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

Leadership by moral legitimacy

June 7, 2015

Leadership by moral legitimacy

by Graham Harris*

*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology atgraham_harris Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.

Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.

Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

The_Thinker_in_NTHU_TaiwanThe Thinker @NTHU, Taiwan

We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.

[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris

As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.

I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.

Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.

David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.

We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.

C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.

Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.

At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.

Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.

To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.

C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.

Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!

Stephen Colbert interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson

May 27, 2015

Phnom Penh

Stephen Colbert interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson


Have a great morning. My dear friend and former Wisma Putra colleague, Dato’ Hamzah Majeed, now a respected educator at Chempaka School Group told me that I should watch this interview with the man from Bronx, New York City. I just did and Neil deGrasse Tyson is an interesting and entertaining man of science.

To know his background, please read this: –Din Merican

Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

February 17, 2015

Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

Ambitious education policies don’t work because they are premature given the current inadequacies of the system.

COMMENT by Wan Salman Wan Sallam

Although he is actively critical of the Najib Administration, Tun Dr4th PM of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad seems to be still in possession of his sense of humour. He quipped recently that he’d want to be Prime Minister again if he had the chance. He said one of the things he would do would be to bring back the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI).

PPSMI is one of the many things he gave the nation during his tenure as Prime Minister. It was intended as a means of globalising students at an early stage. But things didn’t turn out as nicely as they should. It did not, for instance, succeed in narrowing the gap of educational opportunities between the urban and rural populace.

The problem of availability of extra materials and classes to reinforce learning has always been more severe in the rural areas. To worsen the situation, English language education has always been less effective in the rural areas. It is an open secret that in schools with large majorities of Malay and Bumiputera students, English teachers speak more Malay than English during lessons, perhaps thinking that this would help the students better understand the lessons. This happens even in secondary schools.

The students therefore do not have enough opportunities to communicate in the language, let alone enhance their skills. At the end of the day, they essentially don’t learn much. They experience problems not only with English, but also with understanding the basics of Mathematics and the Sciences. Thus the urban-rural gap is widened even further, and we can conclude that Mahathir’s policy was premature and problematic. It was premature because it was implemented without the conditions being ready for it.

After Mahathir retired, PPSMI was abolished and Science and Maths are now taught in Malay again. A problem may have got solved, but another one arises.

A step forward

In 2014, the Ministry of Education introduced a more thorough implementation of the School-based Assessment System (PBS). Formerly, it was implemented mainly in the form of oral tests for language subjects.

DPM of MalaysiaIt is good that we have finally found a way out of an extremely exam-oriented system and made a step forward. But yet again, the implementation was premature, with the pre-conditions not satisfied beforehand.

The enhanced PBS makes it necessary for teachers to keep updating students’ achievements in the system, adding yet another burden to their teaching duties.

Generally, we can assume that a classroom has about 40 students. Unlike a university lecturer, a school teacher must get to know his students individually and constantly give them personal support. Now that they are burdened with greater workloads, their chances of nurturing the pupils through the personal touch are reduced.

It has been reported that nearly 30% of schools in Malaysia are categorised as “schools with very small numbers of students”. One would think that the PBS system would work better in these schools. But no, 90% of these schools are poorly funded. Some of them even operate in other schools’ buildings and use their facilities. These schools, due to having few students, practice multi-grade teaching. As far as we can see from the environment of these schools, this is not a conducive condition for the implementation of PBS.

If that isn’t bad enough, the PBS management system (SPPBS) adds to our compilation of the worst things about PBS. With the system continually lagging if not hanging, we have another huge burden to add to the tons of workload already piled upon the shoulders of teachers.

Furthermore, the Internet speed also argues against the implementation of the online system. According to an Asean report, Malaysia’s average Internet speed is only around 5.5 Mbps, far from the global average of 17.7 Mbps, let alone Singapore’s 61 Mbps. Even Vietnam beats us.

