AstroShop Support Resources Education Events Publications Membership News About Us Home
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific


   home > publications > mercury


Publications Topics:




ASP Conference Series


Monograph Publications


IAU Publications



Books of Note



Purchase through the AstroShop





Publications of the ASP (PASP)




Mercury Magazine




Guidelines for Authors


Order Mercury Issues


Mercury Advertising Rates




The Universe in the Classroom



ASP E-mail Newsletters


Special Features



Astronomy Beat


Contact Us

World Beat: Malaysia  

Mercury, Sep/Oct 1994 Table of Contents

by Gregory H. Feldberg, Bloomberg Business News

(c) 1994 Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Malaysia is soaring economically, but it lags behind in science education. Starting virtually from scratch, astronomy proponents are building an astronomy education program. Its focus is a gleaming new planetarium in Kuala Lumpur.

In Lake Gardens park, on Kuala Lumpur's second highest hill, a 12-foot model of Stonehenge pokes through the trees. Next to it is a playground-sized, red-brick rendition of Guo Shou Jing observatory, which, a sign explains, "helped order Chinese life" while Europe was mired in the disorderly Dark Ages. On the right stands a miniature Jantar Mantar, New Delhi's 18th-century "house of [astronomical] instruments."

But the main attraction is a bright-blue Moorish onion dome, with matching minaret. Welcome to Malaysia's brand-new, 45 million ringgit ($17 million) National Planetarium, a monument to this Asian Tiger's development aspirations and multicul tural heritage.

The complex is the brainchild and political triumph of Mazlan Othman, the planetarium's contagiously enthusiastic director -- and Malaysia's sole astronomy Ph.D. For years, she and amateur astronomers in Malaysia struggled with meager equipment and public indifference to science. The turning point came in 1986, when Halley's Comet stirred public excitement in Malaysia, as elsewhere.

"I always say celestial events don't affect events on Earth," she said, lounging in blue jeans in her office. "But Halley's Comet helped."

Over 40,000 people visited Mazlan's comet exhibit at the National Islamic Center, just downhill from the planetarium site. The bustle caught the eye of Malaysia's autocratic and intellectually inclined prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. He took a personal interest in Mazlan's project and set up the Space Science Studies Program within the Prime Minister's Department. The planetarium opened this past February, and Mahathir was there to cut the ribbon.

In sponsoring the project, Mahathir had an eye not just to the stars, but to Malaysia's neighbors and competitors. Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia have bigger telescopes, more established planetariums, and probably more Ph.D.s. Indonesia launches its own communication satellites.

"We are extremely behind," says Mazlan, who studied at Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The planetarium, part of her plan to catch up, runs shows six days a week, packed with schoolchildren. The onion dome houses the "star ball," a nifty $2.5 million Minolta Infinium donated by the Japanese government. It projects stars and planets at a tilt, accentuating the sense that you're floating in space. At the top of the minaret is one of the country's biggest telescopes, a 14-inch Celestron.

Before the facility opened, most Malaysian astronomers relied on binoculars, recalled S. Sivakumaran, a member of the Astronomical Society of Malaysia, Malaysia's oldest astronomy club. The club organizes free lectures every month at the planetarium. Newer groups, such as the Planetary Society of Malaysia and the Islamic Astronomy Group, also run events.

"Astrology yes, astronomy no"

Planetarium shows and lectures have helped astronomy advocates to get around their biggest stumbling block: overcast skies. The rainy season lasts from October to January, and this fall, massive forest fires in Indonesia have filled the air with heavy smoke. On a clear day, one jokester quipped, you can see the clouds.

Poor visibility has caused problems for Islamic scholars in Malaysia, who need to see the Moon's phase to determine the lunar date for Moslem holidays. Recently, Mazlan has worked to base the Islamic calendar on astronomical calculations rather than uncertain sightings.

In schools, it's tough to excite kids about stars they hardly ever see. "Teachers have to know how to make science interesting because we are competing with this new thing called television," Mazlan said. P.S. Mah, a teacher at the Bukit Bintang Boys School in the suburbs, said, "My friends always say, 'Astrology yes, astronomy no.'"

The science apathy is drawing government attention. At the request of the Ministry of Science, the Astronomical Society two months ago prepared suggestions for engaging kids with science, according to D.J. Batzer, society secretary and a retired British engineer.

"What troubles me today is we are not able to attract enough young people into science," said Mazlan, the only scientist among 13 children. "Our economy has developed. Now you can make a lot of money going into the stock market. A science career is very foreboding when there are so many other, easier ways to make money."

But she said the nation must spend more on education generally before students will aim for careers in science. When Mazlan was a student, she said, an average class had 20 to 30 students; now, 40 or 50 cram into each classroom. Unable to build schools fast enough, the government now divides schooldays into two sessions: Some kids go in the morning, others in the afternoon.

In 1990, schools started to teach 25 hours of astronomy during third form, roughly equivalent to junior year in an American high school. The University Sains Malaysia in northern Penang and the University of Technology Malaysia in southern Johor now offer undergraduate astronomy courses. And Mazlan, who moonlights as a physics lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, just started to instruct Malaysia's very first astronomy graduate student. Unfortunately for promoters of Malaysian astronomy, he's Indonesian.

GREGORY H. FELDBERG is the Malaysia correspondent for Bloomberg Business News, a New York-based wire service. Last year, he quit his job as policy analyst to the governor of Rhode Island and backpacked across Asia. He ran out of money in May, landed the job with Bloomberg, and became interested in development issues in Malaysia.


home | about us | news | membership | publications

events | education | resources | support | astroshop | search

Privacy & Legal Statements | Site Index | Contact Us

Copyright ©2001-2012 Astronomical Society of the Pacific