Penang sets its sights on science

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The premise for the PSC was obvious – to generate interest in science among the young and nurture the state’s next generation of innovative technopreneurs and engineers. For this to happen, we don't have to deal with rocket science. Very often, the simplest solutions are the most effective.

It’s been 40 years since multinational corporations (MNCs) first set up factories in Penang. The technological innovations involved have undergone seismic shifts since then. In the 1970s, factory managers in Bayan Lepas had to drive to the telecoms headquarters in George Town to cable their headquarters in the US. There was no such thing as email or the internet. Since then, manufacturing technology and research and development (R&D) have made real what Star Trek (the version with Captain Kirk) could only imagine.

Penang’s hardware has gone through significant upgrades since the 1970s, yet the state’s key asset has always been its software – especially the collective experience of the local workforce. When you factor in four decades of dealing with increasingly globalised markets, this is a big deal.

Two full generations of electrical and electronic (E&E) competency across all levels is something that is difficult even for Asia’s fastest rising stars – India, Vietnam, China – to replicate. This has not been lost on the current state government, and the establishment of the Penang Science Council (PSC) is a move to increase the talent pipeline from schools to industry.

Penang’s Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, who has pushed for the PSC, noted, “…the vision of the PSC is to make Penang into the centre of excellence for science and technology. With its long standing history in the manufacturing industry, this council will play a critical role in addressing the critical issue of human resource where the interest in science and technology has tapered off over the years1.”

Dependability, innovation or both?

Yoon Chon Leong, the honorary secretary of the PSC has been involved in the E&E sector since the 1980s. He assessed Penang’s current situation thus: “There is plenty of goodwill from MNCs towards Penang, the majority are focused on further growth in the state, but they are concerned about talent. Let’s be clear, MNCs don’t leave Penang because we lack talent alone, the Penang brand is seen as a very reliable brand. We may not be spectacular in global cost competitiveness but we can deliver.” After major flooding in Thailand in 2011, Yoon explained, a number of MNCs had to divert manufacturing to Penang.

The challenge now is not about increasing Penang’s dependability but rather enhancing innovation. Such talent has to be developed early and the PSC aims to get children as young as primary school

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at the Penang International Science Fair.

Making science fun

Conventional textbook teaching focuses heavily on theoretical concepts, and that is hardly inspiring for young minds. The PSC has instead pulled together a group of 130 engineers who readily volunteer their time to engage with schoolchildren around the state and demonstrate to them the practicalities of scientific theories. It’s a hands-on, fun learning experience for the kids.

The biggest contributions of PSC’s member companies are not just the money to run an administrative office but the time and effort needed to support the programmes. The engineers themselves have taken the initiative to coordinate themselves and regularly visit close to 60 schools in Penang.

According to Yoon, “In the first two years, we purposely placed a lot of emphasis on engaging the MNCs because these companies have all the ‘horsepower’ to make things happen. By doing this, the PSC was able to create initiatives closely aligned to the MNCs’ CSR programmes which in general focus on education. Once they were active it was easier to rope in the local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to support projects that are both meaningful and have a high chance of success.”

The PSC has generated plenty of goodwill from the private and public sectors and during the inaugural Penang International Science Fair, federal agencies including the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) and Talent Corporation Malaysia (TalentCorp) and state agencies including the Penang Development Corporation (PDC), investPenang, the Chief Minister's office and Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang (PBAPP) were represented.

Penang Science Council pillar leaders with the Chief Minister. From left to right, Datuk Seri Kelvin Kiew, Lim Guan Eng, TT Yew, Datuk Wong Siew Hai and Yoon Chon Leong.

“As far as the life sciences cluster goes, local hospitals have been very supportive in providing doctors and administrators to give excellent talks to the participants. Through these talks, we were able to explain to children and parents that there is more to life sciences than just being a doctor,” said Yoon. He added that hospitals have shown commitment to work with the life sciences pillar by providing training and infrastructure to students to allow them to work on interesting projects.

What’s next?

The PSC’s first year was all about hitting the ground running with the Penang International Science Fair acting as a giant showcase. The one-day event which was free for the public attracted an estimated 10,000 visitors. With plenty of interactive games and experiments on display, it was a happy outing for the kids and also good branding for the PSC.

“2012 will be about running regular activities to build on the kids’ interest. We especially want to reach out to more rural schools as talent isn’t just concentrated in urban areas. We need to connect more rural kids to engineers. We’d also like to create a continual stream of science-based competitions,” said Yoon.

Also in the pipeline is an ambitious plan to create a permanent Tech Centre motivated by the awe-inspiring San Jose Tech Centre. With enough momentum from the public and private sectors, the future of science in Penang is looking increasingly bright. Creating the next generation of engineers and science-related professionals involves more than cookie-cutter theories. The PSC is providing the magic ingredients – fun, enthusiasm and ideas.

1 http://limguaneng.com/index. php/2010/05/17/penangscience- council-logo-and-mascotcompetition



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