Thursday, April 12, 2007

Overseas recruitment

It's a small start but at least it's a start. Tok Pa, Minister of Higher Education, "said as a result of his ministry’s headhunting mission in Britain last month, 24 promising candidates have been identified, including 14 medical specialists".

From the same Star report:

Mustapa said the Government has agreed to provide higher salaries for lecturers with PhDs to attract the best brains to public universities.

It is understood that new lecturers with PhD qualifications will be placed on the Grade 51 scale (which pays about RM5,000 monthly with allowances) instead of the current Grade 45.

Hopefully, this headhunting trip will actually lead to these 24 individuals returning to Malaysia. We would probably like to know a more detailed background of the 24 candidates (qualifications, field, race, etc...) but for now, the fact that the MOHE is taking a pro-active approach towards recruitment is certainly a positive thing.

I've not heard of this organization before but in the same report,

Malaysian Academics Movement (Move) chairman Dr Wan Manan Wan Muda welcomed the move but added that more needs to be done.

“It will not improve matters if the promotion and award system in universities is not improved.

“You can headhunt for the best brains, but they will not stay if they have to work under heads who are not qualified.”

I'll try to look them up to see what they are doing to make the promotion system in our public universities more transparent.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Kian Ming for highlighting the efforts of the MoHE in attracting the best brains to come to Malaysia.

While I welcome the Tok Pa's speeches of late in reflecting his vision to improve the quality of local universities through intake of academicians of high calibre and international standing, getting more non-bumis to join the academia, greater funding for Ph.D. research, better pay for academians, I personally feel that all this is still just merely talking in the air although he said 24 experts have been attracted and 14 are medical specialists. I wonder who the other 10 experts are.

Please let me refer to the article that appeared in Nature two years ago entitled "Malaysian Biotechnology: Valley of Ghosts" (Nature 436, 620-621 (4 August 2005) doi:10.1038/436620a). Let me quote from the article-
"In theory, Malaysia's leaders recognize the need to emulate Singapore's hiring policies. In 1995, for instance, Mahathir initiated a five-year plan to recruit 5,000 foreign researchers a year. But the scheme attracted just 94 scientists, and 24 of them were returning Malaysians. By 2004, only one of these researchers remained in the country."

I wonder if the numbers Tok Pa referred to as reported in The Star is the previous figure as quoted in the Nature article or a new number.

Further, only one scientist remained in 2004. Just exactly how many will remain, say in 3 years' time?

I am highly skeptical of the current efforts as I feel that it is not transparent enough. Come on, Tok Pa, give us more information, which areas of profession, country of origins, publications?, international standings, overseas Malaysians? foreigners?

Even in the Nature article, till today, I can't find any information in detail about the alleged reported recruitment exercise that failed so miserably that only 1 remain in 2004. I wonder if that person has left our country by now.

I know of a friend of mine who, was proudly trained locally as a doctorate holder, went overseas to pursue his postdoc although he had an offer from one of the newly renamed local university in the east coast. I knew he was very keen on gaining new skills as even the rector's persuasion could not stop him from leaving. I was perplexed with his actions as I thought he was taking a risk to pursue his postdoc, ie. uncertainties in academia job security. However, my good friend confided in me that the reason was for him to gain new skills and bring back the experience to help improve our nation's tertiary system. Now several years has passed and he has added international publications to his CV, and gained international recognition and respect. When The Star highlighted Tok Pa's call for more non-Bumi to be absorbed in the academia, as reported last year online, on August 30, I told him of the good news and he immediately wrote to the minister and his deputy. He was very excited as it was the chance that he was waiting for so long.

Sad to say, till today, neither has Tok Pa or his deputy nor anyone in the ministry bothered replying to him. I am not trying to ignite anger and exchange blows over the non-bumi issue in the local academia but to highlight the fact that with my friend's plight as an example, can we trust those people in the MoHE?

I observe that nowadays, politicians love to sweet talk the public. Is it because the GE is just around the corner? Please, if the MoHE is genuinely interested in attracting the top brains, be it foreigners or overseas' Malaysians to return, be sincere. Otherwise, are you all just contented sitting in your posh offices and reading your prepared media speeches?

