THANKS to creative minds at work since the beginning of our species, Homo sapiens (‘wise man’), technology has continuously transformed societies.
Imagine the impact on lives when some early man or woman first shaped a rock or branch into a simple tool. Or saw a stone roll and recognised the idea and potential of the wheel. Or discovered how to control fire. Or first cultivated crops and livestock, eventually freeing people from the individual need to find food daily.
Shaping humanity in the past 600 years or so has been the creation of the printing press, telephone and Internet, each of them reducing physical barriers to communication and enabling us to interact freely on a global scale with profound consequences (not all of them welcome).
Today, scientific advances based on research and development create technologies that produce industrial or commercial goods that affect and enrich humanity in many ways. Knowledge is the key.
And, as aptly exclaimed by Sir Winston Churchill: ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.’ One can only reflect on the success of industrialised countries such Japan and South Korea, deficient in natural resources but oozing with talented and hard-working citizens.
Today, as the world enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), there is ‘a blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds’, to quote Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum.
‘It’s a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing and other technologies. It’s the collective force behind many products and services that are fast becoming indispensable to modern life.’
Indeed, we are entering an era of great change, thanks to technologies. And we need to take increasingly great care to make sure that ‘benefits’ are in fact beneficial, and shared in an equitable way.
Two pertinent observations made last week by our national leaders drove home the need to adopt a holistic and balanced approach in our educational strategy if we are to contribute to and see those technological advances with eyes wide open, and to take full advantage of them.
The first was by Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah at the launch of SkillsMalaysia 2.0: SKILL4ALL – Towards New-Collar Jobs at the Ipoh Industrial Training Institute on Dec 2.
Technical, vocational education and training (TVET) programmes, he said, must ensure trainees are equipped not just with academic skills, but soft skills too, such as positive values, leadership, team work, communication and continuous learning.
The monarch said ethics and morality must be made mandatory educational elements so that skilled workers adhere to the principles of trustworthiness, integrity and sincerity, that they resist corruption and not abuse power.
Sultan Nazrin foresees employment changing significantly in the 4IR era, with automation replacing humans in many job sectors, among other changes. He noted a 2018 study by the World Bank and Malaysian partners that suggested half of the jobs in our country are at high risk of being automated, with 25 per cent more at moderate risk.
On that same day elsewhere, at the launch of the National Technical Profession Day, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad underlined some similar messages and said Malaysia is emulating Japan, Germany and the United States in focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and TVET to produce more skilled technical professionals.
‘These workers, equipped with the latest knowledge and armed with a competitive streak, are the key to a country’s success,’ he said.
‘Latest statistics showed that 44 per cent of Malaysians have chosen STEM as their preferred field. The government aims to increase the percentage to 60 per cent.’
Dr Mahathir said technical professionals were responsible for the success of Malaysia’s shift from an agriculture-based to industry-driven nation. He also noted that seven of Germany’s 10 biggest companies were involved in technical fields and stressed that ‘innovation is prioritised there, paving the way for more technology inventions. This has resulted in the country having the most international registered patents’.
Malaysian expertise is indeed recognised abroad, and as pointed out by the prime minister, he added, the excellence of Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) in the energy industry is one.
The National Technical Profession Day, he said, was a starting point for government efforts to develop STEM, therefore technical workers should equip themselves with skills via upgrading, and companies to reduce dependency on foreign labour.
The optimistic outlook by the two leaders should serve as an inspiration. With commitment and a sense of purpose, in the near future we would get our education system to where we want and need it to be.
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the recipient of the 2019 National Academic Laureate Award
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times
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