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Left - Pulut Taitai. Middle - Cheak Bee Soh. Right - Bak Chang.

Feature

Chronicling Nyonya Cuisine

Ong Jin Teong painstakingly records – and sustains – the exquisite art of Nyonya cooking.

Inspired by the multicultural influences that have for centuries shaped Peranakan cuisine, Dr Ong Jin Teong decided to undertake an in-depth exploration of Nyonya food and its many gastronomic wonders. Born and bred in a Penang Nyonya family, Ong credits his late mother Khoo Chiew Kin for starting him on his culinary quest. A soughtafter authority on the subject today, Ong is also the author of Penang Heritage Food: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook.

I met Ong during the September launch of his second book, a compilation of heirloom recipes titled Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes, to discuss how Penang Peranakan cuisine varies from its Malaccan and Singaporean counterparts. Both Penang and Singapore Peranakan food is strongly influenced by its Malay and Hokkien origins.

“Penang Nyonya food is also influenced by the Thais, northern Malays and the Hainanese, while Singapore Peranakan food has Indonesian influences. This explains why you cannot find perut ikan or kerabu in Singapore Peranakan cuisine and why mee soto, sayur lodeh, gado-gado and rendang don’t feature much in Penang Nyonya cuisine,” explains Ong, who is a retired professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in the College of Engineering. “There is even a suggestion that the Malacca Nyonyas use a lot of tomatoes in their cooking because of Portuguese influences.”

Singaporean Peranakan food tends to be sweeter as well. “My impression is that tau cheo (fermented bean paste) is used a lot. For example, it is commonly used in the Nyonya chap chye and the fillings for poh piah and kuih pai tee but not so in Penang. Some Penang recipes for chap chye use tau ju (soy sauce) instead.”

According to Ong, the use of bunga telang (butterfly pea flower) to tinge glutinous rice with a blue hue is also limited to only a few dishes in Penang. “Pulut taitai and pulut inti are probably the only two that I know of. This is because blue colouring is regarded as inauspicious in both Peranakan and Chinese cultures due to its close association with the colour of mourning (black) after a loved one’s passing. Families must clad themselves in black attire for a certain amount of days before switching to blue.“I suppose the only reason why the Nyonyas still serve pulut taitai is because the gold from the kaya overrides the inauspiciousness of the pulut’s blue. Likewise with pulut inti, which has a somewhat yellowish filling too.”

Ong (left) posing with his latest cookbook: Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes.

Long Hours in the Kitchen Peranakan cuisine is famous for lengthy preparations that can sometimes take days. In the old days, Baba Nyonyas subscribed to indefinite measures when cooking. “It was all done by rough estimation or agak agak in both Baba Malay and Malay – by taste, feel and experience”. Ong admits, “I also cook like that if I am not recording a recipe. A handful or a fistful of ingredient is mek in Penang Hokkien, and since a Baba’s mek would be bigger than a Nyonya’s, it adds more uncertainties to Nyonya cooking.

“Additionally, many early recipes – including some of my mother’s – use the cost of ingredients instead as a measure: 10 sen of dried chillies, 15 sen of shallots or five sen of belacan. It would be interesting to use these recipes according to the original costs but scaled up to take inflation into account. We would certainly end up with a different retro dish since inflation is so different for each of the various ingredients.”

The accumulation of these factors has perhaps resulted in the near disappearance of several classic Nyonya delicacies, such as sesargon. Ong recalls “It is the one Nyonya heritage titbit that I ate when I was young. ‘Titbit’ is quite the right description because you could say sesargon is a very posh version of sugared desiccated coconut, although it is very time consuming to prepare – many hours of slow frying!”

Sesargon is made up of a trifecta of main ingredients: grated coconut, ground rice and egg which are “mixed together and fried over low heat in a traditional brass pan with pandan leaves to give it the flavour. Sugar is the last ingredient to be added”. The sesargon is then packed into dainty little cones shaped from thin greaseproof tracing paper. “The proper way to eat sesargon from a paper cone is to tear off the bottom, tilt your head backward and tap the cone to let the sesargon flow into your mouth a little at a time.” However, Ong warns: “A word of caution is needed here: make sure it doesn’t get into your air passage.”

In the old days, Baba Nyonyas subscribed to indefinite measures when cooking. It was all done by rough estimation or agak agak in both Baba Malay and Malay – by taste, feel and experience.

Another classic that is virtually unknown these days is cheak bee soh (vegetable puff pastries). Once a staple at weddings of rich families in Penang, cheak bee soh is a crescent-shaped curry puff lookalike. “Two different types of rice flours – cheak bee (rice used for everyday meals) and choo bee (glutinous rice) – are used to make the cheak bee soh pastry. The dough and the filling most probably have Hokkien origins, like poh piah and jiu hu char. These were originally all based on bamboo shoots. According to Jee Chim (Ong’s second aunt and mentor), we can add crab meat and roe to give the cheak bee soh filling a dark orange colour and richer taste. In the 1960s, while the Nonya kuihs like kuih bengka ubi kayu, kuih lapis and chai tow kuih cost five sen each and curry puffs cost 10 sen each, cheak bee soh cost 20 sen.”

Ong treated his guests to a cooking class during his book launch

Left - The ondeh-ondeh was made from scratch using sweet potatoes. Right - Sesargon is still commercially available in Malacca and in some of the southern Thai towns like Phuket and Hatyai where there is a sizeable population of Babas.

Not all classics are lost. The Nyonya chang or pua kiam tnee chang (“half salty and sweet dumpling” in Penang Hokkien) is still thriving, often made and presented during celebrations and ceremonies. Both Penang and Singapore Nyonya chang feature tung kwa (candied winter melon). “In Singapore the Nyonya chang is traditionally wrapped in large pandan leaves; bamboo leaves are used in Penang.” However, the differences do not end there: “In addition to the pepper and coriander used in Singapore, pua kiam tnee chang includes cekur (kencur) roots and pounded groundnuts but does not include mushrooms. The Penang Nyonya chang is often steamed with coconut milk.“Also, the Nyonya chang found in Singapore and Malacca is partially coloured blue. It’s rare though to find a blue-tinged Nyonya chang in Penang. Still, if there are any, chances are the Penang Peranakans have relatives living in Malacca.”

With the release of Nonya Heritage Kitchen, Ong is hopeful that some of the more traditional Peranakan dishes will soon be making a comeback. “If anything, it will raise the awareness of Nyonya cuisine among the younger generation in Malaysia.”

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.
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  7. January, 2016

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Cover

Table of Contents February 2017

Capture2
Cover Story

Saving Our Schools

Education is more than exams; it's also about developing skills and ideas required for both the digital economy and students' individual well-being. Why is Malaysia still behind in this?

CaptureFeature

Aiming for Homes for All

Penang's property landscape is both diverse and dynamic.

Window into history

The Dawn of Higher Education in Malaysia

It was no easy matter pushing for tertiary-level education in colonial Malaya.

Feature

Discover Penang Hainanese Food Before It’s Too Late!

Hainanese cuisine restaurant Hai Onn is as old school as it gets.


kb

Profile

Making Waves with Molluscs

One woman's passion for research on giant clams is helping communities all over Malaysia.

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Feature

A Model Village that Stays Vibrant

The communal spirit of Kampung Seronok makes it a truly fun place to be.

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Advertorial

A Summit to Survey

The Penang Property Summit is worth a visit for potential house buyers and stakeholders alike.

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Feature

A Taste for Waste

Green living and zero waste are the goals for communities in Seberang Perai.

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Photo Essay

A Tantalising Tribute to Jimmy Boyle

The James Boyle Trio pays homage to Penang’s iconic composer.

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Feature

A Mortar Board Does Not Guarantee Employability

It can take a long time for higher education to pay off.

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Feature

Back To Beca

It's time to make Penang's iconic trishaws thrive again.

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Utter Economics

Fintech: A New Frontier in Finance

Innovations in financial technology are here to stay.

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Oddly Enough

Time to Limit the Logic of the Market

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Peaks and Parks

Hiking to Paradise

A trek well worth the effort.

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Penang Palette

Art That Found Immortality in 2016

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Statistics

The Numbers on Education in Malaysia and Penang

A look at the state's economic growth over the past five years.

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Other Stories

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  2. June, 2016

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  3. May, 2016

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  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

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  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...
Events

Events February 2017

Exhibition

Celebrating Penang is a group exhibition curated by artist Tan Kuan Aw, showcasing works by Lim Jee Huan, Jason Min, Tan himself and Yeoh Suan Choo, all of whom have the same passion for Penang. Coming from different backgrounds and of different age groups, these artists share their experience and perspectives of this place they call home.

Festival

With the theme “Real Gems of Traditional Heritage Travel from Generation to Generation”, 18 clans and associations will be presenting their “gems” to the public during the Penang Chinese New Year Cultural & Heritage Celebration. This includes a showcase of traditions, crafts, food and languages.

