Malaysia leapfrogs into the future
Among the Asean nations, Malaysia is distinctive in numerous ways. It is the only nation of the region that is both peninsular and mainland. It has had a strong federal system since 1955 and has 13 states.
Malaysia also has an unusual elected constitutional monarchy. Nine of the states have a sultan and they rotate being the sultan (monarch) of Malaysia, being elected by the Conference of Rulers, comprised of the nine royal sultans), the supreme institution of the land. They serve for a period of five years.
For a short period after independence (1963-1965), Malaysia and Singapore were actually part of the same nation. But because of complexity and strife associated with ethnic politics and the size of the Chinese electorate, a "divorce" soon occurred and Singapore withdrew to become an independent nation.
Facilitating good Thai-Malaysian relations, the first prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman married a Thai-Chinese lady, Meriam Chong.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society comprised of three major ethnic groups (Malays and indigenous 62 per cent, Chinese, 23 per cent and Indians - largely Tamil - 7 per cent). Eleven years before becoming prime minister, Dr Mahathir bin Mohamed wrote a provocative and influential book titled "The Malay Dilemma" related to serious racial inequalities in Malaysia.
These ideas became the basis for Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP) initiated in 1972. This is probably the world's most successful and extensive affirmative action programme designed to provide more educational and occupational opportunities for the disadvantaged bumiputra (children of the soil, that is, the Malays) and to reduce the economic dominance of the Chinese.
Malaysia has been fortunate to have stable and visionary leadership. As prime minister, in 1991, Dr Mahathir proposed Vision 2020, to make Malaysia a fully developed nation by that year.
To move toward this goal and make Malaysia more competitive as a knowledge economy, Dr Mahathir pushed a number of specific initiatives. One was to create the Multimedia Mass Corridor (MMC) and Cyberjaya (The Intelligent City) to be a kind of Silicon Valley of Malaysia. One element of this vision was the Smart School project to promote the use of modern technology in schools.
A second initiative was to emphasise the development of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum. In 2003, Malaysia decided that STEM courses would be taught in English at all levels of education, since much STEM material and knowledge is in English and given the need to enhance the English proficiency of Malaysian students.
Also the Ministry of Education required 5th grade pupils to learn how to use the abacus. Considerable funds were provided both for equipment and abacus training for teachers. The result was improved mathematics skills.
A third initiative was to internationalise Malaysian higher education. A goal was to have Malaysia become the education hub of Southeast Asia and to attract 50,000 international students to Malaysia by the year 2005. This goal was basically met. Leaders realised that international students were like exports from an economic perspective.
As part of this initiative, Malaysia liberalised its regulations to allow overseas institutions to establish degree granting branches in Malaysia. Subsequently both Australia and British institutions have set up campuses in Malaysia. In recent decades there has also been a dramatic expansion of local private higher education institutions.
Malaysia, like Thailand, has invested a large percentage of its national budget in education. Top students are attracted to the field of teaching in Malaysia and even though it is basically a Muslim country, roughly 65 per cent of secondary teachers are women. For the most part, Malaysian teachers are well educated (85 per cent have bachelor's degrees or higher) and qualified.
Overall results have been positive. In terms of technology exports, Malaysia has surpassed Indonesia and Thailand. In the TIMMS tests, Malaysian students have exceeded international averages and have done better than even some of the OECD countries.
Despite these many successes, there are still persisting educational problems. Overall enrolment rates for upper secondary education are only 72 per cent, far below Korea, Japan and Singapore, for example. The use of English in teaching STEM courses also has been problematic for some schools, particularly those in remote areas. Thus, this innovative initiative was phased out beginning in 2012. Also the supply of teachers in remote areas is an issue.
Also, partially in reaction to globalisation, there have been increases in enrolments in both Chinese and religious Muslim schools, which are supported by the state.
Malaysia has produced numerous interesting books, novels, and films. The late Syed Hussein Alatas was an influential Malaysian public intellectual highly critical of corruption and Western imperialism. Among his noteworthy works is "The Myth of the Lazy Native", which is highly critical of Western distortions of the Malay people.
Among noteworthy novels are "The Gift of Rain" by Tan Twan Eng (2007), "The Kampung Boy" by Lat (1979), and "Interlok" by Abdullah Hussain (1971) (strongly criticised by Indian Malaysians). Some films to view critically are "I Only Want to Sleep Alone," directed by Tsai Ming-Liang, which involves Thailand, and "Chinese Eyes" (Sepet), about intercultural romance, directed by Yasmin Ahmad.
Malaysia will clearly be a leading nation of the region in the AEC era with a clear vision to be a developed knowledge economy. It is important for Thailand to better understand the Malaysian experience and its implications.
Gerald W. Fry
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy and Development, University of Minnesota