The Tempinis diaries

November 30, 2007

Newton Circus and Drinks at the Wine Co

Filed under: life — Tags: , , — toru @ 2:56 pm

I don’t know how come this blog became all serious.  Mrs. T thinks that it is part of my nature to give unsolicited advice to all and sundry.  And in this case unsolicited advice to the world wide web.

Anyway, here is a less serious post.  Went out tonight with my 3 of my  former housemates.  We have known each other for close to 20 years.  A seafood dinner with beer (and ice) at Newton Circus followed by drinks at the Wine Co@Evans.  It was really nice to see them again.  The night had all the makings of a good night out – all the swearing in Hokkien and the alcohol.  Though the night ended at 10.30 pm.  In the past, it would have gone on until 2 – 3 am.  And usually it will end with someone puking his guts out and possibly passing out.  Ah well – still it was fun.

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November 29, 2007

Attracting Global Talent: The Soft Factors

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — toru @ 12:40 pm

One of Singapore’s star hires leading the island State’s ambition to be a biomedical hub is Edison Liu who was lured from his position as director of the American National Cancer Institute.  Besides the issue of generous research funding and internationally competitive pay, it seems to me after reading the Times of London article that a lot of ‘soft factors’ are very important in attracting a global talent like Dr. Liu.   What I mean by ‘soft factors’ are things like modern and new buildings for research purposes, building research hubs in centralised locations, good living conditions for the scientists and ensuring that the foreign spouse can find a good job locally.  The Times of London story specifically mentioned that the scientists found that the downside of living in Singapore is the lack of culture such as good theater etc which is another soft factor.  Singapore seems to be pulling out all the stops to recruit the top scientific talent – in the Times story it was reported that there was a rumour that Edison Liu was staying in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel!  

If Malaysia intends to compete in recruiting talented individuals, it needs to start thinking of these soft factors and how to overcome the systemic problems faced by Malaysian universities.  An example of how Malaysia is really amateurish in dealing with these soft factors is the failed  Biovalley experiment.  Biovalley was supposed to be built in Dengkil.  Now, who the hell even know where Dengkil is?  And even if you could find it, which world class scientist would want to relocate to Dengkil?  Quite apart from foreigners, I doubt any self-respecting KL person would want to work in Dengkil.  In contrast, Singapore has learnt that a successful research hub must be centrally located.  The Nanyang Technological University suffers, in my humble opinion, because of its out of the way location in Jurong.  Hence, Biopolis, the science hub, is located conveniently in Buona Vista, a stone’s throw from NUS and the hip and happening Holland Village.   In fact, there are free buses during lunch time bringing the scientists from Biopolis to Holland Village so that they can have a good meal. 

But of course merely ‘buying’ global talent is not the solution.  The important thing is to ensure that these talented foreign individuals will help the local talent raise their game.  More on this in posts to come.   

November 28, 2007

Reversing the Brain Drain: The Case of President Shih

Filed under: education — Tags: , — toru @ 4:36 am

The problem of a brain drain is a universal problem that is not confined to a country like Malaysia.   Lest people think that I regard Singapore as paradise, I readily concede that Singapore has its fair share of problems.  Many people do migrate due to the stressful environment, lack of physical and political space and the cut-throat education system.   Although in some of my previous postings I have praised the Singapore education system, I do acknowledge that the education system here is flawed in that some talented people will fall through the cracks.  Shih Choong Fong, the President of NUS, appears to be such a case.  In his own words, when he was a student his grades were so bad that he couldn’t make it to the University of Singapore.  Shih went abroad, did well and became a faculty member at Brown University.  He returned to Singapore and became the President of NUS when he was in his 50s.  A translated story of an interview with President Shih in the Lianhe Zhaobao can be found here.

I guess the whole point of this blog posting is this: Malaysia should find a way to reverse the brain drain and tap into the Malaysian academic diaspora to help improve the standard of Malaysian institutions of higher learning.  I will blog more on this issue in future posts.

November 27, 2007

Malaysian Born Talent: Part II

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — toru @ 2:50 pm

This is a follow up on my previous post on the brain drain from Malaysia.  I discovered more talented individuals from reading Tony and Kian Ming’s excellent Education in Malaysia blog.  The people mentioned are former NUS Medicine Dean, Lee Eng Hin  mentioned in this post. From this other informative post, I also discovered that Harvard anthropologist Engseng Ho and Stanford scientist Mah Wan Tan are Malaysians.