With the implementation of PBS, both teachers and students are expected to make use of information and communication technology (ICT). But from a study done in a rural secondary school by a team from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, almost 80% of the students don’t have computers at home and more than 50% of them are not competent enough to use them. In fact, 70% of them get to use a computer for only about an hour a day. A good 42.9% don’t know how to use Microsoft Word and 60% aren’t familiar with e-mail.

PBS is, after all is said and done, another premature education policy. So if Mahathir wants to be PM again or if anyone else has the ambition to take over from Najib Abdul Razak, I’d ask him to please make sure that education policies are made to be compatible with current conditions. What is the point of an education policy if it benefits only a certain group of people, and a small one at that?

Wan Salman Wan Sallam is an FMT reader

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third-party content provider.

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu: Part III

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

Last of Three Parts:  Leveraging Residential Schools

by Dr.M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

bakri-musaIn Parts One and Two I suggested that we should focus on enhancing Malay competitiveness and productivity instead of forever begrudging the success of non-Malays or bemoaning the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture. We should begin with our young, the best of them, those at our residential schools. Have high expectations of them, put them through a demanding program, and expose them to rigorous competition.]

The key to any high performing school is the teachers. Both Korean schools (Daewon and Minjuk mentioned earlier) actively sought graduates of top universities to be on their staff. Such highly qualified teachers inspire their students. And when it comes to writing letters of recommendations, those teachers carry much weight, especially when students apply to their teacher’s alma mater.

You do not need and it is impossible for all your teachers to have sterling credentials, only that there should be a critical number of them to set the tone and change the culture. Besides, there are many excellent teachers who are graduates of lesser universities.

mckkThe Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Perak

Look back at MCKK of yore, with Oxbridge and London University graduates on its staff. At KYUEM, a local college prep school with exemplary record of student achievements, most of its teachers are local but there are sufficient graduates of top universities, including the headmaster, to set the pace and establish a high academic ambience.

On another level, it would be difficult for a local graduate to understand the intricacies and nuances of applying to top foreign universities, or the challenges of attending one.

With the present pay scheme there is little hope to recruit such top graduates. This is where the private sector could help by sponsoring highly educated foreign teachers. Petronas sponsors Formula One and the KL Philharmonic. Why not economics teachers for MCKK? Such “endowed” appointments are very common at American schools and colleges. If MCKK were to charge wealthy parents it could also hire its own foreign teachers.

You do not have to pay as high a salary as in Singapore or South Korea as Malaysia has much cheaper living expenses. Thailand has no difficulty getting excellent expatriate teachers at US$30-40K per annum.

For every three students we send abroad, we could recruit two American teachers and benefit many more students at home. In terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is far cheaper to recruit one American teacher than to send a student abroad as that teacher’s salary would be spent locally with the attendant multiplier effect, while the entire student’s scholarship money is expended abroad.

Such highly-paid foreigners would not generate resentment from their local colleagues. Local teachers at KYUEM are paid less than their expatriate colleagues yet they do not resent the preferential treatment. Of course if you do get a Malaysian who is a graduate of a top university and is an excellent teacher, then he or she too should be paid as well as the foreigner. There should be differential pay based on the quality of the teacher, not citizenship.

Apart from recruiting from abroad, there are Malaysians who are graduates of top universities whom, given the augmented pay, SBPs could employ as teachers, or at least tap as mentors.

Policy Makers and Executors

Stable, competent, committed, and inspiring leadership; those are the essential ingredients to a successful organization, more so a school. The headship of SBP should be a terminal appointment. There should be nothing else after that except retirement and glowing in the reflected glory of your students’ success. The appointment should never be a stepping stone for someone on his way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

The headmaster should also serve for a sufficient term. As Howell noted, “No headmaster can leave his mark on a school and have a lasting influence on its development in under five or six years.” He or she must also be a graduate of a respectable university, again to set the tone. He need not have an advanced degree. Given the choice, all things being equal, I prefer someone with a good bachelor’s degree over a candidate with a higher degree but from a less stellar institution.<

Like great individuals, little is known about nurturing great institutions. One thing is certain however. Like individuals, if institutions are held under tight control and not given the freedom to grow, they will quickly become sclerotic and unresponsive. The job of policymakers is to select capable individuals to helm these schools. Once that is done, they should be given the leeway to carry out their mission without micromanagement from the ministry.

