at