November 26, 2007

Malaysian Born Talent: The Brain Drain in Perspective

Filed under: malaysia — Tags: , , , — toru @ 3:55 pm

We talk constantly about the brain drain from Malaysia in the abstract.  In my previous post, I mentioned Wang GungwuDanny Quah and Lai Choy Heng as examples of eminent Malaysian born academics who are based at universities abroad.   I decided to do a google search using the key words “Malaysian born” and “academic” and another search using “born in Malaysia” and “faculty” to try to have a more complete picture.  What I found was mind boggling.  An array of extremely eminent doctors, scientists, a lawyer, a performing artiste, a social scientist – all Malaysian born and all plying their trade elsewhere. 

The list includes the very prolific (he has published in Nature!), Dr. CC Liew (Chong-Chin Liew), Chief Scientist of Genenews, Dr. Hock Lim Tan, world renowned paediatric, expert in infectious disease, Dr. Lim Seng Gee,  Dr. Cheong Choong Kong, former academic and the iconic former head of SIA, acclaimed writer, Shirley Lim from the University of California at Santa Barbara,  Professor Christine Chin, a sociologist from American University, international legal expert on the law of evidence, Professor Andrew Choo from Warwick University, award winning education Professor, Dr. Swee Hin Toh of University of Alberta and performing artiste, Su Lian Tan of Middlebury College.  This list is most certainly an incomplete list of Malaysian born talent who are working as academics abroad.  Feel free to add in the comments section below if you know of any other eminent academics who are based overseas. 

My simple google search confirms that Malaysians are indeed a talented lot.  Why then are our national policies driving these talented individuals abroad?  It is also very telling that from the list above some of the Malaysian born talent who were based in Australia (Dr. Lim Seng Gee and Dr. Tan Hock Lim) have been lured back to Asia.  Yes – you guessed it – they are now based in Singapore. 

November 25, 2007

It’s Like Being in Love with Someone Who Doesn’t Love You Back

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — toru @ 8:23 am

“If they (Malaysia) would just educate the Chinese and Indians, use them and treat them as their citizens, they can equal us (Singapore) and even do better than us…”

Quote from Lee Kuan Yew

 “It’s like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back”  Alan to Orked in Yasmin Ahmad’s Gubra on how many non-Malays feel towards Malaysia.

 http://www.moviexclusive.com/article/gubra/g1-8.jpg

Lee Kuan Yew’s words in a recent interview which is excerpted in the quote above enraged and infuriated many Malay politicians.  Now I am no fan of Lee Kuan Yew – but who can really dispute the sentiments that he expressed?  With all this talk about raising the standards of universities in Malaysia in light of the disastrous fall in the THES 2007 world universities rankings, Malaysia should seriously consider tapping into Malaysians who are successful academics and currently based overseas.  This can be done by either appointing such a candidate as the Vice Chancellor  or to working out joint Professorship appointments with these talented individuals.  Such steps will signal a seriousness and commitment by Malaysian universities on running Malaysian institutions of higher learning on the principle of meritocracy.  Certainly, this is a much better idea than throwing lots of money at some foreign academic superstar like Jeffrey Sachs who does not seem to have either much time for Malaysian universities or any emotional investment in Malaysia.  I am sure there are many Malaysian born academics who are extremely eminent and well qualified who can be called upon to help raise the standard of Malaysian varsities.  Some of the candidates that come to mind are the incomparable Wang Gungwu  who is based in Singapore, the world renowned economist, Danny Quah from LSE (head of department at the Department of Economics at LSE) and the much respected  Lai Choy Heng  (former Dean of Science, now Deputy Provost at NUS and originally from Ipoh ).  I am sure these people are only the tip of the iceberg of talented Malaysians who are based abroad.  When you actually sit down and think about the depth of talent that the country has lost due to the aggressive affirmative action policies, it is enough to make one feel really sad.

November 24, 2007

Apex Universities: Old Wine in New Bottles?

