TPPA – IP Chapter: Another Look

This article first appeared on DNA.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has been getting a lot of attention recently, as the text has been released after years of secret negotiations.

In Malaysia, there is a special sitting of Parliament scheduled to debate the merits of the TPPA.

I had the opportunity to read the TPPA chapter (PDF) on intellectual property (IP) rights recently.

While the chapter itself is merely 74 pages of legalese, in order to make sense of it, I had to read relevant parts of other treaties – for example, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Paris Convention, Berne Convention – and so on, as these are regularly referenced from within the chapter.

Additionally, I read up on the local legislation such as our Copyright Act, Patent Act, etc., to compare the differences between pre-TPPA and post-TPPA scenarios.

Let’s just say that there was a lot of reading involved for a single chapter, and I can appreciate why few have a real grasp of the entire agreement, and also why many are asking for more time to study it instead of rushing into signing in February.

Politicians and civil society have raised issues of biologics and pharmaceutical patents when it comes to the IP chapter.

However, I would like to point out that the IP chapter goes much further than pharmaceuticals and biologics, and I’m afraid that some other issues may have been overlooked.

I have commented on the issue of copyright extensions previously, and I won’t repeat those remarks here.

However, I’m interested in highlighting some other changes that piqued my interest while I was digesting the chapter.

Sounds and scents

Trademarks are undergoing interesting reform. Trademarks are currently protected under the Trademark Act 1976 in Malaysia.

However, our current law merely protects marks such as unique names, signs, and geographic indications.

Under Article 18.18 of the TPPA, each government must not deny a trademark application for merely being a sound and must also make best effort to register scents.

This means that trademarks are being extended to both sounds and smells. As an example, instead of merely protecting the name of Satay Kajang, one may soon be able to protect the unique smell of burnt satay and also the unique sounds made while it roasts.


Industrial design is often missed when discussing IP as it is not primary protection. Industrial design is currently protected under the Industrial Design Act 1996 in Malaysia and typically covers designs such as product packaging and furniture, but not textile designs.

A PwC study (PDF) shows that the Malaysian textile sector is set to register the largest gains in export growth due to the trade effects of the TPPA. I’m sure that our local textile industry is happy to hear this.

Reading Article 18.55 of the TPPA together with Article 25.2 of TRIPS, each government must ensure that textile designs are protected under industrial design.

Also, reading it together with Article 26.3 of TRIPS, the period of protection is being extended to 10 years from the current five years.

As a result, while the textile industry in Malaysia is set to grow, it will have to pay licensing fees for the textile designs that are manufactured, even for designs that are way past season.

Online services

Under the Copyright Act 1987 of Malaysia, Internet service providers (ISPs) are burdened with the responsibility of policing copyright infringements. If a rights-holder complains to the ISP of an infringement, the ISP is required to take certain actions as detailed in the law.

Under Article 18.82 of the TPPA, the definition of ISP is being extended to include online services that store content; and provides links to any other online location using hyperlinks.

That pretty much describes every modern online service.

What this means is that any online service that provides user-generated content, which is pretty much any social media-enabled service, will now be responsible for policing copyright infringements. It even covers content that is automatically scraped and aggregated.

Trade secrets

Trade secrets are mentioned only in a single article within the entire chapter. Also, there is no specific Malaysian law that deals with trade secrets.

Therefore, it is easy to understand why this issue has gone under the radar.

Under Article 18.78 of the TPPA, each government must enact specific laws to deal with the unlawful disclosure of trade secrets and must provide for criminal procedures and penalties if such a law is breached.

I do not think that it is right for the government to incarcerate someone to protect the commercial interests of corporations. Unlike state secrets, trade secrets do not endanger the public nor harm the rakyat (citizenry). Think on that for a minute.

These are just some of the interesting ones but there are many other changes and I would recommend anyone with an interest in IP to read the chapter.

As someone who minds his own business, I will have to get myself ready for these changes as many of the provisions must come into force within two to three years after signing.

