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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why Malaysia is absent at the IMO

Those of us in South East Asia would have conspicuously noticed that neighboring Malaysia is absent at all International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) meets. Not that they are afraid to under-perform, but simply because Malaysian matheletes aren't allowed to take part in these international math competitions due to politics or race. Years ago, I recalled reading in a journal published by the Malaysian Mathematical Society (MMS) when they openly and courageously revealed that racial or/and political reasons were behind their not sending their best students to take part in any of these IMO’s every year.

Bumiputras Rule

It's an open secret that in Malaysia the majority Malay students lag behind educationally, as compared to their Chinese and Indian counterparts. And even the government acknowledges that Malay students are under-performing in both mathematics and science. That there has to be a corrective action policy — privileges given to the bumiputras (peoples of the land) — testifies to the educational and economic gaps between the majority Malays and the other races.

The Chinese control the economy of the country, and it isn't surprising that the majority Malays aren't comfortable with this economic imbalance. Feelings of envy and jealousy aren't uncommon among many local Malays who feel alienated or marginalized because of limited job and career opportunities as a result of their lower educational levels.

Malaysia isn't a Chinese but an Islamic nation

Imagine five Malaysian-born Chinese mathletes were to represent a country of predominantly Muslim citizens at the IMO. The world may just think that Malaysia is predominantly Chinese, and that may not augur well with the Malay community which has been lagging behind the other racial communities in education for decades, particularly in science and mathematics. Indeed, it reflects badly on the Malay leaders and politicians. The result is gifted or talented math students are barred from competing in international competitions because of race or politics.

Although many better-off Malaysian Chinese students do their studies in neighboring Singapore, they still wouldn't be able to represent their country of adoption at the IMO, as they're mostly permanent residents, especially for those who are on an ASEAN scholarship. Their citizenship simply prevents them from taking part in those international competitions.

A lose-lose outcome

No statistics are publicly available to prove it, but it's not uncommon to find many bright math students among Malaysian and Indonesian Chinese, who are studying in Singapore schools. Many had left their country of birth for a better education and some would easily be recruited in an Olympiad math team. On one hand, politics prevents them to represent their country of birth at the IMO; on the other hand, nationality bars them to represent their country of adoption. It's a lose-lose situation for these talented or gifted mathletes.

Singapore says NO to race-based politics

A similar scenario was averted in predominantly Chinese Singapore, where the national football team consists mainly of Malays. Singapore would be foolish to let race prevail although a team representing a racial mix would have been preferred, considering that the majority Chinese are doing well in other areas. But that hasn't deterred the Singapore government or the local sports council to field the best Malay footballers to represent the country. Meritocracy and ability cannot substitute race and politics, when it comes to representing the country in athletics and games, much less in mathematics and science competitions.

Malaysia at its first IMO?

We can only hope that in a-not-too-distant future Malaysian political leaders wouldn’t let race and politics to interfere with education. Every child should be given the opportunity to pursue his or her educational goals to the best of his or her abilities — and this includes being able to take part in an IMO if their God-given mathematical abilities endow them to do so.

When race or politics stands in the way of one’s mathematical advancement, the world has a responsibility to intervene (or even interfere) to stop political or religious race-based leaders from thwarting the educational progress of a child. 

© Yan Kow Cheong, January 4, 2011

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your's view as a Singaporean citizen can't be fully justified the picture of race issues in Malaysia. Malaysians aware their politics favouritism tend to supersede all issues into one race problem. Where as the actual bottom line among Malaysian are actually aware the real issues.

The only matters that need to be revise by Malaysia government is their education system where everyone student should getting equal opportunity and challenges. Not the opportunity to those who are claim to be gifted genius math.

It is just co-incidently that Chinese are known good at math since school.
As what happen in Malaysia, Chinese School (Sekolah Kebangsaan Jenis Cina) are well prepared their student with load of math practice, homework, tuition and group discussion. Practice make perfect. I have a Malay and Indian friends studying there which are also among the outstanding result.

This do not happen to student who undergo to Sekolah Kebangsaan. All Malaysian (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) are not expose to those teaching method in Chinese School. But there is also better off student here rather than Chinese school.

So, is it the issue Chinese School are better off than Sekolah Kebangsaan?.
School is still the best place for a student. Therefore, they both have some pros and cons. I do not need to mention.

I just want you to make it clear, that we here in Malaysia still have better Malay and Indian who are good than Chinese. In anything sector it is, you can't over reflect Chinese or any race. At least, at a behavior part which you may want to look at it. I advise so.

Yan Kow Cheong said...

Hi there

Thanks for taking time to comment.

You raised a number of interesting points, and I couldn't disagree with you on most of them. For example, there should be opportunity for all, not just to those in the top ten or twenty, or for those blessed with some "mathematical gene".

Truly, a proficiency in numeracy or mathematics isn't restricted to any particular group, race or nation. As you rightly pointed out, there're many deserving Malay and Indian students who are as good as (if not, better than) their Chinese counterparts, whether they're from the public or Chinese and private schools.

Statistically speaking, based on the racial proportions of the population, we shouldn't be surprised that there're more Malay students who are literate and numerate than the Chinese and Indian peers.

A thought just crossed my mind: Since Malaysia is openly receptive in sending her mostly Chinese players to represent the country in badminton and table tennis, and in other sports, it'd be great if the authorities consider relaxing the rules in allowing its citizens, regardless of their race or religion, to represent the country in future IMO's. It'd be a win-win-win situation for the mathletes, for Malaysia, and for the international mathematical community.

Anonymous said...