Festival

Float above in a hot air balloon at the Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2017. Expect international and local hot air balloons during the colourful two-day festival.

Festival

This Thaipusam, join the pilgrimage procession to bring the statue of Lord Murugan from Little India to the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani temple on Jalan Kebun Bunga. The tradition of breaking coconuts is carried out the day before to “clean” the roads for this divine journey. The devotees then physically endure being skewered and pierced on the back and front of their bodies as an act of penance. Expect thunderous music, singing, dancing and the beating of drums to devotional songs during this festival.

  • Dates: February 9-11
  • Venue: Lebuh Penang and Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Waterfall Hilltop temple), Jalan Kebun Bunga
  • Contact: +604 650 5215
  • Website: www. hebpenang.gov.my

Festival

Celebrate Chap Goh Meh on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, which marks the final day of traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, at Tow Boo Kong Temple, Butterworth.

Experience cultural activities such as mandarin orange throwing, traditional Chinese games, stage shows and etc. Expect lion dances, Dian Ying San Tai Zi performances and more from both local and international performers. An event not to be missed!

  • Dates: February 10-12
  • Time: 8pm - 12am
  • Venue: Tow Boo Kong Temple, Butterworth

Theatre

Catch Fourplay, an offering from four directors, with four original plays in four languages (if you count Penang Hokkien a language). Wong Lay Chin, John S. de Silva, Alvie Cheng and Christopher Preslar combine forces to bring you four short plays during this season of love and romance.

  • Dates: February 17, 8.30pm , February 18, 3pm and 8.30pm , February 19, 3pm
  • Venue: penangpac
  • Tickets: RM40 for adults, RM30 for students, disabled, TAS card holders and senior citizens above 60
  • Contact: +604 899 1722/2722
  • Website: www.penangpac.org

Expo

The Penang International Halal Expo and Conference 2017 (PIHEC) promises to be an event not to be missed for international and domestic halal players from across the regions of South-East Asia, West Asia and Europe seeking to expand business horizons and showcase some of the best halal products and services, discover emerging trends and network with potential clients in the industry.

  • Dates: February 24-26
  • Time: 10am-8pm
  • Venue: sPICE Arena
  • Contact: +604 262 5444
  • Email: pihec@halalpenang.com
  • Website: www.pihec.com.my

Art

Mentor classes, workshops and original shows are art-sing up Butterworth. If you’ve been dreaming of writing and performing music, spoken word or comedy, then this is your chance. Butterworth Also Can, a project by Bad Wolves and supported by Think City, is completely free; participants are encouraged to attend classes and to improve themselves and their art. Join the Buttercan programme by filling up the online form at www.sayitmeanitpenang.com/buttercan.

  • Dates: February 25
  • Time: 7pm
  • Venue: Lokalhouz, 2201, Jalan Pantai, 12100 Butterworth
  • Contact: +6013 802 1911 (Ksatriya)
  • Email: danny@sayitmeanitpenang.com

Charity

Get ready for another exciting edition of St Nicholas’ Home’s Ride for Sight! The night ride will take place along the new bike path developments around Queensbay Mall. Participants can expect t-shirts, goodie bags, a certificate, light refreshments and a lucky draw. The registration closing date is February 28, so hurry and sign up!

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awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

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  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

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  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

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  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Among the songs that Bizhu sang that night were “Chendering” and “Putera Puteri”.

Photo Essay

A Tantalising Tribute to Jimmy Boyle

It was a nostalgic tribute – one of a son to his father – as James P.S. Boyle, with the ensemble The James Boyle Trio, played the late Jimmy Boyle’s songs at the Penang International Jazz Festival in December last year.

Jimmy was Malaysia’s top jazz pianist/composer, and one of Penang’s most illustrious musical icons. Born in Penang and educated at St. Xavier’s Institution, his musical vision was stunning and his music abilities were years ahead of his time. It comes as no surprise that his son James also plays the piano: a Boh Cameronian Award-winning music director, graduate of the Berklee College of Music and music lecturer at Aswara who has performed in various jazz festivals in Asia, James is also an active composer in the corporate and theatre world. He wrote Putera Puteri: The Music and the Legacy of Jimmy Boyle.

Anchoring the Trio is one of the most respected and revered arrangers/bass players in the Malaysian music industry, Ruslan Imam, who has been active since the 1980s. On drums is his son Ruvi Ruslan, a music composition graduate from UiTM who is the founder of No Noise Percussion. Ruvi also plays the drums for Go Gerila!, Aizat Amdan and Amir Jahari, among others.

Joining the Trio are two very talented vocalists who have made incredible strides not only in the local music industry but also abroad. They are composer and singer/songwriter Liyana Fizi, and Penang’s own songbird, Bihzhu.

 

James Boyle on the piano. Besides playing music, he is also a certified movie director and line producer from the Hollywood Film Institute!

Ruvi Ruslan on the drums.

The James Boyle Trio is a Penang Island Jazz Festival Initiative. But just perhaps, the band will continue to jazz up our shores.

Liyana performing “Gema Rembulan”.

Ruslan Imam on bass.

Liyana Fizi. The singer was formerly part of the band Estrella before she became a solo artist in 2009. She has since released an album, Between the Lines.

Bizhu. The award-winning singer-songwriter is working on her second album, slated for release this year.

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Ch’ng Shi P’ng is a Penang photographer who likes photographing performing arts and cultural events. His works can be viewed at www. facebook.com/shipngdotcom.
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awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

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  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Editorial

My Smartphone is My Sword

Culture, if you ask me, is the joint expression of the interpersonal behaviours of a particular society over time. Within that, we find comfort and orientation in life. The key word is “time”. When profound changes come at us at great speed, how we behave towards each other becomes awkward, stumbling and unpredictable. Much more than usual, that is.

We are forced to modify and develop new ways of relating to each other, and we have to do it fast and without a guidebook.

We see this in how we have embraced – or been overwhelmed by – the internet. In its wake came SMSes, MMSes and emails, and we see how over the last few years we have had to adapt our behaviour: how much trouble we should take, or not take, to be polite when replying to an email, how we increasingly use emojis instead of words, and how uncertain we are about how long we can delay a reply without being rude.

And even before we have worked out a comfortable email culture, we have been hit by the advent of the smartphone (and countless apps) into our lives. Not to mention tweets and other social media.

How President Donald Trump has been causing chaos with his tweets is a case in point. There is in fact a cultural clash going between him thinking that tweets are a sufficient means of communication, and the fact that most of the rest of the world does not.

I suppose the easy answer is that, no matter what we think of these advances, they are extremely useful, in two important ways at least. They make personnel communication immediate and effective; and they bring an avalanche of personalised information literally to our fingertips. This allows us to chat – to individuals or to groups – without the formalities and delays that beset traditional communication. And so, we try to work out how best to live in such a world, knowing at the same time that what we come up with will soon be outmoded.

The second and more important change that these technological innovations have brought is in the area of gaining knowledge. Information at our fingertips means that the cross-checking of facts that we traditionally could do to affirm their correctness is no longer as thorough or as possible. We are moving too fast, and so we try to rely on our common sense to tell truth from lie. That common sense, needless to say, gets weaker and weaker the more information there is rushing at us.

Speed and volume are therefore the elements that in tandem overwhelm us: speed in communication and volume of information. An epistemic revolution is upon us, and as with all revolutions, we have to run faster to stay somewhat upright.

Mankind’s search for knowledge about society and the world in order to manipulate them has been relentless, and he has in the last few decades succeeded beyond imagination.

This makes it necessary to consider these recent changes in a historical context. What was it like when mankind first developed speech? Most philosophers would agree today that language is never neutral, and that concepts hide notions that direct our thoughts. This would have been most obvious when the written word came into being. Literacy became the strongest claim to power, outside of military power. Knowledge as expressed in the paradigms of society’s literati, of its discourse builders – often shamans and prophets – was a manipulative tool that worked because it was also socially useful. Knowledge has always been a means to power. “Holy books” were an ingenious creation through which a few could quickly gain a monopoly on effective political power.

Universal literacy was thus a historical blowback that pulled the rug from under the feet of Crown and Church. With that came notions of democracy, universal human rights, the rule of amendable law, feminism and much more.

Seen that way, what we are experiencing at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a continuation of the fight for access to effective knowledge and for the right to generate facts to one’s own advantage.

My little smartphone is in that sense a weapon, a formidable pocketknife in the endless war we humans insist on conducting against each other.

But while I wield it like a sword, I know that it is also a ploughshare.

OOI KEE BENG

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awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

Cover Story

Saving Our Schools

The writing has been on the wall for quite a while. We need to recognise why our education system is stagnating.