Personally, I think that the biggest beneficiaries of the IP chapter are the agents and lawyers. They will definitely see more business.

Maybe it’s time for me to start an IP firm.

Half-hearted Broadband Upgrades do more Harm

This article first appeared on DNA.

Recently, I received a phone call from Telekom Malaysia (TM) offering me a free upgrade of my high-speed broadband subscription from the previous 10Mbps package to the brand new 30Mbps package, for the same price.

I must be one of those irrational people mentioned in my previous article, who prefer to subscribe to slower broadband packages, because I rejected the offer of a free upgrade and decided to stick to my present 10Mbps package instead.

Previously, TM used to sell several high-speed broadband packages ranging from 5Mbps to 20Mbps, for both home and business users. Today, it has abolished all these packages in favour of offering only 30Mbps and 50Mbps packages to new subscribers.

According to a study by the Internet Society and TRPC on Unleashing the Potential of the Internet for Asean Economies, published in 2015, the average broadband speeds globally, within Asean, and in Malaysia, are about 20Mbps, 15Mbps and 5.9Mbps respectively.

These new TM packages should significantly bolster our national average to hit the 20Mbps target mentioned in the 2016 national budget, propel us to become the second fastest nation in Asean, and a world-class broadband nation. Bravo!

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. These new packages come with mere 5Mbps and 10Mbps upload speeds for the 30Mbps and 50Mbps packages respectively. There is currently no package on offer with more than a 10Mbps upload speed.

That is why I rejected the purported upgrade because if I had agreed, while my download speed may have improved from 10Mbps to 30Mbps, my upload speed would have dropped from 10Mbps to 5Mbps.

This has a negative impact on the way that I work and live. I do not understand why TM is packaging it this way.

Historically, before we had high-speed broadband in Malaysia, the broadband service that we had – Streamyx – was deployed over ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line). The ‘A’ stands for asymmetric because the upload and download speeds are different – for example, 8Mbps download with 512Kbps upload.

This difference in speeds was due to a technical limitation of ADSL technology. However, even the slowest upload speeds offered were still faster than dial-up speeds at the time.

As a result, consumers readily adopted ADSL and got used to the idea of having different upload and download speeds.

However, the high-speed broadband deployments of TM’s UniFi in landed residential properties use Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) while most high-rise buildings use Fibre-to-the-Building/ Curb (FTTB/C) coupled with VDSL2 (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) into each individual residence unit.

These technologies are symmetric in nature.

VDSL2 has a 100Mbps bandwidth and FTTx technologies have multi-Gbps bandwidth. Our neighbours down south can subscribe to symmetric 1Gbps broadband for a mere S$39 (US$28 or RM119) per month.

Therefore, I feel that it is disengenous for TM to set arbitrary asymmetric bandwidth limits when there is neither a technical nor a financial reason why such a difference should exist.

I will humbly suggest that this behaviour of arbitrarily limiting our upload speeds has a negative economic impact.

According to Pemandu, the very first Entry Point Project, EPP1 for the Communications Content and Infrastructure sector aims to, “enhance capacity, capability and competency in Malaysia’s creative industry to produce world-class content and make the country a regional hub for digital content.” It is expected to create 10,000 jobs and increase GNI (gross national income by RM3 billion.

Pemandu is the Performance Management & Delivery Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department, tasked with overseeing the Government’s aspiration of transforming Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020.

If you’re someone trying to answer the call of the Government to turn Malaysia into a regional hub for digital content, you may be making a mistake if you decide to upgrade to the new packages.

Slow upload speeds definitely affect you if you’re a content creator. If you’re a filmmaker, you will already know that it takes a lot of bandwidth to upload your latest HD (high-definition) videos.

However, high upload speeds do not merely impact filmmakers.

Higher upload speeds allow people to communicate better, by using video-conferencing instead of mere voice calls. It also allows people to work from home as effectively as they work in the office, which would improve family values.

