The editorial of a national daily today said that Malaysia cannot afford “the diversion of resources that would be required to encourage the one-in-a million occurrence of a Suffiah Farooq, the 12-year-old British child prodigy”. It said: “Education has a lot of equalising to do - in the rural areas, in the less developed communities - before it can turn its focus on the brilliant few”.
This editorial contains three fallacies about the important issue of education for gifted and talented children in Malaysia, which had hitherto been neglected by the national education system - firstly that it would mean diverting resources for a “one-in-a million occurrence” or “the brilliant few”; secondly, that it would run counter to the “equalisation” objective of the education system to provide education to the masses rather than the gifted few; and thirdly, that fostering the gifts and talents of children has no national benefit whatsoever.
In actual fact, we are not talking about ‘one-in-a-million occurrence”, as Universiti Malaya social psychologist Prof Dr. Chiam Heng Keng, had estimated that there were about 300,000 intellectually gifted primary school children in the country although there were far fewer child geniuses. I understand that this estimate could be very much higher, depending on the IQ score and method of assessment and identification.
In any event, going by the tenor of this editorial, the Cabinet had no business to offer a government scholarship to Sufiah Farooq, especially as she is not even a Malaysian citizen.
The development and promotion of education for gifted children in other countries had also faced objections and resistance arising from the debate turning it into an issue of equality versus excellence. However, many of these countries have come to realise that one should not confuse equality of rights and opportunities with equality of ability and achievement, and to recognise that gifted and talented children have special needs if their gifts and talents are not to atrophy.
Most important of all, the nation must recognise that gifted and talented children are the nation’s most valuable natural resource and it is in the national interest to encourage them to fulfil their potential and to strive for excellence.
This is particularly pertinent when Malaysia is poised on the threshold of a new millennium and committed to be in the forefront of the Information Technology revolution where knowledge is going to be the the most critical competitive factor of production in a new system of wealth creation.
We should be fully aware that in the Information Age, nations will not only compete on their products and services, but even more important, compete with brains. This is why Malaysia must regard it as a top national priority to identify, conserve, develop and use our gifted and talented to place the country in a competitive position in the Information Age.
In fact, it can be said that the country’s resolve to address the long-neglected area of education for gifted and talented children will be a test case as to whether Malaysia is ready for the Information Age where countries must be able to thrive on knowledge to ensure their prosperity and to compete in world markets.
If the Education Minister could take the issue of Sufiah Farooq to the Cabinet, it is even more important in the national interest that he should ask the Cabinet to commission two studies on gifted children in Malaysia, firstly to identify the number of gifted children in Malaysia and secondly, to recommend a policy on education for gifted children which should be tabled for debate in the next Parliamentary meeting.
The identification of the number of gifted and talented children in Malaysia should be given urgency to determine whether Malaysia has 300,000 or 900,000 intellectually gifted and talented children - and the different fields they cover, whether academic or non-academic.
There can be no argument as to why this study, as well as the one for a policy on education for gifted children in Malaysia, is urgently needed if the continued neglect of gifted and talented children in our country is accepted as a serious squandering of valuable national assets which could contribute to the greater good of national development.