Essential national intellectual capital: What is needed more, a genius or two, or good academic institutions?

— Clive Kessler
The Malaysian Insider
Dec 12, 2011

DEC 12 — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has recognised that a country’s intellectual capital is its primary asset.

Its “brainpower”, he understands, is the major determinant of its international standing, of its prospects of achieving success and prosperity (Melissa Chi, “PM says intellectual capital determines success of a country”, The Malaysian Insider, December 10, 2011).

So far, so good.

But it is wishful thinking to imagine that all can be saved and made good by the production, in isolation — in a cultural and intellectual vacuum — of a couple of world-class geniuses.

There are many small countries that, against the odds, have surprisingly produced the odd “world-beater.”

But unless these intellectual giants inhabit what may be called a “culturally hospitable environment” in their own countries (and provided, too, that they do not become part of the great international “brain drain”), little will come of their achievements.

Their own mother countries will get little benefit, so past experience suggests, from what, as scholars, they may manage to accomplish.

So forget about producing, as a puzzling exception, the odd stupendously “high flyer.”

One does not produce geniuses in isolation.

Truly outstanding minds are cultivated within, and emerge from, a conducive environment.

They take shape and grow most, and best, in countries where the intellectual capacities and potential of all its citizens are supported, encouraged and cultivated.

In places where, among those offered the chance to pursue a scholarly path, “the life of the mind” in its broad, most humanly inclusive senses is respected and promoted.

In other words, the production of a few geniuses and of a larger number of internationally-ranking “near-geniuses” depends upon the creation of a sound, progressive and internationally competitive primary and secondary education system.

“Internationally competitive”? That means, in the first instance, one that respects the intellectual autonomy and encourages the individual critical capacities of as many young students as may be able to respond to that invitation and to those incentives to learn.

It also rests upon the development, at the next level up, of a tertiary or university system that seeks not simply to produce isolated geniuses or identify, from within the anonymous and mediocre pack, a few potential “winners.”

It can only be done by building up a university system based upon general and ever-rising levels of intellectual, scholarly and academic competence.

If you want to produce geniuses, don’t think “genius”, think “competence” — generalised, overall, “system-wide” competence; think of steadily increasing and ever higher levels of scholarly competence.

It is by insisting, without compromise, upon the universal or “system-wide” international academic competence and respectability of all of its staff that a university can create the conditions under which all will — and can, and must — do better, where the better will perhaps go on to do some work of distinction, and where the best will achieve a level where genius may even, just perhaps, become a feasible objective and a realisable achievement.

That is what universities, particularly universities in “non-metropolitan” and especially formerly colonialised countries should be focusing upon.

On that, and not the ultimately subjective, mechanically generated, and always dubious ranking systems that are produced under scholarly conditions and auspices that are themselves of questionable rather than truly authentic, well-attested international scholarly credibility.

The prime minister has expressed the hope of perhaps producing one or two genuine Malaysian geniuses.

His favoured strategy, in other words, is that of “building upon the few” — rather than of working towards eventually producing a few, perhaps even more than a few, really outstanding scholars by a strategy of “building upon, building up, and encouraging the many.”

Yet top-level or “elite” educational achievement is only ever realised from a quality mass educational foundation or basis. It is not produced by seeking, from the outset, to identify “promise” and then to “cosset” a supposedly promising yet narrow elite.

The world’s high mountains stand upon and emerge from massive, high mountain ranges. They do not rise, splendidly and unpredictably, from the monotonous flatlands of vast, featureless coastal plains.

Arguments by metaphor and analogy — by ibarat and kias — are never absolutely compelling. But here the comparison is appropriate, the geographical image is indicative.

Genius rises from a broad terrain that itself stands high.

Building up the many, raising the overall level of the multitude, steadily raising the scholarly quality of the nation’s academic legions?

Is this what Malaysia, during all these long years since 1957 and especially in the years of vast expansion since 1970, has been doing?

I think not.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to produce that kind of high-quality national intellectual armoury in a country whose public universities, between them, cannot show just one internationally credible, or reputable, school or department of modern world philosophy and logic, not one plausible academic “unit” devoted to the study and teaching modern global intellectual and cultural history, not one adequate (or even inadequate!) department of modern political studies, theory and philosophy.

Why are these things important? Why do they matter?

Do they matter to a nation’s ability even to produce good scientists and technicians?