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At the beginning of the 1964 school year, teachers in a California primary school were told that some of their students had shown extraordinary results on an IQ test. They were also told that these students, roughly one-fifth of all pupils in the school, were expected to have academic growth spurts that year.

At the end of the year, the group of students designated as growth-spurt candidates did indeed show, on average, higher gains in IQ than their peers. Teachers also rated these students as better adjusted and more intellectually independent than their classmates.[1].

The kicker? What the teachers did not know was that those they were told would be growth-spurt candidates had, in fact, not been picked out based on their initial IQ test results, but rather selected at random. This strongly suggested that it was the teachers’ expectations of these students which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That study, known as the Rosenthal Experiment, illustrates a crucial but oft-neglected fact about education policy: mindset and relationships matter.

Mindset and relationships may seem vague and “fluffy” amid the concrete logistics of national policy planning. Yet, no school system can function effectively without well-aligned values, a positive mindset and healthy relationships.

Public policy in any field involves moving targets, uncertain weather conditions and archers whose highest priorities might not include hitting the bulls-eye. Education policy has an extra complication: the target is student learning, and students do not automatically learn when you throw the right things in their direction. Adequate resources and cognitively appropriate methods are not enough; students must also trust their teachers, and want to learn from them.

As part of a recent research project for the Penang Institute, titled “From Drills to Skills? Cultivating Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration Through Malaysian Schools,”[2] I looked at why many primary and secondary school students fail to develop the flexible cognitive and interpersonal skills required for both the digital economy and their individual well-being.[3]

For example, even though our Form 2 students’ average scores in the quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were much better in 2015 than in 2011, their performance was just on par with 2007 scores, and significantly below the 1999 and 2003 scores. More worryingly, when test questions are broken down into the domains of “knowing,” “applying” and “reasoning,” Malaysian students’ 2015 reasoning scores were significantly below 2007 scores.[4]

Why are our students struggling to develop these complex and necessary skills, despite a range of policies targeting skills cultivation having been implemented to help them? The data suggest that this failure is due to a skewed mindset and relationships among stakeholders in the education system.

A Natural Fixation

In 2014 the Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) exam for Form 3 students was replaced with the Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 (PT3). While the PMR was dominated by multiple-choice questions, the PT3 aimed to test complex cognitive skills alongside factual recall.

However, after the inaugural PT3 results were released, a student wrote: “All of the tactics, tips and tricks we were taught for answering PMR [questions] years ago must be scrapped to pave the way for PT3... We were the unfortunate lab rats in a failed experiment, and our effort and time put into studying were all in vain.” [5]

The student’s remarks reflect a common Malaysian mindset: we don’t study for the sake of knowledge, skills and perspectives that facilitate meaningful living. We study to get good exam results.

Test scores are accorded great importance throughout the education system. University entry, the gatekeeper of academic prestige, is determined by a “merit score,” 90% of which comes from examination grades. [6] Since 2010, schools have been ranked by their “composite scores,” 70% of which derive from students’ test results.[7]

All of this creates incentives for administrators and teachers to concentrate on nudging up exam results rather than building students’ mastery of skills and ideas. This is especially problematic because Malaysian school tests are usually based on straightforward recall of syllabus material.

According to teachers surveyed in TIMSS 2011,[8] Malaysian students were far less likely than students in other countries to face exam questions that required explanations or justifications. Only 11.1% of Malaysian Form 2 students had mathematics teachers who claimed to “always or almost always” include explanation or justification in school-level tests. The international average, for participating countries excluding Malaysia, was 36.9%.[9]

This fixation on getting more marks in content-heavy exams also leads to lecture-style teaching and exam-based drills, as documented in numerous studies. For example, a 2011 study of 41 schools found that half of the 125 lessons observed were unsatisfactory. Many of these lessons were delivered as lectures targeting superficial, exam-friendly understanding of lesson content.[10]

In the word of one mathematics teacher, “It seems not only our students have been made into robots to go after marks. But including me, we teachers…We feed them with answers and teach them all means to identify clues without making sense what mathematics and education mean in shaping a person’s life.”[11]

For decades, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has been attempting to shift the school system away from such exam-oriented rote memorisation. In 1983 it introduced the Kurikulum Baru Sekolah Rendah (KBSR), which emphasised skills in communication, problem solving and creative thinking. In 1988 it adopted the Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan, which focuses on holistic student development.[12]

Still, such attempts at reform have not lessened the national preoccupation with standardised exams. For example, when the MoE introduced school-based assessment(Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah, PBS) as a continuous, customisable way of assessing primary and lower secondary students, there was widespread doubt about the reliability of PBS evaluations among parents, students and teachers.[13]

Attempts to include a wider range of student competencies in national exams have also floundered. The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 established a target of 40% of UPSR questions and 50% of SPM questions testing higher-order thinking skills (Hots) by 2016. As of 2015 only 20% of UPSR and SPM questions met Hots criteria.[14]

Numerous Directives, Endless Paperwork

It isn’t just the public mindset that is skewed away from the development of complex skills and understanding. Teachers’ official duties are also tilted away from teaching and learning.

Teachers are subject to numerous directives from various ministry agencies. These directives often require them to complete extensive written documentation. According to a 2011 survey of 7,853 teachers, teachers spend 15-30% of their working hours on administrative work.[15] More ominously, teachers interviewed anonymously have estimated that administrative work constitutes 40-60% of their workload. They also complained of “[e]ndless awards, abundant competitions, and continual contest[s] introduced by the Ministry,” as well as “unnecessary compulsory seminars and courses.”[16]

All of this takes time away from teachers’ core work, that is to ensure that students learn crucial skills and knowledge. This entails, among other things, researching and planning effective lessons, keeping up with pedagogical research, analysing student work to identify needed improvements, and collaborating with colleagues to optimise teaching strategies. All these tasks require huge investments of teachers’ time and energy – much of which is going to clerical tasks and other peripheral duties.

Some of the causes of this paperwork-and procedures burden are described in a 2012 Unesco review of the Malaysian education policy. First, schools receive orders from all three levels of the MoE – federal, state and district – to carry out scores of programmes each year. Second, poor coordination across ministry agencies leads to duplication of some tasks and neglect of others. Third, the ministry monitors the execution of directives, rather than whether particular directives actually improve student outcomes.[17]

In addition to diverting time away from better lessons, this overload of paperwork-heavy directives also generates the mindset that it is more important for students and teachers to demonstrate their compliance with official tasks than to foster learning.

It is usually much easier for overburdened teachers to inflate reports of student learning than to make meaningful improvements to what happens in the classroom. Teachers even report being pressured by school administrators and ministry officials to “produce” good grades for student work, presumably to make both their school districts and the ministry’s curricular programmes look good.[18]

Sadly, such self-serving inflation also appears to be common in students’ project work. While project work can challenge students to explore their interests and develop skills in non-routine situations, this is not always the case.

For example, one study found that teachers were fabricating students’ scores for science experiments and living skills projects that had not actually been carried out; providing sample answers for students to copy; or structuring assignments according to the grading scheme, thus boosting grades and easing the marking process.

Students were also culpable in the masquerade – copying work from their friends, using model answers provided by tuition teachers and, in at least one case, paying a classmate to complete a project. [19]Such cheating has found a new tool on the internet, where blogs often post sample answers for coursework and PBS assignments.

Education Flip-flops Partly to Blame

The distortions already discussed – exam-orientedness that shifts the focus from deep learning to rote memorisation, and bureaucratic structures that cue teachers to tick administrative boxes rather than enrich student learning – would be formidable enough on their own.

Unfortunately, these problems are exacerbated by another systemic obstacle: pervasive cynicism and blame surrounding public education in Malaysia. While cynicism distorts the mindset surrounding potential change in schools, blame games strain relationships.

This atmosphere of cynicism and blame has many sources, some of which can be traced to the frequent changes in education policy, popularly called “flip-flops.” Table 1 shows education policies from the last 15 years that have been dramatically altered after large investments had been made – on planning, instructional materials, teacher training and time, and in expenditures by teachers, students, and parents.

In addition to their happening frequently, many of these policy changes were rolled out before detailed guidelines had been disseminated to parents, teachers and ministry officials, thus further compromising efficacy.

One problem with these frequent flip-flops is that they generate cynicism about policy reform: “If most of the recent education policy changes were reversed before they meaningfully improved student learning, why should we put effort into a new policy that will probably be retracted next year?”

With weak grassroots support, education ministers are likely to backpedal, especially when a new minister assumes office amid fierce opposition to his predecessors’ policies. Thus, Muhyiddin Yasin announced the retraction of the Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) policy shortly after assuming office in 2009, while Mahdzir Khalid indefinitely postponed the SPM science practical testing and English compulsory pass in 2015.