Until there is truly walking the talk, all this is purely to hoodwink our people. Not anymore.
I hope more of us with such experiences or information to share, please contribute.

Anonymous said...

wahlao......where can we put out face if such an article was published on Nature.

xenobiologista said...

I wish someone would start a private research and teaching uni in Malaysia. Then the faculty could be hired and promoted based on competence, not ball-toting ability. Then maybe those of us who are studying and working overseas would find more motivation to return.

Then again, if wishes were fishes we'd walk on the sea...anybody wanna give me a hundred million ringgit or so?

Anonymous said...

Again and again, same story same ending. It is truly shame, when I read from above regarding the Nature article. Anyone can help to link that article for reading? TQ

The Student.

xenobiologista said...

To "The Student": if you can't even think of going on the website, going into the Nature journal archives and looking up the article (come on, the fella wrote down the page numbers and DOI summore!) you must truly be a product of our local education system.

Just kidding...I've just checked and it's inaccessible to the public. My uni has a subscription, post a comment on my blog and I can email you a copy.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that the brain gain programme at MOSTI only provides temporary positions at postdoc or visiting scientist level. Obviously, the scientists/engineers have to leave the country at the end of their appointments if they cannot find a permanent job locally which explains the subsequent "brain loss".
As for the minister not replying as mentioned by anon (4/12/2007 09:19:00 AM), forget it! I even emailed a minister with "return receipt requested" but no return receipt even. These people refuse to acknowledge receiving your mails so that they have the excuse ..."I did not receive your mail.." That way you cannot blame them in public.
After reading that Star report, I wonder why would a medical specialist come back to a RM5000 monthly salary. Wouldn't he/she be better off in Singapore or elsewhere? For that matter, why would any experienced scholar with documented expertise and achievement come back to a RM5000 job? I know Malaysia just have too many profs and would be too costly for them to be paid like in singapore. But then, if you don't pay like in S'pore, you won't be getting the real world-class expertise.
In my opinion, if M'sia cannot afford to pay all faculty members at S'pore's level, it should have kept the full prof positions meant only for really top world-class achievers instead of any tom, dick, and harry with just a handful of local publications. Then pay those full prof at competitive salary. That way, you may attract senior faculty from elsewhere.
But then you have these NEP, blah, blah, etc. So, in the end, M'sia is resigned to just playing a losing game.
It is really shameful to compare a typical M'sia full prof's publication list with that of a typical full prof in S'pore.
How can the govt be so blind to the huge difference in standard and not feel ashame?

Anonymous said...

Malyasian biotechnology: The valley of ghosts
David Cyranoski1

David Cyranoski is Nature's Asian-Pacific correspondent.

While other Asian tigers are roaring ahead in biotechnology, Malaysia's BioValley is going nowhere fast. David Cyranoski asks what went wrong.

Asking Malaysian researchers what happened to their country's flagship science project, known as the BioValley, is a confusing experience. Some claim it is still under development. Others say it never existed. Many are simply unwilling to talk about it.

But this was always a difficult project to pin down. Launched in May 2003, the BioValley was one of the final initiatives of Malaysia's strongman prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, who stepped down from power a few months later. Incorporating three new research institutes and costing some US$160 million, the BioValley was meant to attract biotech companies to a centralized hub that would offer cheap rent, good telecommunications infrastructure and access to the country's lush biodiversity — a potential source of new drugs and other useful products.

But even after its launch, it was hard to obtain concrete details about the BioValley. Aside from the plans drawn up by famed Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, the project was shrouded in mystery. By now, the 80-hectare campus in Dengkil, south of Kuala Lumpur, should have been nearing completion. Instead, the site lies empty. And official documents reveal that, earlier this year, the BioValley quietly morphed into the BioNexus, a much less ambitious scheme comprising just one new institute in Dengkil, and two other 'centres of excellence' built around existing labs elsewhere.