Because academic and scholarly competence — at any serious international level, and certainly at the highest — requires, and emerges from, and can only be fostered within a context, and as an aspect, of a generalised “cultural modernity.”

Was Einstein the product of a closed, intellectually isolated, and narrowly inward-looking scientific community? Of a culture of unworldly and vulgar “tech-nerds”?

No. It was the great breadth and cultural richness of the German scholarly community during the Weimar Republic years that enabled not only Einstein but a whole vast “cohort” of world-class scientists to emerge.

Germany was foolish, once it fell captive to the political mystique of Blut und Boden (“Blood and those with national identities grounded in the native land”), to drive so many of those great scientists into exile, where they ended up contributing massively to the defeat of Hitler’s Reich. But that is another story …

Instead of focusing on that intellectually foolish and humanly tragic waste, I prefer to think of one of the truly humbling experiences of my life.

That was, some 12 years ago in Berlin, when I entered the great rotunda of the main building of that city’s main university: once (including when my mother had been a student there in the early 1930s) the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universitaet; now, since the years of the old German Democratic Republic, and still, felicitously named the Humboldt University after the two great early nineteenth–century German scholarly brothers of that name.

Along the wide spiral stairs of that grand central rotunda are displayed the photographic portraits of more than 50 Nobel Prize winners, mainly in medicine and the physical sciences, whom that one university produced, mainly in the pre-Nazi era.

Has Malaysia any prospects for registering such an achievement?

Perhaps, ultimately.

But one must start with realistic steps and proper measures, based upon an accurate analysis of the problem and an appropriate assessment of what its pursuit may require.

Some countries — let us be honest, many countries, all too many, including some that do not lack the necessary means, the wealth and material resources — have realistically no chance of ever registering such a scholarly success.

Some simply lack the material means that might enable such success to be realised. Poverty delivers its cruel verdict in many ways, both individually and collectively, including at the level of national accomplishment.

This, happily, has never been Malaysia’s problem.

It not only has the resources.

It has also allocated and spent them.

But has it spent them well?

Again, I think not.

Some countries have the necessary resources but lack the will to spend them on, and to invest massively, in public education.

That failure follows from a lack of wisdom, a poverty that is mental and moral, or cultural, rather than material.

But that, again, has not been Malaysia’s problem. There has been no mean-spirited limitation here upon the government’s readiness to devote national resources to the educational sector.

But has success that might be commensurate with that great expenditure been registered? Have the foundations for overall excellence, perhaps even for the production of some Malaysian geniuses, been laid down and consolidated?

I fear not.

After years of close-up, sympathetic and friendly involvement in this country’s leading academic institutions, I shake my head in dismay.

Toward the end of his days, my good friend, the late and great Malay scholar and writer Rustam A. Sani, from a much closer and deeper record of involvement in Malaysian university life, used to shed bitter tears over this matter, over what might have been achieved but never was.

At the end he surveyed what he saw as a failed public and intellectual culture, nurtured and now wrongfully protected and promiscuously reproduced within failed public universities. In sum, a failure of Malay, and Malaysian, cultural modernity.

That combination, he feared, threatened to produce, half a century after Merdeka, a “failed nation.”

When I think of the situation of expensively produced intellectual desolation that so pained Rustam, I can only agree.

I can only think — with apologies to the memory of those who died in the Battle of Britain to save England from a Germany that, without the tempering presence of the best and most generous minds it has ever produced, went wild — of Churchill’s evocative tribute.

I recall, and perhaps shamefully adapt for my own ends, those famous words of Winston Churchill to express my dismay at the meagre scholarly life and at the mediocre quality of the array of academic institutions that Malaysia has so generously, but ever so unrewardingly, created.

Never before in the field of human educational endeavour — I am forced painfully to conclude — has so much been spent so liberally upon so many, with so little in the way of quality results to show for the money: with such a lack of distinguished accomplishment, with such a dismal lack of quality result, both specifically academic and broadly cultural, to justify that vast outlay of national wealth and precious resources.

The prime minister would like one or two geniuses.

Perhaps one or two genuinely good, internationally credible universities would be a beginning.

A more modest goal. But a necessary first step towards the stellar achievement of which he dares to have Malaysia dream.

* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Before returning to his “native” Australia in 1980 to a professorship in that university, he had held academic lecturing positions at the London School of Economics and Political Science (The University of London) and at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. He has been a Visiting Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In recognition of his scholarly work and standing he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. He has been a Visiting Professor and External Examiner at leading Malaysian universities.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 12:27 pm

    ///Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has recognised that a country’s intellectual capital is its primary asset./// — Clive Kessler

    Who does not know that in today’s Knowledge Economy human resource/intellectual capital is most important –this is a cliché- not only in terms of wealth creation but also in terms of bringing about a higher and more intelligent organisation of societal/national/civizational affairs for human happiness and contentment?

    What Malaysia needs more urgently is moral capital than intellectual capital. Everything starts from that first point. Whats the point of having a few geniuses or for that matter very intellectual giants amongst our political and corporate elites who could move and lead the nation but who are moral midgets???? Brillance & intellectul talent is useful only if it is accompanied by right morality and integrity. Wrong and immoral intent only harms everyone especially when it is perpetrated by clever brilliant cunning hypocritical and machiavellian characters who want to double talk and scr*w everyone else but their own personal benefit.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 12:34 pm

    The Nobel Prize for Corruption has been awarded to umno annually since 1957

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 12:39 pm

    Continuing: the first impluse and instinct of humans is to be selfish required for survival and self preservation. Then we learn to mitigate and ameliorate this instinctual derive – the needs and rights of others around us with whom we have bto balance our self interest against theirs in rational fair and proprtionate way. We learn from infant years by the demands of the social situations in which we find ourselves. The key is building trust and acceptance of others. But if from day one we are taught that we are separate in terms of race, religion, creed and culture from others – or that this separateness entitles us to lord over or be subservient over other classes of people of different race religion creed and culture what happens?

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 12:40 pm

    Continuing: There is no trust and acceptance learned in the first instance without which how are we to learn of much less internalise ethics? I say is difficult. Without acquiring a moral dimension in our learning expediemnce we only learn selfishness – how to acquire as much as money or power for purposes of getting money over others. That’s our greatest deficit – a lack of moral and ethical foundation than just mere intellectual capital. What we have here more than our fair share are clever and intellectual smart asses who exploit others here, so our problem is, at first instance, lack of moral capital than intellectual capital, and the first cause is the communal/race/religious politics of this country. Get rid of that everythiong else including intellectual capital will find their place!

  5. #5 by Loh on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 1:26 pm

    ///Never before in the field of human educational endeavour — I am forced painfully to conclude — has so much been spent so liberally upon so many, with so little in the way of quality results to show for the money: with such a lack of distinguished accomplishment, with such a dismal lack of quality result, both specifically academic and broadly cultural, to justify that vast outlay of national wealth and precious resources.

    The prime minister would like one or two geniuses.

    Perhaps one or two genuinely good, internationally credible universities would be a beginning.///–Clive Kessler

    That would not happen in any country where the government did not undertake social engineering. This happens in Malaysia where the government has to honour NEP having created it as another religion.

    UMNO is always hasty. It created billionaires out of government funds. UMNO would want also to create Malaysian geniuses out of world Islamic human resources. That is part of the ongoing talent hunt among Muslims in the world. Najib is sounding out that the government would be willing to reward any Muslims who aspire to be another Nobel laureate, and willing to become Malaysian. Why Muslim? Well, they can be turned into Malay based on article 160 of the constitution.

    UMNO government spends liberally in the arena of education not out of human educational endeavor, but out of buying votes from the families whose children receive direct benefits. Universities are the extension of government departments, and the main objectives are to offer employment to the selected favoured group and to keep students away from political activities. Far from producing geniuses, such institutions actually produce unemployable graduates.

    Najib certainly knows about the standard of education in the country. Perhaps out of deep knowledge, being education minister before, he sent his children overseas for education. maybe Najib did not want his children to receive favoured treatment. But no UMNO leaders can claim to be weak to be placed in the special position but they were the first to line up for NEP largesse.

    Having created jealousy as a national sport, which founded NEP, the long years have only made jealousy entrenched. Thus only Malay geniuses are celebrated. Geniuses from the wrong races could only make UMNO feel that it has not been an effectively champion for the race. Hence Najib would not be interested in creating internationally credible university unless it is run by MARA.

