Monday, July 28, 2008

Best IMO performance for Malaysia

Got an email from Shien Jin, a former International Math Olympiad (IMO) representative, about Malaysia's best performance at the IMO this year (2008). We ranked 55 out of 93 countries and for the first time, one of our competitors, Loke Zhi Kin, obtained a silver medal for Malaysia. Indeed, his score of 24 beat out the top scores for the Singapore team, even though the Singaporean team as a whole still beat us (ranked 32 versus 55). And for the first time, 5 out of 6 competitors from Malaysia received at least an honorable mention.

The full history of the IMO competition can be accessed here.

Malaysia's history in the IMO has not been a good one. Our best ranking before this year was 59 out of 83 in 2001. In the first year which Malaysia was in the competition, 1995, we ranked 72 out of 73. Last year, in 2007, we ranked 74 out of 93. We jumped almost 20 ranking positions from 74 to 55 this year.

The first time Malaysia won a bronze medal was in 2000, when Shien Jin (who went to MIT for his undergrad and Harvard for his PhD) and Suhaimi Ramly (who went to MIT). They would have gotten a higher ranking for Malaysia if Malaysia had sent more than 3 competitors (lack of funding, I was told).

Suhaimi was the 'observer' for the Malaysian team this year, meaning that he was the trainer for the team. And with Suhaimi, who's also the executive director of Aidan Corp and a co-founder of Ardent Education Consultants, in charge of training future teams, I'm sure that this is a sign of better things to come for the Malaysian IMO team.

A cursory look at the IMO historical results makes for interesting reading. Some of the usual suspects dominate the competition - China, Russia, USA. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan do well as well as do some of the former Eastern European countries - Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Hungary.

But I was surprised to see Thailand ranked 6 and Vietnam ranked 12 this year. Iran is also a powerhouse in the IMO competition!

In addition, the Nordic countries, who do well on most other indicators (HDI, competitiveness, education standards) perform so so only. India also does not do as well as one might imagine, with all that brainpower.

My sense is that countries who do well in this competition probably have 2 common practices. Firstly, they probably have a fairly open competitive process to select the participants. This is to ensure that the net is cast wide enough such that the best competitors are selected. Secondly, they probably have a fairly well developed training regiment where the skills of these participants are honed.

I'm guessing that China probably throws tons of resources at the selection and training of these candidates much like how their gymnasts and other athletic prodigies are selected and trained.

Obviously, it would be unrealistic for us to compete against the Chinese, let's say. (5 gold medals and 1 silver!) But Suhaimi tells me that a goal of achieve 100 total points for 6 competitors is realistic. This would put Malaysia at around the 30th position, on par with what Singapore achieved this year (98 points, 32nd position). I feel pretty good about our chances with someone like Suhaimi in charge.


Ivy Chai said...

congrats malaysians and malaysia :)

For once, some good news! :)

Anonymous said...

hehe...there is good chance, the singaporean gov are offering scholarshop to that guy..and he just end up studying in Sg, then working at Sg, then getting PR.

M. Alif Nordin said...

Congratulations to Suhaimi Ramly and his team. Personally, I do hope that you guys will be pushed up front in the education industry in Malaysia and make some outstanding revolution on our education system as a whole. We are the Gen Y! Use our brains! Don't wait for the government to initiate the changes.

Anonymous said...

Are they all from matrikulasi?

Anonymous said...

As expected, it seems that M'sian Universities have fallen out of the THES ranking list for 2007. Check it out at

No wonder there's eerie silence on the MSM and the govt.

Anonymous said...

this is very good
maybe a selection test which involve every malaysian including those studying outside the country will make it even better

Chen Chow said...

Congrats to the Malaysian Maths Olympiad Team.

Another good news. Thanks Suhaimi for updating on this. Xin Zhao has also won a silver for International Physics Olympiad!

Charis Quay said...

Congrats to the team and the trainers!

Yes, the net needs to be cast widely...I remember growing up in the middle of almost nowhere in Perak, hearing about government initiatives and then waiting in vain for them to reach us. Most of the time they never did...and I don't think the situation is any better today. Most things seem confined to the Klang Valley.

WY Kam 甘永元 said...

somehow, math olympiad comes across as something that ones need to study especially, ones need to learn the advanced maths before it's even the time for it. is it a true test of highschoolers' math ability? mm. maybe it should be open to univeristy-level students as well, or postgrad. maybe the professors themselves. :D

changyang1230 said...