It would also enable broad deployments of telemedicine, which could save countless lives especially in the interiors.

It’s not cool that TM has decided to arbitrarily limit our ability to work and live.

Furthermore, by arbitrarily limiting upload speeds, TM is inadvertently hurting our national aspiration of becoming active content creators and turning us into a nation of passive consumers instead.

TM has even graciously allowed us to consume content five to six times faster than we can produce it.

To be fair, if you’re currently on the 5Mbps package, then you will not have any negative experience from the upgrade other than having to pay more for it.

However, if you’re currently on the 10Mbps package, you’ll experience a downgrade if you decide to upgrade to the 30Mbps package. Instead, you should get the 50Mbps package.

I would have willingly upgraded to 20Mbps upload and download for the price of my current package. That would have been an improvement. It’s unfortunate that such an option is no longer even available.

While I applaud the effort to improve our high-speed broadband to meet international standards, I think that it should be done whole-heartedly.

On Blended Learning

There is a growing trend in tertiary education to use blended learning methodologies in running courses. As a result, my interest piqued when I learned that our local public universities were the first in the world to use Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

By using MOOCs, students are able to learn at their own pace as lectures are delivered by video. A student can rewind the video to better understand a difficult concept and pause for toilet breaks.

Also, most MOOCs have online activities and assignments that a student can complete to evaluate their understanding. Their progress through the MOOC can also be tracked.

In general, MOOCs are popular worldwide and I use MOOCs to pick up new knowledge too. Some of the top universities in the world provide access to their courses, online, for free. World-class knowledge is no longer out of reach of anyone with an Internet connection.

But at first, the cynic in me suspected that our public universities were outsourcing education by getting the students to learn from MOOCs instead of their lecturers.

But after reading the article, I realised that they were actually producing MOOC content – Islamic Civilisation and Asian Civilisations (TITAS), Ethnic Relations, Entrepreneurship, and ICT Competency. This got me truly excited.

I quickly checked out the reported MOOC portal but that URL turned out to be a dud. While I think that the Government and media should get URLs right in this day and age, I overlooked this typo as long as students are able to find it.

After using a little Google-fu, I was able to find the correct Malaysian MOOC portal that contained the said courses.

It sure looks nice but beyond the beautiful facade, come the implementation details.

Each subject is produced by teams from different universities. As such, they each have a different layout, quality and structure.

For example, to get to the course materials, you have to navigate under ‘Topics’ for Introduction to Entrepreneurship, ‘Units & Activities’ for ICT Competency, ‘Topik & Aktiviti’ for Ethnic Relations, and ‘Modul & Aktiviti’ for TITAS.

Being a Coursera user, this was rather confusing for me. While things are also organised differently in Coursera, at least the ‘Video Lectures’ are labelled as such under different courses from different universities.

Therefore, I think that this is something that our Malaysia MOOC needs to look into – some form of standard navigation structure so that students do not expend unnecessary brain power trying to navigate the system, especially if they intend to extend the MOOCs to cover all courses in Malaysia.

Some courses have an introductory video and text on the front page, while one only had a video and no text.

I think that having a written introduction is important as not everyone will load the videos due to bandwidth constraints. The written introduction would let them decide if a course is right for them, particularly those who are not required to sign up for the course.

However, I get the sense that these early MOOCs are not targeted for the general public, which is unfortunate because these localised MOOCs could benefit a much wider audience than mere university students.

The first thing that they ask for when you sign up for a course is which public university you come from and what your student ID is.

However, I have to add that it does not restrict sign-ups to public university students. Anyone can sign up for the courses including the general public, without keying in any student ID.

Therefore, this exposes these courses to public scrutiny like never before. Having taken both TITAS and Ethnic Relations before, I have to say that I found some of the material offensive. With the general public able to experience these courses first-hand, I hope that these courses will be improved in quality over time.