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , , — toru @ 2:05 pm

After all the sound and fury of the slide of Malaysian universities in THES 2007 world universities rankings, there seems to be less discussion on the Malaysian government’s plans to set up Apex Universities.  Now when this plan was first announced, I was really puzzled.  Was the government going to set up new institutions and term them Apex Universities or was some pre-existing institutions to be given the status of Apex Universities.  I think after reading the news story on the plan, it is the latter.  Which then leads to the next point?  Why are we all wasting our bloody time then?  Everyone in Malaysia knows that the best universities in Malaysia are University of Malaya, UKM and USM.  Is someone really going to say that Universiti Tenaga Malaysia or Universiti Technology Petronas is better than UM, UKM or USM? There are even ridiculous stories like this talking about the search for apex universities.   I mean why go through a long drawn process when the answer is so obvious!   

So let’s suppose we do go through the process and name UM, UKM or USM as the nation’s apex universities.  So what?  It’s a case of old wine in new bottles isn’t it?  The point is that there are a lot of things wrong with Malaysian universities;  as I have explained in my previous post , these problems are both systemic and also a question of inadequate funding .  However, these problems will not be solved by giving these institutions the title of apex universities.  It’s like cutting off the label of a cheaply made petaling street T-Shirt and slapping on the label Prada.  That’s not going to solve the problems.   We can talk until we are blue in the face but the fact remains why Malaysian universities are in the state they are in: the quota system and terrible funding.  If we don’t address these issues, it’s like not addressing the elephant in the room.  The only way to really achieve excellence at universities is to bite the bullet and to: (a) run the universities on a truly meritocratic fashion in terms of students’ admission and faculty promotion; and (b) to create a culture where research is truly valued.  It remains to be seen whether the Malaysian government has the political courage to do that. 

November 22, 2007

Saigon Eats: Dessert at Ben Thanh Market

Filed under: travel, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — toru @ 4:19 pm

ben-than-8.jpg

I was already very full from pho 24 (pho tai and cha gio) when I came across this in the Ben Thanh market.  It was so beautiful that I decided to take a picture although I didn’t have any dessert.  I also didn’t do much shopping at Ben Thanh market.  Mrs. T bought a hat and probably paid too much for it.  That’s what you get for being bad hagglers.

November 18, 2007

Saigon Eats: 46A Bahn Xeo

Filed under: food, travel — Tags: , , , — toru @ 1:59 pm

Mrs. T and I are very lucky in the sense that we have travelled to many places before. But we realised that many of the countries that we have gone to were in the US, Europe and Australia.  We thought it was quite a shame that we have not travelled widely in this region.  Recently, we decided to go to Ho Chi Minh city for 3 days.  It was a pretty enjoyable trip apart from the really expensive hotel (New World Hotel – worn out but superb location) and the nightmare of crossing Vietnamese roads.  The Vietnamese people were warm, gentle and pleasant.  And no one tried to rip us off.  What we really enjoyed about the trip was the food.  Every meal was simply delicious!  Even Mrs. T, the world’s most finicky and picky eater, said she didn’t have a bad meal in Vietnam.  I loved all the vegetables and rice paper wraps dipped in fish sauce.  Only draw back is the stinky fingers after dipping it in fish sauce.  

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 bahn-xeo-7-528-x-260.jpg

The best place to start your research on food in Saigon is Graham Holliday’s fantastic blog Noodlepie.  This was where I discovered 46A Banh Xeo.  KY Eats also has a really good post on this stall.  Bahn Xeo  is a delicious crispy crepe with bean sprouts, slivers of pork and shrimps.  You tear it off with your chop sticks and wrap it with some leaves and dip it into fish sauce.  It was really good.  I went there for breakfast and discovered they only open at 11 am.  Mrs. T and I mulled around at a fruit juice bar in the same lane.  I thought the wait was worth it.  It was simply yummy and I got to live out my Anthony Bourdain fantasy of eating exotic Vietnamese food.   Mrs. T thought it was a bit too oily but I didn’t think so.  I ate her Bahn Xeo while she ate the bean sprouts (which was fine with me).  They have other great stuff there for dinner as well but I guess that’s the subject of another post.

bahn-xeo-2.jpg

The lady preparing the bahn xeo with charcoal and wood fire.  When I first got out of the taxi and smelt the fire, it reminded me of my late grandmother’s house in Malaysia.  She had such a stove too. 