@wy kam

While it's quite impossible to attempt the IMO questions without some useful knowledge and techniques, the malaysian maths olympiad is actually not that hard, and it's quite possible to tackle it without advanced technique. Maths olympiad involves brilliant and creative use of mathematical arsenal which is available to everyone.

For example, consider this basic question:

If a and b are odd numbers, prove that a^2 + b^2 can never be a perfect square number (e.g. 16, 64, 100, 144, 196 etc)

This might seem "out of syllabus", and to many people, it seems like a question only answerable using some out-of-this-world technique possessed only by maths professors. But in reality, a form-1 student can actually approach this question without any advanced formula. Here is the solution:

If you observe the pattern for the square of odd numbers (1, 9, 25, 49, 81...), you would notice that they would all leave a remainder of 1 when you divide it by 4. For those who are interested, the reason is that you can represent all odd numbers as 2n+1 (n being an integer), so the square of an odd number would naturally be 4n^2 + 4n + 1, or, 4(n^2 + n) + 1. It's then obvious that this number would have a remainder of 1 after dividing by 4.

What about the square of even numbers? E.g. 16, 64, 100, 144 etc. It isn't too hard to notice that they are actually divisible by 4. Reason: (2n)^2 = 4n^2

Now, if you add two "square of odd number" together, the sum would then have a remainder of 2 if you divide it by 4. For example, 9 + 25 = 34, and 34 has a remainder of 2 when you divide it by 4.

At this juncture, an astute student would be able to tell you that you have arrived at the proof required. Why? Because a perfect square number must either leave a remainder of 1 (in the case of odd number) or 0 (in the case of even numbers) when you divide it by 4. And now, you know that the sum of two "square of odd number" actually has a remainder of 2 - so the sum can't possibly be a perfect square itself! :D

This is just an example of how maths olympiad questions are like. In essence it's not about advanced formulae but the creative use of moderate-level mathematical knowledge. It doesn't even involve calculus - in fact calculus questions are not allowed in the IMO.

ming said...

It will be interesting (and perhaps illuminating) to find out about these for the various academic olympiads:

1) compare the average age of participants and the results obtained by each country

2) the rules by each country on the number of times a student is allowed to participate in such competitions

3) size of the student population within the age range for participation and the results obtained by each country - China, US, Russia a larger pool to select participants

4) the environment/motivation behind participation in olympiads - *presumably*, students from nordic countries come from an environment where education is seen much less as a competition than places like China where a gold medal is a ticket to "top" universities since the education system there is more equitable

5) Whether a racial quota is in place to limit the number participants from various races/ethnicbackground?

Anonymous said...

Congrats to the Malaysian team!

Yes, the net needs to be cast widely...I remember growing up in the middle of almost nowhere in Perak, hearing about government initiatives and then waiting in vain for them to reach us. Most of the time they never did...and I don't think the situation is any better today. Most things seem confined to the Klang Valley.

Not that much better in KL. I remember being all geared up for the national physics olympiad but my school didn't receive the invitation that year.

As for China winning, I'm not too surprised. They have schools for child prodigies and drill them in mathematics from a young age. By 12 or 13, most of them would probably be good enough to get a mathematics degree in top universities.

Unless we have similar programs, I don't expect us to come within the top 20 any time soon. But I'm not sure if such a program would be a good choice, though. Maybe it would be better to offer advance classes in certain subjects while allowing the student to continue at the normal pace for other subjects.

WY Kam 甘永元 said...

dear changyang,

thanks for the example and insight into solving an example question. While it's true that most questions might be based on intuitively mathematics (induction, logic, pattern, sequences, geometry), in reality, these "pure" intuitive maths can be learned too. no surprise that the winning teams include years of training or experience with such type of questions. loke zhi kin for example, has been a participant since 2006. while his prodigal mathematic ability is unquestionable, whether the maths olympiad is a good measure of that remains in doubt.

changyang1230 said...

Ah I might have misunderstood your point then.

I agree that there are specific techniques and tools that can be learned with regard to the maths olympiad problem solving. The participants from countries with intensive trainings (US, China etc) apparently have done so many questions to the extent that when they see a new question, they can readily see the similarity of the new question to one of the questions they have done before, and apply a similar technique to solve it.

