The Tempinis diaries

April 1, 2008

How Malaysia has failed its gifted children

Filed under: education, malaysia, singapore — Tags: , , , , — toru @ 12:19 pm

This is a follow up post on Sufiah Yusof. It must be really difficult being a child genius. Growing up from your awkward phase is already hard enough – imagine being put in a class where everyone is much older than you. Also, all that expectations heaped on a child can’t be healthy. Besides Sufiah Yusof, the other Malaysian genius, Chiang Ti-Ming, also had an extremely difficult time coping with the pressure. There is also a newspaper story on Ti Ming below.

Perhaps, for these kids the answer is not to put them with older kids or in a university. A more safe and nurturing environment may be to place them with other gifted kids. In the article below written in 1997, Lim Kit Siang talked about how Malaysia has failed its gifted children. I contrast this with the story below on NUS High School written in 2006. What Lim Kit Siang proposed then is now a reality in Singapore in the form of NUS High School. One can’t help but feel gratified and inspired by reading the stories of these talented young children. Hopefully, students like Carmen Cheh from Perak will grow up to be happy and well-adjusted adults. If only Sufiah and Ti-Ming had such schools where they live. Perhaps, they wouldn’t have suffered as much.


Sunday August 13, 2006
School for aspiring Einsteins and Hawkings

Singapore Straits Times education correspondent SANDRA DAVIE visited NUS High School of Maths and Science to try and keep up with the young Einsteins, and came away impressed.
IT IS a lesson on contraceptive methods for a group of 15-year-olds. At any other secondary school, a topic like this would have brought on blushes and giggles.

Not at the National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science (NUS High). The 14 boys and 10 girls in a class taught by a young biology PhD graduate are more interested in the science of contraception.

After Dr Seah Wee Khee, 27, shows them a condom, the intra-uterine device and diaphragm, they launch into spirited sparring.

Year Four students (from left) Zhai Wei Chao, Zhao Ye, Lei Lei and Tan Li, hanging out at the Astronomy Club’s observatory which sits atop the roof of the 12-storey hostel. – ST/ANN pic

Is this the hormonal method or barrier method? And what about the efficacy of it – not just in preventing pregnancy but sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?No coaxing required. All 24 hands shoot up whenever Dr Seah poses a question. Often, they give more than asked for.

The one-hour class ends with Dr Seah assigning homework – the students have to come up with their own fliers to educate the public on an STD. A few immediately ask if they can do a video version or set up a website.

Welcome to NUS High. Here, high-powered and fast-paced teaching struggles to keep precocious young geniuses like Douglas Tan and Goh Jun Le engaged.

Douglas, 13, is in Secondary One, Jun Le a year ahead, but their abilities in maths and science far exceed their age group.

Both have aced the maths A-level paper, and are being tutored in advanced maths by NUS top maths don Prof Chong Chi Tat.

At the age of five, they were dabbling in fractions. By Year Three, they were devouring secondary school maths textbooks.

Because they were so far ahead of their peers, primary school was a struggle – to stay awake. Mind you, their schools were top-notch.

Says Douglas, from the gifted education programme at Rosyth Primary; “My teachers were caring, but lessons were not fun because I was reading secondary school maths textbooks by then.”

Jun Le, 14, from the gifted education programme at Nanyang Primary, would complete assignments within minutes and spend time working out difficult sums “in my head”.

In comparison, they describe lessons at NUS High as “challenging” and their classmates as “competition”. This, despite school days stretching from 8am to 6pm on three days of the week.

In school, the students, relieved to find a place where everyone is a super-achiever, are allocated into four houses named after great scientists and mathematicians – Faraday, Fleming, Fibonacci and Nobel.

And the school’s e-mail address is

Novel curriculum

The S$55mil (RM128mil) school in Clementi Avenue 1, which opened in January last year to groom an elite talent pool in science and maths, is funded by the Education Ministry. But it gets support from its parent institution, NUS, in curriculum development, mentorship and use of facilities at the Kent Ridge campus nearby.

Drawing inspiration from the school’s Mathematics Walk of Fame are (from bottom) students Carmen, Gabriel Wong, Dominic Lee, Jun Le and Douglas. – ST/ANN pic

It is allowed a free hand in admission and graduation requirements, curriculum and staff. The only two things it cannot veer away from is the bilingual education policy and national education.The syllabus for its 13- to 18-year-olds is telescoped so that basic concepts and skills can be covered in a shorter time. It is also pitched at a higher level, at least one year ahead of mainstream schools and, like in the university, taught as interdisciplinary modules.

Among the first few modules covered in Year One is “How science and scientists work” which looks at scientific methodologies, and “People, place and nation” which combines geography with economics, politics and history.

The modular system allows students to progress as fast as they can. Many sit for diagnostic tests at the end of each semester to gain exemptions from some modules.

But even that is too slow for these young hungry Einsteins. A handful have taken the O and A levels and persuaded their teachers to allow them to speed ahead to university level courses. They even look for university level courses online.

Like Carmen Cheh, 14, whose doctor father brought her from Perak, Malaysia, to enrol in NUS High. She regularly downloads Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lectures online.