I would also like to see this effort extended to all existing courses in Malaysia. The success of various existing MOOCs has shown that it is a viable way to provide quality undergraduate-level education to anyone with an Internet connection. Having more MOOCs, particularly localised courses, will benefit the general public.

Also, there is no reason to stop at university courses. Any Neal Stephenson fan knows that this concept can be extended to all levels of education. Knowledge deserves to be set free. Imagine a Malaysia where anyone can have access to quality education, any place, at any time.

In conclusion, I have to state that I am not against the idea of using MOOCs in our public universities and I am not being critical of government effort in this field.

However, as with all early efforts, there is plenty of room for improvement and I hope that our public universities get things right, ultimately. – See more at:

Gender Gap in STEM

A QUESTION has always vexed me – where are all the women?

If you drop by any college, you will find a healthy number of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. The numbers may vary from school to school and programme to programme, but taken as a whole, the numbers are fairly healthy.

Anecdotally, about half my classmates were women when I was a student, and just under half my students were women where I previously taught engineering.

However, step into industry and you will find that the numbers drop dramatically. STEM jobs seem to be heavily male-dominated everywhere you look.

This trend has always puzzled me because the numbers don’t seem to make sense.

If we look at the Kajian Pengesahan Graduan KPT study conducted by the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia in 2010, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for various Information & Communications Technology (ICT) fields at various public and private institutions of higher learning was 1.04:1.

This means that there is nearly a 1-to-1 ratio in schools and in fact, the number of female ICT graduates is marginally more than that of male ICT graduates.

Logically speaking, the number of women and men in the industry should be similar. However, that’s not the case.

According to a World Bank report in 2002, only about 30% of the ICT professionals in the Malaysian software industry are women. Although there is an imbalance, this doesn’t seem too bad, yet.

If we look at the numbers for engineering instead, the overall ratio of female to male graduates for the various fields of engineering is 0.47:1, which ranges from 0.2:1 for Mechanical Engineering through to 0.99:1 for Chemical Engineering.

While the gender imbalance for engineering is worse than that for ICT, overall, it still does not correlate with the situation in industry.

According to a research report citing numbers from the BEM (Board of Engineers, Malaysia) in 2005, only 12.8% of registered graduate engineers were women, while a mere 2.7% of registered professional engineers were women.

So, from an overall ratio of 0.47:1 at the point of graduation, the ratio decreases to 0.15:1 at the graduate engineer level – that is, those who end up working as engineers – and finally drops to 0.03:1 at the professional level (that is, those who end up using the title Ingenieur or Ir.).

To put this into perspective, for each woman that you find studying and working in engineering, you will find two other male classmates, seven other male engineering colleagues and 36 fellow male professional engineers at the end. A female professional engineer is a rare find.

These numbers are alarming and are reflective of a larger problem in STEM industries. While there may or may not be a gender imbalance at school, it worsens significantly in industry.

Unfortunately, this is not merely a Malaysian problem. The situation is similar in other parts of the world.

According to Forbes, women hold only 27% of all computer science jobs and make up only 20% of the computer science graduates in the United States. According to QS (which ranks universities worldwide), women make up 12% of engineering students and 4% of engineering apprenticeships in the United Kingdom.

Among the many reasons suggested for the gender imbalance, gender stereotypes are commonly cited. This is probably why women shy away from Mechanical Engineering, which is often seen as ‘dirty’ when compared to something like Chemical Engineering.

Honestly, I won’t pretend to know the solution to the gender gap problem but various groups are trying different things.

Lego, the world’s largest toy-maker, has acknowledged this problem and is launching a new line of female scientist figurines to help address this issue. While having female Lego figurines is a good start, a figurine does not make a good role-model, nor a useful mentor.

Grassroots-driven female-focused events like Rails Girls KL and Penang – a one-day workshops that introduce beginner-friendly web application development to women of all ages – are an excellent effort to inculcate an interest for programming in women. Efforts like this help encourage women to take up STEM careers by building awareness and interest.