Anyway, about your point "whether the maths olympiad is a good measure of that", I guess it really depends on what you mean by "maths ability" and what you mean by the sentence. Are you saying that:

a. people with good maths ability do not necessarily do well in IMO

b. people who excel in IMO do not necessarily possess the bona fide "math skill"

c. people with higher IMO score are not necessarily "smarter" than people with lower IMO score


d. if a country performs well in IMO, it doesn't necessarily mean that the national mathematics curriculum equips the population with good maths ability?

Each of these interpretation has quite different interpretations. Would love to hear you elaborate on what you mean. :)

changyang1230 said...

Correction: I actually meant "Each of these interpretations has quite different answers"

learn-from-history said...

"I was surprised to see Thailand ranked 6 ..."

Why were you surprised? Thai students performed well in other Olympiad as well, eg, in the recently completed 19th International Biology Olympiad, Mumbai, India, July 13-20, 2008.

Please visit:

Students from Korea, China, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, USA, and India did very well in the 19th IBO.

Anonymous said...

A propos to what learn-from-history mentioned, an Indonesian (Chinese, to be sure) was the top winner in the International Physics Olympiad last year.

WY Kam 甘永元 said...

chengyang: i like the original version better: "Each of these interpretation has quite different interpretations."

Math Olmpiads,implying the equivalent of mathematic olympics is probably a individual competition. I think c. is therefore my point. i can't disagree with d. either. scandinavian and east asia countries certainly have excellent maths education,without excellent IMO result.

changyang1230 said...

Ahh yeah that I agree. You might actually need exceptional talent to actually get crazy results like gold medals or 42/42; but to say that a silver medalist from australia is "better at maths" than a bronze medalist from Malaysia would not be a fair assessment. I think Shien Jin shared the same sentiment with us in an occasion.

Anonymous said...

i can't disagree with d. either. scandinavian and east asia countries certainly have excellent maths education,without excellent IMO result.

Which East Asian countries are you referring to? I see Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been consistently in and around the top 10 for the past 10 years, at least. And North Korea has been in the top 10 for the last 2 years. The only other East Asian countries are Hong Kong (7m) and Macau (0.5m) with much smaller populations than Malaysia but still HK's been performing consistently better than Malaysia and Macau at almost the same level. I'd say that all their results have been pretty excellent.

chacha said...

Tham Ying Hong cool!!!

jasmine said...

I am way too late in this discussion, but might I just add that according to my experience, the net is not just cast in the Klang Valley for the Math Olympiad. Students who do well in the Olympiad Matematik Kebangsaan are selected for annual training camps, where the filtering process goes on after a week of intensive training. However, I did notice that fewer people from East Malaysia were selected during my 4 years in camp.

I attended these training camps throughout secondary school and participated in IMO 2004 (I'm from Kedah), and while it was beneficial, I say (and I say carefully) that more than half of the training camp participants weren't really passionate about the real math. They were interested in getting a place on the team to decorate their CV. I believe if the school math was less 'dead and structured' and allowed room for more creative thinking, real interest in math could then have been cultivated not just in the select few, but among all Malaysians.

So, I hope you see why I personally do not thinking Malaysia's ranking is all that important, alhtough we definitely do not want to make a fool of ourselves. Nevertheless, I am still thrilled at Malaysia's performance. Congrats!

DarrenOng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DarrenOng said...

A brief summary of Malaysia's IMO history can be found here: MALAYSIA IMO TEAMS

T.P said...

I am a Malaysian Chinese studying in Singapore but I never get the chance to take the OMK. It would be easy for me to travel back since it is so near.

In Singapore, it is called the Singapore Mathematical Olympiad. No matter how well I have performed in the SMO (1st round in early June and invitational round in June/July), I know IMO is out of contention, since only Singapore citizens or PR can represent it.

From what I know, the Singaporean students went through intensive selection and trainings, with basically top students from the nation representing it.

In Malaysia, I think that top students from states like Sabah, Sarawak and others may not get the chance to take OMK. The IMO team seems dominated by Selangor students.

Hence, I support Anonymous (6th post) would strongly urge the organising committee (is it PERSAMA?) to publicise the selection more widely, and allow top students from ALL schools to have the opportunity to be considered for selection. But thankfully race is not a criteria I think.

Kudos to all Malaysians who have done the country proud! I know this may sounds boring, but Malaysia Boleh!

Anonymous said...

I am a Malaysian Chinese studying in Malaysia Chinese Indipendent SChool,
every year, Chinese Indipendant School will win most of the individuals or group contest, but non of a chinese Indipendent SChool students are selected for IMO Training, this is unfair.