• 2011
  • Don’t Look East, look to ourselves

Don’t Look East, look to ourselves

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 25-12-2011

ROYAL Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz was recently quoted as saying that “China’s competitive spirit” is more innovative.

“I feel it is about time we shift direction and expand our horizon from looking to Japan and Korea, to China,” he said in a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the Look East Policy. It was suggested that students be sent to China to inculcate the value of creativity in them.

It may be a worthwhile effort, but it may not be the solution. The discussion on creativity is always contextualised within a functional ecosystem of which the education system is one vital component. Without a well-functioning ecosystem, we cannot expect a meaningful outcome.

This has been demonstrated by China itself. For example, Huawei, a well-known telecommunications equipment manufacturer, reportedly filed more international patents than any other firms in the world in 2008. China’s overall patent filings grew by 26 per cent annually between 2003 and 2009, compared to six per cent in the United States, four per cent in Europe and one per cent in Japan.

China created its ecosystem of incentives in the middle of 1985 to reap such bountiful outcomes more than two decades later.

Producing ideas and generating patents, however, are two different activities altogether. The former is a prerequisite to the latter. And this is where the schooling and learning environment has a major role to play.

The ultimate question is, how can our education system  be made more creative so that more of our own can be innovative without having to go elsewhere to learn?

This is, of course, an issue that has been raised many times but it is still not getting the desired response, much less results!

Interestingly enough,  Professor Ding Choo Ming of Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has drawn a number of similarities between “the beliefs, values and behaviour of Malays and Chinese in the Indo-Malay world”.

He identifies a number of core cultures of the Malays and Chinese that are comparable to one another, creating and constructing “certain types of attitudes and practices” in both the communities that could ensure the evolution of even richer cultural practices leading to innovation.

What is striking is the strong influence of art (in contrast to science) in both cultures as a way of life, according to Ding. This includes customs, paintings, idioms, poetry, pantun as well as other art forms that are regarded as important to the communities. Unlike science, these areas depend less on facts and logic, and more on imagination and narratives as a way of communicating ideas.

Ding cited medicine as an example of a field that is more holistic in the Malay and Chinese cultural practices compared to the modern so-called Western medicine.

This example also connects the Malayo-Chinese cultures closer to nature, much more than that of Western medicine. This worldview holds nature as a source of inspiration. The new branch of knowledge called Biomimicry is a testimony to the power of nature as a source of learning in a creative way.

This, in turn, relates to the more sublime world of intangibles that underlines the “naturalistic-artistic view of life” based on the values of harmony and peaceful coexistence in a symbiotic (win-win) fashion.

And these make up the larger ecosystem that must be strongly implanted in our minds before and during school so that they will “flower” new ideas in the future.

Minds must be nurtured to best appreciate the authority of ideas. This is not the “mantra” of the education system in Malaysia. This is where change must first start if there is to be any hope.

While the mobility of students is something that must be encouraged as part of learning in today’s globalised context, it cannot be at the expense of a fossilised education system, so archaic that its ecosystem is too dysfunctional to support new and vibrant ideas of the 21st century.

Indeed, given that the Malayo-Chinese culture has so much in common, it stands to reason that this can be the new platform for cross-fertilisation to promote the richness of multicultural Malaysia as a form of education that nourishes that “naturalistic-artistic way of life” innovatively.

The time may come that the world will send students to learn from us in leading the innovation ecosystem, collaboratively, across a myriad of cultures.

- The writer is vice chancellor of Albukhary International University