Flip-flops have also triggered blame games when new policies fizzle. One of the most prominent instances of such blame-passing actually occurred on national TV. In October 2015 TV1 screened a dialogue about the new assessment system. During the dialogue, Examinations Syndicate director Nawal Salleh said the ministry had never instructed teachers to collate and file each assessment task for every student under the school-based PBS assessment system. Nawal further attributed the shortcomings of PBS to teachers who misinterpreted and misunderstood the new assessment system.[20]

Nawal’s statement contradicted a public circular letter and the 2012 edition of the Panduan Pengurusan Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah (PBS).[21] Both documents were issued by the Examinations Syndicate, and both state that it is indeed compulsory for teachers to file students’ PBS tasks.

Teachers were livid about the accusation that they did not understand PBS principles and operational guidelines – especially because the filing process had been onerous, with some subjects requiring over a hundred assessment tasks per student each year. One commentator in Berita Harian accused Nawal of dissembling and contradicting other ministry officials. He added that he “hoped that there would not be any comments and critiques from higher-ups based solely on what is on paper without looking at on-the-ground realities.”[22]

It is unclear how much of all this recrimination is due to policy flip-flops, and how much stems from other factors. But it is clear that these blame games abound. In news interviews and social media posts, teachers accuse lazy students and demanding administrators of leaving them with no choice but to fabricate PBS results. Students in turn accuse teachers of laziness, with one student concluding that, when students fail exams, “it’s not entirely the teacher’s fault, but 80%, the blame is on the teacher.”[23]

Parents, in turn, publicly shame teachers on social media for lapses in instructional quality. One teacher lamented the “constant bashing of teachers and educators in this country,” including accusations that “teachers makan gaji buta” (get paid for little work).[24] As a temporary teacher summarised: “The teachers are giving up, the parents are hopeless, the system is troublesome, the environments are demotivating, the students lack interest.” [25]

This toxic atmosphere is reflected in the TIMSS and PISA survey questions about students’ perceptions of their teachers. Surveys in PISA 2012 asked 15-year-old students whether they agreed with the statement “If I had different teachers, I would try harder in school.” 69.4% of Malaysian students agreed – compared to an average of 41.6% among the other 64 participating economies.[26]

Data from TIMSS gives further evidence of unhealthy relationships between Malaysian students and teachers. In TIMSS 2011 62.1% of Malaysian Form 2 students stated that they did not believe their teacher thought they could do well in mathematics lessons with difficult materials. For science, the figure was 65.5%. These Malaysian figures are much higher than not only the international average, but also our neighbouring countries, including Singapore with its notoriously exacting standards.

Teachers’ belief in students’ academic potential is crucial to student success. TIMSS 2011 showed that the more a student believed that their teacher thought they could do well in maths or science, the higher their scores in that subject.[27] The influence of teacher expectations on student learning has also been demonstrated in numerous studies, such as the classic Rosenthal Experiment described above.

Healthy relationships between students and teachers are not optional froth. They are the substrate of meaningful teaching and learning.

We Can Fix This

Against a backdrop of failed policy attempts to reform our education system and entrenched problems that stymie all of these policies, it may be difficult to believe that real change is possible. In fact, such change is within reach if new policy approaches take into account the systemic constraints and patterns of behaviour among ministry officials, teachers and students.

For example, decades of overemphasis on content-heavy exams means that there will be little confidence in a new system that eliminates all standardised tests. Instead, alternative forms of assessment must be introduced gradually, and non-traditional teaching approaches must boost exam results while cultivating cognitive and interpersonal skills.

As it happens, it is not necessarily bad for students to master academic content. Research on cognitive development shows conclusively that thinking skills can only develop in the context of factual knowledge.[28] Hence, Malaysian schools should aim to build cognitive skills through engagement with the familiar content-heavy curriculum, which would aid both student learning and public acceptance of new policies.

Another challenge comes from procedure-focused and paperwork-heavy directives that the ministry frequently issues to teachers. On one hand, endless nitpicking instructions obviously limit teachers’ time, autonomy and creativity for maximising student learning. However, it would be foolhardy to swing to the opposite pole and eliminate all forms of reporting – too much public money and too much of the nation’s future are at stake. Rather, teachers must be held accountable through mechanisms that are more flexible, more focused on learning and more difficult to inflate.

Besides better accountability mechanisms, policy approaches will have to build trust, relationships and a shared vision of excellence. As we have seen, relationships and expectations may be intangible, but they are far from inconsequential.

Successful schools often invest significantly in building shared vision, and they benefit tremendously because of the effort, efficiency and responsibility resulting from this sense of common purpose. Many vision-driven schools have helped students achieve tremendous cognitive growth despite challenging socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the research project from which this article is drawn, I propose a package of 14 policies that are designed to cultivate students’ skills within existing constraints in the education system. This package spans student assessment, instructional tools, school organisation and the teaching profession.

As shown in Table 3, I propose several compulsory, system-wide policies supported by a range of opt-in policies. Some policies work best when introduced across the board. Some should be optional, as they would only cultivate students’ skills if implemented by school leaders, teachers and students who have adequate time and resources, and who believe that the work entailed in implementing the change is worth the potential gains.

If all the proposed policies were compulsory, they would fuel the cynicism, blame games and fabricated paperwork that constrain skills cultivation in Malaysian schools. Instead, each policy is designed to achieve results despite the skewed mindset and relationships previously described. Collectively, the policies work to rectify these systemic constraints.

That said, for these skills development policies to work, leaders in the education system – whether the education minister and the director-general, or the leaders of the various state education departments and district offices – must show that they personally value and practise deep learning.

Since mindset and relationships matter, such role modelling is not an optional extra. Rather, it is crucial for building shared responsibility for student learning, and for sustaining the hope that such a vision can be achieved.

Given the stakes – our national economic future and the well-being of future generations – our leaders cannot afford to do otherwise.

The full working paper of “From Drills to Skills? Cultivating Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration Through Malaysian Schools,” along with an executive summary and presentation slides, can be downloaded from the Penang Institute website (http://penanginstitute.org/v3/files/research_papers/HwaYY_Four_ Cs_working_paper_28October2016.pdf).

