Archive for the 'Malaysia' Category

Free Press and Democracy

Posted by Eric on February 10th, 2008

Here’s an example of how democracy will not function without free press. In the wake of the upcoming elections, Second Finance Minister of Malaysia, Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, explains in the government controlled media why Malaysians should again put their trust in the Barisan Nasional government led by Prime Minister Badawi:

“the country’s per capita income had risen by 40% between 2004 and 2007, from RM15,819 (US$4,163) to RM22,345 (US$6,452). The Barisan Nasional Government is confident that we will get the people’s mandate again, based on the improved economic resilience”

A good thing there is something called the internets, where people can voice other truths. Tony Pua over at Philosophy Politics Economics explains:

Nor Mohamed Yakcop must either be completely out of his mind, or can no longer perform simple Mathematics or worse, attempting to insult the intelligence of ordinary Malaysians. Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 5.0%, 5.9% and an estimated 6.0% in 2005, 2006 and 2007 respectively according to the Government’s official statistics.

Based on the above growth rates over the past 3 years, Malaysia’s GDP grew by approximately 17.9% from 2004 to 2007. Therefore, it is completely inconceivable that our per capita income increased by 40% when our GDP grew by only 17.9%. Unless of course, the honourable Minister believes that our population shrunk by some 16%!

But, then again, there will always be people who use blogs on the Internet to criticise the rapid economic growth achieved by the Government.

UPDATE: Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi dissolved the parliament on Wednesday 13 February. The election is likely to be held in early March

UPDATE 2: Elections are called for 8 March. According to the Economist:

No one expects Mr Badawi to repeat his storming debut in 2004, when he led the ruling coalition to a 90% sweep of 219 seats in Parliament. Defeat is unthinkable: the coalition has won every election since independence in 1957.

Authoritarianism or Participation? That’s the Question!

Posted by Eric on January 15th, 2008

Is China proving that developing countries are better off under an authoritarian regime that focuses on developing the economy, rather than under a democratic regime that gives emphasis to political participation? It’s the question posed by Randall Peerenboom from UCLA in his new book China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest?becquelin

He tries to answer the question by exploring China’s economy, its political and legal system, and its record on civil, political and personal rights. Peerenboom’s answer is “yes”. At the forum of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Nicholas Bequelin has a review on the book. Bequelin is researcher at the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, so it’s no surprise that he disagrees with Peerenboom.

I haven’t read the book yet, and neither am I an expert on China. For me the question often pops up in my comparisons between Indonesia and Malaysia. Where some say that Indonesia might be ‘too democratic’, others might say Malaysia is too paternalistic and authoritarian. It seems that strict government control has helped countries like Malaysia and Singapore in creating a higher level of development than for instance the rather chaotic countries of Indonesia and the Philippines. So….is Peerenboom right? I think in the short term he might be. But for the long term, I sympathise with Bequelin’s critique. But let’s read the book first…

Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy

Posted by Eric on December 17th, 2007

Earlier this month, the Malaysian Ministry for Higher Education and the World Bank hosted the Regional Higher Education Conference Strategic Choices for Higher Education Reform in Kuala Lumpur. The joint MOHE/World Bank conference was not a coincidence. The timing of the event coincided with the completion of a research report by the Malaysian Economic Planning Unit and the World Bank: “Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System” (pdf 1 MB).Malaysia

The 258 page report presents a good analysis of the current situation and puts forward some sound policy recommendations. Most of these are in line with my own observations and my field work that I conducted in Malaysia last year. Below is an executive summary of the executive summary and a few additional thoughts and observations coming from my side:


Asian Godfathers: Collusion of Business & Politics

Posted by Eric on July 15th, 2007

Another book to add to my ‘to-read-list’: Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Newsweek has an article by the author of the book, Joe Studwell. Studwell had expected that the Asian crisis ten years ago would trigger the transition from crony capitalism to a market free of manipulation by bureaucrats and politicians. After the research for his book, he concludes that he was wrong:

The architecture of the Southeast Asian economy remains what it was 10 and 50 and 100 years ago. The domestic economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are all still dominated by reclusive, enigmatic billionaires and their families.

