Retiree's Lunch Update December 2020

Written by  Dr Richard Thwaites, FRACI CChem

Published 5 February 2021

There is little doubt that the RACI Board would love to achieve the same level of membership penetration in Australia as the Chemical Society of Timor Leste, where around 50% of chemists in the country are members of the Society.  Perhaps that’s a combination of the enthusiasm of being a fledgling organisation, everyone knowing everyone else, and the absence of a membership fee (at least for the time being).  Nevertheless, it’s still a remarkable achievement!

Professor Tom Spurling, well known to most of us in the RACI, and a former President of the Institute gave a really interesting and informative presentation to the Retirees’ Group on Tuesday December 1st at the last virtual lunch of the year about the establishment of the Chemical Society of Timor Leste, and its admission in 2019 to the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies.  Tom described how he and John Webb had played significant roles in its formation.  The Committee has a President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer and around 8 other members.  Of the total committee membership, only 2 are female, which probably reflects the make-up of the profession there.

Timor Leste was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century until 28th November 1975 when the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared independence.  Nine days later, it was invaded by Indonesia and remained as the 27th Indonesian Province until becoming an independent nation in 2002.  Indonesian was the official language from 1975 to 2002 when Portuguese was made the official language.   Unfortunately, few Timorese actually speak Portuguese, and there is a need to increase the amount of teaching in the native language Tetum.  The population of Timor Leste is around 1.3 million, the majority of whom are Christians, unlike its neighbour Indonesia, and 60% are under the age of 25.  Tom stated the number of chemists in the country to be 242, of whom three are PhDs, 19 hold Masters’ degrees and the remaining 220 are BSc’s or equivalent.  Most with higher degrees received their degrees in Portugal or Brazil.

There are four universities in the country, one state run, with the other three being privately owned.  There are a further 10 accredited higher education institutions.  Unfortunately, none of them yet has facilities or equipment to support high level chemistry teaching.  The high schools are also bereft of laboratory facilities.  The best equipped chemistry laboratory is at the Heineken brewery.

Timor Leste has benefitted from aid from various countries.  Tom mentioned that NZ aid had been targeted towards the development of pre-school education, and Australian aid had been mainly the provision of medical services and education.

The question Tom raised was what can we in the RACI do to help chemistry develop in this young nation?  There is a need for equipment:  maybe some of our better endowed institutions could consider donating equipment no longer used. 

It was clear from Tom’s presentation that Timor Leste has a major task in front of it to catch up with the rest of the world.  Although there are opportunities in the oil and gas industry, reserves will run out eventually, and the trend towards zero carbon emissions will accelerate the global decline in fossil fuels;  on the other hand, there are more promising prospects in the food processing industry and tourism.  In many new industries, chemistry will play a fundamental role as an enabling science, thus emphasising the need for enhanced chemistry education.

John Webb was able to amplify some of Tom’s comments about Timor Leste, including some anecdotes about a number of the key people in chemistry.  Bill Palmer and Brian Salter-Duke added to the discussion relating some of their experiences in Nigeria and PNG, both developing countries at the time they worked there.

Overall, a most entertaining and informative end to the year for the Retirees.  Next year, 2021, we shall investigate running some lunches on-line and others face to face when the regulations permit.  We’ll keep everyone informed via the RACI website.

And by the way, in contrast to Timor Leste in which 50% of eligible chemists living in the country are members of the Timor Leste Chemical Society, the membership of the RACI is probably less than 10% of chemists living in Australia who are eligible to join the RACI.  We have a way to go in Australia to catch up!

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