By Datuk Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid
UNITED States President Barack Obama’s visit this weekend is testimony to the friendship he shares with our prime minister and marks the first hospitality extended by Malaysia to America’s chief executive since Lyndon B. Johnson touched down in our then-fledgling nation 48 years ago.
In the words of Malaysian special envoy to the US, Datuk Seri Jamaluddin Jarjis: “We have long waited for the US president, and Malaysia is ready to show him what we have.”
The president has made laudable overtures to Muslim-majority countries since the beginning of his first term, articulating his vision most famously on a trip to Cairo in 2009.
As he told Cairo University students that year, he seeks “a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Obama also eloquently recognised “civilisation’s debt to Islam”.
“It was Islam,” he said, “at places like Al-Azhar that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”
The “Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation” referred to by Obama lasted about 1,000 years — from the 7th to the 17th century — and spanned a territory from southern Spain to China.
Sadly, the 57 Muslim-majority member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are among the poorest in the world today and lag behind in science, technology and innovation (STI), the engine that drives prosperity.
Only two countries in the OIC, namely Malaysia and Turkey, spend more than one per cent of their Gross Domestic Product on research and development; the majority spend less than 0.5 per cent. And support to develop our societies’ skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Technology (STEM) is woefully low.
In his Cairo speech, Obama pledged help: “We will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We’ll open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programmes that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitise records, clean water, grow new crops.”
Very welcome words, indeed.
On engaging the West — and America in particular — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad offers these insights: “The relationship between the Islamic world and the West has never been cordial. From the time of the Crusades to the present Palestinian conflict, there have been disagreements and even open confrontations between the Islamic world and the West. There’s much to be gained from some degree of understanding between the two.”
According to Dr Mahathir, “true Muslim values and practices can contribute something towards arresting the moral decay in the West. On the other hand, there are also so many things in the West which can contribute to the development of the Muslim world”.
These contributions include assistance in maximising the application of STI in economic development and in adopting best practices drawn from the experience of Western education systems.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has fostered these beneficial relationships between the West and Malaysia throughout his premiership.
In May 2011, for example, he established the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSAIC) for Malaysia with the assistance of the New York Academy of Sciences and the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).
Based in New York, the GSIAC includes eminent scientists, captains of industry and policymakers from around the world whose aim is to demonstrate in Malaysia the sustainable development of an emerging economy nation through such tactics as improving STI capabilities and promoting multilateral trade and investment.
In another major move, during MIGHT’s 20th anniversary last November, Najib announced the Science to Action (S2A) Initiative, intensifying efforts to apply science and technology to national development and the people’s wellbeing, in line with the New Economic Model and the Economic Transformation Programme.
In accordance with the Government Transformation Programme, a new mode of science governance will also be adopted.
“The ability to create, distribute and exploit knowledge through science, technology and entrepreneurship has become a major source of competitive advantage, wealth creation and improvements in the quality of life,” Najib observed.
A start has been made by the scientific community here in engaging our US counterparts in science, technology and innovation. However, our mutual aspirations have not been fully realised and it is hoped that during the president’s visit this weekend these ambitions can be translated into highly tangible near-term outcomes.
The writer is the Science Advisor to Malaysia’s Prime Minister.