Got an email from Shien Jin, a former International Math Olympiad (IMO) representative, about Malaysia's best performance at the IMO this year (2008). We ranked 55 out of 93 countries and for the first time, one of our competitors, Loke Zhi Kin, obtained a silver medal for Malaysia. Indeed, his score of 24 beat out the top scores for the Singapore team, even though the Singaporean team as a whole still beat us (ranked 32 versus 55). And for the first time, 5 out of 6 competitors from Malaysia received at least an honorable mention.
The full history of the IMO competition can be accessed here.
Malaysia's history in the IMO has not been a good one. Our best ranking before this year was 59 out of 83 in 2001. In the first year which Malaysia was in the competition, 1995, we ranked 72 out of 73. Last year, in 2007, we ranked 74 out of 93. We jumped almost 20 ranking positions from 74 to 55 this year.
The first time Malaysia won a bronze medal was in 2000, when Shien Jin (who went to MIT for his undergrad and Harvard for his PhD) and Suhaimi Ramly (who went to MIT). They would have gotten a higher ranking for Malaysia if Malaysia had sent more than 3 competitors (lack of funding, I was told).
Suhaimi was the 'observer' for the Malaysian team this year, meaning that he was the trainer for the team. And with Suhaimi, who's also the executive director of Aidan Corp and a co-founder of Ardent Education Consultants, in charge of training future teams, I'm sure that this is a sign of better things to come for the Malaysian IMO team.
A cursory look at the IMO historical results makes for interesting reading. Some of the usual suspects dominate the competition - China, Russia, USA. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan do well as well as do some of the former Eastern European countries - Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Hungary.
But I was surprised to see Thailand ranked 6 and Vietnam ranked 12 this year. Iran is also a powerhouse in the IMO competition!
In addition, the Nordic countries, who do well on most other indicators (HDI, competitiveness, education standards) perform so so only. India also does not do as well as one might imagine, with all that brainpower.
My sense is that countries who do well in this competition probably have 2 common practices. Firstly, they probably have a fairly open competitive process to select the participants. This is to ensure that the net is cast wide enough such that the best competitors are selected. Secondly, they probably have a fairly well developed training regiment where the skills of these participants are honed.
I'm guessing that China probably throws tons of resources at the selection and training of these candidates much like how their gymnasts and other athletic prodigies are selected and trained.
Obviously, it would be unrealistic for us to compete against the Chinese, let's say. (5 gold medals and 1 silver!) But Suhaimi tells me that a goal of achieve 100 total points for 6 competitors is realistic. This would put Malaysia at around the 30th position, on par with what Singapore achieved this year (98 points, 32nd position). I feel pretty good about our chances with someone like Suhaimi in charge.