  • [1]Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, “Teacher Expectations for the Disadvantaged,” Scientific American 218, no. 4 (1968), 3-9; Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” The Urban Review 3, no. 1 (1968), 16- 20., accessed November 11, 2016, http://mypenang.gov.my/events.aspx.
  • [2]Hwa-Yue Yi, “From Drills to Skills? Cultivating Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration Through Malaysian Schools,” Penang Institute, August 2016, http://penanginstitute.org/v3/files/research_papers/HwaYY_Four_Cs_working_paper_28October2016.pdf.
  • [3]World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs,”January 2016, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_ of_Jobs.pdf; World Bank, “World Development Report,” 2016, http://documents.worldbank.org/ curated/en/896971468194972881/pdf/102725-PUB-Replacement-PUBLIC.pdf; Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • [4]Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Pierre Foy, and Martin Hooper. TIMSS 2015 International Results in Mathematics (Chestnut Hill: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, 2016), 31, 146; Mullis, Martin, Foy, and Hooper, TIMSS 2015 International Results in Science (Chestnut Hill: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, 2016), 31, 146. Although 2015 results for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were also released recently, the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development (OECD) has stated that Malaysia’s 2015 results may not be comparable with other countries or previous PISA cycles because of sampling issues. See OECD, PISA 2015 Results (Volume I: Excellence and Equity in Education (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2016), 304.
  • [5]Gan Jer Shern, “PT3 a Big Step Backwards in Education,” Malaysiakini, 24 December 2014, http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/284407.
  • [6]Kementerian Pendidikan Tinggi Malaysia, “Pekeliling Permohonan UPUOnline Kemasukan ke Universiti Awam (UA), Politeknik, Kolej Komuniti dan Institusi Latihan Kemahiran Awam (Ilka),” December 7, 2015, http://upu.mohe.gov.my/web/Pekeliling%20Dasar&Prosedur%20Kemasukan%20MATRIK_ ASASI%201617%2007.12.2015.pdf.
  • [7]Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia. “Garis Panduan Pelaksanaan Sekolah Berprestasi Tinggi (SBT),” March 13, 2015, http://www.moe.gov.my/images/pekeliling/2015/circularfile_file_001225.pdf.
  • [8]In addition to testing student achievement in maths and science across countries, TIMSS uses questionnaires to collect data on educational settings from students, teachers, and principals. Similar surveys are also conducted under PISA. For guidelines on analysing the Malaysian TIMSS and PISA data, see “Guide and Combined Datasets for Malaysian TIMSS and PISA Analysis,” Hwa Yue-Yi: Research on Education Policy and Malaysia, 2016, https://hwayueyi.wordpress.com/timss-pisa/.
  • [9]International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, “TIMSS 2011 Eighth Grade Almanacs,” TIMMS and PIRLS, November 16 2012, http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/internationaldatabase.html.
  • [10]Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (Putrajaya: Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, 2013), 5-2.
  • [11]Tan Ai Mei, Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah (PBS) di Malaysia (Petaling Jaya: Gerak Budaya Enterprise, 2010), 130.
  • [12]Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, 2-2.
  • [13]Hasniza Ibrahim, “EKSKLUSIF: Luahan & Kisah Benar Cikgu Hasniza Ibrahim Berkenaan Isu Sistem SPPBS (Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah PBS),” Berita Semasa, February 25, 2016, http://www.beritasemasa.com.my/cikgu-hasnizaibrahim-pbs-sppbs-guru; Parent Action Group for Education, “Suggested Solution to School-Based Assessment,” Malay Mail Online, February 25, 2014, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/suggested-solution-toschool-based-assessment-parent-action-groupfor-educa; Shuhaimi Mohamed, “Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah [#2],” Dialog @ TV1, March 26, 2014, accessed via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5kXZi-F5IA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT4jdZZ4FzM.
  • [14]Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysia Education Blueprint Annual Report 2015, (Putrajaya: Ministry of Education Malaysia, 2016), p. 153; Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, 4-6.
  • [15]Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, 5-6.
  • [16]Hanna Alkaf, “7 Reasons Why Being a Cikgu Isn’t as Easy as You Think,” Cilisos.my, November 3, 2014,
    https://cilisos.my/7-reasons-why-being-a-cikgu-isnt-as-easy-as-you-think/.
  • [17]Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, 6-2, 6-3.
  • [18]Raziatul Hanum A. Rajak, “SPPBS, PBS: Cantik Pada Kertas Tapi...,” Sinar Online, December 5, 2013, http:// www.sinarharian.com.my/sppbs-pbs-cantik-pada-kertas-tapi-1.227677; IDEAS Malaysia, “Giving Teachers the Freedom to Teach – Autonomy in Malaysia’s Schools,” June 16, 2016, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgSCTjMnf6k.
  • [19]Tan, Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah (PBS) di Malaysia.
  • [20]“Dasar Peperiksaan Baru,” Landskap TV1, October 16, 2015, television.
  • [21]Lembaga Peperiksaan. Panduan Pengurusan Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah (PBS) (Putrajaya: Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, 2012).
  • [22]“Guru Tersentuh Dengan Dakwaan Tak Faham PBS,” Berita Harian, October 30, 2015, accessed via https://ms my.facebook.com/358129697609112/photos/pb.358129697609112.2207520000.1459201710./ 931333713622038/?type=3&theatre. Mytranslation.
  • [23]Melanie, “Students Fail, Teachers to Be Blamed?” Malaysia Students, February 9, 2007, http://www.malaysiastudents.com/2007/02/students-failteachers-to-be-blame_09.html.
  • [24]Safina Kamaruddin Massicks, “Yes, You May Share This If You Want...,” October 23, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/safina.kamaruddin.massicks/posts/10205993994141334, Facebook.
  • [25]Izz Adha, “Education in Malaysia: A Teacher’s Perspective,” Malaysia Students, September 15, 2014, http://www.malaysia-students.com/2014/09/teachers-thoughts-education-in-malaysia.html.
  • [26]My calculations, from OECD, “PISA 2012 Compendium for the Student Questionnaire,” OECD, https://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/database-cbapisa2012.htm, p. 304.
  • [27]IEA, “TIMSS 2011 Eighth Grade Almanacs,” 64, 90.
  • [28]Michael Schneider and Elsbeth Stern, “The Cognitive Perspective on Learning: Ten Cornerstone Findings,” in The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, ed. OECD (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2010), 69-90; Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
  • Hwa Yue-Yi is a PhD candidate in Education at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this, she was a secondary school English teacher and a fellow at the Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
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    Peaks and Parks

    Hiking to Paradise

    The trail to Teluk Kampi – with turtles, rainforest, a meromictic lake and a pristine beach – is mesmerising.

    Advertisement

    Penang National Park in Teluk Bahang has three main hiking trails: the one to Monkey Beach and Muka Head lighthouse; the one to Pantai Kerachut (Turtle Beach) and on to Teluk Kampi; and the newest one, the trail to Bukit Batu Hitam. All three are well signposted and easy to follow.

    The Monkey Beach trail is the easiest; it is almost completely flat and follows the coastline for about an hour from the park entrance to the beach. However, its accessibility has made it popular with tourists escaping Batu Feringghi. Enterprising fishermen bring in boatloads for picnics and barbeques; hawkers have set up makeshift stalls selling food and drinks; and operators have followed the tourists with jet ski services despite the ban on water recreational activities within the National Park. As a result, the beach itself is now rather dirty and quite noisy, although still much less crowded than Batu Feringghi.

    A much more enjoyable hike, and one that I do quite regularly, is to Pantai Kerachut and then on to Teluk Kampi. On the most recent occasion we decided we only wanted to walk one way, so before setting off we arranged for a fishing boat to collect us from Teluk Kampi.

    High-diving at Teluk Kampi.

    We started as usual from the entrance to the National Park, with five minutes of walking on a flat brick pathway alongside a beach called Pasir Pandak which on occasion is disgracefully dirty, but this time was refreshingly clean. We then crossed a swinging bridge, watching our step as some of the boards were loose, and followed the signposts left (the way to Monkey Beach turns right at this point). The trail is easy to follow, and in many parts has steps of concrete and stone, making it useable even when wet. It is pleasantly shaded by the forest along its entire length. We climbed uphill for approximately half an hour, where we paused at a rest hut for a few minutes. This is the point at which the trail to Bukit Batu Hitam diverges.

    We continued down the hill for another half an hour, crossing the headland to reach the beach. There are various noticeboards with information about the forest and the trail along the way, which gave us a good excuse to have more short rests while we read them. The trail was originally used as a logging transport route and in one area is cut quite steeply into the hill. We heard a stream (Sungai Tukun) running close by and crossed a branch of it. There was a short trail leading to the stream off on the right but we didn’t take it.

    Arriving at Pantai Kerachut, the first thing we saw was the meromictic lake on the left. Scientifically interesting for its mix of fresh and sea water, it is not particularly attractive to look at. The beach itself is broad, sandy and unspoiled. Recently built infrastructure (running fresh water, picnic tables and flushing toilets) makes it a pleasant place to linger but, due to jellyfish, sadly it is not a pleasant place to swim. There is a small turtle sanctuary at the far end of the beach, which was set up in 1995 to collect the recently hatched young of the green turtles that lay their eggs there, and to release them back into the wild once they are old enough to fend for themselves. We stopped here to coo at the baby turtles.

    Meromictic lake.

    Baby turtles.

    Once we had finished admiring the turtles, we retraced our steps to the well-designed campsite, which lies up a short flight of steps, just inland of the pier. We joined the trail that begins to the left of the campsite kitchens and continued our walk to Teluk Kampi. At first the trail skirted the edge of the meromictic lake. After a few minutes we reached a junction signposted Teluk Kampi to the right. A climb of about 15 minutes, the first five of which were particularly steep, was made less arduous due to a rope handrail.

    At the summit we rested at the picnic table conveniently placed there, and then descended in an equally steep fashion through virgin rain forest. In one place there has been a small landslide covering the trail, but a bypass has been created to the left. At the bottom of the hill we wended our way through the forest and then were aided by wooden platforms to cross the stream. Around 45 minutes after leaving Pantai Kerachut we had reached the glorious and deserted sandy stretch of Teluk Kampi, which is exactly what a tropical island beach should look like. Remarkably, it was a jellyfish-free day, and the small rocky island just offshore proved too much of a temptation for some in our party to ignore; they swam out to it to high-dive into the warm and welcoming sea below.

    National Park trail map.

    On time, the fishing boat rounded the corner of the bay and we clambered on to make our way back to the fishing village of Teluk Bahang. I have made this trip numerous times, and rolled my eyes cynically as the driver – in tourist guide mode – slowed to point out the rocks that, with a lot of imagination, can look like a shark, a rabbit, a turtle and a crocodile (or more likely in this part of Malaysia, a water monitor lizard). But my cynicism was unwarranted this time, as we were treated to the wonderful sight of a family of seven sea otters catching fish beside the crocodile rock, and a magnificent white-bellied sea eagle perched on the tree directly above it.

    For those with more energy and time than we had that day, there is of course the choice of returning to the National Park by exactly the same route via Pantai Kerachut, or alternatively, by taking a slight variant. This involves turning right at the meromictic lake (after the steep ascent and descent). This part of the trail takes you over a rather beautiful pillared stone bridge before rejoining the main trail between Pantai Kerachut and the National Park.

    Either way, the hike to Teluk Kampi, Penang’s most beautiful beach, is one of the most enjoyable on the island.

    Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.
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    Feature

    A Mortar Board Does Not Guarantee Employability

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    The Malaysian Education Blueprint 20152025 (Higher Education), or MEB (HE), launched on April 7, 2015 sets out a new vision for the development of higher education in Malaysia.[1] There are ambitious plans to raise student numbers from around 1.4 million in 2012 to 2.4 million by 2025.

