So where are our Nobel Laureates?

OCTOBER 20 — “The Merchant of Death is Dead” —  that was the headline of the obituary published for Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel in 1888.

It was an appropriate one. Nobel had, after all, made his fortune manufacturing arms and inventing new forms of explosives: dynamite, cordite, etc.

But it didn't please the man it was written about. Strangely Alfred Nobel read his own obituary as it was published in error... as it was his brother who had actually died!

The error led directly to the creation of the Nobel Prize.

“The Merchant of Death” decided he'd rather be remembered more positively!

When he finally died, he left the majority of his fortune to a trust that would award annual prizes for science, literature and peace. In 1968, an award was added for economics.

And he succeeded. These awards are the most prominent awards in the world of weighty matters of literature, science and politics.

They confer enormous prestige and afford global recognition to the winners including those who might not be well known outside their fields.

This year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and already there is some controversy with The Economist asking if he deserved it as he may have made peace with Eritrea but he failed to stop ethnic cleansing.

Of course it is not easy for any committee to decide who made the greatest contribution to science, literature or peace in any given year.

There have been some very controversial Nobel Laureates over the years and all sorts of debates about the worthiness of winners.

Well, this is a difficult matter and while it is a near impossible task to get it consistently right, I think it is important that these fields of endeavour and activities do have a platform for recognition.

A solution may be that the Prizes are not awarded annually but only when there is clearly someone deserving — so we avoid a world where men (or women) who would go on to start wars such as Henry Kissinger or even Barack Obama. It does a great disservice to the Prize.

What is beyond debate though is that in any list of Nobel Laureates, South-east Asians are overwhelmingly under-represented.

If it wasn't for tiny, young East Timor contributing two Laureates in the form of Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta winning the Nobel Peace Prize for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.

Otherwise our entire region with its trillions of dollars of GDP would have just one Nobel Laureate — Aung San Su Kyi. Of course she is not without controversy but broadly why isn't our region doing better?

Do we not have worthy scientists? Writers, economists or peace-making politicians?

Is it because the Prize is innately Western-centric and in general under-represents Asians and Africans? But even so, you see no shortage of Chinese, Indian and Japanese winners.

So, where are we? I know so many South-east Asians who are worthy. I am surprised that Lee Kuan Yew never got one for nation-building. Or even Dr Mahathir Mohamad?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.