NATIONAL BLIND SPOT: We must master this knowledge and apply it in the work place
THERE have been many concerted national efforts to ensure that citizens of all ages master various literacies. In the early years of independence, the focus was on adult basic literacy.
Although remembered in amusement by some, it was really a serious matter to get people to learn to sign their names, and not just to get thumb prints. Two-pronged actions were taken to help adults to be schooled while educating those of school-going age, many of whom were in multi-grade classes because of the shortage of teachers and classrooms.
With universal primary education, Malaysian society has come a long way from those early days of struggle for education. The agenda has moved from universal primary education, mass secondary education to democratisation of higher education.
Malaysians are increasingly literate in various kinds of social media, which require at the very least nimble fingers to touch screens and keyboards to initiate conversations or respond to communication, however truncated in language. Information communication technology literacy has now become the mark of the digital era. There has also been focus on national historical literacy.
There has always been the rhetoric and reality of the need for multicultural living literacy. In the school system, there has been an incremental focus on manipulative skills, living skills and design skills.
There has been the ongoing push for religious literacy. Since the beginning of schooling, there has been the provision of opportunities for health science literacy for all and domestic science literacy for those who choose such subjects.
With the realisation that a sizeable component of the Malaysian economy is export orientated and that there is the critical need for the creation of employment, there has been the focus on entrepreneurial literacy and skills, on innovation and creativity.
Of the critical literacies that are neglected are those like earth sciences, sometimes addressed in naïve and one-off passions for tree planting, banning of plastic, and romantic notions of institutions in gardens or gardens in institutions. Beyond such surface-level passion for the environment, there is little understanding of earth sciences.
As a society, Malaysians do not really have science literacy. The majority of students shy away from science subjects although official data indicates that there is a surplus of science teachers.
Over the years, official policies of having a 60:40 ratio of science to arts students have wavered and criteria of defining science have gotten confused in the midst of the promotions of science and technology literacies, and vocational and technical education.
Science for all Malaysians is not just about mastery of science subjects in schools and universities and applying that knowledge at work. Science for all Malaysians is about mastering efficient living in a complex world where science and technology intrudes in every aspect of existence. It makes quality living meaningful but simultaneously threatens and endangers lives.
There was an occasion when a prime minister chaired a policy meeting and the matter of science literacy for all was raised, as well as the initiative to establish science museums throughout the country, modelled, for instance, on the Boston Science Museum or the Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
There was an immediate response by advisers that such initiatives were in the books and underway. Almost two decades after the assurance, there is no evidence of the establishment of science museums nationwide.
Clearly, advisers to policymakers should not be so quick to get the personal approval of people in power that they are doing their work. Closed minds in the policy-making process deny the people the opportunities and right to more enlightened implementation of policies.
Science for all Malaysians remains a blind spot of the national agenda. As long as citizens do not master scientific content of daily living, hone and exercise scientific thinking in all aspects of decision-making, then Malaysians will exercise non-scientific habits in decision-making.
Manipulators will have a field day manipulating nonscientific minds to believe and live in a world of zombies and vampires of the soul.
Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid | firstname.lastname@example.org is a deputy vice-chancellor, INTI Laureate International University New Straits Times Online Columnist 19 Aug 2013