The Tempinis diaries

September 6, 2008

Why Choose USM over UM?

On further research and reflection, I am coming round to the view that the conferral of apex status on USM over UM is a mistake. I did an ISI Web of Knowledge search this morning using the all databases section. This database search includes the highly respected Web of Science database which contains high impact scientific journals. Here are my findings when I typed in the following terms under the “address” field:

1. “University of Malaya” – results – 1,679 hits

2. “Malaya” – results –  7,076 hits

3. “University Sains Malaysia” – results – 160 hits

4. “sains malaysia” – results – 4,010 hits

5. “science malaysia” – results – 1 hit

6. “National University of Singapore” – results – 10,278 hits

7. “Singapore” – results –  79,679 hits

8. “Nanyang Technological University” – results – 1,586 hits

9. “Nanyang” – 20,032

Based on this very simple and primitive search, my impression is that USM is currently very far behind UM in terms of international reputation and publication record. In academia, the crude maxim of “publish or perish” still rings true. A university’s rankings and reputation is only as good as its publications and research. Based on the figures, USM still has a long way from catching up with UM, let alone placing in the top 100 universities in five years time.

I should add a qualification that I could be wrong, of course.  If USM’s “hits” were more recent than UM, then this could indicate an up and coming institution (USM) as compared to one resting on its laurels (UM).

Now the interesting question is whether Khaled Nordin and his Ministry of Higher Education do a proper analysis of these figures before conferring apex status to USM?

December 8, 2007

Managing Superstar Academics: Of Whales and Guppies

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , , — toru @ 4:17 pm

Philip Yeo, the former Chairman of the Economic Development Board of Singapore (“EDB”) has an interesting article in Nature.  In this article, he likens superstar hires to ‘whales’ who will guide, inspire and mentor young local talent whom he calls ‘guppies’.   It seems that Singapore has nurtured 1,000 guppies, all of whom would have completed their PhDs at top graduate schools including their lab attachment year by 2009 in areas such as information technology, engineering, molecular biology, biochemistry and medicine.  Edison Liu talks about how top overseas scientists in Singapore inspire local scientists like Lisa Ng and Ng Huck Hui to continue to stay and produce good work in Singapore. 

While there is  dispute on the direction of Singapore’s biomedical push, I think that the Singapore government is on to something here.  It is not just about buying in top talent.  But rather more importantly it is to ensure that these top talent will help lift the standards of the local talent.  This is certainly a lesson that we should learn after the entire Jeffrey Sachs debacle.  Hopefully, UKM will have a plan in place for Dr. Tan Hock Lim to work closely with the local faculty members and to improve their standards.

December 5, 2007

The Brain Gain’s Poster Boy Wants Out

Filed under: education, malaysia — Tags: , , , , — toru @ 1:47 pm

A very interesting article  from the Chronicle of Higher Education dated 11/11/2005 that I found here.   It seems that the person mentioned in the story Rajah Rasiah has moved back to Europe.


The Brain Gain’s Poster Boy Wants Out


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Rajah Rasiah once considered himself a fortunate man. At the age of 45 he was a full professor at United Nations University, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, earning more than $150,000 a year, tax-free.  


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 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 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 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.

November 11, 2007

THES University Rankings: Why am I not surprised?

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — toru @ 6:55 am

The annual silly season is here!  The Times Higher Education Supplement Rankings has just been released.  Universities which moved up the rankings are gleefully trumpeting their positions and institutions which plummeted are in damage control mode.  Vice Chancellors and Presidents of universities ought to be mindful not to get carried away in gloating about their improved positions.  One who lives by rankings will eventually die by rankings.  Recall the ill fated UM Vice Chancellor of UM who proudly put up billboards all over campus when UM was ranked in the top 100 of the THES rankings only to see UM drop to oblivion in the following year’s rankings (see ). 

This year NUS dropped from 18 to 33 whereas Malaysian universities continued their nose dive (UM (246), UKM (289) and USM(307)).  While any rankings of universities ought to be taken with a huge pinch of salt (the rankings seem to be too UK centric), my own sense is that the rankings of the Singaporean and Malaysian universities are about right this time.  NUS was probably ranked too high in the past and its perfectly respectable position of 33 in the world seems to reflect its proper standing in the world.  The decline in rankings for Malaysian universities also accurately reflects the sorry state of higher education in Malaysia. I remember as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, I would hardly ever come across any articles published in international journals by Malaysian academics.  Those that I did stumble upon were usually quite poorly written.  Like it or not, universities nowadays are judged by their research output.  If a university is not producing internationally respected research work, it is inevitable that its reputation will suffer.

