In the year 2020, of revolution and evolution

By Mohd Firdaus Raih

This year, Malaysia was supposed to have achieved its Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020) goals that were outlined nearly three decades ago. Yet, at half-way through 2020, what we see around us is global scale disruption, hardly the prosperity and progress that we may have expected. The struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic still has no end in sight.

Infections by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not just taken hundreds of thousands of lives, but it has also dictated and rewritten our way of life. Even as the Movement Control Order (MCO) is lifted in Malaysia, our lives will not be returning to the normal we had left behind in March. After more than two months of MCOs, yet more are still possible. In fact, until a vaccine comes along, moving in and out of MCOs may be a feature of our existence in the years to come.

Given such bleakness, it is unsurprising that we cannot see the glint of any silver lining to look forward to. We may even find it impossible to appreciate that the COVID-19 pandemic is a revolution in progress. It was an event that was merely waiting to happen and perhaps needed to happen to provide the push for us to evolve for a future where pandemics and climate change may force us to provide our planet and our society the time and means to recuperate.

For the past few decades, we have been building up to a point where much of the enablers for a technological revolution are in place. Some may argue that we had already arrived in such an era, referred to as the Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0). Even so, we may not have fully embraced it. For the past several years, we have been just shy of actually realizing the full potential of all that capacity. We can attribute the lack of uptake or acceptance to various issues including but not limited to mere resistance to change and lacking the economies of scale.

COVID-19 has pushed us to jump those last few hurdles. Passing them is no longer a matter of choice but has become a matter of survival. Earlier in the year, many of us would probably have still been handling cash transactions on an almost daily basis. But today, even the low-tech neighbourhood sundry shop has some form of an online store in addition to accepting electronic or non-cash payments.

Consumer volume and acceptance are no longer the limitations or an excuse. Service providers can no longer refrain from committing capital investments by citing lack of traffic volume. The surge of online content consumers from all age groups and diverse socio-economic backgrounds means that access to online content has permeated through society. This culture change in the consumption of content and services delivered via the internet will hopefully also spur revolutions in the overstretched supply chain and logistics sectors.

Online education technology has existed for some time. But let’s face it, online teaching has not been the preferred mode of delivering mainstream education content. As a result, despite numerous efforts to make online education more extensive, that potential was never fully realized until the present situation warranted no other alternatives. The same can be said of other sectors where feet-dragging and bureaucracy have hidden behind the labels of quality control measures for many years. This current situation of travel limitations and fuel price instability will also force industries such as commercial aviation to adapt, innovate and evolve. To borrow a phrase from Star Trek – resistance is futile.

As in other sectors mentioned, COVID-19 has also pushed the cutting-edge envelope in medical and scientific research. The amount and pace of research being carried out on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus are unprecedented. This has led to the prospect of vaccines being possible as early as later this year. To put that time-frame into context, an Ebola vaccine has taken some five years of development after decades of research, while a vaccine for HIV has not come to fruition despite the virus being studied for almost 40 years.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the notoriously slow process of drug research. An approach called drug repurposing, previously not favoured by some quarters because it was deemed to be less profitable, is now the go to solution to provide drug intervention options for COVID-19 treatment. By using drugs already approved for human use, drug repurposing can bypass the decades long process of developing and approving a new drug. The dire circumstances of the current situation no longer allow for selfishness and negativity. Resisting to expel such attitudes from within ourselves will result in us being left behind. Collaboration and openness are a necessity in an age when individual interactions need to be distanced and covered up.

The year 2020 also marks the coming of age of an idea that began more than five decades ago, when a group of nationalists mooted the concept of a university that used the Malay language as a medium of instruction. This led to the establishment of a national university for Malaysia – Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Its role as a national university has evolved beyond just championing the Malay world and employing the Malay language as the medium of instruction.

As a national university, UKM must not only undertake a role as the custodian of national heritage, but must also pave the way to lead Malaysia into the future. This national duty will be served by being an incubator to nurture possibilities that will in turn lead to inspirational research, and also by educating the next generation of Malaysian leaders and patriots who will lead not only our nation, but also have principal roles on the global stage.

A university is generally considered as reaching maturity upon its 50th year. For UKM, the date of the golden jubilee was reached on the 18th of May 2020. There can be no better accolade and testament to the success of a university than its alumni. In the backdrop of this pandemic, UKM alumni have become the public faces for the response and management of the pandemic, in addition to various critical roles in keeping the country going.

The expectations of those who mooted for the establishment of a national university went beyond merely providing accessible tertiary education for providing manpower to the civil service. While many alumni have indeed assumed key positions in government, many others have taken roles that are perhaps more unexpected for graduates of a university with instruction in the Malay language. Among those roles include leadership of an English language media group and various respectable positions in many overseas institutions. Having a university degree instructed in Malay has not proven to be a handicap or negative factor.

Disruptive global events such as world wars and pandemics are obviously never welcomed. However, the resulting adversity will force us to innovate, adapt, and to evolve beyond the normal reference points. In the process, we must preserve the essence of our traditions, ethics and morals but practice them via new manifestations and evolve a new culture. For us to remain relevant, we must initiate a revolution from within to reinvent ourselves. Our very survival as a nation and perhaps as the human race as we know now depends on it.

The founders of UKM may not have imagined that as the realization of their dreams reached 50 years of age, universities, especially a national university, will again need to dig deep to reinvent themselves to meet novel challenges. In the coming months, universities must undertake a leading and crucial role in facilitating and engineering how we respond as a nation and as a society in adapting to the new normal.

*The writer is a bioinformatician at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and President of the MaSBiC.

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