November 14, 2007

Reform of the Tenure System in Malaysian Universities

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — toru @ 1:17 pm

Much has been written about Malaysian universities especially in light of the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement World’s Universities Rankings (“THES 2007”). While a slide in standing of Malaysian universities in the list is certainly cause for concern, there is a need to guard against taking knee-jerk actions to improve the scores used in the rankings. After all, great universities are not built overnight. Measures such as an overnight increase in intake of foreign students and lecturers and accepting more postgraduate students in Malaysian universities may increase the scores of Malaysian universities used by the compilers of the Times Higher Education Supplement in the short term. But such steps need to be implemented in a careful and thoughtful manner. It simply will not do to have a wholesale addition of foreign and postgraduate students if these students are not good candidates who are able to raise the academic standards in local tertiary institutions. Similarly, in the quest to internationalise Malaysian universities, overseas faculty members who are recruited ought to be eminently qualified and not third or fourth tier academics who are unable to find jobs in their home countries.

There are many reasons why Malaysian universities are not highly placed in an international ranking exercise like the one conducted by the Times Higher Education Supplement. These include the relatively low percentage of PhD qualifications among faculty members, the uncompetitive salaries of university dons, the brain drain of talent etc. Such factors are certainly important and ought to be addressed if Malaysia is serious about developing internationally renowned tertiary institutions. Further, I believe Malaysian universities ought to embark on a radical reform of the tenure process. It has been reported that top Chinese universities have already begun to re-look at their tenure process and re-model it along the lines of the American tenure system. Why is reform of the tenure process so important? It is vital because an American tenure system provides academics with the proper incentives to conduct and publish research. After all, at the end of the day all modern universities are judged in the academic world by the research that it produces. If Malaysia wants world class universities, then it must develop universities that produce an internationally respected research output.

How can the American tenure system promote a better research culture in Malaysian universities? Tenure is an indefinite award of appointment given to an academic until he or she reaches the age of retirement. As such, the award of tenure ought to be a rigorous process; tenure should be granted only to deserving candidates who have a track record of producing good research work. While the American tenure process is far from perfect, I believe that it is the only system which is transparent and places the correct emphasis on research. Young academics are therefore assured that they will be judged by their research work and thus less worried of faculty or university politics affecting their career progression.

Although the American tenure process needs to be adapted to local conditions, the core features if implemented in Malaysia would provide young local academics with the incentives to publish. In a nutshell before an academic is granted tenure, he or she should go through the following process:

(a) the candidate should have established a measure of international reputation in the academic community. Benchmarks of such a reputation include publications in international refereed journals and citations of their work by other academics.
(b) The candidate’s body of work should be read and assessed by a team of independent referees outside the university. The way the referees are chosen is also important. In an American tenure system, the candidate names a list of 4 – 5 referees and the University’s Promotion Committee names another panel of 4 – 5 external referees. The Dean or Head of the University’s Promotion Committee will choose either 2 to 3 names from each list and ask the referees to prepare a report on the quality of candidate’s work.
(c) The referees should be internationally known experts in the field. Former PhD supervisors and persons with close connections to the candidate ought to be precluded from acting as referees.
(d) The referees’ reports should be sent to an external committee outside the faculty. The ultimate decision to award tenure ought to rest on this external tenure committee to ensure impartiality.

While this process is quite tedious and time consuming, I believe that it is a process that is worthwhile implementing. By having such a rigorous process before tenure is granted, young academics would have to publish good articles if they want to earn tenure. Of course, the tenure process needs to be fine-tuned and adapted to local conditions. For example, it might not be possible for an academic specializing in local history to achieve international prominence. However, the prima facie case for tenure ought to be evidence of an international reputation. The tenure process also frees young academics from the fear that promotions are based on local faculty politics as the process is conducted by a panel of external referees and a committee outside the faculty.

It would take a brave Vice-Chancellor to institute such a radical tenure reform in Malaysia. After all, change is never popular as most people do like the status quo. Nevertheless, I believe that this process must happen if Malaysian universities intend to be a major player in the international academic community. Such a step if taken will help re-focus Malaysian tertiary institutions to one of the core missions of a modern university i.e. the production of good quality research work.

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