Yesterday, it was reported that the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, would again be raising in the Cabinet the case of the 12-year-old Sufiah Yusof, who has been offered a place in Oxford University to read mathematics and to whom the Cabinet had offered a scholarship.
The saddest part of the recent nation-wide publicity over the 12-year-old child prodigy in the United Kingdom 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.
In 1976, a toddler from Baling, Mohd Sohkeri Hadafi, once the seat of rural poverty, made headlines because by the tender age of four he could read passages from newspapers and magazines. But today, the former “boy wonder”, who is now 25, is a chicken seller in Baling after working as labourer for two years from 1989-1991 and selling roti canai.
Hadafi is a sad story of how gifts and talents of our children, if not recognised, fostered and nurtured, could atrophy - and be a loss not only to our gifted children but to the nation as a whole.
There is no doubt that if there had been a policy and programme to foster and develop the gifts and talents of our children in the country, Hadafi could have been one of the leading intellectuals whether in the government, universities or the private sector.
If Malaysia is to be a knowledge society, we cannot afford the Hadafi syndrome, where we feel no loss in wasting the gifts and talents of our children when they are our most important and irreplaceable national assets.
There should be a national awareness and concern that for decades, our national education policy and system had failed to recognise, foster and nurture the gifts and talents of our children.
Malaysia should not wait for another blaze of publicity about the discovery of another child prodigy related to the country, whether Sufiah Farooq, 12, who has been admitted to Oxford University to read mathematics, or Chiang Ti Ming who obtained a place at the California Institute of Technology in 1989 when he was 12 and who is now finishing his Ph.D. in Particle Physics on “Super String Theory” at Cornell University or Loh Chang Shiung, another boy wonder who read for a physics degree at the age of 12 at the National University of Singapore, before there is another brief but fruitless concern about the national neglect of the hundreds of thousands of gifted and talented children in our schools.
The Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, should take urgent action to set up a special department on Gifted Education in his Ministry to develop a policy and programme on gifted education to ensure that there will be no more Hadafis in Malaysia selling chicken or roti canai in the stalls when they should be leading in the intellectual renaissance of the country.
The Education Minister 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.
There are three fallacies about the important issue of education for gifted and talented children in Malaysia which are widely held by opinion-makers, including many members in the Cabinet and editorial writers, namely:
If these views are to prevail, then the Cabinet has no business to offer a government scholarship to Sufiah Farooq, especially as she is not even a Malaysian citizen.
In actual fact, when we refer to gifted and talented children, 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.
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.
Malaysia should stop neglecting and even miseducating our gifted and talented children, who come from all socio-economic and ethnic groups.
The Cabinet 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 by approving a special supplementary vote of RM20 million to intiate a programme of Education for Gifted Children in Malaysia and if necessary, the provision of education for gifted children in Malaysia could be the second amendment to the 1996 Education Act - the first, being to make computer-literacy a core curriculum subject for all national and primary schools.