A Very Brief History of Malaysian Physics1

About the 14th of February [1929] two expeditions are proceeding to Malaya to observe the eclipse… the plans of the two parties have been worked out in close collaboration and many details have been discussed and arranged with foreign astronomers…2

Prince Phillip at UM Physics Department (1965).

ON MAY 9 the HMS Iroquois stopped between Langkawi and the port of Penang, where Lieutenant Foulerton recorded that the “[l]ight and shadows [were] very queer and unreal”.3 Meanwhile, at a field in Alor Setar, where Jalan Kelompang runs today, scientific observers were waiting for the same event to take place. In Pattani a third team had been joined by the King and Queen of Siam. Among the objectives of these expeditions were to further study the displacement of light rays by a gravitational field – among the predictions of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

At the beginning of the totality, Foulerton recorded that the sky and clouds to the southwest changed to a “vivid emerald green”, then to a deep blue, Jupiter clearly visible as a faint solar corona formed. The final length of the totality: five minutes. But it was enough to form early links between Malay(si)a and the wider world of modern scientific developments.

Science in the Malay World

Those events were the results of years of coordination, which attested to the greater internationalisation of modern science. Yet science education imparted during colonial times was merely sufficient for training technicians to maintain imported technologies, while formal scientific institutionalisation did not yet exist. Although the event in Alor Setar may have appeared distant from the native community, the labour of locals could have been roped in at some level.

At this time, the idea of scientific modernity, as the knowledge practice of an autonomous and sovereign state, could not properly take hold in Southeast Asia, since it requires state players to have an assured knowledge identity, which translates into awareness of its knowledge traditions in relation to the rest of the world. Therefore, such scientific modernity could only materialise in post-independence Southeast Asia.

Historic photograph of the UM plasma experiment's first megaampere shot (1972).

This is not to say that scientific knowledge had not previously existed in the Malay World.4 There is evidence of relatively advanced knowledge of science and mathematics through the discovery of prasasti (manuscript-tablets) brought by Muslim and Indian scholars. But the eventual tread of history ensured that the transmission of knowledge remained frozen in time, cut off from the latest European advances, which were eventually exported in the form of the colonial-capitalist enterprise.

When Albert Einstein stopped in Singapore in 1922 to raise funds for the Hebrew University, he gave a speech during a soiree held in his honour, where he talked about the importance of institutions in enabling the internationalisation of science. At this time, modern physics knowledge was already circulating in China, Japan and British India. But Malayans would not know substantial transmission of physics knowledge until after the postwar period.

Nation-building

In 1955 Tunku Abdul Rahman expressed enthusiasm over the potential deployment of nuclear technology in industries such as rubber. It was also a year after the establishment of the Atoms For Peace project, an act of science diplomacy meant to counter Soviet influence.

The German ambassador's visit to the Plasma Lab (1977).

By 1949, the physics department at the University of Malaya (UM) was established,5 with relatively advanced course offerings available. Perhaps much credit goes to the department’s head and lecturers (many of whom were still foreigners) wanting to maintain scientific currency in the “periphery”. Geography came to their rescue: Singapore was a choice transit port for steamers, and hence the university there became a logical stopover for journeying scholars – among them the famed physicist Paul Dirac, lecturing in a short-sleeved shirt on “Symmetry in the Atomic World”.

The 1950s proved to be a pivotal decade for Malaya (including Singapore), although the physicists did not seem to have been as involved in the politicised atmosphere as some other groups. However, there were many attempts at science communication at the universities, teachers’ training colleges and schools. By the 1960s, journal publications on particle physics, atomic and molecular physics and other fields appeared. By now, the young regional governments had bought into the doctrine of science as being supplementary to technology (and hence socioeconomic development), instead of vice versa.6

Minister of Science at UM Plasma Lab (1986).

In the 1970s and 1980s, much work was theoretical due to lack of resources and access to equipment for experimental work. The immediate technological applicability of nuclear physics meant that this field was highly popular, in addition to its potential for generating energy. But taking scientific results into account, in terms of teaching and research produced domestically, the work in UM’s plasma physics laboratories was particularly strong, and in fact Malaysian scientists developed theories and provided some scientific leadership in research internationally.7

At this time, a slew of new universities started, fuelled by the nation-building experiments. One was Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), where the medium of communication was Malay. Such a switch was not far-fetched – after all, nationalists could look at the perceived success of the Indonesian experience, while the countries of northeast Asia had successfully modernised their languages.

For a while, the English-educated Malaysians had to yield to Indonesian scholars who could actually teach in the language.8 At the same time, the influence of Islamic-educated academics, who saw the same intellectual possibilities for the Malay language, were also very strong.

In Penang the determination for an institution of higher learning eventually led to the founding of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Chatar Singh, who briefly studied under Thong Saw Park,9 recalls starting his career when major equipment and capacity were still lacking, and thus focused on capacity building and teaching – and at one point, designing the physics building, taking into consideration equipment weights and a need to make provisions for radioactive contamination.10

...scientific modernity... could not properly take hold in Southeast Asia, since it requires state players to have an assured knowledge identity, which translates into awareness of its knowledge traditions in relation to the rest of the world..

