To the Malaysian Scientist…

by Dr. Koay Jun Yi

Photo: Strange Luke / Flickr
Photo: Strange Luke / Flickr

To the Malaysian scientist abroad:

  • Who still has trouble getting used to the incomprehensible tax system, the weird tenancy laws, driving on the right side of the road, or the week’s wait to get that doctor’s appointment;
  • Who spends more than 30 minutes a day on Google Translate in order to understand her pension forms, the latest bills, or the cooking instructions on a pack of instant pasta;
  • Who salivates every time her friends share photos of their nasi lemak bungkus and assam laksa on Facebook, then wonders when she can go home to devour all these again (not to mention her mom’s cooking too);
  • Who misses the spontaneity of going out to a mamak stall at 2 a.m. in the morning for teh tarik and roti canai, or going shopping till 10 p.m. after work, then wonders how the locals ever do their shopping when the malls close at 5 p.m. and on weekends;
  • Who has to go to great lengths to find that halal butcher or restaurant, and go vegetarian during departmental lunches;
  • Who has to endure another snarky racist comment from a passerby, or finds herself a target of xenophobic groups;
  • Who has doubts if she will ever get tenure;
  • Who feels inferior to all these Ivy League grads in the department, and wonders if she will ever reach their level of expertise;
  • Who has to deal with long working hours and bosses with high expectations in an academic culture where spending 80 hours a week on research is the norm;
  • Who has to make that difficult decision to uproot the entire family again to move to another country for the next contract job;
  • Who secretly sheds a tear, when her daughter mentions yet again how much she misses her friends;
  • Who has had to survive typhoons, snowstorms, droughts, bushfires, or political unrest in countries torn apart by sectarian violence;
  • Who still feels guilty that her spouse had to leave his career to follow her on this sojourn in a foreign land;
  • Who can only watch her friends and family celebrate Hari Gawai, Deepavali, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, or Chinese New Year on Skype, because she cannot afford to fly home this year, then has to be content with watching Petronas advertisements on Youtube because there is no one else to celebrate the occasion with;
  • Who occasionally wonders if it is really worth all the trouble and sacrifice, and if indeed it would have been better if she had stayed home;

Keep pressing on!

To the Malaysian scientist at home:

  • Who struggles to find time to do any research at all, while juggling an 18-hoursa-week teaching load and overburdening administrative tasks;
  • Who wonders how many more forms she has to fill to get that travel reimbursement approved, and wonders if anyone in the department really knows what the actual procedure is after receiving ten different sets of instructions from ten different people;
  • Who struggles to make ends meet due to the rising costs of living, and that stagnant research assistant salary;
  • Who has to turn down an opportunity to take up a prestigious fellowship abroad, just so she can spend more time with her aging parents;
  • Who returned from a higherpaying job and a more comfortable lifestyle in a firstworld country, so that she can give back to her Tanah Air, and contribute to the development of science and education in  Malaysia;
  • Who feels insulted and hurt, after another flurry of comments from know-itall keyboard warriors on an online news portal, slating our local scientists and academics after another dip in Malaysian university rankings;
  • Who has to work on an old computer and with secondrate lab equipment, and who cannot attend that expensive conference due to a lack of funding and the low purchasing power of the Ringgit;
  • Who wonders why she still has to wear formal attire to work in this day and age, and in this hot tropical climate;
  • Who has to grapple with political interference on many fronts;
  • Whose work gets little international recognition because it focuses on very local issues and problems;
  • Who occasionally casts envious glances at her colleagues working abroad, wondering when that opportunity may arise, or perhaps if the decision to come home was the right one;

Keep pressing on!

Photo: Peter Nguyen / Flickr
Photo: Peter Nguyen / Flickr

To the Malaysian scientist:

  • Who ignored her parents’ advice to take up medicine, engineering, law or accountancy, but instead opted for a ‘less prestigious’ career in the fundamental sciences;
  • Who constantly faces the pressure to publish or perish, and wonders if she avoided the rat race in the industry, only to end up in the rat race of academia;
  • Who realises that her former classmates working in the industry are now earning triple her salary, owning multiple landed properties, eating in expensive restaurants and enjoying vacations in exotic locales;
  • Who feels like no one ever notices her contributions, partly because she deals in an obscure and highly specialised subfield;
  • Who has had to face continual rejections, including that paper she has been revising for the tenth time, that grant proposal she has been working on for the last six months, and the fifteenth job application she has submitted;
  • Who slogs through fields, swamps and forests, day and night, for weeks on end, to collect all the precious data she will need for her PhD thesis;
  • Who has to channel all her energy into suppressing all the ‘-lah’s and ‘-mah’s while giving presentations at international conferences to ensure everyone else can understand her;
  • Who spends days searching for that bug in the program code, checking her calculations again and again, poring through hundreds of pages of data, plus all the other tedious and menial tasks that come packaged together with her job as a scientist;
  • Who has to handle toxic chemicals, radioactive isotopes, killer bacteria or dangerous heavy machinery while conducting her experiments;
  • Whose research is constantly being politicised, and has to face constant abuse and intimidation by climate-change skeptics and religious fundamentalists;
  • Who finds her voice increasingly drowned out by anti-vaccination groups, proponents of alternative medicine, and all manner of pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists;
  • Who can never stop thinking about that nagging research problem, even at home or in bed, often even dreaming about it; who finds it hard to separate ‘work’ from ‘play’, and therefore, has a tough time finding a ‘work-life’ balance;
  • Who wonders if spending many years of her life searching for dark matter particles in underground mines, observing the mating behaviors of pygmy fruit bats, or digging for trilobites at the foot of a limestone cliff is really a worthwhile pursuit, at a time when the world continues to suffer from economic injustices, wars, famines, natural disasters, diseases and other urgent humanitarian crises;

Keep pressing on!

To the Malaysian scientist who chose this path:

  • just so she can pursue her passion and do what she loves;
  • just simply because she is curious, and never grew out of that child-like wonder at the world;
  • just because she loves a good mystery, and enjoys the thrill of solving a difficult puzzle;
  • just because the unknown excites her like nothing else can;
  • just because she believes, perhaps naïvely, that she can make her short time on Earth count, and make a small dent in the unfolding story of human progress;
  • just to be a part of this amazing human endeavour called ‘science’, and to inspire others to share in this exhilarating adventure;

Keep pressing on! Malaysia needs you.

The world needs you, though they may not yet know, or sometimes easily forget, as they get caught up with the more important things in life: escalating conflicts worldwide, oppression and social injustice, the next general elections, rising costs of living, the next iPhone release, this season’s Premier League title race, yet another viral video on Youtube, and the latest celebrity scandal.

Disclaimer: The author has written ‘she’ as a gender pronoun for consistency, however this article draws on the experiences of both male and female scientists, and is meant to apply to all Malaysian scientists.

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10. Check out other articles in Issue 10 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10 (PDF version)

About the Author

DR. KOAY JUN YI is still a relative newcomer to the wonderful (and often very challenging) world of scientific research. Having worked at academic in- stitutions both abroad and at home in Malaysia, he has concluded that the grass always appears greener on the other side, no matter how many times one has crossed over the fence. He is currently a post- doctoral researcher at the University of Copenha- gen, Denmark, and is craving nasi kandar, banana leaf rice, and char kuey teow (with extra chili). He hopes to return to Malaysia for good, once he has had enough of efficient public transportation, free healthcare, as well as wearing shorts and sandals to work in summer. Find out more about Dr. Koay by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at

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