He observes that inequality has persisted in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong and attributes this to the Asian Godfathers. These Asian billionaires can avoid the pressures for global competitiveness by prospering from concessions, monopolies and cartels. Southeast Asian crony capitalism might have followed quite different historical pats (more…)

Meanwhile in Malaysia…

Posted by Eric on June 30th, 2007

Meanwhile in Malaysia, ‘soft authoritarianism‘ seems to get tougher. Elections are coming up and since the Malaysian people are not yet ready for open dialogue, voices have to be silenced. So what do you do? First you silence the blogs that cause ‘disharmony’. That should be enough since – as Marina Mahathir (yes, the outspoken daughter of…) shows – the government has nothing to fear from the regular Malaysian media.

But it was not enough. This news by rising politician Tony Pua should really worry Malaysians. Apparently, instructions were given by some government commission to the various TV stations in Malaysia to ban all footage of opposition leaders. Although this was denied by some TV stations, Malaysiakini published the proof, black on white.

Now…who isn’t ready for an open dialogue?

Higher Education Funding in Indonesia

Posted by Eric on June 30th, 2007

The Jakarta Post reported that the Indonesian Director General for Higher Education, Satryo Soemantri Brodjonegoro would increase the subsidies for universities. The government would disburse a Rp 13.5 trillion (US$1.5 billion) fund next year to subsidize costs at state-run and private universities. Good news for Indonesian higher education? Of course, every extra dollar or rupiah is welcome. But…

He admitted that the increase would not cover education costs for university students. “The amount is too small to meet the demands of poor families who want to have access to higher education,” he said. In recent years the government has decreased its subsidies for state-run universities and encouraged them to find their own funding sources. As a result, some state-run universities began offering courses for exorbitant fees.

Starting from 2000, Indonesia’s leading four institutions have – in financial terms – basically been privatised. Institut Teknologi Bandung, Institut Pertanian Bogor, Universitas Indonesia and Universitas Gadjah Mada received the so-called BHMN status (Badan Hukum Milik Negara or ‘state owned legal entities’). The other public universities in Indonesia are meant to follow this path in the future. Universitas Sumatera Utara (USU) received the status in 2003, followed by the Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia (UPI) in early 2004. BHMN meant greater autonomy and autonomy was necessary because the universities, under the Suharto regime, suffered from a serious lack of academic freedom. But autonomy did not just mean academic autonomy, it also meant financial autonomy. And this basically translated into budget cuts. These cuts were so severe that (more…)

Malaysia as an Education Hub

Posted by Eric on May 28th, 2007

The UNSW debacle in Singapore and the exit of Johns Hopkins last year, have dealt a serious blow to the Global Schoolhouse strategy of the Singapore government. Singapore’s neighbor Malaysia announced a similar strategy last year. With this strategy, Malaysia becomes one of the most interesting examples of the way that higher education is globalizing nowadays. A major exporter as well as importer of higher education, with foreign universities within its borders and Malay universities establishing branches outside Malaysia.

First of all, Malaysia has long been sending many of their students and university staff abroad, especially for postgraduate studies, because their own system could not absorb the increase of students in the last decades. In addition, the racial quota for public universities to enroll Malay forced a lot of students from Chinese and Indian backgrounds to pursue their higher education abroad. The last decade has seen a sharp rise in private universities and colleges that have been able to absorb many of these students and the Malay that were not accepted in the public sector. Despite this, the flow of Malaysian students abroad – especially to the English speaking countries – has remained substantial (see table).

Malaysian students abroad 1999-2004

In addition to sending students abroad to pursue their education, the Malaysian government has also admitted higher education institutions into Malaysia in order to meet the increasing demand of higher education in the country. The establishment of such branch campuses has to fulfill a wide range of legal requirement (on ownership issues, but also on the content of education), but this has not kept universities from establishing these branches. The best known examples are Monash University, Curtin and Swinburne from Australia and Nottingham University from the UK. Although these partnerships were usually based on so-called sandwich programmes (where part was done in the home country of the university), they now also offer full degrees in Malaysia.

But in recent years, both the flows of students as well as the flows of institutions are no longer one way but now go both ways. Although public universities in Malaysia do not undertake activities abroad – and probably they are not allowed to – the private ones seem to become more and more active. You can now actually obtain a Malaysian degree in London, offered by the Lim Kok Wing University, well known in Malaysia for its IT and Design programmes. And this university is not just a little office somewhere in London but is established in a beautiful old English building. But Lim Kok Wing did not stop in London. It’s also the first Asian university to establish a branch campus in Africa, in Botswana to be precise. Recently, other education institutions are following and are also expanding abroad.

