Building Bridges: How the Arts and the Social Sciences Can Support National Goals

12 AUGUST 2014
7th Merdeka Award Roundtable

Over the decades, Malaysia has seen steady progress across its economic and educational landscape. Today, our country is set on a path towards achieving national goals in pursuit of becoming a high income and fully developed nation. Research and innovation in key areas such as education and community, the environment, health, science and technology have made a substantial contribution leading our nation closer to an aspired future of national excellence. But how are national goals being supported to attain this level of distinction?
In conjunction with the Merdeka Award and its aims to promote thought leadership and innovation, foster a culture of excellence and encourage a worldview, four prominent individuals were brought together for a roundtable discussion to address the importance of disciplines other than science and technology that account for our nation’s development. Titled Building Bridges: How the Arts and the Social Sciences Can Support National Goals, the debate explored social factors such as culture and education, outlining the importance of the arts and social sciences as key elements in supporting the nation on its quest towards achieving national goals.
The four distinguished speakers who participated in the 7th session of the Merdeka Award’s series of roundtable sessions organised by PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell were: Tan Sri Dato' Seri Utama Arshad Ayub, Merdeka Award Recipient & Educationist; Distinguished Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin,  Director & Founder, Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), UKM; Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Artistic Director, Sutra Dance Theatre; and Dato' Datin Professor Dr Wazir Jahan Karim, Founding Director, Women’s Development Research Centre, USM. ASTRO Awani’s Cynthia Ng hosted the thought provoking session.
Sharing their views on the relevance of social sciences in comparison with that of science and technology, the panelist concurred that the orientation of the country is inclined towards innovation based on scientific knowledge rather than social development. The overall consensus during the discussion was that there is a widening intellectual divide between the arts and science, and bridging this gap would mean strengthening the role of the Arts and Social Sciences and affording it greater recognition.
Dato' Wazir says: “Most global issues are social science issues. Take women and the concept of single mothers for example; a massive number of them are falling behind amidst current conditions. Scientists should be very aware of these social issues and go down to the grassroots in solving them as they could lead our country to urban poverty. There has to be a focus on the people and humanities - not just scientific or technological innovation.”
Datuk Shamsul proposed two ways of viewing the discipline of Social Sciences: as a subject taught and on the level of policy formation. “There are several social science departments formed and courses introduced within universities.  However, social science has a small role within the political ecology. There is a lack of budget in this area. We are aware of R&D in a scientific sense but there needs to be a social science R&D to identify and address social issues,” he says.

The importance of science and technology to Malaysia’s development is evident, and its contribution in shaping our nation’s future is unquestionable. However, as Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-cultural society, science education and scientific knowledge alone has proven to be inadequate in leading our country towards developed nation status. Science and technology, albeit crucial to Malaysia’s growth, makes up merely a portion of our nation’s efforts towards excellence. Yet, there seems to be a sizable allocation of funds channeled towards research and education in this area over that in the Arts and Social Sciences.
“The perception is that social science does not require a budget, whereas science requires funding for equipment. Social science research is not easy as it is about discovering the truth about the communities within our society. It involves a lot of fieldwork, and social scientists are often required to live with these people despite their conditions to truly understand the research being conducted,” said Dato' Wazir in response to the state of research facilities and financial support for social sciences.
The Arts and Social Science have an institutional history of about five decades in Malaysia, however, the prevalence of sciences over the arts is well established. There is a prejudice for the sciences, particularly when choosing a career path, and students face the pressure that they should choose the science instead of arts stream.
“When it comes to choosing between courses, parents play a role. We cannot leave the issue of social science entirely to the government or policymakers. It is the responsibility of society as a whole,” says Tan Sri Arshad. The panelists concurred that when it comes to the education system, consultation with the public is imperative. In the same way that society should have a say on policies enforced, students should be allowed to set their own course depending on their interest; with direction from their parents and teachers.
Our nation’s diversity calls for considerable investments in other sectors that take social factors into account. Malaysia has to be prepared to take it further in other areas, particularly within the disciplines of the arts and social sciences that recognise contribution to the nation’s heritage and culture; areas central to our nation’s civic, economic and diplomatic future.
“The Arts, culture and social sciences make up the persona of the nation. It is not just about architectural and material advances”, Datuk Ramli says in support of the arts and social sciences for bridging cultural gaps. “There needs to be an integration of science and social sciences beginning from an educational level, and more places should be made into cultural centers for better exposure.” He says collaborative efforts are required to build the bridges between the different disciplines to contribute to a better future; with open, clear and consistent communication between the ministries, i.e. of education, science and culture.
Concluding the discussion, the panelists say that the arts and social sciences is the missing component in our education system, and in order for our nation to move forward, there needs to be a local understanding of society and its struggles. Every science study must have an element of social science to contribute to a better outcome; with a collaborative effort in developing new theories to support current conditions. It is only then that national goals and the true spirit of national unity can be achieved.

