Publication Date: January, 2020

STEM Literacy as Disaster Literacy: the Malaysian Nuclear Story


As a new member of the (since late January 2017) while also embarking into the new (or next) phase of my nuclear history in Malaysia project, I thought it would be timely to discuss how the educational aims of and the nuclear history project could link up. This past year has all been about exploration of the nuclear landscape in Malaysia, which involved sussing up actors, the location of the archives (and data), and the extent to which the project could be pushed. The nuclear history project, now called “How Big Science Came to Malaysia: the Malaysian Nuclear Story” made its first appearance with a walk-on role as nuclear physics in an investigation into the history of physics in Malaysia (and Singapore). However, I quickly discovered that it is at the intersection of knowledge transfer, technology development, and socio-economic motivations that Malaysia’s history of nuclear science has the most to offer; therefore giving birth to the current iteration of the Malaysian nuclear history project.

The scoping of the nuclear history project took longer than expected due to a combination of other commitments, identifying people I could talk to, and gaining permissions necessary to carry out the project, such as permissions to access the archives (and some previously confidential material) at the national nuclear agency and to obtain data pertaining to current operations of the nuclear infrastructures, and to interview the agency’s staff. At the same time, I came to know of the project. In early 2016 my project was not yet ready for considering interdisciplinary linkages beyond STEM and into spaces where the social consequences of the application of the science (and technology) are experienced. Yet, in the process of reshaping my project on the nuclear history of Malaysia, I find that the conversations I have with scholars and practitioners in the field will always circle back to problems of security, sustainability, transparency, policy, and risks. I decided then that improved literacy on the socio-technical issues of nuclear science and technology is necessary for everyone, not only for those who are completely ignorant.

Nuclear technology has been ongoing in Malaysia for decades. However, I now see that the moment has come to investigate what the deployment of nuclear technology could mean historically, beginning with its introduction into medical technology) and nuclear-facilitated power, which the Malaysia government is currently looking into (but keeping on the low as much as possible). This understanding has formed as a result of continuing research (including oral history interviews) along the lines of public outreach, science literacy (and communication), and analyses of socio-cultural, economic, and epistemic conditions that drove the development of nuclear science and technology. These developments have ranged from fundamental inquiries into peculiarities of quantum physics in Europe before the Second World War to the successful American project of capitalizing that knowledge for political and economic gain during the Second World War (which catapulted change management in Europe that led to the formation of IAEA and CERN) to the deployment of nuclear knowledge as science diplomacy and the political-economy of control, which brought developing postcolonial countries such as Malaysia into the game.

Undertaking analysis of disaster discourse in Malaysia means looking into terms of disaster outside the context of extremities, but within day-to-day problem-solving in dealing with smaller disruptions (or potential for disruptions), choices made under normal situations that would have averse consequences when a disaster strikes, and the kind foresight needed for preventing worst case scenarios as much as possible. The unreliability of human nature, and predilection for making many mistakes when panicked, should always be accounted for in all cases of contingencies. These are some of the issues I see my nuclear project, done in collaboration with, as being party to. As such, I am exploring the feasibility of producing digital graphical pamphlets that weave in Malaysia’s history of nuclear science and technology with current developments to go with a resource book/guide for use in high school and college-teaching, curating a digital exhibition, and developing documentary shorts, all in collaboration with others. The outreach aspect involves the education of others to think critically about the aforementioned issues of disasters (in relation to certain S&T infrastructures in my case), and as mental preparation prior to the actual disaster.

In closing, I would like to invite those interested in the direction discussed here to visit the newly launched Chronicles of Southeast Asian Nuclear Studies site and watch the space for further updates. Please get in touch through the blog if you would like to know more about how you could support, or participate, in the project.


  Clarissa Lee Ai Ling

Special Studies Division, Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

Research Fellow