Thu, 21/Aug/2003

Question Time: 'Malaysia Boleh' and the
RM1 billion astronaut

By P Gunasegaram

More than a year ago, we had occasion to write about a hair-raising, hare-brained scheme to put a Malaysian on Mars by 2020, which, using a certain Formula 1 sponsorship as the yardstick, we estimated would cost us around RM50 billion.
Now, slightly more than a year later, things are falling into place. What has been set in motion is the plan, albeit less ambitious, to put a Malaysian into space by 2005. (If you want to be that astronaut, look out for the advertisement - there's no age limit but you must be qualified, whatever that means.)
Just as we reminded readers that the article over a year ago was not a joke, we remind readers now that this is not a joke. So what will it cost us to put our own astronaut into space? Interesting question but the answer is not so easy to deduce.
We had tried to figure out a year ago how we would finance the cost of putting a man on Mars. But as ingenious as our suggestion was then, it lacked the ingenuity of the current one, albeit for a scaled-down plan, to put a Malaysian in space.
It's an intriguing arrangement. Malaysia buys 18 Sukhoi Su30 fighter-bombers for US$900 million (RM$3.42 billion) or US$50 million (RM190 million) apiece from Russia. Also included in the purchase price is transfer of space technology worth US$270 million (RM1.03 billion) and training a Malaysian astronaut.
Could one assume that the cost of transfer of space technology is basically the cost of training the astronaut? If so, that's a tad over RM1 billion. But remember that this is just a man in space, and by now there have been a number. Why, dogs and monkeys too have been put into orbit. Point to note is that it's not quite Mars yet.
Another way perhaps to check the cost is the Internet. A Google search reveals that the estimated cost of a Sukhoi Su30 is US$34 million, which is US$14 million less than what we are paying per plane. The differential for 18 planes works out to US$252 million or over RM950 million. If that is the cost of our astronaut, it is not far from our initial estimate of about RM1 billion.
So how about that for a shortcut, although an enormously expensive one? You just pay RM1 billion to the Russians and they will happily put our man in space. Why not, it's a pretty good deal for them. After all they have sent many people into space and RM1 billion is a good price to get for substituting one of their own with one of ours.
Yes, that RM1 billion includes the price of space technology - but it's difficult to understand what the Russians would divulge beyond what our astronaut picks up on the way as they prepare to put him into space. But don't expect such generosity for Mars - no man has set foot there yet.
But is it a good deal for us? Alright, we get our man in space. But what does it prove? Nothing! The technology is there to put anyone, yes anyone, in space, man or animal, and it's all been done before.
We suspect all this has a lot to do with that much overused and abused phrase. Yes, "Malaysia Boleh" or Malaysia Can. And it's about time we canned this phrase or redefined its meaning completely.
Is our national soul so fraught with inferiority that we have to go out of our way and at great expense to do something just so that we can satisfy ourselves that we can do what others had done decades or even centuries ago? Is that how we are supposed to measure our abilities and renew our confidence?
Let's take some recent examples.
According to an article on the web, in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the treacherous waters of the Dover Straits. Fuelled by beef tea and beer, Webb swam breaststroke and covered the 38km stretch in 21 hours and 41 minutes. Since Webb's triumph, there have been at least 6,200 known attempts to swim the English Channel. More than 470 people were successful over 600 times, including a 12-year-old boy in 1979, a 12-year-old girl in 1983, a 65-year-old man in 1983 and a 45-year-old woman in 1975. The first Asian woman to swim the channel did so more than 40 years ago.
And yet we accord a hero's welcome to one of our own who did that recently. Are our achievements to date so hollow that we have to replicate what was first done more than a century ago and then thump our chests with pride at our achievements?
The first round-the-world, single-handed sailing trip was in 1898. Yet we rejoice and celebrate lesser achievements a century later, which are well-funded and backed by corporate sponsors and the government.
In 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to successfully climb to the peak of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. In the 50 years since Norgay and Hillary first climbed the mountain, more than 5,000 people have attempted to repeat their feat with 1,600 successes. And we still consider it a matter of national pride to put one of our own on the peak.
This is not to denigrate those who have done it but to have a sense of proportion about the achievements. We have been able to achieve much before - we had the best badminton players, we were among the best in Asian soccer, among the best in the world in hockey, and had some of the best athletes in Asia. We had the third highest standard of living in Asia.
But what happened? Dulu Malaysia boleh, sekarang tak boleh? That's what we should address and rectify. Put more money and intelligent effort into areas that matter, into sports that people participate in.
Can Malaysia have clean public toilets, can it have roads without potholes, can it have straight local council enforcers? Can it build computer labs? Can it provide broadband service to the majority of Malaysians cheaply? Can it have one-session schools? Are these not much more important than one man in space, or one man sailing around the world or a couple of them on top of Everest?
True achievers don't go around trumpeting their achievements. Others do it for them - neither Norgay/Hillary nor Einstein had to shout from rooftops. Instead of saying "Malaysia Boleh" for all manner of irrelevant achievements, let's set meaningful targets and take quiet pride in achieving them, contributing to a better life for all Malaysians.
P Gunasegaram is editor-at-large at The Edge.