    Currently, the private sector accounts for nearly half of higher education students and more than half of academic appointments in Malaysia and is expected to grow at 5.6% per annum under the MEB (HE), to overtake the public sector in terms of numbers and resources by 2025.

    The MEB (HE) has a number of key policy reforms which many people view as a significant shift towards vocationalism and away from scholarships. Higher education is thus being increasingly viewed as a step towards better employment, rather than as a way of self-improvement through learning, reflection and personal growth.

    Within this context, the higher education research programme at Penang Institute has conducted a study to address the question: does the investment return on higher education justify a shift towards a more vocational approach?

    Why the Shift to Vocationalism?

    One of the main drivers of the push for higher education institutions to focus more on vocationalism is the high level of graduate unemployment and underemployment which the country is facing.

    Table 1 shows the general levels of employment, unemployment and underemployment for Malaysian graduates six months after graduation.[2] Economic Planning Unit statistics for 2015 report youth unemployment at 455,000, or 8.8% of the population aged between 20 and 24 years, of which 161,000 (35%) are graduates.

    Overall unemployment in Malaysia stands at 3.2%, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, whereas youth unemployment is 6.7%, according to the World Bank.

    Even for those who are able to find work, the jobs that they do may not require higher education qualifications. According to the MEB (HE), around 45% of recent graduates earned RM1,500 or less.[3] Such is the concern about unemployment and underemployment that a national policy plan for graduate employability has been devised by the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia.[4]

    Is Vocationalism Justified?

    According to industry evidence, poor workplace preparation in higher education is a main cause of low graduate employment.

    For example, a survey by Grant Thornton in 2014 reported that 62% of Malaysian firms have difficulty finding skilled workers, and 48% identify lack of talent as a constraint for future growth.[5]

    Another recent survey by Jobstreet in 2015 cited the main reasons why employers do not hire recent graduates as unrealistic salary expectations (68%); poor English (65%); choosy about job/company (60%);

    poor communication skills (60%); and poor character/attitude (58%).[6] In the same survey, leadership skills (39%); high academic scores (25%); extracurricular activities (20%); and volunteering (16%) are characteristics sought after by companies.[7]Not Just a Local Issue

    High graduate unemployment and underemployment is not unique to Malaysia but is a general trend in many countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), graduate unemployment in China may be around 30%, although official statistics understate this. In the Middle East, graduate unemployment is between 20-30%, in Greece 19.4% and Spain 14.9%. The lowest graduate unemployment rates are seen in Norway (1.8%), Germany (2.4%) and the Czech Republic (2.5%).[8]

    Care should be taken when looking at these statistics; for example, in the UK, recent graduate unemployment was 11.9% six months after graduation, but fell to 3.9% three years after graduation, compared to 9% for non-graduates.[9]

    This in part is due to changes in the demand for degree-level workers in the labour market. For example, in the US, only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree in 2010, whereas 43% required a high-school education, and 26% did not even require that. Meanwhile, 40% of young people in the US study for degrees.[10] Other more recent research has also identified a secular decline in demand for knowledge-intensive workers requiring a degree since 2000.[11]

    Automation of knowledge-intensive jobs may be a key factor. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne in The Future of Employment suggest that over 47% of existing jobs are under threat from automation. Most likely to be automated are knowledge-intensive but repetitive, routine jobs such as accounting and auditing, insurance underwriting and credit analysis. Least likely to be automated are hands-on jobs in hospitality and services, and in public services such as firefighting – neither of which require higher education qualifications.[12]

    Many also question the value added of a university education in more general terms. Research in the US has suggested that after two years in university, 45% of students showed no significant improvement in their cognitive skills. After four years, 36% of students had not improved in their ability to think and analyse problems, and in some courses, such as business administration, students’ cognitive abilities actually declined in the first few years.[13]

    A recent YouGov survey showed 37% of UK employees think their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world at all.[14] A separate survey in the UK in 2016 reported that 49% of university graduates believe they could have achieved similar income and career goals without going to university, and 37% regretted higher education because of the debt level on graduation.[15]

    Investment vs Returns

    So if we are moving towards a more vocational system – where the content of the curriculum will be governed by its occupational or industrial utility, and graduates judged by their marketability as human capital – then is this investment worthwhile?

    To evaluate this, we look at a number of indicators: is there a wage premium between graduates and non-graduates? How long does it take to pay off the investment in human capital development? How does the investment period and return compare between graduates and non-graduates?[16]

    By comparing typical salaries for various types of study, we found that new graduates can generally earn a premium above non-graduates in similar types of work within their first year of work. However, as Table 2 shows, this varies considerably. Subjects such as health (121%); ICT (65%); accounting (47%); and engineering (47%) lead in starting salary premia, whereas graduates with service industry degrees (-12%) and general degrees (-12%) have the lowest starting premia, and earn less than non-graduates when they start their careers.

    This changes over time as work experience and industry opportunities begin to play a bigger role. After five to seven years, postgraduate and professional qualifications are also more commonly required to achieve higher salaries. After 10 years, service industry and general degrees (149%) have the highest premia, followed by social science (100%) and ICT (98%) degrees. Those choosing education (-21%) and health (-6%) fall below non-graduates in basic pay terms.

    The Payoff

    When entering higher education, students make an investment in terms of fees, but they also forego

    income during the study period, which is also a cost to their investment decision. In order to look at the payoff period we calculate the net present value (NPV) of the investment based on expected returns (salaries) after graduation. For an investment to be worthwhile in purely market-based terms, the NPV should be positive over a preferred investment horizon.Table 3 shows the number of years it takes for a positive NPV to be generated. The calculation of the NPV for expected returns on various degree programmes shows that graduates face a long haul before they see any return on their investment.

    For graduates of local public universities it will take around four years after graduation to recover their costs, which is around nine years after they leave school. For private universities, it will take around five years from graduation and 10 years from leaving school, while those attending foreign branch campuses can take up to 11 years from school to break-even in study costs.

    For more expensive and longer study period degrees in health, education and engineering, the payoff periods are longer. Medical graduates from foreign branch campuses can take over 10 years from graduation, or more than 15 years from leaving school, before they break even in financial terms.

    Although most degree programmes break even between four to six years after graduation (or eight to 11 years after the end of schooling), in fact it is around 10 years after graduation before they catch up with the investment return earned by nongraduates.

    Some subjects such as health and engineering take longer than this because the courses tend to be longer and costs tend to be higher. Graduates of public universities catch up earlier because costs are lower, but graduates of foreign branch campus take more than a decade to catch up with school leavers in terms of investment return, because tuition fees are very much higher.

    Conclusion

    Using a purely market-based approach, investment in higher education offers a mixed picture. While in

    most cases there is a premium on graduate salaries over those of school leavers in similar jobs, in some cases school leavers still have a premium over graduates – at least at the start of a graduate’s career.In the short term, better salaries appear to be associated with vocation-oriented courses, such as accountancy, but in the long term more general subjects, such as the social sciences, appear to provide a higher premium.

    In investment terms, it can take a long time for higher education to pay off – graduates can be in their mid-30s before they see a better return overall compared to non-graduates. Students from public universities have a significant advantage over those from the private sector, mainly due to lower costs. Graduates from foreign branch campuses may not recover their higher investment costs for more than a decade after graduating.

    In many cases – applying a purely vocationalist assessment – it would be better to start work straight from school and invest the savings in an investment account, rather than study for a university degree.

