The country may have yet another reason to live up to its tourism tagline: Malaysia, Truly Asia. This time around the country is trying to hard-sell education in its quest to enter the exclusive club of developed nations by 2020. “Western education at Asian costs” seems to be the new catchphrase for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government, which has lured the likes of Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Newcastle University into establishing campuses across the country. If all goes well, Asian students may not have to cross their borders anymore to seek higher education, which would also mark the beginning, so to speak, of a “reverse” brain drain.
While Western universities partnering with local Asian schools is nothing new, what makes the Malaysian experiment unique is that the big names have been asked to literally recreate their hallowed institutions in this Asian backwater. To make the business proposal attractive for the visiting institutions, the government has offered to bear start-up expenses. The administration is also spending $100 million to develop infrastructure at the spanking new Educity, which is coming up in the Johor locality. Australia’s Monash University was among the early birds to pitch its tent in the country, followed by the U.K’s Nottingham University in 2005.
Malaysia is a favorite destination for Western universities scouting for opportunities beyond their borders. Scenic beauty aside, Malaysia, like India, has a large English-speaking population, thanks to the British occupation of the territory during the last century. And Malaysia, despite its religious orientation, tries to project itself as a comparatively liberal society in an effort to make the country appealing to Muslim students from the largely conservative Middle East region. The new Western “invasion” would also prove to be a blessing in disguise for students of Malaysian universities, as the government has been forced to amend some previously restrictive rules of conduct on the campuses.
Malaysia sure wants to have its cake and eat it too though. The foreign universities eager to set up shop in the country have been asked to offer training in subjects that would benefit the domestic economy the most. It seems the country may have a reason after all to demand its pound of flesh: some 300,000 of its university-educated citizens work abroad. Malaysia now wants to provide its students the cherished Western education on their home turf itself, hoping to help reverse the brain drain.
The brain child of Najib Razak, a British-educated economist, the new initiative is a part of his grand 2020 vision for Malaysia. The Prime Minister understands the need to improve Malaysia’s overall competitiveness and knows too well that the focus should be on knowledge-based industries. The country’s poorly educated and relatively overpaid workforce is a serious handicap in its journey forward. Steadily, the number of children attending schools in Malaysia has been increasing over the last decade. But Razak himself admits that despite the 20% budget allocation on education, the results have not been up to the mark, all the more reason for the Prime Minister to bank on some of the seasoned Western institutions to do the job.
Still, the country’s hard political realities would make Najib Razak’s task truly onerous. The indigenous people of Malaysia, who comprise 65% of the country’s population, enjoy many privileges compared to minorities such as the Chinese and the Indians. Any move to deprive the majority of their rights would spell trouble for Najib Razak ahead of the elections likely to be held later this year. On the other hand, some kind of rollback of perks enjoyed by the majority is unavoidable if Malaysia is to create a level playing field for all of its country’s citizens.
The Prime Minister can take heart from the glorious tradition of the South-East Asian nations, which have always regarded education as a top priority even in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. But this time around, Razak wants that education to be home grown.
Malaysia’s tryst with the West gains importance as the economy gears up to reinvent itself to cater to the requirements of a globalized world. A quick learner, it may turn out that this Asian archipelago could teach some of its bigger neighbors a lesson or two.
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