Since competition fuels them, their school life is punctuated with science fairs, conferences and Olympiads to pit their knowledge with the brightest from around the world.

In Year Five, there is a research component when students can choose to work solo or team up on a project under the supervision of a teacher or an NUS professor.

Or scout for an existing project in a research institute such as computational modelling of dengue fever transmission, or the detection of the level of cockroaches in HDB flats.

During the year-long research sojourn, they have to stay on campus to make it convenient for them to work closely with NUS dons or researchers from institutes housed at Kent Ridge campus or the Biopolis.

Well rounded individuals

There is no end point to education at this school which has ventured away from the well-trodden path of the A levels or the International Baccalaureate. It offers its own diploma. To earn it, a student needs to complete three majors – one in maths and two in sciences.

But most aim for more demanding programmes, the most gruelling of which involves completion of four majors with honours, Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) One, a senior research project and six Advanced Programme (AP) modules, which are first-year university modules offered by the Boston-based College Board.

Half of the school’s 58 teachers have master’s degrees or PhDs. Even this is not rigorous enough for some students and parents.

The father of a maths whiz says: “They only allow acceleration to a certain extent. I worry if my son has to take up courses just to meet the requirements to graduate.

“I am not pushing him. I just don’t want him to be frustrated and bored.”

But the school’s head, NUS chemistry don Lai Yee Hing, 52, is cautious to balance the students’ intellectual development with their social and emotional development.

“If you push them too fast and too hard, they can burn out,” he reasons.

Thankfully, there has been no case of burnout yet. But at the end of a long Tuesday, some students wear a strained look.

“After school, I go home and do my homework or study till 10pm. I don’t have time for myself,” complains Carmen.

But on Wednesday afternoons, which is blocked off for co-curricular activities (CCAs), everyone perks up.

The school has 26 CCAs, but the science- and maths-related ones such as the IT club and astronomy, have a higher take-up rate.

Douglas’ keenness in astronomy is nurtured by the school’s observatory, equipped with a S$200,000 (RM465,712) 14-inch telescope. Jun Le is a member of the Gavel Club, an offshoot of the toastmasters’ club, but bowls and swims as well.

“Well-rounded” is Prof Lai’s vision for his students.

“There is intense concentration on maths and science, but I want them to be able to appreciate a good novel and enjoy a concert,” he says.

To achieve this, the school has a compulsory humanities programme. In their first four years, about 20% of credits have to be earned through modules such as the fine arts, music, literature, history and geography.

The school’s vision, says Prof Lai, is to nurture every student to be a pioneer, achiever, thinker and most of all, a humanitarian – which spells out PATH.

Pointing to the 80m-long walkway in the foyer of the school that documents the major developments in the mathematical world, he says: “A mathematician or scientist can use his talent to benefit mankind or to cause mayhem and destruction.

“We have chosen to highlight the discoveries in mathematics, which enabled mankind to progress.”

The last metal strip there remains empty.

“I hope it will bear the name of one of my students. Then we would have arrived,” he confides. – ST/ANN


From Lim Kit Siang’s Blog.

End Hadafi syndrome so that gifted children in Malaysia do not end up selling chicken or roti canai when they should be leading intellectuals in the Information Society

Yesterday, it was reported that the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, would again be raising in the Cabinet the case of the 12-year-old Sufiah Yusof, who has been offered a place in Oxford University to read mathematics and to whom the Cabinet had offered a scholarship.

The saddest part of the recent nation-wide publicity over the 12-year-old child prodigy in the United Kingdom is not the subsequent discovery that she is not a Malaysian citizen as she is a British citizen, but that the Malaysian education system has no programme whatsoever for gifted and talented children in our schools and that there are no plans to remedy this major omission in our education system.

In 1976, a toddler from Baling, Mohd Sohkeri Hadafi, once the seat of rural poverty, made headlines because by the tender age of four he could read passages from newspapers and magazines. But today, the former “boy wonder”, who is now 25, is a chicken seller in Baling after working as labourer for two years from 1989-1991 and selling roti canai.

Hadafi is a sad story of how gifts and talents of our children, if not recognised, fostered and nurtured, could atrophy – and be a loss not only to our gifted children but to the nation as a whole.

There is no doubt that if there had been a policy and programme to foster and develop the gifts and talents of our children in the country, Hadafi could have been one of the leading intellectuals whether in the government, universities or the private sector.

If Malaysia is to be a knowledge society, we cannot afford the Hadafi syndrome, where we feel no loss in wasting the gifts and talents of our children when they are our most important and irreplaceable national assets.

There should be a national awareness and concern that for decades, our national education policy and system had failed to recognise, foster and nurture the gifts and talents of our children.

Malaysia should not wait for another blaze of publicity about the discovery of another child prodigy related to the country, whether Sufiah Farooq, 12, who has been admitted to Oxford University to read mathematics, or Chiang Ti Ming who obtained a place at the California Institute of Technology in 1989 when he was 12 and who is now finishing his Ph.D. in Particle Physics on “Super String Theory” at Cornell University or Loh Chang Shiung, another boy wonder who read for a physics degree at the age of 12 at the National University of Singapore, before there is another brief but fruitless concern about the national neglect of the hundreds of thousands of gifted and talented children in our schools.

The Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, should take urgent action to set up a special department on Gifted Education in his Ministry to develop a policy and programme on gifted education to ensure that there will be no more Hadafis in Malaysia selling chicken or roti canai in the stalls when they should be leading in the intellectual renaissance of the country.

The Education Minister had admitted that the government had no experience in the management and education of gifted children.

Inexperience and ignorance are no crime – although continued ignorance that gifted and talented children are a national asset and the need for a programme of differentiated education for them to develop their gifts and talents for the greater national good is a permanent blackmark against the educational planners and authorities in the country especially when in the past few decades, there had been vast world-wide developments and changes in this field.

There are three fallacies about the important issue of education for gifted and talented children in Malaysia which are widely held by opinion-makers, including many members in the Cabinet and editorial writers, namely:

  • firstly, that it would mean diverting resources for a “one-in-a million occurrence” or “the brilliant few”;
  • secondly, that it would run counter to the “equalisation” objective of the education system to provide education to the masses rather than the gifted few;
  • thirdly, that fostering the gifts and talents of children has no national benefit whatsoever.

If these views are to prevail, then the Cabinet has no business to offer a government scholarship to Sufiah Farooq, especially as she is not even a Malaysian citizen.

In actual fact, when we refer to gifted and talented children, we are not talking about “one-in-a-million occurrence”, as Universiti Malaya social psychologist Prof Dr. Chiam Heng Keng, had estimated that there were about 300,000 intellectually gifted primary school children in the country although there were far fewer child geniuses.

The development and promotion of education for gifted children in other countries had also faced objections and resistance arising from the debate turning it into an issue of equality versus excellence. However, many of these countries have come to realise that one should not confuse equality of rights and opportunities with equality of ability and achievement, and to recognise that gifted and talented children have special needs if their gifts and talents are not to atrophy.

Most important of all, the nation must recognise that gifted and talented children are the nation’s most valuable natural resource and it is in the national interest to encourage them to fulfil their potential and to strive for excellence.

This is particularly pertinent when Malaysia is poised on the threshold of a new millennium and committed to be in the forefront of the Information Technology revolution where knowledge is going to be the the most critical competitive factor of production in a new system of wealth creation.

We should be fully aware that in the Information Age, nations will not only compete on their products and services, but even more important, compete with brains. This is why Malaysia must regard it as a top national priority to identify, conserve, develop and use our gifted and talented to place the country in a competitive position in the Information Age.

In fact, it can be said that the country’s resolve to address the long-neglected area of education for gifted and talented children will be a test case as to whether Malaysia is ready for the Information Age where countries must be able to thrive on knowledge to ensure their prosperity and to compete in world markets.

Malaysia should stop neglecting and even miseducating our gifted and talented children, who come from all socio-economic and ethnic groups.

The Cabinet should take a policy decision to broaden educational reforms in Malaysia to include a special policy and programme on education for gifted and talented children in the country in keeping with the twin aims of promoting excellence in education and to build a nation of knowledge workers to prepare for the challenges of the Information Age.

The Cabinet can make a modest start by approving a special supplementary vote of RM20 million to intiate a programme of Education for Gifted Children in Malaysia and if necessary, the provision of education for gifted children in Malaysia could be the second amendment to the 1996 Education Act – the first, being to make computer-literacy a core curriculum subject for all national and primary schools.


‘Boy genius’ Chiang dies

SEREMBAN: Chiang Ti Ming, the boy genius who was the youngest student ever to be admitted into the prestigious California Institute of Technology (CalTech) almost two decades ago, has passed away on Saturday morning.

Chiang: Had achieved many firsts at CalTech

“He passed away peacefully,” said a family member yesterday.

The family declined to reveal other details while Chiang’s parents, father Chiang Chick Liam and mother Lee Soo Hoon, were too distraught to talk to the press.

Only his family members were seen entering the house here yesterday afternoon and requested that privacy be given to them.

Press reports in 2002 said that he had been admitted into a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, for depression and withdrawal symptoms. The family also suffered a tragic loss when his sister Eei Wern, drowned at the swimming pool of the Seremban International Golf Club in 1993. Eei Wern was then four.

It was reported 16 years ago that Chiang, who was 15 at the time, was not only the youngest student to be admitted into CalTech but also among the top five percent where his results were concerned.

Chiang had achieved many firsts while at CalTech, including being the youngest ever student to receive the Undergraduate Students Merit Award two years in a row.

He was also an honorary member of the Tau Beta Phi, a national engineering society.

He had been accepted to study for the second year of the four-year Physics degree course at the university in 1989 when he was 13 after sponsorship from several organisations.

The prodigy later pursued and graduated with a doctorate in particle physics at Cornell University in New York.

1 Comment »

  1. This article is interesting. Undenialbily, the gifted students in Malaysia will flow out in search for knowledge.
    However, I believe there are still late bloomers in Malaysia that can support Malaysia.
    Hopefully they will be able to lead the local academia.

    Comment by Mr F — April 7, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

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