    • [1] Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysian Education Blueprint 2015-25 (Higher Education) (Putrajaya: Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia, 2014).
    • [2] Many university heads, particularly in the private sector, dispute the ministry statistics and point to their own data, which shows much higher employment rates.
    • [3]Ibrahim Mohamed Dahlan et al. “Kajian Keberkesanan Program-program Keusahawanan di Institusi Pengajian Tinggi,” (Research grant, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, 2012).
    • [4] Kementrian Pendidikan Tinggi Malaysia, National Graduate Employability Blueprint 2012-17 (Putrajaya: Kementerian Pendidikan Tinggi Malaysia, 2012).
    • [5] “High Ratio of Jobless Youths to Overall Unemployment in M’sia: World Bank,” New Straits Times, June 28, 2014, http://www.nst.com.my/ news/2015/09/high-ratio-jobless-youths-overallunemployment-m%E2%80%99sia-world-bank.
    • [6]Jobstreet, “Employers: Fresh Graduates Have Unrealistic Expectations,” Jobstreet.com, December 8, 2015, http://www.jobstreet.com. my/career-resources/employers-fresh-graduatesunrealistic-expectations/#.VzzvduRXw20.
    • [7]A report for TalentCorp by the World Bank in 2014 further identified as another relevant factor employers’ unwillingness to offer the level of compensation needed to meet the expectations of recent graduates and attract the required talent.
    • [8] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Employment Outlook 2015 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015).
    • [9] UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2015, (London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2015).
    • [10] Alexander Cockburn, “The Myth of the Knowledge Economy,” Counterpunch, March 23, 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/23/ the-myth-of-the-knowledge-economy/.
    • [11]Paul Beaudry, David A. Green and Benjamin M. Sand (2013) “The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks,” Journal of Labor Economics 34, no. S1 (2016), S199-S247.
    • [12]A report for TalentCorp by the World Bank in 2014 further identified as another relevant factor employers’ unwillingness to offer the level of compensation needed to meet the expectations of recent graduates and attract the required talent.
    • [13] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Employment Outlook 2015 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015).
    • [14] UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2015, (London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2015).
    • [15] Alexander Cockburn, “The Myth of the Knowledge Economy,” Counterpunch, March 23, 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/23/ the-myth-of-the-knowledge-economy/.
    • [16]Paul Beaudry, David A. Green and Benjamin M. Sand (2013) “The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks,” Journal of Labor Economics 34, no. S1 (2016), S199-S247.
    Dr Geoffrey Williams was a visiting fellow at Penang Institute (2015-2016) specialising in higher education management. He was deputy vice chancellor at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak and professor in the Graduate School of Business. He is founder and director of his own education company, the Academy of Responsible Management, and is a member of the Board of Studies, Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang. He is currently a professor in the ELM Graduate School at HELP University.
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    Raja of Perlis and USM chancellor Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Ibni Al-Marhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail (second left) honouring marine biologist Dr Aileen Tan (right) with a place in USM's Sanggar Sanjung (Hall of Fame) during a ceremony in late October. With them is USM vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Dr Asma Ismail (second right) and USM board of governors chairman Tan Sri Dr Zulkefli A. Hassan.

    Profiles

    Making Waves with Molluscs

    Prof. Dr Aileen Tan’s work with oysters spans a quarter of a century and created a momentum that has spread down Malaysia’s west coast.

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    As a fresh graduate, one is prone to taking on unusual first jobs. But few of these jobs would require travelling by boat daily to the office. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s Prof. Dr Aileen Tan Shau Hwai, however, made the journey as a young woman almost every day for over 10 years.

    Her “office” was in Muka Head. “There were scheduled times for the boat, so if you missed it, you’d have to hike in! It was 1989 so the (hiking) path was underdeveloped – it was just a small trail. Now, there are stairs and everything, so it’s no challenge,” Tan, now 51, jokes.

    The Pahang native began her academic pursuits in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s former Sabah campus, coming away with an undergraduate degree in biology. Her husband, who graduated two years before her, had managed to secure a job in Penang so Tan grabbed whatever opportunity she could upon her own move to the island.

    Tan became a research officer at the Muka Head Marine Station as part of a project to introduce oyster farming in Malaysia, while doing a master’s degree in marine biology part-time. She graduated in 1993. She then headed to Oregon in the US, where she worked as a consultant for nine months setting up an oyster hatchery for Wiegardt & Sons.

    In 1995 she returned to USM to be a science officer at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies, also located in Muka Head. At the time, study leave was hard to come by in an office with a small number of employees, so Tan opted for PhD studies on a parttime basis. Her study of giant clams from a conservation point of view gained her a PhD in Marine Biology from USM in 2001.

    Community-centric Work

    Researchers must often apply for support and sponsorships, and Tan is no exception.

    She first secured a grant from the Johor government to catalogue and inventory giant clams on offshore islands. “Johor has the most marine park islands in the country. Aside from recording the number of giant clams in the area, I focused on their reproduction as well. I had some success in producing baby clams, so in the second phase of the grant the Johor government requested that I restock the area,” Tan says, adding that at least 500 baby clams were repopulated into the reef.

    Tan diving in the seas off the Johor coast during her PhD studies on giant clams.

    In 2001 Tan finally left Muka Head and became a full-fledged lecturer at USM’s School of Biological Sciences, teaching subjects like ecology, biodiversity, and marine and coastal ecosystems. Her own research and contributions continued, mainly with government grants from agencies and ministries like the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), leading her to study everything from green mussels, cockles and scallops to sea cucumbers, snails and a host of other invertebrates.

    Her first community project came through a RM50,000 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) grant. “They asked how we could use my giant clam research to help women in the Johor islands. So I chose two villages in Pulau Pemanggil and Pulau Aur – the outermost islands – and taught the islanders how to identify the clams and we made a sort of clam garden in front of the kampungs. The villagers would encourage tourists to stay nearby and snorkel while the women would do the catering for the hostels, bringing in income. They also learned stories about the different kinds of clams, which Westerners in particular loved to hear,” she says.

    Dealing with the temptation to harvest and eat fresh oysters was always a challenge, but Tan and her team tried their best to show villagers the long-term benefits of preserving the oyster population. “We always tried to implant the thinking of ‘clam in the kuali (wok), RM20; clam in the garden, RM2,000 per month’,” she says.

    Over the years, Tan’s work with communities grew to include equipping villagers in Kedah with the knowledge of growing oysters for side income and directing a steady stream of undergraduate and postgraduate students to these sites for research – a process that benefits all parties.

    “USM gave me the first grant of RM40,000 for this community project. The Ministry of Higher Education then stepped in in 2013 with a RM160,000

    grant to expand the programme and now the Kedah state government is investing and taking over the project. Since this is happening, the Ministry asked me late last year to move to Perak with a RM80,000 grant using the same model,” Tan says, adding that her vision, hopefully to be achieved before she retires, is to extend this project to Selangor and then Johor, thus covering the entire west coast of Malaysia.

    The benefits of this project to rural villagers have been undeniable, as it is a low-risk, halal and low maintenance business. “This is an example of a successful, low-tech knowledge transfer. Currently, they buy seeds from a hatchery, grow them and either sell them on their own or sell them back to the hatchery. The long-term goal, however, is to start off backyard oyster hatcheries where the farmers can carry out the whole process on their own.”

    LEFT - Part-time and full-time oyster growers tending to the cages located in Sungai Merbok, Kedah.
    RIGHT - Broodstock oysters that are used for spawning at the SeaHarvest Aquamarine oyster hatchery in Pulau Betong that Tan helped establish.

    Women in Science and Taking on the World

    Tan’s contributions to local oyster production (currently, only up to 20% of oysters consumed in the country are sourced locally) hardly stops at small-grade farming. In 2007 she and her colleague Prof. Dr Zulfigar Yasin were appointed consultants in a Mosti TechnoFund grant scheme to set up a high-tech oyster hatchery in Balik Pulau.

    Partnering with SeaHarvest Aquamarine, the hatchery was officially launched in 2009 with full production being achieved three years later. It has since been certified as the country’s first commercial oyster hatchery in the Malaysia Book of Records. “The hatchery can now produce up to a million spats (oyster babies) a month,” Tan says.

    For her, achievements and awards have been many, but the one Tan feels most gratified

    by was being elected the first woman president of Unitas Malacologica (UM) – an international body of distinguished malacologists. “This 54-year-old society has been very European-based but when they opened their doors to Asians, my name popped up and they extended an invitation letter. After two (three-year) terms as a council member, I was chosen as president in 2013. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get funding to be at the meeting in Azores, Portugal, but we did a Skype president’s speech,” Tan says good-naturedly.

    Tan

    Her role reached its pinnacle when she organised UM’s 19th World Congress, a triennial conference bringing together scientists from all over the globe to discuss issues related to molluscan research. “We had 300 participants from 41 countries converging at Hotel Jen for the week-long congress last July. It was a great opportunity for young Asian scientists to come and meet their seniors from all over the world. We had participants who were up to 78 years old, who had already retired but still came to share their knowledge – these are the people everyone should grab the opportunity to talk to,” Tan says, adding that it was only the second time the congress had come to Asia.

    To top it off, Tan was awarded a full professorship in August and honoured with a place in USM’s Sanggar Sanjung (Hall of Fame) in October, receiving the premier Outstanding Figure Award.

    As to her overall success, Tan thinks balance is the key. The mother of two says that women often believe they have to be more like men to succeed, but that is not the case. “To go far, you have to contribute and sacrifice a lot. For women, once you are married, you are more or less tied down with family and that is a reason a lot of women stop halfway (professionally).”

    “I think (as women) we have to think of doing things in different ways – chasing our dreams without letting it interfere with personal things,” Tan says, adding that supportive family, babysitters and even helpful students who occasionally looked out for her kids played a big role.

    “I feel balancing all this is one of my great accomplishments,” she says.

    Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.
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    Penang Palette

    Art That Found Immortality in 2016

    Artists cannot live forever, but their works certainly can.