Women are increasingly being recognised for achievements in the field. An example of this is the Young Woman Engineer award given out by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Malaysia. These sorts of things should help develop role-models in the industry by highlighting their careers and achievements.

However, even at women-friendly events such as a recent Rails Girls workshop that I attended, where the participants were all women, the mentors were still nearly all male.

I think that we need to do something to address that too. This is where I think that the female minority in industry can and should take the lead. I hope that more women, from industry, volunteer at outreach events, and organise and run such events too.

Having more diversity in the work place is a good thing as it will bring different ideas and capabilities to bear, and I hope that the question will not vex me for too long.

First appeared on DNA here.

Online Dating: OKCupid in Malaysia

Article originally appeared on DNA here.

I HAVE been dabbling a little in online dating recently but unlike most people who dabble, I did some quantitative research on it out of curiosity. Blame it on the academic in me.

I even wrote an academic paper on it for part of my law degree. The actual focus of my research paper was on the effectiveness of techniques for detecting fake profiles.

I wonder what the lecturer thinks of the results. Anyway, I thought that I’d share some findings here.

If you browse around, you will find a lot of research on online dating. However, such research is largely focused outside of Malaysia while my data collection was focused purely on Malaysian, specifically Klang Valley, profiles.

Also, I limited my data collection to OKCupid (OKC) users only.

If you search further, you will find a lot of research done on OKC by its own users. There is even an interesting TED talk on how people can work the system to optimise their chance of success. OKC itself has admitted conducting experiments on its own users too.

My research was neither as big nor as ambitious, but I learned some interesting things about Malaysian OKC users nonetheless.

As usual, I started by sizing up the demographics of the pool. I limited my population to users who had used the service within the last month only as I wanted to count the profiles that were relatively active, and discard non-active ones. Otherwise, the numbers would just be too unwieldy.


The graph above shows the distribution of the profiles, segmented into age groups (Umur) and divided by gender (Lelaki = male; Wanita = female).

The shape of the curve itself is probably as most would expect it to be – that is, a lot of people in their 20s and early 30s on the site, and fewer as one gets older. This, of course, assumes that people report their age accurately, which I have found to be true.

However, the more interesting finding from this is the ratio (nisbah) of men to women on OKC. While the average (purata) is about 2.8 men to each woman, the number peaks at around 4.1 men to each woman in the under-21 age group and drops to 2.0 men to each woman in the 41-45 age group.

Then, things pick up again in the 50s.


Read what you will into these numbers, but fellows, be warned: The competition is pretty stiff. If you are a woman on OKC, the odds are definitely in your favour. You are definitely going to get hits, but whether the candidates meet your criteria are another matter entirely.

From the conversations that I’ve had with several women who use OKC, the problem that they have is that they generally get inundated with messages and various propositions. So, they need to spend some effort in filtering the hits from the misses. This is actually a good problem to have.

Therefore, if you are a man trying to message a woman on OKC, don’t be surprised if your message gets lost in the pile. You may have already experienced this, but you now know how high the deck is stacked.

So, that initial message needs to catch their attention fast, or you risk your message getting ignored, deleted or blocked.

Now, with regards to the authenticity of the profiles, the results are interesting as well. The results for both genders are fairly similar and so, I’ve combined the results into a single graph.


As you can see, fake (palsu) profiles start to pop up in the 20s and 30s as the number of authentic (tulen) ones start to drop.

I think that this graph could also serve as a corollary for the growth of social networking sites. This is probably due to the techniques that I used to verify a profile.

The most effective technique that I used was the reverse image search. This technique allowed me to detect if the photographs that were used in these OKC profiles were found elsewhere. Based on the context where the photographs were found, the profiles were classified as fake or otherwise.

So it is likely that the profiles of younger users could be easily verified as they tend to be users of Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and various other social networking sites, while the profiles of older users could not be verified as easily as they have generally missed the social network bandwagon.

