To become a developed nation, Malaysia needs skilled workers with such background
IT was tradition in my school where teachers would gather the Form 5 students in the school hall for a final pep talk.
There was a final salvo of advice by the teachers before we sat for our SPM examinations. For most, the conclusion of that examination will mark the final time we will wear the school uniform.
There was pin-drop silence that day; unusual since most students would chatter away at assemblies despite warnings of silence. Apart from that, our Form 5 supervisor Mr Poon would have his own session with his boys.
He told us science stream students how most of us would have a professional career. I wondered what he would have told the arts stream boys, as there was six science streams classes compared with three for the arts stream.
Upon asking a fellow friend, he revealed that Poon had told them that the arts stream boys would become employers of us science stream students.
It may be true or it might have been Poon's way of keeping their spirits high but recent developments made me wonder if his sagely words would have any meaning in the future.
I was surprised to have read that only 20% of students in this year's SPM examinations were from the science stream. Reports say that percentage was well below the optimum 60% target. Coupled with the poor proficiency in maths and science among secondary students, the picture is quite alarming.
The cause of concern is in relation to the economy and where the country wants to be come 2020.
We have read repeatedly that the country wants to move up the value-added chain, to become a developed country by then. Doing so will require more skilled workers and implies that the area of focus will be on workers with a higher-level background in science and maths.
Already, Malaysia is a factory to the world. Companies from all over set up shop in the various industrial parks to manufacture goods for export around the world.
Their decision to establish operations in Malaysia is because of the cost of making those products here. Our skilled workers is also an added advantage along with the ability to communicate in English.
Should the pool of students who have studied in science stream shrink to negligible levels and when companies find it difficult to capitalise on the higher value-added business they aspire to set up in Malaysia, then they will go elsewhere. That will have damaging repercussions on the economy.
To find out why maths and science are important, let us look at countries that are strong in those fields.
Look at Japan. The Japanese economy has the worst aging population profile, extremely high government indebtedness and such meagre economic growth rates that any other country that is maligned by the same factors would have been a basket case by now.
The reason why they are still considered an economic power is because of its industrial complex. Companies that manufacture white good, electronic goods and cars that are sold around the world offer tremendous support to the Japanese economy, and that is down to a culture of innovativeness that is embedded by science and maths.
The same with Germany. It has a large population but its industrial capability is what separates itself from the rest of troubled Europe.
In the pursuit of developing other pillars of the economy, we must not forget just how important the manufacturing sector is. Moving up the value chain will offer higher paying jobs to Malaysians who in turn can pay for the number of services they want to consume. But it's manufacturing, agriculture and other commodities that Malaysia is strong in which will drive the consuming part of the economy.
And without a growing number of students who have knowledge in maths and science, we risk handicapping future growth if the shortage is not tackled with great earnest.
If all fails, the economy will have one solace. Come 2015 under the Asean Economic Community, movement of skilled workers from within South-East Asia will be made easier.
Maybe by then, if our numbers of those skilled in maths and science have fallen even more, Malaysians might have to get used to a new wave of foreign migration.
■ Acting business features editor Jagdev Singh Sidhu is still intrigued by science.