Just ten years ago, everybody aspires to be a University student, every parent will be damn proud if their kids got into any university, even more proud if it’s an overseas university. Ten years ago, people regard university graduates highly, and they can find and secure jobs fairly easily. Ten years ago, university is the place every primary and secondary school students aspire to be in several years into the future.

But that was 10 years ago. That was during the time when we don’t have as much as (reportedly) 80,000 unemployed university graduates. Back then, parents hope you can finish your studies and obtain that degree. But not today. Today you are expected to get into university, and you are expected to finish your study, and you are expected to get that undergraduate degree, whatever degree that is. Anything less would be undesirable. This has become a normal scenario, and people no longer regards university graduates as highly as they used to. Why? Because back then we don’t have as many university graduates. Today, they’re commonplace. It’s only a nature’s law that people value rare and precious things (though university graduates are not exactly ‘things’, but you get the idea).

Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. The fact that university graduates are commonplace and people don’t regard them as highly as they used to indicates one clear thing, among others: we as a nation have succeeded in raising our standard of knowledge. Collectively, we can regard our nation’s citizen (or young citizens, at least) as academically learned. This is certainly good for the country. After all, this is what education is for: raising a learned society.

The question now is, where do we go from here? Keep producing more and more university graduates? Certainly. We have to sustain that, or we’ll revert back to a less-learned society. But, is that all? One thing is clear (and becoming clearer by the day) is that we can no longer just keep producing university graduates. We must proceed to the next step if we wish to continue developing the country. And what’s that next step?

Many people will certainly think that we should, from now, improve the quality of our education system as well as the standard of our universities. This is true,we have to improve this. But to what end? So that we can keep producing not just more, but better graduates? Certainly. But how much better?

I believe the next step that we have to take if we wish to further develop our country and reach a developed nation status is to produce researchers, lots of researchers. We need to undergo that same process we did prior to ten years ago, but this time not to produce university graduates, but to produce researchers. One stark difference between a developed nation and the developing world is how extensive and well-funded scientific research is in those developed countries. The reason is simple: we will never be a developed nation or at par with those developed nation if we keep importing knowledge and technology from the developed world without producing our own. Simply because those knowledge and technologies do not come free.

Take the United States for example. (It is irrelevant here how you feel about the US. I am not talking about their ethics or their government’s external policies, etc.). The Government as well as the private sector are actively funding the research being conducted at various research centres as well as universities. There are research grants and allocation in the national budget in the range of billions of dollars, and the US-based private sectors are no less contributive. Take the Human Genome Project, for example. Big companies such as IBM are actively involved as research partners as well as technological and financial sponsor. There are a lot of other examples such as this where the multinational multi-billion companies funded scientific research being done at universities and research centres. This relationship has been fuelling the West’s dominance of the world in almost any terms comparable, be it economy, technology, military power, etc.

The logic is simple. When the private companies fund scientific research, they are not giving money for free. Most likely, they will have a share in the outcome of the research. Any new technology developed by those researches that they funded will most likely be commercialised by the same companies, so they get back what they invest in. It is an investment, nothing less. And what’s so rewarding about this kind of investment is that you’re likely to end up with a piece of technology or information that no one else in the world has, or has the right to commercialise unless they purchase the license or pay for commercialisation of patented technology. This makes for a huge business advantage. And that’s part of the reason why so many of the world’s biggest and highest value businesses come from the West. These companies, in turn, bring profits back into the country, not just in financial terms, but also in terms of jobs and increased living standard. A portion of those profits are then channelled back to fund more scientific research. This is the cycle that has been propelling those countries forward.

And what do we have? We just import their technologies (most of the time a few years after it has been implemented) and pay them whatever price they put for the use of their technologies.

Which is exactly why if we are to be at par with them, we have to conduct our own researches and produce new knowledge and technologies. But of course, before we can even think of that, we need researchers. Lots of researchers.

Which we are seriously lacking of right now. Most students in the University think of studying and getting that degree  so that they can have a decent job and life afterwards, nothing more. Just ask your friends around what they want to be after they finish their degree. Those who are studying Engineering will most probably say they want to be an engineer, probably in some engineering company, or at the very most, run their own engineering firm. Those who are studying medicine will most probably say they want to be a doctor, or a specialist, or at the very most run their own private clinic or hospital. Ask those who are studying Earth Sciences like Geology, and they will most probably say they want to be a geologist.

