The ASEAN summit recently concluded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and I was invited to speak at a leadership forum and a youth roundtable dialogue that were held in conjunction with the ASEAN summit. I had the honour of sharing the platform with many distinguished personalities from the region, many of them considered ASEAN experts. By no means do I consider myself an expert, but being a Malaysian, having studied in Singapore and having grown my business in the ASEAN region, I believe I am in a position to speak on behalf of the lay people, the tradesmen and the business people, who have made ASEAN what it is today.
There was an ASEAN long before the actual ASEAN came into being. Historically we have always been connected. The Khmer empire, founded by King Jayavarman was one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia for more than 600 years and spanned the modern day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and Malaysia.
Trade has been plying between the Indo-China region and the Western world for centuries. People braved turbulent seas, winds, weather, tide and the occasional pirate just to get to this part of the world. What drove them was trade and business. Cloves, cinnamon and spices were worth their weight in gold. This is where the spice trade began and kingdoms flourished.
Then came the colonial period and for the next 100 years we were looking West. In Indonesia it was the Dutch, in Malaysia it was British, in Cambodia it was the French, in Sri Lanka it was the Portuguese, Dutch and British one after the other. The boundaries as we know them today were drawn only within the last 100 years by Western colonisers.
The ASEAN I see today is very different from the one I grew up in. I remember Singapore as a young boy. That Singapore does not exist today. Lee Kuan Yew took over a sleepy fishing village and created an economic miracle and no one saw that coming. My own country Malaysia has grown over the last few decades in a way that I could not have foreseen as a young boy. Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri NajibTunRazak, in his address at the ASEAN Leadership Forum, aptly argued that knowledge is the connecting thread between us and deserves the greatest impetus. I couldn’t agree more. Education has to be our priority and not just ASEAN member states but other Asian nations too must initiate concrete steps to enhance educational opportunities.
Historically, Asia was once the hub of education, long before the Oxfords and Harvards were established. Angkor Wat and Borobudur temples were not built without architects and the people who built them were not educated in the West. Palembang in the ancient Kingdom of Srivijaya (in modern day Indonesia) was once the centre of Sanskrit and Buddhist learning. Nalanda, one of the first universities in recorded history, in the ancient Gupta Empire, was once a prominent institution for higher learning that attracted pupils and scholars from Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey, and influenced much of the region. In fact it even had two Sri Lankan abbots, Aryavada and Asanga. The Alahana Pirivena in Sri Lanka was a university for Buddhism built by King Parakramabahu in the 12th century.
There is no reason why we cannot rebuild that standard of education again. Asia is already home to several excellent universities. National University of Singapore often ranks within Top 50 in the world. There’s IIT in India, considered the premier institution for engineering and computer science and IIT graduates are much in demand in the Western world.
The law school in Ateneo de Manila University is so highly revered that students from all over Asia come to the Philippines to study in it. Asia is also the centre of Ayurveda, the ancient medical science that has been in existence long before Hippocrates was even born.
It was not too long ago that students from South East Asia came to Sri Lanka to study. Prior to 1983 it was not uncommon for Malaysians and Singaporeans in particular to come to Sri Lanka for the first part of their education prior to going to UK and in some cases even complete their education in Colombo in the field of accountancy, law and medicine. I personally have friends from Singapore and Malaysia who studied in Colombo in the ’70s.
And yet, we continue to look West. If you visit a campus in UK, or US it is not uncommon to find a large mix of Asian students. Ironically, the diversity of Asians on a Western campus today is far more than any you will find in any Asian University campus.
Education in South East Asia today needs to be adequate in order for it to compare with the US or UK. It needs recognition from the government. We can begin by identifying our existing educational resources and cooperate bilaterally and regionally to develop it further. Seminars and forums such as the recent one in Cambodia certainly help. However, the private sector also needs to play a part in raising the standards of education.
Being an ASEAN beneficiary myself, my contribution to this initiative is the Quest International University Perak (QIUP), which the QI Group has set up in cooperation with the Perak State Government in Malaysia. I draw upon my own campus based learning experiences while a student in the University of Illinois in the ’80s. That’s what I envision in QIUP, where students don’t just learn by rote but are encouraged to think, to innovate, to question and enjoy the experience of learning while being a part of a campus community.
One of my cherished dreams for QIUP is the development of a medical program that won’t just focus on Western medicine but also allow students to learn from traditional and alternative medicine such as Ayurveda, Siddha and Traditional Chinese Medicine, thus allowing for an East-West confluence.
I acknowledge and understand the disparity of economies within Asian countries. Asia is such a diverse region but there is so much to be learnt here. A one year exchange program for students between developing and developed countries would go a long way in creating a better understanding of our differences and closing the cultural and economic gap. However this gap between developed and developing countries should not be a barrier.
Asia’s economy is growing so rapidly, that you see third generation Asians from America and Europe, coming back to Asia to work and study. China and India are the second and fourth largest economies in the world. According to a Goldman Sachs report, the BRIC economies could overtake the G6 by 2040. Clearly Sri Lanka has taken a leap forward and in the last 18 months in all sectors of the economy, one that has been noticed by investors such as myself and those from other nations. The upward mobility of the Sri Lankan economy in recent times is reminiscent of the ASEAN economies in the mid 90s, when they were labelled the Asian Tigers.
We need to stop looking West for direction and solutions. Our problems are unique unto ourselves and therefore the solutions will also be. We are Asian and we need to be proud of it. Our solutions lie within us. We have already proven that we can be the best in the world in any field of endeavour. Pick any field of science, technology, philosophy, medicine or even poetry, music or sports, you will find Asians excelling in every single one of them. Be they from this part of the world or those who were raised in the West. The point though is that it can be done and we can do it. We simply have to stop looking West.
Source: Daily FT Guest Column