What then is the problem with Malaysian universities?  As I see it, the problem is both a systemic problem and a funding issue.  The systemic problem is that universities in Malaysia are not run in a meritocratic fashion both in terms of recruitment and promotion of faculty members and student admissions.  It is no secret in Malaysia that Bumiputras get preferential treatment as faculty members and admission as students.   In the long term, this model makes Malaysian universities uncompetitive internationally.  World class universities need to be run in a meritocratic fashion.  You need to hire and promote the best person for the job regardless of race and nationality and you need to admit the most qualified students.  Otherwise people will leave and the institution will suffer.  And they have.  Just take a look at NUS.  NUS hires the best person for the job regardless of nationality.  It was reported that 52 % of their faculty members are non-Singaporeans.  It is no wonder that NUS has progressed so far as compared to their Malaysian counterparts.  NUS taps into the global talent market whereas Malaysia is not even able to tap into the best of their local talent pool.

For a university to succeed, it is important to create an environment where the production of good quality research is valued.  You should have a system where you give out tenure and make people professors because they produce research that your university is proud of.  You should not promote people because of their race or the fact that they politic well or become deans or vice deans.  Research is hard work.  If people know they can get promoted by other means other than doing research, they will. Quite apart from the problem of not practising meritocracy, there are a lot of other systemic problems in Malaysian universities.  Malaysian universities have terrible infra-structure (old buildings / hostels / terrible accommodation for visiting staff etc) as compared to American and Singapore universities.  One should not underestimate the importance of these factors.  Take the point of providing proper accommodation for visiting staff.  If you have no respectable and comfortable premises for your visiting guests, who will want to come to your university to teach for a semester or two?  Such visiting guests are important.  Eminent visitors expose students to world class faculty members and they energise local faculty members.  One becomes better by working with someone who is a leader in the field.  Another example of the systemic problem which exists is that it is next to impossible to get a working permit for a foreign spouse in Malaysia.  How then does Malaysia expect to recruit international faculty members who have spouses who might want to work?  It is quite unreasonable to expect their spouses to just sit at home and take care of their kids.   

Apart from the systemic problem, there is also the funding issue.  I think the Vice Chancellor of UM is right in saying that UM cannot compete globally because it is too poorly funded (RM 400 million as opposed to NUS’ S$ 1.2 billion).  If a university is poorly funded, how can that university afford: (a) to buy the latest lab equipment; (b) to stock up on a good library;  and (c) to hire good people?  I am told that the starting pay for academics in Malaysia is quite paltry.  How then can Malaysian universities hire the top student in each cohort to become their faculty member?  And why would any internationally respected academic want to come to Malaysia to work for such paltry salary?  But I do agree with Tony and Kian Ming (see here ) that the solution does not lie in just throwing money at the universities.  If the systemic problem of not hiring the best person for the job is not resolved, money will not solve the problem.

Can anything be done to arrest the decline of Malaysian universities?  I really don’t know.  The Bumiputra system is so entrenched in the country that anytime one questions it, we will have some nut case waving a Kris at the UMNO general assembly screaming blue murder.  It seems that Malaysia has reached some sort of cross road on this issue.  One is to change.  Run the top universities in the country like UM and UKM on a purely meritocratic system.  Hire the best people for the job.  And recruit the best students for these universities.  Perhaps, the other universities can still continue to practice Bumiputra-ism but at least there will still be the hope of pockets of excellence in the country.  This is a bitter political pill to swallow.  But I believe that it is worth going down this route.  The decline of Malaysian universities will eventually hurt Bumiputras.  So what if you get more Bumiputras in UM or UKM, if all you get is a mediocre education that is not internationally competitive.  The second option is just to accept status quo.  Do nothing.  But accept that Malaysian universities will keep on going down.  And don’t act so surprised every year when the rankings come out.

I have to end this post with the following observation that I have made in previous posts.  Nothing I have said here is meant to disparage alumni or students of Malaysian universities.  As I have written before, if you are good it doesn’t really matter too much where you went to university (although it does help open quite a few doors at the beginning of your career). 

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