This also means that people need to be careful with the photographs that are posted online as these could be used by others for various purposes. I know of one OKC user who has even resorted to threatening those who do so with a lawsuit, but I don’t know how effective that strategy is.

Finally, the main takeaway from all this is that you cannot really tell if the profiles are fake or not for the vast majority out there. Therefore, one should always exercise caution when dealing with other users of online dating sites.

Agreement Disclosure – Non!

This article first appeared on DNA.

THE non-disclosure agreement (NDA) has come to be known as the ‘Silicon Valley Handshake,’ and is now de rigeur in our local industry, especially when dealing with technology companies.

It is often signed right after exchanging our salam (greetings), before any serious business is done.

Over the years, I have developed a certain disdain for the venerable NDA and I now refuse to sign any, as a matter of general principle. Needless to say, I have lost some valuable business due to this as it is often considered sine qua non in commercial relationships with certain types of companies.

And it seems that I’m not alone in this. IBM refuses to sign one unless it is required to receive specifically identified confidential information, while Intel and Microsoft include clauses that exclude from the NDA any information that their employees manage to keep in their heads.

But my personal bias aside, there are some real issues to think about when one is considering whether to sign an NDA or otherwise.

First is the issue of practicality.

When I released my first product in the late 1990s, I was advised to get everyone to sign an NDA before showing it to them. This is what a lot of startups do these days too. I was told that this would help to protect my intellectual property.

Not knowing any better, I blindly followed the practice.

Later, I learned how silly this was as it is impractical for me to enforce the NDA anyway, due to a lack of financial means.

I also learned that business relationships are built on trust. The NDA does not build trust but actually erects hurdles to idea exchange and increases the cost of information management.

Besides lawyers, I do not know of anyone who actually thinks that it is ever a good idea to enforce an NDA in a costly legal battle. It is well known that prevention is better than cure. Therefore, the best way to protect truly confidential data is to, simply, never reveal it.

Second is the issue of legality.

As someone reading law, I have learned that a mere NDA is not enforceable as it often lacks legal consideration – a required element for any enforceable contract. In legal parlance, consideration in this case means receiving something for a promise to keep the secret.

As an example, a legally enforceable NDA is one that a new employee signs at point of hire because he or she receives a job for a promise to keep the secret. But one that is signed after the person is gainfully employed is not usually enforceable unless there is additional consideration given to the employee.

Therefore, asking a potential investor to sign one before a product pitch and getting an external consultant to sign one before preliminary discussions are two situations where the NDA is not enforceable for want of consideration.

Third, an NDA may force the signee to violate fiduciary duties.

This is true for company directors under S.132 of our Companies Act 1965. Amongst other things, it requires a director to consider only the interests of the company alone and no one else, not even personal interests, when exercising his duties.

A company director who signs an NDA can be caught in a situation arising out of a conflict between the company interests and the NDA signed with another company. In such a situation, said director can be sued as a result of not acting in the best interest of the company.

This is also true for consultants. It goes without saying that professionals, such as engineers, owe a duty of care to our clients foremost amongst others, but a consultant will have other clients in the future, often the competitors of their current client as they are operating in the same sphere or industry.

A consultant who signs an NDA can be caught in a situation of conflict between the interests of their future clients and the NDA signed with the current client. They can then be sued by their future clients under negligence for not providing a professional standard of service.

I’d also like to highlight that a registered engineer can get deregistered under S.15 of our Registration of Engineers Act 1967 for a disgraceful act, which includes things like revealing client secrets.

Therefore, an NDA actually creates a no-win scenario for the signee, such as registered professionals and company directors, or anyone else who owes a fiduciary duty to another.

In conclusion, I personally think that NDAs are a silly thing to have and the distasteful practice should be discontinued. In most situations, it is neither legally nor practicably enforceable. It is much better to never reveal trade secrets or to get all intellectual property properly registered and protected.