Where our country is in terms of scientific research is very clear. If the distance between us and the level of scientific research currently in the developed countries is between our home and the KLCC, we are still at the stage of deciding what clothes to wear to go to KLCC. We’re not even wearing those clothes yet. Our public and private sector’s funding for research is very very little. Almost nobody in the secondary school aspires to be working on a world-class research centres conducting world-class research producing world-class research outcome. All of us aspires to be working in some big company earning some big money. Truly, if money on its own is enough to ensure prosperity, Saudi Arabia and all the other oil-rich Islamic gulf-countries will surely be sitting at the same level with the other developed West countries and have the same decision making influence in the United Nations.

But certainly they are not, and it seems like they’re beginning to realise this. The currently under-construction zero-waste, zero-car, zero-emission Masdar City in Abu Dhabi will include a graduate research school, the Masdar Institute, developed in collaboration with the MIT, which is meant to be what Stanford University is to the Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it will be decades more before the standards of our university will be high enough to generate our own world-class researchers, and perhaps it will take more years for our country to have even a sizeable portion of researchers compared to the number of university graduates we have now. But we have to start somewhere, and I believe it is time we start taking steps toward that end.

And those of use who are currently studying abroad have the best chance to become the early researchers for our country. Most of us are currently studying in among the world’s highest-ranked universities, and these universities certainly offer us a wealth of opportunities to really develop ourselves. We just need the will. And the awareness, of course. It is amazing how easily you can gain knowledge and information when you’re enrolled with these universities. The University of Auckland’s library alone, for example, holds more than 1.3 million books. It also has subscription to hundreds of world-renowned journals and magazines, such as Nature and the likes. (May I suggest MIT’s Technology Review for all of us engineer- and scientist-to-be out there). Don’t just learn what you have to learn to get that degree. Go beyond that. Learn what you want to learn. And before long you’ll develop a love for knowledge, and that’s where all great researchers start.

We need to start changing our aspiration as well as the aspiration we instil in the young. If you’re going to study Medicine, don’t just do it so that you can be a doctor or running your own private medical institution. Instead, aspire to be a doctor who will also be conducting research on producing new drugs, or new surgical methods, or new cure for presently incurable diseases. If you’re going to study Engineering, don’t just aspire to be an engineer who’ll be working with a world-class company earning big bucks, but all he does is maintenance work for that company. Instead, aspire to be an engineer who at least is working on some kind of research, be it in nanotechnology, biological technology, environmental technology, create more efficient process, develop new materials, and all the likes. Those studying Economics and Business Studies and the likes should aspire not just to be a successful entrepreneur or manage big multinational companies, but also aspire to use the huge financial power these companies have to help drive research and innovation. And for those studying in Education courses, don’t just aspire to be a teacher or a lecturer. Instead, aspire to be a teacher or a lecturer that will instil in his or her students a love for knowledge (two of my teachers deserve a special mention here, Mr. Masukor and Mr Lawrence), not just to get good grades (which is a necessity, nonetheless). Aspire to be academician who do researches on how to improve the nation’s educational system and standard, not just be content with the systems and standard already in place.

And please, leave the politicians to do the politics. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with the latest news and be concerned about the political atmosphere in our country, but unfortunately some of us spend too much time worrying and criticising people while neglecting what we are supposed to do. Each one of us has a role to play, so let’s play our role to the best we can. Anyway, we already have those who are studying Human Sciences in the field of Political Studies. Let those people do the politics, and those people too should aspire to not just be a successful politician, but a politician who truly holds the interest of the country at heart.

I believe we as a country can do this. Maybe not now, maybe not in the near future. But let’s start paving a way towards that end. Our individual effort to develop ourselves will derive much greater benefits collectively, but we need to be honest and hardworking, and selfless. Don’t pamper yourself too much, because every one of us is in a position to help develop our nation in particular and the world in general. It is not overstated to say that it is our responsibility to do our best given the resources granted to us. Because if we don’t, then those resources are not righfully ours.