Time to innovate, Malaysia!

The euphoria of having a new government is real, but along with it, the realisation of the sorry state of our country is in, is devastating. We need to rebuild the country almost from scratch. Tun Mahathir and his team has an abominable task ahead of them! This feeling is probably similar to what the late Lee Kuan Yew had felt when he was “kicked out” of Malaysia:

“Never had I expected that in 1965 at 42, I would be in charge of an independent Singapore, responsible for the lives of its 2 million people……All of a sudden, on 9 August 1965, we were out on our own as an independent nation…..we were sickened by the greed, corruption and decadence of many Asian leaders. Fighters for freedom for their oppressed peoples had become plunderers of their wealth. Their societies slid backwards…..”

Tun Mahathir could be writing in his memoir along similar lines: “Never had I expected that in 2018 at 92, I would be Prime Minister of Malaysia again……….I am greatly sickened by the overwhelming greed that had taken-over the previous government…”

So Malaysia has a tough ride ahead. First and foremost, our new government has to fix our much-battered economy which has plunged our nations debt into the trillion mark! Secondly, we have to fix our broken education system which also has plunged to near bottom of world rankings. Fortunately, our citizens morale is high – high with renewed hope and renewed dreams for a better Malaysia! And to this end, and with this spirit, I believe we can achieve the impossible! The key lies in the INNOVIZATION (innovation + revitalization) of our nation, and we need to start by innovating how we educate our young!

In “Creating Innovators – The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World”, innovation is defined as creative problem-solving (amongst others), and schools are not creating innovators but instead killing them.

“Anyone who has spent time in an elementary school classroom knows that every student starts school with unbounded imagination, curiosity, and creativity – until he or she learns that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.” Which explains how kids are being dumbed down by a system that is supposed to make them smart. But kids are already smart to begin with – a fact that too many people have overlooked in their zeal to make them smarter. So instead of letting them grow in their natural curiosity, we shut them up and shut them down. Instead of letting their imagination fly sky high, we leash them down with packaged curriculum and standardised tests. Instead of allowing them ample room to be creative, we demand them to regurgitate facts and choose the “right answers”. Instead of letting them express themselves and feel their emotions, we give them keys to lock them away, and throw the keys out too. These are excellent methods to dumb them down and to dehumanise them. Yes. Many of the things we do to children are very dehumanising. Like making them stand facing the wall, or on chairs and tables, and physically punishing them with the cane, or worse, emotionally torturing them into submission. These are mild compared to many horror stories I have heard!

So let us NOT continue on this systemic path of intellectual and emotional destruction of our young. Let us rise up against this tyranny of mind-numbing, stress-inducing and dehumanising system of schooling, and replace them with stimulating, inspiring and innovative learning – adopting and preserving the unschooled mind.

“The Unschooled Mind – How Children Think & How Schools Should Teach” (Basic Books, 1991). In this book, Gardner points to the importance and significance of the natural inclinations of preschoolers in the area of learning, more specifically languages of their native tongues, as opposed to language learning in schools. Why do young children able to internalise their native languages without formal instructions, while at school, struggle with the formal learning of languages?

“During the first years of life, youngsters all over the world master a breathtaking array of competences with little formal tutelage. They become proficient at singing songs, riding bikes, executing dances, keeping scrupulous track of dozens of objects in their home, on the road, or along countryside. In addition, though less visibly, they develop powerful theories of how the world works and how their own minds work.” This is what he calls Intuitive Learning. But they often experience the greatest difficulties upon their entry into school, where Scholastic Learning occurs. Here is where the difficulties lie. “Somehow the natural, universal, or intuitive learning that takes place in one’s home or immediate surroundings during the first years of life seems of an entirely different order from school learning that is now required throughout the literate world. He goes on to say that “even when school appears to be successful, even when it elicits the performances for which it has apparently been designed, it typically fails to achieve its most important missions.”

Traditional schooling will not be efficient in preparing students for 21st century problem-solving or creative expressions until and unless we change our whole mindset about learning and working. For example, it is generally recognised by all that the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetics – covers the basic skills required for literacy. But what seems to be missing here, are contexts in which the deployment of these skills makes sense. “Too many students do not see the three Rs being used productively at home, nor do they witness their utility in school; and too few students are presented with problems, challenges, projects, and opportunities that draw in a natural and productive way on these skills.”

Before we even attempt to “solve the problems of schooling” we need to ask these questions: what kinds of students do we want at the end, and what are the steps to be taken towards that end? What are our priorities and goals?