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    Artists tend to be linked to two deathrelated myths: that they lead longer lives, and that their stature grows the longer they live. But death comes to all, with 2016 claiming many artists, including two notable Malaysians, Zakaria Awang (1954-January 29), and Penangborn Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam (1941-December 5).

    Zakaria was an art tutor and was in the team that won second prize in the Hong Kong Sand Sculpture competition in 1988. He was known for his three-dimensional works studded with Islamic calligraphy and informed by its principles.

    The searing sociopolitical and environmental thrust in the works of Nirmala (or Nim to her fans), were created with deft manipulations of media and strong content and colour symbolism, and bristled with truth and social justice.

    Nirmala’s standouts include the self-explanatory May 13 1969; the Chico Mendez-inspired Do Not Log Carelessly Lest Misfortune Befall You which railed against indiscriminate logging in Sarawak, and used rust-red mengkudu; as well as Friends In Need, on the powerful US-UK collusion for world supremacy; and Save The Seed That Will Save The Black People on apartheid, both of which were removed from the opening of the British-Malaysia Side-By-Side exhibition in KL in 1986.

    Zakaria Awang, Lambai II, 1985, Mixed media on plywood, 178cm x 128cm. Collection of UiTM.

    Her works also include Petruk Jai Raja, a side-winding wayang kulit on the abuse of power; Africa I and II, on famine and civil strife in Ethiopia; Anak Asia, on refugee children in Beirut; Great Leap Forward, on overheated development before the 1998 currency contagion; Tsunami on the 2004 disaster; Virgin Spring Today, on child abuse; as well as Berbanding on squatters – which even saw Nirmala standing defiantly with the Kampung Polo squatters when the bulldozers came.

    Nirmala got her first break when she won one of two major prizes in the Man and His World competition in 1973. Her winning work, Statement I (1973), used photographs on pollution and a pile of debris and industrial waste from Damansara for good measure. Using photography as art and rubbish as an installation was still considered radical, when the gestural (mainly abstract) and the conceptual dominated. She was then selected for the 5th Indian Triennale in 1982, and ARX ‘89 Metro Mania in Perth.

    Trained in figure-drawing at Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia, Nirmala took up art courses at the Concoran School of Art, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, and the Boston College of Art. This was followed by a BSc in Mass Communication and courses in graphic art and psychology at the Oxford Polytechnic, from 1975 to 1978. But Nirmala will not be forgotten; a posthumous reprise of Great Leap Forward marks OUR ArtProjects’ debut exhibition at the Zhongshan Building in KL, from January 7-27, 2017.

    Among others who passed on last year were Conlay artist Za’azhar “Burn” Jantan in February, and British-born Penang-based Christopher Dally in June.

    2016 claimed artists of all ages, including three centenarians – American-Chinese Disney and Warner Brothers animator Tyrus Wong (1910-December 30), British ceramist Marianne de Trey (1913 October 18) and Australian sculptor Inge King (1915-April 23). Dutch-born Balinese legend Arie Smit succumbed to old age three weeks short of a hundred, while the “youngest” on the tombstone roll for the year was Canadian Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook at 47, who was found dead in a river.

    Wong, nee Wong Gen Yao or Wong Gaing Yin, was finally acknowledged to have inspired Disney’s 1942 flick, Bambi. He joined Disney in 1938 as an “in-betweener” (repetitive stills drawings), and was honoured with a retrospective at the Disney Museum.

    De Trey, who was trained in textiles at the Royal College of Art, was a pioneer of the British functional studio ceramics movement. Thanks to her husband, Sam Haile, she switched to pottery, and became a founder of the Crafts Potters Association. De Trey became a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2006.

    Berlin-born King became an Australian institution after moving to Melbourne in 1951. Her monumental sculptures include Forward Surge in the Melbourne Arts Centre. King had a double retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1992 and 2014, became a Member of the Order of Australia 1984, and won the Australian Arts Council Emeritus Award and the Dame Elizabeth Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and 2015 respectively.

    Tyrus Wong, inspiration behind Disney's Bambi.

    Lugi Lugiono.

    Pootoogook, winner of the coveted Sobey Art Award, presented the darker side of Inuit life with her inks and crayons.

    The American folk artist of animal carvings, Isaac Smith, also passed away on Christmas last year. 2016 was a closing chapter for several other pioneers: Harold Cohen (computer art, 1928-April 27), Marvin Lipofsky (studio glass, 1938-January 15) and Klaus Moje (studio glass, 1936- September 24), Ben Patterson (Fluxus co-founder, 1934-June 24), and Gyula Kosice (kinetic and luminal art, 1924-May 29).

    Cohen was also the developer of Aaron, a computer software programme that generates art autonomously, while Kosice (born Ferdinand Fallik) co-founded the Arturo magazine, the multidisciplinary 1940s group Madi, and an art form he dubbed concrete art invention.

    India lost abstract art pioneer Jeram Patel (1930-January 18), and Dinanath Bhargava (1927-December 24), a Shantiniketan disciple, who with five others designed the lion capital of India’s state emblem.

    Ho Fan 1950s Hong Kong.

    Marc Riboud's Flower Girl.

    Indonesia, meanwhile, lost several legendary artists besides Smit, including the sculptor Edhi Sunarso (1932-January 4), Made Wijaya (1953-August 29), Maria Tjui (1934-November 16) and Tedja Suminar (1936-June 24).

    Arie Smit Pura (oil on canvas).

    Smit went to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1938 as a lithographer and survived the Death Railway during the Japanese Occupation. After taking up Indonesian citizenship in 1951, he made Bali his home in 1956, starting the Penestanan “Young Artists” style, and was known for his luminous, riotous colours. He set his auction record for Pura (Temple, 101cm x 88cm) which fetched a premium of HK$1.6mil (about RM766,410) at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016.

    Sunarso, who was imprisoned by the Dutch in 1942-1949, has several landmark monuments in Jakarta, including the Monas Diorama and the towering Pancoran. Australian-born landscape designer Michael White, better known by his Balinese moniker, Made Wijaya, had six coffee-table books to his name, and designed a garden for David Bowie, who also died last year.

    Other sculptors bowing out were “outsider artist” Thornton Dial (1929-January 25), Geoffrey Rigden (1945-January 26), Fred Holland (1952-March 5), Marisol Escobar (1930-April 30), François Morellet (1926-May 11), Eduardo Castrillo (1942-May 18), Tunga (1952-June 6), Tony Feher (1956-June 24) and Ernst Neizvestny (1925-August 9), while architecture lost its supernova in Iraqi Briton Zaha Hadid (1951-March 31).

    In photography, the big losses were Howard Bingham (1939-December 22), the personal photographer of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who also died last year; Magnum master Marc Riboud (1923-August 30 ); Shanghai-born American Ho Fan (1931-June 19); Iranian Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker-photographer Abbas Kiarostami (1940-July 4); street-life and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham (1929-June 25); American Deep South photographer William Christenberry (1936-November 28); Andy Warhol’s former lover Billy Name (nee William Linich, 1940-July 18); photojournalist Kippa Matthews (1962-July 28); and reggae photographer Dave Hendley (1952-July 19).

    It was also requiem for Japanese anime artists, such as Michiyo Yasuda (of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke fame, 1939-October 5) and Studio Ghibli’s Makiko Futaki (1958-May 13). Preacher artist Steve Dillon (1962-October 22) also died last year, along with MAD founding cartoonist John “Jack” Davis (1924-July 27), and Catwoman artist Darwyn Cooke (1962-May 14).

    Abbas Kiarostami.

    The poster of the anime classic, Spirited Away.

    Several artists died in their 80s, such as Croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović (1924-July 18); Marino Marini apprentice Kengiro Azuma (1926-October 15); and Spanish-born Chilean artist José Balmes (1927-August 28). And the money trail ended for Welsh portrait artist Andrew Vicari (1938-October 3), whose nett worth was estimated in 2006 to be worth GBP92mil.

    Other requiems: perennial bridesmaid of the Archibald Prize Kerrie Lester (1953-April 5); American Naïve artist of Kiowa folklore Robert Redbird (1939-March 5); wildlife artist Harry Titcombe (1934-July 13); Alan Vega (1938-July 16); Anne Chu (1959-July 25); Shirley Jaffe ( 1924-September 29); Singapore’s Chan Chang How (1943-October 22); Taiwan’s “Big Tail Elephant” founder Chen Shaoxiong (1962-November 26); Alaskan water-colourist Byron Birdsall (1937-December 4); and Quebec artist Corno (aka Joanne Corneau, 1952-December 21).

    Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary ‘movel’ (a novel conceived as a mock movie) fantasy spun from a local legend.
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    4. April, 2016

      A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

      We have more champions than we think.
    5. March, 2016

      Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

      With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
    6. February, 2016

      TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

      Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
    7. January, 2016

      Education – Ever the political victim

      Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...