All this is in marked contrast to developments in neighbouring Singapore, the city-state that nestles at the tip of peninsular Malaysia. There, a formidable biomedical research hub, the Biopolis, positively bustles with activity.

Problematic past
On the face of it, the disparity is puzzling. Singapore and Malaysia have much in common — their populations have a similar ethnic mix, both have governments with an authoritarian streak, and both see biotechnology as a springboard for future economic growth. Malaysia, in particular, wants to decrease its heavy reliance on the electronics industry and the production of palm oil.

But while Singapore has recognized that scientific success means aggressively recruiting top talent regardless of nationality, race or creed, Malaysia's biotech push has been hampered by a legacy of ethnic strife, its hands tied by an educational policy designed to favour its ethnic Malay majority.

The BioValley is just the most conspicuous feature in a landscape of failed effort. Elsewhere, flashy new labs remain largely unused, some of them led by people without proper scientific credentials. And in a culture in which criticism of authority is taboo, these problems don't look remotely near resolution. One senior political figure (who, like most of the people interviewed for this article, did not want his name mentioned) complains that the BioValley "was all about fancy buildings and real-estate development".

Mahathir and his acolytes seemed to assume that researchers would come pouring into shiny new centres bearing the label 'biotechnology'. It was a naive view, suggest foreign observers familiar with the Malaysian scientific scene. "With no history in biotechnology, and little industrial presence, the risk is very high," says Keiichi Kiyota, president of the Tokyo-based Nimura Genetics Solutions, one of very few foreign companies with research activities in Malaysia. "The greatest problem is the lack of manpower," he adds.

Given this dearth of talent, Malaysian science can ill afford the brain drain that sees many young scientists, particularly those from the nation's Chinese and Indian minorities, leave the country. It's easy to see why, given that the dice are loaded against them. "The 'Malays first' policy holds them back," says biochemist Barry Halliwell, who heads the National University of Singapore's graduate school. "It does Singapore a good favour, as many come here." Last year, for instance, 128 students with straight A grades were denied access to medical school in Malaysia, while less qualified candidates were accepted. The excluded students were all non-Malay.

The 'Malays first' policy has its origins in the race riots of 1969, which were sparked by the Malay majority's resentment of the Malaysian Chinese community's economic successes. Given the bitter memories of this conflict, some researchers back the policy of granting privileged opportunities to Malays. "Otherwise people would become second-class citizens in their own country and you'd have a time bomb on your hands," says Salleh Mohammed Nor, former director of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia in Kepong, near Kuala Lumpur, and now president of the Malaysian Nature Society.

In the early 1970s, the government made a concerted effort to promote the interests of the Malay majority. In 1975, for example, the Malay language — Bahasa Malaysia — replaced English as the standard language of education. But critics say that this policy has damaged Malaysia's education system by failing to reward merit. "All vice-chancellors are appointed by the government without any kind of search committee," says one former University of Malaya researcher. "It's all favouritism."

Empty labs
Even when new labs have been built, they've failed to make much impact. The Technology Park Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur, for instance, hosts a government-sponsored institute that was supposed to act as a magnet for biotech companies. When Nature visited the two-year-old facility in late June, its high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry instruments lay idle — and only two research staff were present, huddled by a computer. Malaysia has unemployed graduates, but many don't have the requisite skills, including English ability, says an administrator at the park. "Good people go overseas," he adds.

This failure to embrace the international language of science is symptomatic of a general detachment of Malaysia's research system from the world scene. For most Malaysian researchers, publications in international peer-reviewed journals do not seem to be a priority. "People here don't seem to publish much, apart from in workshop and conference proceedings," says one visiting ecologist.

The country has also attracted few foreign researchers. Pay is low and there are few postdoctoral students to work with unless you bring your own. "There is nobody here who really understands what I am doing apart from my students," says a foreign researcher who is in Malaysia for family reasons. "People in my department are perpetually putting obstacles in my way."

