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Singapore Math

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