Here are the 5 requisites of a successful innovator according to Tony Wagner’s research:

1. Curiosity – a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply.

2. Collaboration – begins with listening to and learning from others.

3. Associative or integrative thinking.

4. A bias towards action and experimentation.

And what is so amazing is that they can be nurtured, taught and mentored! But to “act differently in order to differently” is often shunned upon in schools. “If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 1/2 years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them.”

But children of this generation have something that no other previous generations had – the internet! On the internet, unlike in their daytime classrooms, young people act on their curiosity. This generation of young people have learned to create, connect, and collaborate on the Internet – far more so than they are ever allowed to do in school. The writer feels that we must learn how to work with these extraordinary young people: learn how to parent, teach, and mentor them – and learn from them, as well.

So how do we develop young people to become innovators? According to Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, three skills are needed:

1. Expertise – One cannot innovate from nothing. You must have expertise (knowledge)

2. Creative-thinking skills – ask questions, make connections, observe, empathise, collaborate, and experiment.

3. Motivation – Dr Amabile believes that this is more important than expertise or skills. “Expertise and creative-thinking are an individual’s raw materials. But motivation determines what people will actually do.”

Extrinsic motivation (getting A’s in exams, monetary rewards or titles) is less effective compared to intrinsic motivation (interest and passion), especially when it comes to the current generation of young people. “People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the internet, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself – and not by external pressures.”

And HOW can we encourage it? Well, we go back to the 3P’s: Play, Passion, Purpose.


Here’s an interesting observation: what do the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia have in common? Answer: they all went to Montessori schools, where they learned through play.


It is something that cannot be drilled into us. It has to come from within – the passion to explore, to learn something new, to understand something deeply; the passion to master something difficult. When some people “pooh-pooh” passion as something overrated and unimportant, I would say that these people do not have passion in them to understand its true meaning and impact on the individual. One just has to take a look at entrepreneurs, and scientists, and technologists, to see how passion drive them to success. Not money.


A sense of purpose (to make a difference) is a very human thing. Cats can sleep all day. Humans can’t. Because humans have a sense of purpose: to make a difference, to impact the world in a positive way. And they get a lot of help from parents, teachers or mentors along the way – people who acted differently so that the young people could think and act differently.

Here’s another quiz for you: what do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Dean Kamen, Paul Allen, and many other brilliant innovators have in common?

Answer: They all had to drop out of college to pursue their new ideas because “their schooling was interfering with their education.” (Henry Rutgers)

More questions: How important is college in the development of young people’s capacity to be innovative? Do we merely need students to take more STEM courses in college, or will they most benefit from a different kind of teaching?

Rethinking college

Fact backed by research: students are incurring enormous debt to go to college and they aren’t learning much in their undergraduate courses. “College has increasingly become merely a sorting and credentialing mechanism. What you get out of college is largely a function of accident: you manage to get into the right program or you have the right professors or you take initiative on your own. It’s unconscionable that so much is left to chance when we know what is powerful learning and good teaching. It’s a very inefficient way of giving people an education, and it is a very costly endeavour.” (Richard Hersh, author of “We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education”.

Re-innovating Malaysia

Malaysia is currently sitting on the threshold of CHANGE – and this is a crucial moment in our nation’s history to move into high gear in the creation of a CREATIVE and INNOVATIVE nation. We have remained dormant for far too long. Dr Mahathir’s first digital mega project (Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor) started with a Big Bang but was rendered dormant for more than a decade – a costly missed opportunity to propel our nation into a First World nation. We certainly need lots of propelling fuel and high technology to relaunch our “rocket” into orbit. And the time has come for Malaysians to work together with ONE HEART and ONE MIND to make this dream come true. We have the talents. We have the resources. We have the drive! We can do without the skepticisms, the cynicisms and the pessimisms that are invading the social media. Malaysians have done the unthinkable on May 9th 2018. We can achieve the unthinkable too by adopting an OPTIMISTIC and CREATIVE mindset and a relentless drive to push our nation forward to be amongst the best in the world in terms of governance, education and innovation!

Let me quote LKY again here, from his parting words in his memoir, “From Third World to First – The Singapore Story 1965-2000”:

“The future is as full of promise as it is fraught with uncertainty. The industrial society is giving way to one based on knowledge and those without. We must learn and be part of the knowledge-based world. That we have succeeded in the last three decades does not ensure our doing so in the future. However, we stand a better chance of not failing if we abide by the basic principles that have helped us progress social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government”.

With our new government in place, and with the astute, combined leaderships working together as one, plus the RAKYAT’s support and collaboration, I believe Malaysia can certainly do it.


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