And now the Malaysian government wants to make Malaysia a true education hub for the region, more or less like its southern neighbor. The Ministry of Higher Education has set a target of 100,000 students for 2010. Growth will probably mainly be sought in the region and in the Middle East. Together with Singapore, Malaysia probably offers the best quality higher education in Southeast Asia, although Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are catching up. Due to language (and cultural/religious) issues, Malaysia is popular for Indonesian students, especially for those that cannot get into the local public universities in Indonesia and cannot afford the top private ones or higher education abroad. For Chinese students Malaysia might be popular because of the widespread Chinese influences in Malay society, more apparent though in the private institutions than in the public ones. More recently, especially after 9-11, Malaysia has also become a popular destination for Middle Eastern students. Yesterday, the Star reported on an agreement between Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed and his Saudi counterpart Dr Khaled Mohamed Al-Anqari on sending the Saudi students to Malaysian universities(*). In addition to the Middle East, students coming from Africa (especially Libya, Sudan and Kenya) are also on the rise (see table; click to enlarge).

Foreign Students in Malaysia 1999-2003

To reach the goal of 100,000 international students, the government will need to double the intake of foreign students. There are obviously pros and cons to a strategy like this. For many, a first reaction would be to ask why a government wants to increase the number of international students if it barely has the capacity to meet the demand of its own people? On the other hand, it can generate extra financial resources (if the fees for foreign students are profitable) by which the education of the Malaysian population can be supported. Obviously creating more multicultural campus will also have more intangible positive effects. And the quality of education can increase if these foreign students will be of such quality that they will positively influence the academic atmosphere and quality in the universities. And of course there are the economic effects through spending and consumption from the students and through the new jobs that are created for such an expanding higher education sector.

So…should the Singapore case make the Malaysian government nervous? Maybe not yet, but they better keep an eye on the developments in their neighboring city state. Malaysia’s plans are not as ambitious as Singapore’s ‘grand’ strategies and they are less dependent on foreign providers than is the case in Singapore. But I hope they will not become obsessed with the projected number of 100,000, and instead just focus on the overall quality of their higher education. Then the foreign students will follow automatically…

(*) A small footnote…not directly related but important enough to mention.

Saudi government officials have been traveling the world for the past months in order to find ‘a conducive environment’ for their students to study. Especially because it was getting harder for them to get visas in the UK and the US. I remember that one of their officials visited Australian campuses as well, in order to ‘ínspect’ the universities here. I have not heard anything about this issue since…maybe the Australian culture was not considered very conducive by these government leaders, that always know best what is good for ‘their’ citizens…

But even Malaysia was not perfect. Saudi female students had specific requirements: “They have to travel with their chaperone who are either their male family members or husbands, so visas can be a problem. Another issue is dressing – some female students want to keep their faces covered.” The Minister said he would look into these issues… Covering the faces is not allowed in Malaysian public universities. And I think universities shouldn’t change their values just to benefit more from the international higher education market. Believe me, I work in Australia, so I should know!

Meritocracy, Tolerance & Paternalism

Posted by Eric on May 5th, 2007

The practice of ‘affirmative action’ for ethnic Malays remains a sensitive issue in Malaysia. The practice was established in order to raise the living standards of bumiputra Malay (vis-a-vis the Chinese and the Indian minorities) by giving them preferential treatment in a wide range of areas such as economic ownership and education. This New Economic Policy was implemented in order to avoid repetition of the 1969 riots between the prosperous Chinese minority and the ethnic Malays.

I witnessed the sensitivity of the issue when I was in Kuala Lumpur last October. A KL based think tank published a report (pdf) in which it claimed that – for the case of equity ownership – the targets set by the Malaysian government were already achieved in the 1990s and that therefore the policy was no longer needed. Within no time, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi claimed that their methodology was flawed and that the authors had acted irresponsibly by publishing the report.

I won’t go into the technical discussion about equity ownership here, or on whether the think tank or Badawi was right. However, what did strike me was the lack of real debate on the issue (in the ‘PM-friendly’ official media), or better, the way that such debates were suppressed by the Prime Minister and other high officials. After some time, the author of the report resigned and the whole thing blew over.

