Monday, August 11, 2008

Merdeka Awards: Initiated by Petronas, ExxonMobil and Shell

The spark is lit


The Merdeka Award will be an inspiration to innovation.

FOR the first time, the prestigious Merdeka Award will be given to recognise and reward individuals and organisations that have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of Malaysia and its people.

Initiated by Petronas, ExxonMobil and Shell, excellence in five categories will be rewarded: Health, Science and Technology; Education and Community; Environment; Outstanding Scholastic Achievement; and Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia. Each category carries a cash prize of RM500,000 and comes with a trophy and a certificate.

“I’m happy that there’s such an award. There’s a need to encourage young scientists and researchers who often work in the background. Many countries see science as a tool to eradicate poverty and help the country progress,” says Tan Sri Augustine Ong, who is part of the nomination committee for the Health, Science and Technology category, together with Dr Oystein Berg and Tan Sri Dr Yahya Awang.

“We have a strong background in health – our first research centre, the Institute for Medical Research, was set up as early as 1916. The health system in Malaysia is one of the best in the world and we have good health infrastructure. For this Award, we will also be looking at innovation and creativity, research and development in these fields.”

Several evaluative criteria will be applied in the selection of winners. The work put forward has to be original, recognised internationally and relevant.

“How do you judge originality? Well, scientists can only be judged by their peers and this is when their work gets published in peer review journals, and they get recognition when they are invited on fellowships or to speak at international conferences.

“In terms of health, we need to look at how new concepts have saved lives. Or it could be the use of new technology which has helped to increase the yield of crops significantly which will in turn help the poor,” adds Ong, founding president of the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS). Ong is well-known for his work in academia and the local palm oil industry, and has been awarded a number of fellowships, prizes and medals for his many achievements.

The Award is timely as it not only commemorates the country’s 50th year of independence but is an acknowledgement of how far we’ve progressed in health, science and technology.

Ong says that it’s not uncommon for a prophet not to be appreciated in his own country. “Sometimes, our own inventions are not given much attention locally but they are recognised overseas. For example, there was this chef who devised a method of cooking eggs by controlling temperatures, the flow of hot water and other specifics. He received a bronze medal here but when he presented his invention in Geneva, he received a gold medal for his efforts.

“We want to encourage barefoot inventors from the public levels and encourage an innovative society. Parents and the government both play a role. These days, the yardstick of excellence isn’t just about learning from the master. Rather, one should now be judged by the number of students who excel and become better than the master.”

Ong sees the Award as an excellent step towards stimulating the “cream of the crop” in the field and that it is incentives like these that will encourage and inspire others to follow suit.

“But there should be other incentives besides money. Sometimes, the benefits of science and technology in daily use are not always clear or immediate. Financial returns should not be the only motivation.

“We have to ask ourselves, why do so many Americans win the Nobel prize? It’s because they have been groomed from young to be original and creative. If you develop an interest from young and your work coincides with your interest, then it becomes a life-long commitment. We need to train people to think and challenge young minds.”

The challenge is to convert society as it is not always supportive of science and technology.

“Research is normally not done here. We need more enlightened ones to guide. There is a pervasive tendency here for people to be followers instead of leaders. We need to be strong in fundamentals.”

Interestingly, Ong brings up the fact that creativity need not always come from urban folks, and adds that it would be worthwhile to invest in human resource and empower the people.

Indeed, the Award will be a milestone in Malaysia’s hall of fame.

“This is the beginning of an explosion,” Ong says.

click here: The spark is lit
Malaysia Star, Malaysia