Your posting is not factually correct. Malaysia has been participating in IMO since 1995, that is, for the previous 16 years and winning 3 silver medals over the last 3 years.

Please check the following two links

http://www.imo-official.org/country_team_r.aspx?code=MAS

http://www.persama.org.my/

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, it is not apparent from the recent IMOs that there are biased towards the Malays.

In 2010, the Malaysian team has 4 Chinese and 2 Malays.

In 2009, the Malaysian team has 1 Chinese and 1 Malay (only 2 person were sent in 2009).

In 2008, the Malaysian team has 5 Chinese and 1 Malay.

Please check the following link

http://www.imo-official.org/country_individual_r.aspx?code=MAS&column=year&order=desc&gender=show&nameform=western

Yan Kow Cheong said...

Thanks for pointing out my inaccurate reporting on Malaysia's involvement at the IMO.

I'm glad to read that Malaysia has been sending mathletes to the IMO; however, I'm rather surprised, not to say, disappointed, that Malaysia didn't perform better than most of us would have expected.

It looks like official maths sites offer little or no information on Malaysia's participation at the IMO. Besides, most information are written in Malay, which makes it difficult for someone illiterate in the language to collect useful facts. However, thanks to your links, which are mainly hosted by Malaysian bloggers and maths coaches, but which aren't easily searchable by search engines, we've more updated information on Malaysia's involvement at the IMO.

Let's hope Malaysia will improve her ranking in future IMOs, given her huge pool of human talent.

Anonymous said...

Singapore has participated in IMO since 1988, for a total of 23 years.

The first chief instructor for the Singapore Team is A.Prof CC Chen, a Malaysian.

The current chief instructor is A.Prof TS Tay, who is also from Malaysia. He had been the chief instructor and had overseen the training in Singapore for about 20 years.

For the record, Singapore has been dependent on Malaysians for her relatively better results, although we only managed to win a gold medal over the last 23 years. Indeed, there was some periods of time in the past where there were no senior instructors from Singapore.

As of today, out of a total of four senior instructors from NUS, two are from Malaysia and two are from Hong Kong. There is external senior instructor from Singapore and there are also some Singaporean helpers (the helpers are mainly former participants of the Singapore team).

Incidentally, the former chief instructor in Malaysia is a good friend of A.Prof Tay.

Please stop your criticisms on Malaysia. If the current Malaysian instructors for the Singapore team decided to go back to Malaysia, then we can say good bye to the Singapore team.

Furthermore, the allegations that Malaysia discriminated against the Chinese for IMO participation is not even true to begin with. If you look at the composition of the Malaysian team, they generally send 3 to 5 Chinese (for a full team) and they have never send more Malays than Chinese over the past 16 years (including the years when they send partial teams). In particular, the 2008 team consisted of 5 Chinese and 1 Malay, that is, 83.3% of the Malaysian team consisted of Chinese.

Finally, Malaysia conduct her Mathematics lessons in Malay, so their website is also in Malay. Just because you did not manage to find or understand their website is NOT a good reason for you to create some fictitous allegations to criticise the Malaysian's policy on their IMO team participation, particularly since the accusations are not even factual to begin with.

Indeed, if I were you, I would withdraw all the inaccurate allegations in the first and second postings and apologise without reservations to any Malaysians who happen to visit this website ... before any of them decide to complain to A.Prof Tay.

PS: I am a Singaporean.

Bavarian Baron said...

Ah but did any of you know that Malaysia's Chinese Independent High School students aren't allowed to represent Malaysia at IMO regardless of how well they performed at OMK (Malaysia'a National Maths Olympiad)? Apparently, this is because the Education Ministry is of the the view that the syllabus of Chinese Independent High Schools aren't representative of malaysia'a Maths syllabus. Therefore, a large proportion of mathematically talented maths students are sidelined and overlooked.

Anonymous said...

Saying that Malaysia did not participate in IMO and cooking up reasons of racial/political reasons is uncalled for. But saying that Malaysian instructors not decided to go back is "goodbye" for S'pore is also untrue. If Prof Tay goes back, there will be qualified prof who are more than willing to continue and both Ang Jie Jun and Lim Jeck will continue to strife and do well.

Khor Bean Hwa said...

Main point - I know usually when a Malay is chosen for the IMO, someone better than him based on merits has to give way although the others members of the team are chosen based closely on merits. I was a teacher to at least 2 Malay students who have been selected either for representation or training before a final selection. How will the selection panel feel when they have children who are victims of this system? Only then they know how much it hurts to be left out like this.
2nd point - Some officials who accompany them especially those from the ministry take up valuable places that can be given to teachers who have contributed much to help their students qualify.
3rd point - Recent improvements at IMO are mainly due people who make small money by giving training to students who have support from their parents. Funds from the government have managed to attract a small number of people to get involved in promoting the math olympiad "projects", but for a child to be competitive parents have to be able to afford costly training and some children from poor homes are deprived. Like so many sports of cultural events etc.
I still think this system will continue to help Malaysia improve for a few more years as those who can train mathaletes are only doing these more like volunteers and not for the small money.

What is the point I write all these? The ministry of education must come out with a good program, many countries have the right people who knows what to do, do we?

Yan Kow Cheong said...

Hope that you, guys, won't get arrested under some recently modified ISA law for speaking the painful truth about meritocracy. Let's divorce mathematics from race, religion and politics.

Yan Kow Cheong said...

Hope that you, guys, won't get arrested under some recently modified ISA law for speaking the painful truth about meritocracy. Let's divorce mathematics from race, religion and politics.

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