It does bring up the question of how Malaysia balances this paternalism with it’s strong emphasis on knowledge and creativity as the new driver of the Malaysian economy. Meritocracy is very much the new word in government, but can there be real meritocracy in a paternalistic state and in a state where a majority receives preferential treatment over minorities? Well, it has done a very good job so far. Mahathir and Badawi have succeeded in building a peaceful society and one that is far more prosperous than most other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, I believe that ‘social engineering’ is not the way forward for Malaysia and that they should take meritocracy seriously. Because of the paternalistic and ethnic policies of the government, Malaysia is running the risk of losing more and more of its bright and talented.

The issue is also raised by Sadanand Dhume, a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington. He writes a provocative article on YaleGlobal Online (in which he also discusses it in the context of Islamic orthodoxy). Here are some interesting paragraphs, but read the whole article here.

After riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 between the prosperous Chinese minority and ethnic Malays, Malaysia instituted a program to raise the Malay share of national income. The government aggressively favored Malay businessmen with government contracts, and Malays gained a virtual monopoly on generous government scholarships for overseas study. At the same time – in order to grow the pie rather than to merely carve out a larger slice for Malays – Malaysia followed outward-looking economic policies that encouraged foreign investment and export-led growth.

The rise of China, India and Vietnam, and the demands of a shift from low-cost manufacturing to more knowledge-intensive work, raise serious doubts about the viability of the Malaysian model. The country needs freedom of inquiry to unleash the creativity of its people. It needs to foster an atmosphere of tolerance to staunch the outflow of the country’s brightest non-Malays and to attract overseas talent and investment. Neither is likely without rethinking the twinned and contentious issues of ethnic preferences and religious supremacism.

These troubles could not come at a worse time. Malaysia’s traditional strength in low-cost electronics manufacturing is being challenged by the rise of China and Vietnam. The government has invested heavily in technology infrastructure in the form of the Multimedia Supercorridor, ambitiously hailed as the Silicon Valley of the East. But amid white-hot competition for scientific talent and despite relaxing some of the usual race laws, Malaysia finds it hard to attract and retain Indian and Chinese engineers. Meanwhile, many of the country’s brightest students – especially non-Malays – migrate to Australia, the US and Singapore, where everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and equality before the law.

Travel report

Posted by Eric on January 8th, 2007
Here, somewhere between Los Angeles and Sydney, I decided it’s time to resume posting again. I’m returning from a very long and interesting trip through Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Netherlands, Portugal, Canada and the US. In three of the countries I have conducted interviews for my research: Indonesia (at Institut Teknologi Bandung and Universitas Gadjah Mada), Malaysia (Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Malaya) and the Netherlands (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and Technische Universiteit Delft).

My research analyses the way in which nation states and universities respond to the increasing importance of knowledge for economic development and global competitiveness. One thing I’m particularly interested in is the extent to which a process of global policy convergence can be detected in these responses.

In later posts I will try to refer to some of the experiences I’ve had in these countries. For now, just a few short observations

Indonesia has come a long way, but is struggling. Indonesia’s elite universities are more and more relying on student fees and entrepreneurial ventures to sustain their operations. Just over 5 years ago, these universities were almost solely dependent on government funding and strictly directed by national regulations. It of course has also given them much more autonomy. I remember I had some interviews in Indonesia in 2001, just after some of its public elite institutions received the autonomy status. At that time they were clearly struggling with their newly gained autonomy. Compared with 2001, one now seems to be much more decisive on what directions to go.

I couldn’t have chosen a more interesting time to visit Malaysia. During my visits in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the Times Higher Education Supplement issued its annual top 100 ranking of universities. One conclusion must be that the THES ranking is nowhere taken more seriously than in Malaysia. This however can be said for higher education as a whole. In politics as well as the mainstream media, higher education gets more attention in Malaysia than in any other country I know. But at the same time this has led to a remarkable progress in higher education and science. I’ve seen very interesting examples of cutting edge research, supported by impressive facilities. Also politically, Malaysia has proven to be fascinating. I won’t go into details here, but it has become clear to me that – due to its impressive economic and scientific progress – Malaysia’s tight political control seems to become less and less sustainable. If some of the governmental regulations won’t loosen up, Malaysia might become a typical example of the incompatibility between paternalistic politics and a creative knowledge society. Future will tell..