The 7th Merdeka Award Roundtable will air on:
Date        : 30 August 2014
Time       : 8.30pm
Channel : Astro Awani, 501
  • Sunday, 31 August  (9.30am)
  • Monday, 01 September  (3.30pm)
  • Wednesday, 03 September  (11.00am)
  • Saturday, 06 September  (5.00pm)


The Merdeka Award was established by PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell on 27 August 2007, to recognise and reward Malaysians and non-Malaysians who have made outstanding and lasting contributions to the nation and the people of Malaysia in their respective fields.
The choice of name, Merdeka Award, reflects the Founding Members’ aim to commemorate the true spirit of independence, which transcends the conventional definition of national sovereignty. It explores the liberation of the mind and spirit – factors that foster the realisation of human potential and the pursuit of excellence.
Each year, the annual Merdeka Award is conferred on individuals and/or organisations whose excellent work and achievements have made an outstanding impact on the nation and its people in the following categories, namely Education and Community, Environment, Health, Science and Technology, Outstanding Scholastic Achievement and Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia.
The selection of Merdeka Award recipients is made through a stringent and rigorous process, conducted first by the Merdeka Award’s five Nomination Committees, and then by the Selection Committee. The recipients are selected by the Merdeka Award Board of Trustees.
The Award categories reflect focus areas that are regarded as instrumental to the overall growth and development of a nation. One Award is made for each of the five categories above. In the event that in a given year, two individuals and/or organisations are deemed to be equally deserving of recognition, the Award will be shared. The Merdeka Award recipient receives a certificate, a trophy, a work of art by artist Latiff Mohidin and a cash award of RM500,000.
Through the Merdeka Award’s other initiatives like the Merdeka Award Roundtables and the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, the Merdeka Award aims to promote thought leadership and innovation, foster a culture of excellence and encourage a world view, thereby enhancing Malaysia’s standing as a dynamic, competitive 21st Century Global Player in all key sectors from science and technology to the arts.  To date, the Merdeka Award has been conferred on 22 individuals and two organisations.



Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon
Dr Edison headed to Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he joined the Department of Chemistry, Ångström Laboratory, as part of his attachment stint. He is currently carrying out active research in polymer electrolyte and nanomaterials for Lithium-ion batteries. Read more about him here:
Innovating the Energy Ecosystem
Chrishen R. Gomez
Having attended the prestigious Ivy League Brown University as part of his attachment programme, 27-year-old Chrishen is now with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit at Oxford University. Chrishen is busy developing a genetic-based research project on the Sunda Clouded Leopard. Read more about him here: Conserving Our Forests & Future
Dr Zetty
Dr Zetty is currently working on anti-cancer compounds found in Malaysian seaweed and has continued to pursue her original project proposal of microalgae vaccine carriers for fish. A working solution has been patented by Dr Zetty and will be deployed within the coming year.
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