The saddest part of the recent nation-wide publicity over the 12-year-old child prodigy in the United Kingdom, Sufiah Farooq, who is entering Oxford University for a mathematics degree and the offer by the Cabinet of a government scholarship, is not the subsequent discovery that she is not a Malaysian citizen as she is a British citizen, but that the Malaysian education system has no programme whatsoever for gifted and talented children in our schools and that there are no plans to remedy this major omission in our education system.
The Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, had admitted that the government had no experience in the management and education of gifted children.
Inexperience and ignorance are no crime - although continued ignorance that gifted and talented children are a national asset and the need for a programme of differentiated education for them to develop their gifts and talents for the greater national good is a permanent blackmark against the educational planners and authorities in the country especially when in the past few decades, there had been vast world-wide developments and changes in this field.
In Singapore, for instance, gifted and talented classes had been offered since 1981. The Ministry of Education of Singapore has a special unit on Gifted Education, and the Gifted Education programme is available in selected primary and secondary schools to nurture the intellectually gifted. Apart from the extended syllabus and integrated approach, students learn skills from research and carry out independent studies, and are tutored by specialists in the Humanities and Sciences and receive personalised attention through smaller class sizes.
Singapore initiated its programme of education for the gifted and talented after its then Minister of State for Education, Dr Tay Eng Soon, led a mission in 1981 to study the gifted education programmes in other countries.
Singapore has a bi-monthly publication, Bright Sparks, which offers the reader a wide range of pertinent material covering issues such as the problems faced by gifted children, child development and technology. A publication of the Association for Gifted Children (Singapore), Bright Sparks is aimed at parents of gifted children and is filled with features and articles especially relevant to those who care about their child's development.
In Malaysia, however, there is only official silence and indifference to the problem and challenge of Gifted Education, with very little government or public awareness of the needs of the gifted and talented in the country. The instant-eminence of child prodigies like Sufiah Farooq has perpetuated the mistaken notion that assumes that giftedness in children is an already developed capacity rather than a capacity that needs nurture and support to develop.
Malaysia should stop neglecting and even miseducating our gifted and talented children, who come from all socio-economic and ethnic groups.
The Cabinet, which specially focussed on the issue of Sufiah Farooq the previous week, should take a policy decision to broaden educational reforms in Malaysia to include a special policy and programme on education for gifted and talented children in the country in keeping with the twin aims of promoting excellence in education and to build a nation of knowledge workers to prepare for the challenges of the Information Age.
The Cabinet can make a modest start at its meeting tomorrow by approving a special supplementary vote of RM20 million to intiate a programme of Education for Gifted Children in Malaysia.
The first task is the identification of the gifted and talented in our schools, which the Universiti Malaya social psychologist, Prof. Dr. Chiam Heng Keng had estimated to be around 300,000.
New Straits Times in its editorial yesterday said that “the diversion of resources to encourage the one-in-a-million occurrence of a Sufiah Farooq, the 12-year-old British child prodigy, will remain too costly to be tenable”.
New Straits Times is right when it said that the probability of a child prodigy, i.e. with IQ of 180+ is one-in-a million chance, as seen by the following categorisation of IQ scores:
IQ score Category
85- 99 Lower normal
100-114 Upper normal
145-159 Highly gifted (approx. 1 in 1,000)
160-179 Exceptionally gifted (approx. 1 in 100,000)
180 - ? Profoundly gifted (approx. 1 in 1,000,000)
On the one-in-a-million chance, with a school population of 4.5 million secondary and primary pupils, this would mean that Malaysia has four or five local potential child prodigies who have not been uncovered because of the lack of a programme to foster and promote the gifts and talents of our children.
As it is generally accepted that individuals whose I.Q. scores are above 130 qualify as “intellectually gifted”, and that this could cover the top 1% to 3% of the school-going population, Malaysia’s gifted and talented children must be considered in hundreds of thousands.
What is untenable is for Malaysia to continue to ignore our gifted and talented children as we are squandering precious national resources especially at a time when we are aiming for excellence in education as well as wanting to develop a nation of knowledge workers with the dawn of the Information Age.
If Malaysia is serious in wanting to become an international centre of educational excellence, our schools must challenge all students, including the gifted and talented, to reach their full potential - which will not only raise academic standards throughout the country but also crystallise the culture of excellence and high expectations critical to Malaysia’s success in the international marketplace in the new millennium.