Understanding Applied Learning

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By Professor Dr Ong Kian Ming

My transition from front line politics back to academia has given me time and reason to reflect on what I learned in university and how I applied this knowledge to my work as a consultant, a researcher, and a policy maker. I am glad to say that I managed to use many of the frameworks and concepts I learned in various economics, political science, and political philosophy courses during my work life of 20 years. My challenge now is to understand what was it that made me remember these academic frameworks, how I used them, and how to pass on these tools to my future students.
The presences of monopolies in different sectors of the economy, for example, is an often-discussed public policy issue. In economics, we are taught to differentiate between different kinds of monopolies such as natural monopolies – electricity transmission and water distribution infrastructure are two examples – and legal monopolies, which are created by ownership of certain patents or government concessions.
Using these frameworks, I could argue for the need to invite more players into the vehicle inspection market, propose better access for more power generating entities (which is not a natural monopoly) such as renewable energy players into the national grid (which IS a natural monopoly), and concede the cost sharing benefits for a single player such as Digital Nasional Berhad to roll out our 5G infrastructure, with network access shared among the participating telco players.
I was fortunate that I could still remember the difference between a balance of trade and current account surplus, the impact of interest rate policy on the exchange rate and the relevance of trade weighted exchange rates when I was the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry. This knowledge came in useful when I was engaging with foreign investors, economists from financial institutions and officials from Bank Negara and the Securities Commission. This knowledge also allowed me to take principled positions on politically contentious issues such as the decision to ratify the CPTPP trade agreement.
My training in political science allowed me to contribute my thoughts in the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus a presidential system, the consequences of having a first-past-the-post versus proportional representation electoral system and the challenges of establishing successful multiracial parties in ethnically divided societies. I have used some of this knowledge to push for electoral reforms including narrowing the discrepancy in the number of voters in urban versus rural constituencies and increasing access for overseas voters to cast their votes.
Some would say that I was in a better position to apply my knowledge in economics and political science as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Minister. I would respond by saying that I would have used these tools if I was working in a management consulting firm, in the financial services industry, in a multinational or large local corporation, in a think tank, or in an international organisation.
Some academic tools can be used in the real world even in seemingly unrelated fields. A close friend used his knowledge of Logic in Physics, and another used his knowledge of Logic in Philosophy to help them in decision making processes in the corporate world. Both went on to be CEOs of their own companies which they subsequently sold/listed.
One of the key challenges of an educator is to create the right environment in a university where these academic concepts can be ‘absorbed’ as part of the learning process. Students are more likely to ‘lock in’ their understanding of such concepts if they must think through and ‘test’ their validity using real life examples. I clearly remember the rigorous academic debate with regards to the implementation of currency controls because I lived through this during the Asian Financial Crisis when Dr. Mahathir decided to implement the currency peg. I would have appreciated the nuances of this debate much more if I had been assigned to a research project in university which asked me to analyse currency movements and capital flows and test the data against contending academic hypotheses.
In the Malaysian context, a student studying the implications of lowering the voting age to 18 would be able to better remember the academic debates if he worked on a project to study the turnout rate among automatically registered young voters versus those who are from an older cohort who registered themselves as voters.
If research projects which exposes students to understanding and testing academic frameworks and concepts to real life challenges can be incorporated into programme modules, I am very sure that the learning experience of these students will be greatly enhanced. More of them will remember how to apply the knowledge they learned in university in their work life more often and more effectively. Who knows, some of them may even end up as successful policy makers!

About the author: Professor Dr Ong Kian Ming is Director of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics at The School of Law and Governance, Taylor’s University. He was a former Fulbright Scholar and holds a Doctorate in Political Science from Duke University, and a Master of Philosophy in Economics from the University of Cambridge, and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the London School of Economics. He served as two-term Member of Parliament in Malaysia from 2013 to 2022. He was the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry from July 2018 to February 2020. This is an opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this publication.

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