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Institut Fizik Malaysia: the first fifty years

writerBernardine R. Wong and Meng-Hock Koh

Vol.33 (Jun) 2023 | Article no.13-1 2023

1 Institut Fizik Malaysia: the first fifty years by Bernardine R. Wong and Meng-Hock Koh

1.1 Introduction

This year, 2023, marks a significant milestone in the history of physics in Malaysia. The Malaysian Institute of Physics (Institut Fizik Malaysia, IFM) was formed on January 29, 1973, and celebrates its golden jubilee this year. This article briefly traces the formation of IFM against the backdrop of physics in Malaysia, highlights some of the achievements and sketches possible future directions of IFM.

1.2 Brief background of physics in Malaysia

A recent article [1] highlighted that the first X-ray photograph taken in present day Malaysia was made in 1897. If we consider that X-rays were discovered by Rontgen only 2 years earlier in 1895, it might suggest that the standard of physics teaching and research in British Malaya at that time was comparable to that of Europe. However, this would be misleading as the first X-ray apparatus installed at the Taiping Hospital (in present day Perak in Malaysia) on February 3, 1897, was presented in conjunction with the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria. At the time, this was the only hospital in the Far East to possess such an advanced diagnostic tool [2]. This prompted delivery of other X-ray devices for medical use in British Malaya over the following decades and specific training was given to technicians to handle the equipment [3]. However, a general post-secondary physics program only began to be offered in 1928, with the establishment of Raffles College in Singapore [4]. Eventually, Raffles College was merged with the King Edward VII College of Medicine (established in 1905) in 1949 to form, in Singapore, the University of Malaya. Subsequently, its Singapore campus became the National University of Singapore (NUS) while the Kuala Lumpur campus is Universiti Malaya (UM). Physics was offered as a degree programme in UM from 1961. Shortly thereafter, degree programs in physics began to be offered in Institut Teknologi MARA (ITM, established in 1967), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM, 1969), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM, 1970), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM, 1971) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM, 1972).

1.3 Formation of IFM

As the number of physicists in Malaysia grew steadily in the early 1960s, a desire arose for a body to represent the physics community. Although some physicists in local universities were members of the Institute of Physics (United Kingdom), many physicists, teachers and those in the research and service sectors were not. This shortcoming began to be rectified when the first interim committee met in Kuala Lumpur in 1971 with the objective of setting up IFM. The institute’s constitution was drafted and approved by the Registrar of Societies, which enabled the process to proceed.

Written documentation preceding the formation of IFM is scarce; however, the IFM Constitution indicates the priorities that the framers had. These are (1) to promote physics and elevate the profession of physicists, (2) to educate and train those who wish to practice as physicists, and those who are interested in physics, (3) to hold meetings/conferences, workshops and to deliver lectures, and (4) to organize activities of interest to IFM members related to research, education, and outreach programs.

The inaugural general meeting of the IFM was held on January 29, 1973, at UM with 34 members. Apart from representation from Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Agricultural College Serdang (now Universiti Putra Malaysia, UPM), Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC, now Tunku Abdul Rahman University of Management and Technology, TAR UMT) and Mara Institute of Technology (ITM, now Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara UITM), there was representation from the Meteorological Department, Defence Research Centre, Radioisotope Unit of Universiti Hospital (now University of Malaya Medical centre, PPUM), National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR), and Cochrane Road School. It is noteworthy that the diversity of the meeting attendees reflected the breadth of the impact of physics in the academic realm as well as in industrial research.

The inaugural IFM Council comprised Prof. Thong Saw Pak (president, TARC), Prof. Chatar Singh (vice-president, USM), Dr. Neo Yee Pan (hon. secretary, UM), Dr. Tan Hong Siang (hon. treasurer, UM), with the following council members: Dr. Khalijah Mohd. Salleh (UKM), Prof. Khaik Leang Lim (UM), Dr. Teh Hock Heng (UM), Dr. R. Ratnalingam (USM) and Dr. Lee Sing (UM). Altogether, there have been seven presidents: Prof. Thong Saw Pak (TARC, 1973–1975), Prof. Chatar Singh (1976–1977), Prof. Mohd. Zawawi Ismail (UKM, 1978), Prof. Tan Beng Cheok (UM, 1979–1990), Prof. Chia Swee Ping (UM, 1991–2010), Prof. Kurunathan Ratnavelu (UM, 2011–2020) and Prof. Tou Teck Yong (MMU, 2021–present). (Note: Prof. Lee Sing served as the acting president for some months in 1990.)

Since its inception, IFM has operated from the Department of Physics, UM. Starting with an initial 34 members in 1973, growth was slow but began to accelerate in the 1980s. To date, IFM has approximately 1530 members, of which 550 are active. IFM has nine Honorary Fellows and 54 Fellows. The IFM webpage is https://ifm.org.my/.

1.4 Some IFM initiatives

IFM has co-organised a physics conference or symposium annually since 1975. It was initially known as the National Physics Symposium (NAPS) and is now more widely known as Persidangan Fizik Kebangsaan (PERFIK). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the most recent conferences, i.e., PERFIK 2021 and PERFIK 2022, were conducted online. It has been a valuable experience to have to rely solely on internet technologies. While it has been advantageous in widening participation, a purely online conference has come at a cost of a reduction in face-to-face interaction. Nevertheless, it is likely that some form of hybrid conference, workshop and meeting may become a new norm in the future.

