Why some of Malaysia’s ‘brains’ come home

Prakash Thamburaja speaks to Malay Mail Online in Bangi on February 21, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Prakash Thamburaja speaks to Malay Mail Online in Bangi on February 21, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 ― Prakash Thamburaja, who researches theoretical solid mechanics (or essentially developing math models to solve real-life engineering problems), says he is the only person in Malaysia who does this sort of work.

The 42-year-old graduated from a top US university with a phD in mechanical engineering and worked in Singapore for almost a decade, but decided to return home to Malaysia in 2013 to help develop the country’s fledgling research landscape. Prakash is with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) now.

“I wanted to come back to help my society make a mark in research,” Prakash told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

The mechanical engineering professor said Malaysia’s research culture was very young, noting that the country’s concept of research only began 10 years ago.

“There’s a lot of potential for growth,” he said.

It can be a bit of a puzzler on why some Malaysian academics want to come home to what is often portrayed in the media as a stifling environment for knowledge and learning, with poor quality research while Malaysians make scientific breakthroughs in other countries instead.

Prakash and several other Malaysians, however, tell Malay Mail Online why they choose to return home, citing their desire to contribute to the developing country that still appears to be years away from joining the ranks of developed nations.

They also talk about the problems hampering local academia compared to countries like the US, UK or Australia that have far greater resources in research.

When asked if he encountered a close-minded academic culture here in Malaysia, Prakash said he had “complete freedom” to do his work.

“We’re free to work on any projects. As long as we get cited in top journals, no constraints,” said the public university professor, adding that his work in UKM has been cited in Q1 journals like The Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids, Script Materialis and Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.

Professor Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman is the dean of medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at Universiti Malaya. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Professor Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman is the dean of medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at Universiti Malaya. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

The little difference you make has such a big impact

Professor Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, who is dean of medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at Universiti Malaya, said she studied medicine and worked in Melbourne, spending a total of 15 years in the Australian city before she returned to Malaysia in 1996.

“When I came back, my friends at work all thought I was insane. Even those days, 20 years ago before all this nonsense that’s going on in this country, everyone wants to go work in Australia,” Dr Adeeba told Malay Mail Online, citing the current “nonsense” as religious intolerance, racism and “lack of integrity” issues.

Dr Adeeba, who mostly did clinical work in Australian teaching hospitals besides some clinical research, said she returned to Malaysia because she wanted her two children to grow up here.

“I wanted them to have a good grounding in our Asian culture and basic religious teaching,” said the 54-year-old. “I felt it’s important that they grow up, in early years, with extended family and knowing our culture and religion”.

Dr Adeeba said the public health care system in Australia was “second to none”, noting that the country had sufficient support professionals like medical social workers, while such staff, nurses and dietitians have yet to be developed here in tandem with specialists.

“To my colleagues who say they want to come back ― I tell them the field is wide open.

“There’s so much need, the little difference you make has such a big impact. Here, the ripple is so much larger for every difference you make,” said Dr Adeeba, who set up an infectious disease unit at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre and expanded the infectious disease unit in consultancy.

Dr Adeeba, who used to have Australian permanent residence, said she had no regrets coming home. “Where else in the world can you have maids and drivers?”

Daniel Kong speaks to Malay Mail Online in Subang on February 23, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Daniel Kong speaks to Malay Mail Online in Subang on February 23, 2017. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

More emphasis on teaching than research

Daniel Kong, a civil engineering lecturer at Monash University, said he spent 13 years in Melbourne on his studies and post-doctorate research work before coming back to Malaysia in 2014.

The 36-year-old, who has two sons aged three and six, said he and his wife decided to come home because they wanted to do social work through their church in Malaysia, as the needs here were “very different” compared to those in Western countries.

“We still volunteer on a regular basis to reach kids in low-cost flats to help them with math homework. These kinds of opportunities are lesser in Western settings,” said Kong.

On the differences between academia here and in Australia, Kong said there was more emphasis on teaching here than on research, pointing out that in Australia, both the university management and students understood that research and teaching work for professors was 50-50.

“I don’t blame the students,” said Kong. “It might be the system from the very start, primary and secondary school. There’s a lot of hand-holding”.