Again, the contrast with Singapore is stark. Researchers there have high pay and high status, and the government has cast its net wide to bring in top scientific talent. Of the 35 principal investigators at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the country's premier research centre, only one is Singaporean. "If people have brains, I'll borrow them," declares Philip Yeo, who chairs A*STAR, the country's main science funding agency.

In theory, Malaysia's leaders recognize the need to emulate Singapore's hiring policies. In 1995, for instance, Mahathir initiated a five-year plan to recruit 5,000 foreign researchers a year. But the scheme attracted just 94 scientists, and 24 of them were returning Malaysians. By 2004, only one of these researchers remained in the country.

This pattern of setting and then failing to meet grandiose targets was common in the Mahathir era. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that the BioValley never made it off the drawing board. Its humbler successor — the BioNexus — is based around existing labs specializing in agricultural biotechnology, genomics and molecular biology. The single new centre will focus on pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals.

The BioNexus is part of the national biotechnology policy that was unveiled in April this year, which is supposed to remedy previous failings. A new organization, the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, is chaired by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and will provide tax breaks and matching grants to biotechnology companies. Its stated goal is to promote projects that can gain "international recognition".

This toned-down and yet outward-looking approach seems to be part of a more realistic framework of education and science policies now being introduced. In Penang, for instance, the local government is establishing a research base that would include contract research activities in animal toxicology — which may be of interest to foreign companies. "Tests are cheaper here and the animal-rights issues are not as prominent," says Penang's mayor, Koh Tsu Khoon, who recognizes that investment in people will be essential. "We are building on brains rather than buildings," he says.

Rewarding merit
The central government is also taking steps to introduce more fundamental reforms. In 2003, English became the language of school instruction in maths and the sciences. Private universities have also been allowed — and are now providing opportunities for ethnic Chinese and Indian students who feel discriminated against by the state system. These include the Malaysian branch of Monash University, based near Melbourne in Australia. And officially, the rigid quotas used to enforce the 'Malays first' policy in higher education have given way to a merit-based system for allocating state university places.

But without standardized state university entrance exams, some critics remain sceptical about the likelihood of real progress. Unless Malaysia is able to shed its legacy of ethnic favouritism, they are dubious about the nation's chances of competing with its neighbours in biotechnology. "Frankly, while the government funds mostly Malays, it won't happen," says one foreign scientist based in Malaysia. "The government is putting a lot of money into biotech but I doubt that anything will come of it. I see a lot of white elephants."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the article. TQ. After I had read the full article, the only word I can say is, I am truly ashame of my Gov.

The Student.

Amir said...

since I am aware of the latest initiative.

I can say that the initiative is not based on past initiatives as reported before. May be the numbers matched by accident.

What I know is, the Academic Deputy VC is invited for headhunting trip, where experts are interviewed for a position in university in Malaysia. The trip cover a number of countries.

From the brief that we receive, the experts interviewed are reffered to by their peers in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, this is the first time i heard about BioValley in Malaysia. I always thought that's in the US. Another failed Mahathirism project i guess, just like MSC.

Why would we let such impotent people lead the country?

Anonymous said...

Dear Amir,

I don't understand what do you mean by "the experts interviewed are reffered to by their peers in Malaysia"

Does it mean that you need to know someone in the education ministry to get the information about interview ?!?!

What kind of system is that ?!?! If you want to attract more experts, you might as well put up a public notice or at least have an online application for who ever is that is interested and qualified to apply. I wonder how many experts they have interviewed. This sounds like just another "inbreed" system where people at their same level recognised each other. If you really want to attract talent, let's there CV and achievement speak out instead of by reccomendation from the rotted system. I wonder whether they will go to US as well as there are a lot of good scientist there. To be honest, RM5000 wasn't attractive at all, unless you're thinking of getting a 9-5 job mainly just for teaching. For research purposes, it is like a dead end. Unless you are willing to settle for the salary and get promoted along the system, otherwise it's just not challenging enough. Coming home and teach is just like a career suicide for scientist who really wanted to pursue their own dream.

coleong said...