  6. #6 by dagen on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 2:12 pm

    In the land where the oven for baking the economic pie has the special “automatic self-baking” function, no brains will ever be needed. Umno need not even “push” any button or turn on any power switch for those tasks too are fully automated. And the oven is even equipped with IA because it is quite quite capable of baking pies with sizes that increase with the passage of time and according to umno’s needs – umno’s growing needs. Academic excellence would be an unnecessary extra. Prof Kessler’s remark above is clearly anti-agung, anti-sultan, anti-islam jenis umno, anti-melayu (actually umnoputra), anti-gobermen, somehow unpatriotic, definitely ungrateful, communism, terrorism etc etc and he may be ISA-ed.

    Again, in the land where performance is gauged and success is pronounced, both together at the time of launch, it would suffice if umno says that our universities are world class or that our graduates (e.g. cintanegara with the world famous Prinsip2 Ekonomi Pokok Rambutan) are better than Harvard and Cambridge put together. So Prof Kessler is well advised to keep his obviously erroneous ideas in a freezer at his own home.

    Jib is the best.
    Ros is better than jib.
    Jib has tower power.
    Ros has hermes power.

  7. #7 by dagen on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 2:12 pm

    Opps AI (i.e. artificial intelligence) and not IA.

  8. #8 by undertaker888 on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 3:38 pm

    The only brain power umno/bn has is corruption power. Every minute they are thinking how to steal from the rakyat. From trains, planes and automobiles, they are at it everyday. Nowadays cows even come into the picture.

    Liberate Malaysia from these imbeciles and traitors.

  9. #9 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 4:29 pm

    The question now, najib, is where do we begin to arrest the rot?

    Now Tun M just said (wish he would just shut up!) why change BN govt if it is not broken! Now if everything BN touches is broken, then BN is broken. This has been so plain since Emperor Mahathir’s reign. Besides if the panty-liner (BN) is so full of excreta, just throw it away. Why keep a stinking piece of dirt like BN, eh Mahathir?

  10. #10 by Bigjoe on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 4:55 pm

    LKY used to go around saying you need both a group of the smartest people and increasing the general level of skills of the masses. Let me tell you he is wrong or rather still incorrect.

    The truth is the elite fails you i.e, extraordinary success of the elite is STILL a matter of chance. Yes, you need the best and brightest but even they need systems AND they are still subject to chance.

    Only a system that produces generally better people enable the best and brightest to excel further. So the generally less able population do not produce the best.

    In addition, a few genius is never going to produce truly remarkable things that matter to us. They may do remarkable work individual but to discover and make things that make a different to our lives – its still a matter of chance. Hence you need many – as many as possible. No responsible govt or society should ever assume they know the number. Its their responsibility to enable as many as possible.

    Long time ago, LKY was criticized for his authoritarian style was driving away many bright people from public service. He was known to have at one time, snapped back say he only needed a few. He was wrong.

  11. #11 by Loh on Monday, 12 December 2011 - 5:26 pm

    Najib did not think that a genius or two would effectively contribute to the well being of the country, but it would make the Race feel good. That was also why they created Malay billionaires through making them the depository of government funds.

  12. #12 by Loh on Tuesday, 13 December 2011 - 8:13 pm

    ///Admissions into public Universities is more than 80% reserved for the Malays Malay Muslims. One university with a student population of 170,000 in 2011(UiTM) is for Malay Muslims only. The other 19 public Universities with about 170,000 enrolments in all have a 60% Malay Muslimsstudents making it 80% for Malay Muslims in all Public Universities. This does not even talk about the composition in the various courses offered.
    Only a handful of seats in Medical Faculties of the Malaysian Government Universities are made available to Indians and non-Malays. Exact statistics are not available but it is estimated to be around 5% percent of the places. An estimated 90% of deserving Indian and non Malay students are denied places in the 20 Government run Universities in Malaysia.
    There are 62,000 diploma places and 60,000 degree places for 2010 at 27 Polytechnics in Malaysia15. Our estimate is a very small number of these places will be allocated for non Malay students no matter their qualifications. Most of the places are allocated to Malay-Muslim students.
    8,132 Phd graduates produced from the 20 government Universities 16. Our estimate is again a very small number will be Indians and non-Malays.
    There are 163,779 students studying at the 19 other Public Universities nationwide at an annual expenditure cost of RM 2.6 Billion17. Our estimate is a mere 5 % of this expenditure will accrue to non-Malay students.///–By Prof. Benjamin Bowling, King’s College London,

    The above is part of the text for briefing at the US House Committee On Foreign Affairs under the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

    Those who have first relevant material to contribute please do so.

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