Occasionally, USM did host external events, which allowed it to rise within the ranks of domestic universities. Given Penang’s status as a manufacturing hub, a symbiotic relationship between industries and the campus emerged.11 Unfortunately, bureaucrats privileged the development of science with immediate technological applications. Therefore, scholarships offered under the Colombo Plan and by the Public Service Department (JPA) reflected their priorities. Relevant funding was made available through grants from the Research Program Based on Priority Areas (IRPA) scheme and the SAGA fund, which was administered by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. As remembered by Dr. Hishamuddin Zainuddin, their focus was application-driven.12

At the same time, national-level bodies were founded, such as the Institute for Advanced Technology, and an effort was made at including fundamental science research in policy-making decisions, although a general sentiment was that such policies maintained the focus on technologisation.

The Region and the Future

With time, the limits of the developmental agenda were made clear. A vacuum was created in terms of expertise in the fundamental sciences as the older generation of physicists moved on to other areas. Until now, Malaysia still lacks a defined research culture, in the sense that one hardly sees anyone performing research work at all hours of the day.13 

International collaborations. Professor Paolo Sakanaka of Brazil visits UM in 1986.

Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam visiting UM in January 1986. Datuk Dr. Chatar Singh also appears here.

It is useful to look at the broader regional picture here. Southeast Asia’s problems include low levels of scientific literacy; disincentives for those considering a career in science; economic hardship; autocratic forms of governance; and the gap between policy and implementation.14 Malaysia, for instance, may have impressive technological infrastructure, but the country has not attended to basic science research or strengthened its indigenous scientific culture, while remaining obsessed with rankings, patents and a metrics-driven knowledge economy. Meanwhile, Singapore realised its weakness in fundamental research and began importing many of its talents at high cost.15

UM VC Hussein Alatas signing ICAC-UM agreement with Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam (1989).

There is still a relative insularity in Malaysia’s scientific development. The lack of funding available for fundamental research hampers the chances of Malaysian physicists joining international collaborations, since lacking capacity means exclusion. Some international collaborations depended on fortunate opportunities, such as Malaysia’s involvement in the last stages of the ZEUS particle detector’s operations.16

Then there is language. In Dr. Shaharir’s estimation, even UKM, in spite of its idealism, now focuses on English-language publications instead. While the task of updating the Malay language fell to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and to teachers, with input from lecturers at UM; the modernisation of a language is not just a matter of translation. Scholars can manipulate the translated knowledge, but a comprehensive acculturation of concepts remains lacking.

Given that Malaysia is entering a new phase of big science by participating in the research at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), for example, there is room for growth. Moreover, physicists have and continue to form collaborations with East Asian institutions with the relevant facilities. As such, Malaysia can leverage its early foundations and current facilities to build up its capacity.  

1 Most of the information is drawn from the following works by Dr. Clarissa Lee: (1) "When Twentieth Century Physics Arrived in British Malaya – Establishing Physics Literacy." Asia Pacific Physics Newsletter 6 (1): 52-54, and (2) "Nuclear Science as Big Science in Southeast Asia: the Case of Malaysia." Asia Pacific Physics Newsletter 6 (2): 42-45. Some material is drawn from her forthcoming book, Artscience: A Curious Education (2021).
2 The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly). 20 February 1929. "THE ECLIPSE EXPEDITION." Singapore, 5.
3 Royal Astronomical Society. 1929. "Total solar eclipse of 1929 May 9. Reports of the British Expeditions." Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (Royal Astronomical Society) 90: 121-137.
4 Interview between Clarissa Lee and Dr. Shaharir Mohd Zain, 2020.
5 Later, it would merge with the original Nanyang University to form the National University of Singapore.
6 It is important to remember that despite their individual achievements, many developing states became technically dependent on developed nations and never became equal participants in scientific modernity.
7 This research started in the early sixties under the leadership of Thong Saw Pak. In 1972 Malaysia measured fusion neutrons from the plasma-focus experiments at UM, the first measured nuclear fusion in geographical Asia. In 1985, UM started an international research training programme which resulted in the setup of laboratories in India, Pakistan and Indonesia, among others. Email correspondence between Dr. Lee Sing and William Tham, 10–11 February 2021.
8 Interview between Clarissa Lee and Dr. Shaharir Mohd Zain, 2020.
9 One of the more prominent local physicists, Dr. Thong was also an Olympic weightlifter, who would urge for greater connections between society and physics while based at UM.
10 Interview with Clarissa Lee, February 2020.
11 Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. KJ Ratnam has pointed out that as “important as they are, contract research and other links with industry do not lie at the core of the university’s mission which … will always be teaching and the furthering of knowledge” (p. 85). See KJ Ratnam, 2004, The Scientific Enterprise, Gelugor: Penerbit USM.
12 Interview with Clarissa Lee, 2020.
13 Interview between Datuk Dr. Chatar Singh and Clarissa Lee, February 2020.
14 In the case of Myanmar, although it initiated scientific programmes already in the late nineteenth century, military rule forced its scientists into isolation and cut them off from interacting directly with their peers elsewhere.
15 There are interesting efforts to bridge the gap between wider society and the scientists. For example, NUS’s Centre for Quantum Technologies held a writer-in-residence programme, which resulted in Tania De Rozario’s Somewhere Else, Another You.
16 Interview between Dr. Wan Ahmad Tajuddin Wan Abdullah and Clarissa Lee. 2020. Wan Ahmad Tajuddin had relatively considerable success in his particle physics collaboration with CERN.

William Tham Wai Liang’s first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.
Clarissa Ai Ling Lee is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Creative Arts in Universiti Malaya. She is presently writing a book that considers the intersection of artscience and the history of the physical sciences in Malaysia and is the author of Artscience: A Curious Education.



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