A good recommendation is that one should only sign an NDA if, and only if, the other party signs an agreement indemnifying the signee against all future lawsuits arising from a conflict between the NDA and any future agreements or fiduciary responsibilities. Personally, I like this idea.

As per my usual disclaimer, I am not a lawyer.

University research culture in Malaysia

This article first appeared on DNA here.

I READ with great interest that Multimedia University (MMU) broke into the top 200 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2014 for Computer Science and Information Systems. The university credits its research culture for such a credible performance.

Looking at the component breakdown, we find that MMU scored 47.9 for Academic Reputation, 70.1 for Employer Reputation, 78.4 for Citations per Paper, and 68.8 for H-index Citations. Research output would directly affect the Citations and H-index scores.

In comparison, the reputation scores are subjective as they are done through a global survey of industry employers and academic personnel. The questions asked are typically along the lines of “in your opinion, list down the top N universities for XYZ.”

While we find that two Malaysian public universities – Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – are ranked in the top 100 of the same subject as MMU, they both scored lower than MMU for Citations and H-index categories, but scored higher on reputation scores.

Therefore, if MMU can successfully maintain its research culture and increase its reputation, it will surpass the likes of UM and USM. This will happen as it becomes more established and its alumni find themselves in senior positions (and get invited to participate in the global survey).

This is no small feat for a university that is less than 20 years old and I would like to congratulate MMU on it.

However, I do have some general gripes about the research culture in Malaysian universities.

Firstly, it’s the lack of such a culture in the first place. Many of the universities in Malaysia are generally considered teaching universities that mainly focus on producing graduates. These universities do little research and what little research they do, is generally of a low quality.

A similar problem permeates our research universities as well. There are many uninspired PhD research projects that do nothing to advance human knowledge but are done to support our Government’s target of producing 60,000 PhDs by 2020.

This target has been set for the universities by way of grants, scholarships and other financial assistance. And due to the generous funding provided, many research projects are driven by the desire to spend the budget instead of the desire to do quality research.

Which leads me to my second gripe: The focus on quantity over quality.

To create a non-existent research culture, many universities turn to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are often measured in terms of the number of papers published, which leads to gaming the system.

Cash is also dangled to encourage researchers to publish. Certain journals and book publishers accept payment for publication and that turns the issue into one of cost. A journal publication can typically net the lecturer RM1,500. If publication fees cost less than that, then it’s a no-brainer.

This leads to my third gripe: The obsession with intellectual property (IP).

A patent can bag the lecturer RM5,000 plus commercialisation royalties. This leads to some weird behaviour as academics and universities incorrectly assume that patents are the way to achieving their financial dreams.

In contrast with prestigious foreign universities, the IP policy for every Malaysian university is one where they own everything produced by both faculty and students. This can actually stifle nascent research culture as faculty are sometimes forced to work around these policies to advance their work.

These policies can also be a source of conflict when engaged in industry-driven research as industry needs to own the IP for commercial purposes. It also hampers collaboration between universities as IP creates walls around knowledge.

The solution to building a research culture is not an easy one.

A typical Malaysian university would have a deputy vice-chancellor of research, running a research office, which oversees faculty research departments that oversee principal investigators who run labs filled with research students who do most of the research work. Let’s start by trimming the fat.

And to build any sort of culture, we must have the right people – from the very top. Culture is not dictated by policy but is built on the collective thoughts and actions of each individual. We need to hire more researchers, not teachers, into universities.

But to do that, we need people with research skills. This is where a Masters comes in handy but if you do a survey, you will find more Structure-A (classroom) than Structure-C (research) ones. We need to reduce the number of classroom-based Masters, regardless of their profitability.

Also, research culture is not merely the domain of grad students and faculty. Everyone in a university needs to get involved, including the undergraduates. Universities should fund undergraduates who publish their work in conferences to introduce them to the culture from their first day.

While I do think that there is a research culture of some form in our local universities, it is my fervent hope that with some changes, we will see more Malaysian universities in the top ranks of the world.