Beyond the moon

  • AseanPlus News
  • Sunday, 21 Jul 2019

AS astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago on July 20, he transmitted back to earth the unforgettable words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Although only a small child at that time, I remember the thrill of being allowed to stay up late to watch on our black and white TV the drama of that moment.

My grand plan was to be the first girl to walk on the moon, but that career ambition hasn’t worked out yet. I do love my current day job – and maybe can pursue aeronautics in my next career.

Neil Armstrong’s career path, on the other hand, made him a modern-day pioneer. His immortal lines recognised that accomplishing history’s first “moonshot” – a groundbreaking endeavour carrying historical significance, was larger than any one person or country.

Landing on the moon marked a seminal moment in human history. Growing up, I shared in our human fascination with space and exploration – as we developed the space shuttle, cheered successes, mourned tragedies and further pushed to see beyond the beyond with the Hubble Telescope and Mars Rover. At the same time, I marvelled at the beauty of our own planet Earth as seen from space.

The 1969 moonshot was an incredible accomplishment for the United States, but it also highlights the incredible accomplishments of countries like Malaysia as we look at the development of the space programme over the years.

Throughout the duration of the Apollo programme, Nasa estimates that some 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians from around the world worked together as the United States mobilised the public and private sectors to reach the moon.

FILE PHOTO: Apollo 11 crew's portrait session shows astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin in this July 1969 handout photo courtesy of NASA. NASA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY      PLEASE SEARCH '50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MOON LANDING' FOR ALL PICTURES
Space pioneers: Apollo 11 crew’s portrait session showing (from left) Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin in July 1969.   

Companies like IBM, Honeywell, Motorola and GE all played essential roles in enabling Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin to reach the moon and return safely to Earth. The list of technology transferred from Nasa’s accomplishments to our everyday lives is amazing: everything from computers to GPS to the clothes we wear all have linkages to the space programme.

Malaysians know several of these companies well because they have been here for decades. About 99% of IBM’s employees here are Malaysian, and Malaysians hold important roles in IBM offices around the world. Honeywell has been in Malaysia since 1985 and today it has more than 1,500 employees in seven locations, working on integrated avionics systems for aircraft.

It’s the same for one of the founding US electronics companies in Penang, Motorola

– 98% of its nearly 1,700 current employees here are Malaysian. Most Motorola employees serve in high-tech positions geared to research and development as well as new product development for global customers. Kuala Lumpur is home to one of GE’s three oil and gas Monitoring and Diagnostics centres, playing a key role in 24/7 “follow the sun” monitoring of turbines across the world.

US firms continue to invest in high-tech operations in Malaysia, often from offices that also serve as Asean hubs. The firms invest in talent development, including Malaysians at every level of the corporate structure, from managing director to entry-level employee. US companies are the largest employers in several Malaysian states.

Finisar, the world’s leading supplier of optical communication products, hires more Malaysians in Perak than any other company.ON Semiconductor, a Fortune 500 semiconductors supplier, is Negri Sembilan’s largest employer.

First Solar has the largest factory footprint in the Kulim Hi-Tech Industrial Park in Kedah. Intel and Jabil – each with close to 10,000 employees – are the two top employers in Penang.

I have enjoyed every opportunity to visit with the employees and managers at these companies, and to reflect on how our shared efforts have enabled us and will enable us to push the bounds of technology and human accomplishment in the fields of medicine, transportation, energy and IT.

US companies often invite me to speak to their emerging young Malaysian leaders about my career, sharing the challenges I have faced, promoting creativity, critical thinking, and seeking horizons beyond Malaysia to prepare for the dynamic change in the future. Throughout Malaysia’s history and especially over the past 50 years, Americans and Malaysians have built a mutually beneficial partnership through economic engagement and people-to-people exchanges.

The US government sponsors an array of exchanges designed to spark and nurture innovation. With the Malaysian government, we sponsor 100 American English Teaching Assistants spread throughout the country as part of the Fulbright programme.

The Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) builds leadership skills among youth in the region to address global challenges. The YES programme sends 40 secondary school students to attend a US high school and live with American families for six months.

In the last two years, I have met hundreds of participants in these programmes and others. Each of them have special stories to tell of how the US experience changed their professional and personal dreams.

We are proud of all, but to provide a few “space” examples: My good friend Mazlan Othman is a US-Asean Fulbright Scholar and the astrophysicist who laid the foundation for Malaysia’s space programme. Her efforts led to the launch of Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, in 2007.

This fall, Jonah Lau, one of our recent Southeast Asian Youth Leadership Program participants, will attend Purdue University – Armstrong’s alma mater – where he plans to study aerospace engineering.

Many American companies here sponsor community outreach initiatives to inspire Malaysian youth to cultivate a love for science and creativity and push the next generation to greater heights.

Intel’s matching grant programme delivers millions of ringgit to community groups where their staff volunteer. Melwin Cheng Choon Lei and Tham Yong Shiang, secondary students from Penang, won the chemistry division of Intel’s 2019 International Science and Engineering Fair in Arizona. For their achievement, they will have an asteroid named after them.

Keysight Technology’s After Hours programme, led by vice-president and general manager Shidah Ahmad, an Ohio University alum, mentors youth on STEM education. First Solar adopted a school in rural Kedah to curb dropout rates. And there are many, many other examples. These partnerships are critical as the United States plans to push the boundaries of human exploration with a manned mission to Mars.

We recognise that we will not get there alone. We look forward to working with our close friends in Malaysia to accomplish the next “impossible” dream. Together, we look forward to humanity’s next great endeavour – a moonshot that goes beyond the moon.

  • Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir is the United States Ambassador to Malaysia.
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