Brewing an innovative culture

The ancient Greeks’ passion for the scientific rationale of the physical world could be dated back to as far as 600 BC. Although the Babylonians created maps before they did, it was Anaximandar, a Greek, who employed astronomy and geography in them. With this the Greeks pioneered cartography – the science of drawing maps.

They produced many great philosophers like Aristotle, the teacher of Alexander the Great. Deemed as father of logic, his over 150 works covered many scientific subjects such as biology, physics, metaphysics. He supported the idea of the Earth being a sphere rather and was also known as Father of Zoology.

The Greeks challenged the accuracy of the value of Pi, then 3, and established the basis of geometry. Geometric techniques have been long applied by other civilisations, but the scientific acumen of Greeks contributed to the deductive reasoning of those techniques. Thales of Miletus, respected as Father of Geometry, Pythagoras and Archimedes are several giants who altered the perception of mankind towards geometry.

Several other ancient Greek innovations that are still applicable today are the alarm clock, water mill, showers operated with a plumbing system, not forgetting the Olympics and concept of democracy.

They were also the earliest practitioners of medicine. They busted the ancient world’s superstitious beliefs that diseases were the wrath of gods. Physicians like Hippocrates focused on evidence instead. They made observations of signs and symptoms and recorded them. They used data collected from such observations and experiments to prove that diseases were a natural, biological process.

Their scientific minds led to the advancement of medicine and public health, saving millions of lives thereafter.

Fast forward to recent centuries, medical scientists around the globe have been putting their blood, sweat and tears in finding out the cause of sickness so that we can live a better and long life. Barry Marshall for example, debunked that stomach ulcers were caused by stress.

Although the Australian physician along with his collaborator, Robin Warren, discovered that the gut could be infected by a type of bacteria called H. pylori, they were unable to make their case with lab mice as this bacterium only affects primates. In 1984 a desperate Marshall then ran the experiment on himself by drinking H. pylori broth. He developed gastritis and the biopsy of his own gut proved that these bacteria were the underlying cause of most stomach ulcers.

In fact the cure was readily available – antibiotics. Marshall said that almost the entire world population has this bacterium in their bodies, but not all develop symptoms. I was one of the less fortunate ones who experienced the symptoms and was constantly suffering from pain in the stomach when I was a school boy.

Thanks to scientists like Marshall and Warren who believed in evidence-based diagnosis,  we now know that a simple antibiotic treatment would cure us, and no longer have to bear the pain or even have our stomachs removed.

I am very pleased that they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2005 for their discovery of “the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease”.

So the scientific and technological culture such as in the case of ancient Greek civilisation, existed long before the First Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Nearing the First Industrial Revolution, the flourish of guilds of merchants and artisans laid the basis for wealth creation and employment.

The development of machines powered by steam and novel manufacturing processes in chemicals and iron promoted these pioneering small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to considerable enterprises. Malaysians would recall that the British and Dutch colonisations were initiated through the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.

Therefore the technological and innovative culture took centuries to develop in Europe. But the Japanese during the Meiji Restoration in 1868 learnt from the West. They applied Western technology in domestically manufactured items to sell them affordably to international consumers.

Within five decades, the demand for coal for steamships and railroads in Japan rose sharply, and they leapfrogged from a feudal agricultural economy to a highly industrialised one.

In China, after the demise of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping implemented the Four Modernisations plan to advance the fields of science and technology, agriculture, industry and national defence.

Although the Chinese leaders accepted the concept of modernisation through science and technology, they knew they had to access the global community for advancement. They opened China’s economy to foreign investments and learn from the West and Japan, officially marking the beginning of reform for the Chinese.

In Malaysia since independence, our government policy of investing heavily in the research and development (R&D) of top industries has allowed the private sector to be the engine of growth. We are leading in rubber, palm oil and timber R&D and export.

In 1980s “Made in Malaysia” microchips on computer motherboards were ubiquitous, proving our innovative capabilities in Electrical and Electronics (E&E). E&E continues to be one of our National Key Economic Areas today. We are also leading in the R&D of the halal industry.

We are on the brink of achieving a developed nation status without a pronounced scientific, technological and innovative culture. As we continue to invest in scientific research, we would also need to re-orientate our science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM).

STEM education was the focus of discussion during the National Science Council meeting last Tuesday. It was chaired by Prime Minister, attended by Ministers from relevant Ministries and captains of the industry. The topic of STEM is not novel among policymakers, but this time it is a national level, concerted effort led by our Prime Minister to advocate STEM learning.


At the National Science Council on 2/5/2017.


In our roadmap of the coming 30 years towards 2050, we want to produce a generation of innovative thinkers. Scientific and inquisitive minds in this digital era can be nurtured by STEM savvy educators and aided by the Internet, as demonstrated by many young successful innovators such as Ben Pasternak, who was 16 years old when he became a tech tycoon.

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