The line between “developing” and “developed” is ill-defined, despite various indices that claim otherwise. Most of these metrics rank a country’s wealth or the quality of life for people living there. Education has a direct effect on both standards—the better a country’s education system, the stronger its economy and the happier its citizens.
Given this relationship between education and well-being, it’s easy to understand why Malaysian officials—and those of so many similarly developing countries—have made education a high priority for years. But in Malaysia, this focus on STEM is new. Young professionals in STEM fields will be the country’s best bet to confront challenges that have plagued the country for generations, like poverty and access to health care, according to Khairiyah Mohd-Yusof, who directs the Centre for Engineering Education at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s new role on the international stage, combined with a greater focus on STEM, could mean that young innovators are stepping up to tackle global problems like climate change and sustainability, Mohd-Yusof said. That could be enough bring Malaysia into “developed” status by almost any metric.
Now, about 40 percent of Malaysian high school graduates specialize in science—up from just 25 percent in 2000, government estimates suggest. To Dato Lee Yee Cheong, who chairs the UNESCO International Science Technology and Innovation Centre, the idea of raising this number to 60 percent in the next seven years is not only impossible, but also unnecessary for Malaysia to reach its development goals. “I have not seen anyone say [that] if we don’t achieve that [60 percent in science] we’re not going to achieve high income status,” Malaysian-native Cheong said. “I don’t know how we can do a quantum leap in seven years.”
Malaysia has made a lot of strides towards development, but in the past that hasn’t had much to do with science. The federal government, ostensibly the country’s largest employer, hasn’t incentivized science majors in the past, Cheong noted. “Government employment opportunities have always favored the arts graduate,” Cheong said. After completing only three years of secondary school, arts-focused graduates can enter the workforce, often landing good-paying civil-service positions that lead to rapid promotions. Science education takes longer, Cheong said, and that time investment comes with limited employment opportunities for college graduates with degrees in the hard sciences. So there has been no reason to bother with science education when an arts degree will get you earning more money faster.
But now, that’s changing. Bolstering the government’s assumption that STEM education leads to development is a growing demand for professionals with a background in such fields, from engineers who will update the country’s aging infrastructure to doctors who will care for its rising population.