Periodically, international events such as the International Conference on Frontiers in Quantum Physics (1997) [5], the International Meeting on Frontiers in Physics (IMFP 1998, 2005, 2009, 2013, 2017) [6, 7], and the Asia–Pacific Physics Conference (APPC, 1992 and 2019) [8, 9] have been held in Malaysia. In conjunction with APPC 2019, IFM also organised the Asia-Oceania Forum on Synchrotron Radiation Research, where representatives from synchrotron facilities in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore shared the latest advances on the usage, research activities, and new instrumentation of synchrotrons. Recently, IFM collaborated with UCSI University to organize the 1st International Conference on Computational Science and Data Analytics (COMDATA 2021, 21–24 November, 2021).

IFM has also published the Jurnal Fizik Malaysia (JFM) since 1984, succeeding the Bulletin of the Institute of Physics, Malaysia, which was launched in 1980. Up until 2020, it appeared in print form but is now published solely online. Jurnal Fizik Malaysia is now indexed by Clarivate Analytics Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI). Information regarding submissions to JFM can be found at https://ifm.org.my/jurnal.

IFM has also supported the training of Malaysian high school students for the Asian and International Physics Olympiads (APhO and IPhO, respectively) since the 33rd IPhO in 2002 held in Bali, Indonesia. This has enabled our top physics students to compete with the best in the world. Following a preliminary test, selected students attend several intensive camps conducted by the trainers of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and by members of the IFM Education Subgroup. Five students are shortlisted to represent the country. Throughout the years of participation, Malaysian students have received honorable mention, bronze, silver, and gold medals. The students have benefited greatly from the exposure gained from the competition. Many have continued to pursue physics degrees and other science and engineering majors, and some have become prominent scientists and researchers in their own fields.

IFM has supported the training of young physicists in international schools via recommendations and partial financial assistance. Locally, IFM has initiated workshops and schools to train local and international physicists. Among the earliest training provided was a Workshop on Microcomputers and Applications (1981), in addition to other activities organised by IFM divisions and subgroups. IFM has two main divisions, i.e., Plasma Physics and Medical Physics. In addition to organising the Tropical College on Applied Physics (1983, 1986, 1988, 1992) [10,11,12,13], the plasma division has been active in initiating and strengthening plasma physics research in developing countries [14]. Recent activities include the Numerical Experiments Workshop on Plasma Focus (NEWPF2022), held over 7 weeks from 21 March–6 May 2022 by the plasma division, in collaboration with the Asian African Association for Plasma Training (AAAPT). The Medical Physics Division aims to promote medical physics [15]. Activities such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) College of Medical Physics (ACOMP) Courses 2021: Radiobiology in the era of precision medicine (9, 16, and 23 April 2021), International Medical Physics Week (9–13 May 2022), and the International Day of Medical Physics (November 7, 2022) involved online webinars that were very well received by the medical physics community. In addition, IFM has the following subgroups: Optics & Photonics, Theoretical & Computational Physics, Astronomy & Astrophysics, and the most recent subgroup is Industrial Physics, which was formed in 2021 to cater to the growing interest in the application of physics in industry. The Industrial Physics Subgroup has thus far organized two online seminars: The Application of Plasma Physics in Biomass Technologies, and What You Need to Know About Patents.

IFM is affiliated to the following organisations, as (1) a founding member of the Association of Asia Pacific Physical Societies (AAPPS), (2) a founding member of the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics (APCTP), (3) an associate council member of the Asia Oceania Forum for Synchrotron Radiation Research (AOFSRR), and (4) as a founding member of the Confederation of Scientific and Technological Associations in Malaysia (COSTAM). In addition, IFM cooperates with most other physics institutes/organizations of other countries.

1.5 Looking forward

In its first 50 years, IFM established itself as a body supporting the interests of the local physics community through training, conferences, and the establishment of networks with the international physics communities. These can, and should, be continued. However, much remains to be done.

First, the physics community in Malaysia remains rather scattered with researchers typically working independently in their respective fields with minimal collaboration between them. Working in isolation robs researchers of the rewards of synergy that would then enable more impactful work to be attempted, such as those outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations [16]. IFM has a role to play to foster collaboration and, in so doing, to advance the status of physicists in the country. In the long run, we hope that IFM will be a point of reference for any governmental policies involving physics.

Second, IFM needs to better engage with the public to increase awareness of physics. Moving beyond how physics has traditionally been presented in a classroom setting, we need to use technology creatively to bring out the beauty of physics and the excitement of discovery that lies at its heart.

Third, there has been the perception that a physics degree does not appear to have a well-defined career path as opposed to, say, an engineering degree. In reality, a physics graduate is equipped with critical thinking skills and versatility so as to adapt to different career paths, whether in industry or the service sectors. IFM needs to initiate frequent engagement with industrial partners as well as more effectively organize outreach programs to schools.

Finally, researchers and students interested in exciting topics in fundamental physics, for example in particle physics, black holes, and search for dark matter, have difficulty securing positions in Malaysian universities, resulting in the brain drain of these talented researchers to other countries. It remains a challenge to build up a critical mass of physicists, and IFM has a role to play to address this issue.

In conclusion, the first 50 years of IFM have been eventful both for the physics community as well as for our nation. Given the increased pace of change and advances in technology, we can expect IFM to rise to these challenges and continue to support the physics community in the years ahead. (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Participants of the 14th Asia–Pacific Physics Conference (APPC14) held in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, from November 17–22, 2019. (Photograph courtesy of Prof. Kurunathan Ratnavelu.)


We would like to express our thanks and appreciation to Prof. Tan Beng Cheok, Prof. Dato’ Roslan Abd. Shukor and Prof. Tou Teck Yong for their respective ideas and input in the preparation of this manuscript.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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[Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43673-023-00084-5]