I wonder where did you get the information about the interview and how to contact the MOHE if I decided to move back to Malaysia. Also, did anyone know whether they will conduct the interview in US ? Thanks

Anonymous said...

Like the anons said above, you email them and they don't respond. Somehow, I think you need to find a "cable" to pull you in.

Anonymous said...

Even if the so called Brains return to Malaysia, they will suffocate in the environment, and having to renew their contract every few years!
Thats how they keep things in control....

Amir said...

coleong and anon
i'm in academics so i got to know about these things.

there are 10 cities and i think US is in the next round. If you're interested do not email the ministry but emailed to unis directly.

Nearly every M'sian universities have external assessor for their programs, some of the experts referred come from this source. However, many from informal meeting at conferences etc. Public notices have been made before, I've seen adverts from UM/MMU in academic jobs

I don't think this is an inbreed system but then caleong you're the expert.

So for those who are keen to come back, for science based faculties you're expected to teach 9 hours per week. However if you're in the research university the load is 6 hours per week. This will hold unless the faculty do not have enough staff.

The promotion system is based on a point system for academic post (prof/assoc prof/lect). However, administrative will be subject to unis (deans/deputy dean/etc). The point system is based on contribution (teaching/new courses etc) and publication (book(3)/journal(2), int conference (1) and local conf (1/2). Other contribution also have some points. You need about 35-40 to get promoted however for prof you need about 70.

Anonymous said...

The promotion system seems to be somewhat flawed, even though it is a good attempt at trying to reward promotions based on merit.

Even though the general idea seems sound, the details of the system is not perfect. As far as science goes, publishing in a journal should always take precedence over writing a book. Books are written based on existing knowledge while journal articles are written based on a new finding or discovery. In general, books (and especially textbooks) are always outdated when it is published. I am doing my PhD now and everything i need to know can no longer be found in any textbooks, but only in journal articles.

The second flaw is that not all journal articles are equal in impact, thus points should be rewarded accordingly. A Nature or Science paper, for example, should gain more points than Tetrahedron. From previous experience, I can say that it is not difficult to deconstruct the high impact experimental data for a Nature paper and publish it as two or three smaller impact articles.

Another flaw in the system regards getting points for attending/presenting at a conference. From personal experience, conferences (even int ones) almost never declines an abstract as long as you pay for the conference fees. The mindset is that people will not make fools out of themselves by presenting substandard materials. However, this is a loophole within the promotion system which can be easily exploited as long as your skin is think enough.

Anonymous said...

To Anon Above;
Amir doesnt really know what he is talking about.

Years ago, its very difficult even to get promoted to Assoc Prof if you really dont have research papers in respectable journals.

Now even 'in house' journals carried weight! he he

Wat is impt know is that are you 'ball carriers' or close to the powers that be...

Charis Quay said...

1. I think these trips have been going on for some time. This is not the first one.

2. Around the same time as the Nature piece there was also this in the Chronicle. Subscription required.

Nicholas Key said...

“You can headhunt for the best brains, but they will not stay if they have to work under heads who are not qualified.”

I totally agree with this statement.

amir said...

Yes thank you for the highlights on promotion system.

Generally attempts to standardize the point system for publication are not well liked by academics. Thus the point value is different according to faculty. E.g. in Engineering patents is also recognized as promotion items , Human Science differentiate between text book and non text book etc. etc. There are long of exceptions.

in any organizations, education or otherwise there will always be ball carriers. Ppl know who they are.

Anonymous said...

In Malaysia, announcement of an apparently promising academic program is always followed by "chaos". The concept of authority and accountability is not very clear in this country. Since when have we adopted the recruitment policy of world class universities ? Without this policy, what gives us the right to talk about the country's resolve to build a world class university in our country? In think, our priority now is how to improve our private higher institutions of learning to avoid losing revenues to our neighbours such as Singapore. We should know that the twinning programs, credit transfer programs and 2+1, 3+0 degree programs can be good (not world class) if the government is serious in its quality assessment exercise. Take away the licence of those, which fall short of expectations. Interference by politicians should be kept at the very minimum, if not the zero level.