Nobel ceremony up close

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
December 15, 2015

THE Merdeka Award Ceremony took place on Dec 10, the same day as the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden; and the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Olso, Norway. Dec 10 is to mark the demise of Alfred Nobel in 1896. He bequeathed a fortune and a will (signed on Nov 27, 1895) to enable the wealth to be spent posthumously to institute the coveted prizes. The fund is managed by the Nobel Foundation.

Thus far some 900 individuals and organisations have been recognised as Nobel Laureates with 10 more being recognised as recipients in the latest round, including the Peace Prize.

I was fortunate enough to be invited for the ceremony in Stockholm, after participating in two panel sessions the day before at the Nobel Week Dialogue themed The Future of Intelligence, co-hosted by the city of Gothenburg. While most are familiar with what the prestigious Nobel Laureate ceremony is all about, witnessing it at close range brings to light some very interesting aspects that are normally not considered pertinent.

It was striking how the event was framed as the pinnacle of academic-intellectual ceremony par excellence. The evidence for this was plain enough at the opening session where the laureates were the last to walk into the august hall.

The more than 1,500 people, who were seated, spontaneously stood up as a mark of respect and admiration, including the Swedish king and queen and the royal family. I consider this as a mark of highest recognition for knowledge that is symbolised by each of the laureates. I felt much the same way when addressing the 775th inaugural academic session of the University of Siena in Italy recently, where the seats in the first row on the stage were reserved for academics.

In this case, the fact that the occasion was held in the monumental Stockholm Concert Hall is also of great significance. While most of the prizes are designated for breakthroughs in medicine, science, literature and economics, the majestic venue as well as the choreographed cultural activities are a keen reminder that knowledge is "whole" – namely all disciplines cannot be culturally benign if it is to be meaningful for and impactful for the good of society. Indeed this is what is stated in Nobel's will whereby the fortune is to endow "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind". For this, the cultural dimensions to my mind are absolutely vital.

I am further convinced when all the speeches introducing and describing the "real" contributions carried out by the laureates were read out in the Swedish language. This is despite the fact that the ceremony is international in character, and the laureates are of different nationalities. This at once, portrayed the level of confidence that the Swedish language can command even when it is clear that its population is relatively small. It more than convincingly illustrates that the Swedish language has the capability to act as the medium to communicate all forms of knowledge, notably the sciences. For those who do not know the Swedish language, an English translation of all the speeches was provided. Even the official designation for the Nobel Prize is Nobelpriset as in the national language.

The entire ceremony is simple and elegant, like all academic ceremonies ought to be. So too are the gestures, respectful and time-honoured as proud tradition that stood the test of time for an institution that is more than a century old. While a dress code is strictly observed, national costumes are also encouraged to celebrate diversity. As such I gladly put on the traditional baju Melayu that also has its place in the scheme of things.

The overall sentiment therefore is that the Nobel Prize Ceremony is more than just recognising brilliant individuals and their outstanding societal and academic contributions. It is also about recognising the value of culture as an inherent part of scholarship. It is ultimately about the power and influence of knowledge itself when it is discovered, shared and implemented to benefit the community at large by bringing significant improvements to the quality of life sustainably. At the nearby Nobel Museum this has been clearly showcased from 1901.

With some four decades of experience in education locally and internationally, the writer believes that "another world is possible".