He also said Malaysian academics tended to focus on getting government grants instead of looking for funds outside the country, pointing out that the average grant from the Malaysian government for a two to three-year engineering research project was between RM100,000 and RM200,000. This, he said, was sufficient only for phD candidates.

He added that research grants from the Ministry of Higher Education or from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation were inconsistent as some years, they would suddenly announce that there would be no second round of funding.

“In Australia, you can appeal grant rejections, but here, there are no appeals,” said Kong, who managed to secure a £2.2 million (RM12 million) grant from a UK-Malaysia collaboration end of last year for a three-year project on sustainable concrete.

Teo Wee says said he returned to Malaysia in 2009 after studying and working in the industry in the UK and northern Ireland, as it was difficult to find academic jobs in the UK. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Teo Wee says said he returned to Malaysia in 2009 after studying and working in the industry in the UK and northern Ireland, as it was difficult to find academic jobs in the UK. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Quantity over quality in Malaysia

Teo Wee, who has a doctorate in civil engineering, said he returned to Malaysia in 2009 after studying and working in the industry in the UK and northern Ireland, as it was difficult to find academic jobs in the UK.

“When I came back in 2009, I wanted to contribute to society, but the system is challenging,” Wee, who is currently with Heriot Watt University here, told Malay Mail Online.

He said he found that Malaysia focused on the quantity of research publications over quality and that Malaysian academics seemed fond of attending international conventions.

“Getting medals at international conventions doesn’t add value,” said Wee.

The OECD Reviews of Innovation Policy 2016 report said that Malaysia only ranked 136th out of 147 countries on the number of citations by publication, even though it ranked 45th and 50th on the number of publications and citations from 2001 to 2011. “This gap raises concerns about the quality and usefulness of Malaysian publications,” said the report.

Wee, who previously worked in Universiti Teknologi Petronas in Perak from 2010 to 2016, also complained about the lack of freedom for academics in using research grants.

“I have to do bidding for big items, like RM20,000 items, and the fastest is two to three months before I can get it,” said Wee. “If you go to China or South Korea, they bank in to your account if you get a US$500,000 grant”.

He said there are opportunities for Malaysia to establish research, but “the government needs to give support and universities need to open up and give control to academics”.

John Emmanuel Kiat speaks to Malay Mail Online on February 22, 2017. ― Picture courtesy of John Emmanuel Kiat
John Emmanuel Kiat speaks to Malay Mail Online on February 22, 2017. ― Picture courtesy of John Emmanuel Kiat

Hard to get researcher positions overseas

John Emmanuel Kiat, who is currently pursuing a phD specialising in neuroscience and behaviour in psychology in the US, said expectations placed on academics in the US were extremely high from the predoctoral level onwards due to the availability of resources, resulting in very tough competition and “exceptionally high pressures”.

“I’m certain there’s a good mix of individuals who return home to contribute to the development of the country, those who want to be with their families, and those who get tired of being in a strange land. Naturally, there will likely be some who had difficulties with, or grew tired of, competing day in day out,” Kiat, 31, told Malay Mail Online.

“Most areas of research are currently experiencing a glut in doctoral graduates. There are only so many researcher positions available. Securing such a position, particularly as a foreign national, is exceptionally challenging in this day and age,” he added.

The Malaysian academic also highlighted the significant gap in investment on research between Malaysia and the US.

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, Malaysia’s research expenditure was 1.26 per cent of the GDP in 2014. The US, in comparison, spent 2.7 per cent of its GDP on research and development that year. Japan and South Korea spent about 3.6 per cent and 4.3 per cent of their GDP on R&D.

“In the absence of a research grant focused culture, academics in Malaysia, particularly in the private sector, tend to have significantly heavier teaching and academic responsibilities which often leads little to no time for serious research programmes, which further compounds the problem,” said Kiat. 

He said developing a strong research culture required significant resources and a large competition pool.

“In light of the green pastures already currently available to talented researchers, it’ll be a significant challenge to find the resources to invest in research (particularly in these pressing economic times) and attract the talent able to utilise those tools effectively,” said Kiat.