This means SBPs must have full autonomy–academic, administrative, and financial. They hire and fire the teachers. The ministry’s lever should be at the macro level, as with selecting the board of governors and through funding.

SBP’s measure of success should only be this:  number of their students ending up at top universities. All other measures, except where they contribute to this singular goal, are irrelevant. At Speech Day the headmaster should be announcing which top universities his or her graduating students would be attending, just like the graduation exercises at top American prep schools.

The policy does not end with these students being accepted to top colleges. They must also be assured of a scholarship and then be given the freedom to choose whatever field of study. If they are smart enough to be admitted to those top institutions, then they are smart enough to plan their future wisely, certainly better than those folks at JPA, MARA, or Khazanah.

It pains me to see bright young Malays pursue a course of study for which they have minimal passion because that is the scholarship they were being awarded, based on supposed “national interest.”

Providing scholarships for matriculation (sixth form) is misplaced. I would wait after the students have been accepted to a top university. That would free them to choose whatever route (matrikulasi, twinning programs, Sixth Form, IB, or A level) that best suits them. Meanwhile use those funds to support IB and “A” level programs at SBPs to benefit many more students.

After they have graduated, do not tie their hands with rigid rules like having to return immediately or work for a specific entity. Grant them some freedom. If they are offered graduate work or a job abroad, let them. Do not stand in the way of their pursuing their aspirations.

The only stipulation is that they should serve the nation in whatever capacity they see fit for a specified period during the first decade after their graduation. Only when they fail to do so would they have to reimburse their sponsor.<

GLC and Private Sector Participation

Khazanah through its subsidiary already has a successful model–KYUEM. It prepares students for “A” level. That is more productive in developing quality human capital than the route Petronas and Tenaga chose in setting up their own universities, which are nothing more that puffed-up technical colleges. Khazanah is also involved in joint ventures with the government through the “smart school” programs.

There are other ways for private sector involvement. One is the current system of letting anyone set up a private college and charge whatever the market will bear. That would benefit only the few wealthy Malays.

An alternate route would be for Khazanah to pursue its own path a la Singapore’s Raffles Education Group. Freed from governmental strictures, Khazanah could lead the way with its string of prep schools modeled after KYUEM. Without the residential component, the cost would be considerably less. Then it could proceed to a university, modeled not after local ones but the likes of the American University in Beirut or the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

Education is as valid a sector for private investment as tourism or health. It is doubly profitable, enhancing both human and financial capitals. It would certainly be more productive than pouring money into a floundering airline.

It is time for Malays to discard the old destructive narrative of the “lazy native” imposed upon us by the colonialists and slavishly perpetuated by our intellectually-indolent “nationalists.” When the colonialists concocted that narrative, they benefited from it. It was their rationale for bringing in hordes of foreign indentured labor. When our latter-day Hang Tuahs aped that, they only made a monkey out of themselves. What benefit do they derive by denigrating our culture and nature?

4th PM of MalaysiaWe need a modern relevant narrative, grounded in solid social science. Our problems stem from our being not competitive and productive. Fix that and we solve our problem. Bend our rebong now and a generation hence our bamboo groves would be more to our liking. By then we could not care less whether the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and Tun Mahathir would eat their words. They and their myths would have long been forgotten.

Stanford University, Palo AltoStanford University, Palo Alto, California

As for me, Insha’ Allah (God willing) I look forward to one day meeting many young Malays at San Francisco Airport on their way to Stanford and Berkeley. That woulbe the sublime and truest expression of Ketuanan Melayu.