And than there’s the Netherlands. My visit coincided with the national elections, and if there is one word that best illustrates the result of the elections it is: conservatism. Dutch universities however, seem to become more and more innovative. My visits gave the impression that the traditionally rather rigid Dutch universities have become more flexible and are more open to change than they used to be.

But as I said: more posts to come on these issues…

Around the World in 1 Post

Posted by Eric on April 11th, 2006

I haven’t had the time to write many posts this week. Besides, I did not come across any news items of real urgency this week. However, a few items caught my attention.


First, there was an interesting statement of Australia’s Minister of Education Julie Bishop. She claims that uniform degree structures, a diploma supplement and international recognition of qualifications are among radical changes Australia needs to adopt to meet competition from a powerful higher education bloc forming in Europe. She warns that if Australia does not align itself with the changes taking place in 45 European countries under the Bologna Declaration, it will be left out of the tent. The risk is that students will no longer want to study here and those who graduate from Australian universities will find it harder to have their qualifications recognised overseas.

“The Bologna process seems likely to have a profound effect on the development of higher education globally,” the paper says, acknowledging that other continents are considering it. “Lack of movement on Bologna compatibility will make it harder for Australia to demonstrate to the Europeans its bona fides in this area.”

Julie Bishop expressed her concerns at a meeting of 30 education ministers from the Asia Pacific in Brisbane where they discussed their response to the challenges posed by the European Bologna Process. I have heard some people in Southeast Asia also expressing an interest in joining the process or starting a similar regional process in the region.


A second item is not really new, but worthwhile to read. The US News & World Report has an article on ‘Blogging your way to academe‘. It’s about the perils and promises of academics that maintain a weblog that is somehow related to their academic activities. Some time ago the Chronicle published a few letters by ‘Ivan Tribble‘ about the risks of blogging and especially, academic bloggers using their own names.

I haven’t read much about this issue in Europe or Australia. Australia has some respected academics that maintain a weblog. Some examples from political science and economics are John Quiggen from the University of Queensland and the group blog ‘Larvatus Prodeo‘ maintained by Mark Bahnisch of Griffith University. Some in Australia even argue that academics should blog or be damned (but obviously his arguments are rather weak and one-sided). And of course there are the Sydney Uni students blogging their way through campus life.

In the Netherlands I have not yet come across many academic bloggers. I think some members of the popular group blog Sargasso are academics. One of their new members, a female scientists that goes by the name of Akufu, keeps an individual academic weblog as well. If anyone is aware of any other Dutch academic bloggers, let me know!


A final thing that caught my attention is not so much a current issue but is something that has astonished me for some time now. For my own research I keep track of the news related to higher education and science in Southeast Asia and especially Malaysia and Indonesia. What amazes me about the mainstream media in Malaysia is their extensive coverage of higher education related issues. Higher education (and education in general) takes in such an important position in Malaysian society and politics that issues related to the quality of their universities are widely reported. The issue about university rankings for instance was widely discussed in the Star. The recent resignation of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya and the search for his successor also featured prominently in this newspaper. This week, the selection of a few bright Malaysian students by a range of reputable US universities was shared with the rest of the nation (thanks goes to the Education in Malaysia blog for keeping me up to date).


Posted by Eric on October 12th, 2005

The Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania seems to have become very popular in Southeast Asia. The Singapore Management University that was established in 2000 was modeled after the Wharton School.

“Its educational and administrative practices are modeled after American institutions, in particular the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which has played a central role in SMU’s development.”

Today, the New Straits Times reports that Malaysia is going to be home to a top-class business management institution, modeled on.. the Wharton School of Business. Special Envoy to the Higher Education Ministry Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi said the business management institution will involve a tie-up with Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, one of eight Ivy League institutions in the United States. One of the Special Envoy’s chief tasks is to persuade top-notch universities to either set-up branch campuses here or work with other institutions here. Tony, a critical observer of Malaysian higher education, also reports on the issue.

I am currently working on a paper on international isomorphism and the global diffusion of higher education and research policies. I guess this makes a good example.

Update: I just noticed that the New Straits Time also has an interview with Effendi in today’s issue: ‘Roll out the red carpet for foreign students

Get Adobe Flash player