Building Bridges for the Future: Rethinking Malaysia’s Higher Education

I thank Datuk Tan Yew Sing, the relentless bridge builder, for inviting me to launch his book “Trail of Lights, Journey of Tan Yew Sing” as well as to say a few words at this “Way forward for private higher education institutions” forum.

The book is a compilation of chapters telling Yew Sing’s remarkable life story and celebrating his many achievements.

Yew Sing’s relatively youthful look belies the fact that he has been in the thick of things for a long time, at least since returning from the University of Leeds in 1982. His multifaceted life works have had a positive impact on many of us, myself included.

I began as a student of Kwang Hua Private High School in 1990. The school had only around 300 students then. Soon I found out that it had less than a hundred students in the decades before 1986, when Yew Sing, Mr Teng Choon Kwang and several alumni crafted a five-year plan to revive the school by raising funds to hire more and better teachers and renovating the school.

I first met Yew Sing in 1993 when I was 16 years old. I was on the school’s Dragon Dance troop and he, as a school board member, led the team to perform during Chinese New Year to raise funds for the school. The Kwang Hua school board was one of the earliest organisations that he took part in, yet to this day he remains a Deputy Chairman.

Throughout the early 1990s while still schooling in Klang, I came to the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH) to listen to talks and forums, which formed an important part of my earliest understanding of politics. The vibrant intellectual milieu at the Chinese Assembly Hall was very much a legacy of Yew Sing and his contemporaries who formed the Youth Section in 1985, of which he was its second chief.

According to Dr Phoon Wing Keong, while Yew Sing was not a member of any political party, he was one of the key figures in advocating democracy, human rights, and the concept of “dual-coalition system” (as opposed to a Barisan Nasional single party rule). The “dual-coalition system” idea dominated headlines in the 1986 general election and reverberated in the subsequent decade. His four-decade of work with KLSCAH and its related Huatuan organisations have helped a community which previously lived with a “migrant mindset” to take an active part in national political discourse, and shaped many critical minds to ask difficult questions on how to build a better Malaysia for all.    

In 1996, I attended a three-day youth camp that Yew Sing chaired, and for the first time heard him speak at length of his views on national problems. As many had attested in this new book “Trail of Lights”, he has been, then and now, energetic yet calm and strategic. The youth camp, held at Selesa Hills in Bukit Tinggi, was coincidentally his first venture into business upon returning from the UK.

In 1997, I went to a college in Klang to study the American degree programme. While I did not study at INTI, I knew full well that INTI popularised the American credit transfer programme, and together with other institutions invented the 3+0 arrangement. In many ways, the private higher education sector benefited from Yew Sing’s “edupreneurship”.

The early 1980s saw the rise of neoliberal economic ideas which included the promotion of the “user pays” idea for education. The UK under Margeret Thatcher and Australia under Bob Hawke decided to impose full fees on foreign students, and Malaysian students were badly hit by the move. The previous generation of Malaysians were lucky enough to study in the UK and Australia with much lower fees because both countries at the time believed that education was a public good based on Keynesian economic thinking.

In 1985, the Malaysian economy suffered a 9-percent negative GDP growth rate. INTI and Dr Paul Chan’s HELP College were both established in the same year, and with around 30 students, respectively. INTI operated at a shop lot while HELP at a government complex’s car park. Both colleges started as social enterprises aiming to help deserving but less privileged students during the economic downturn. From such humble beginnings, they went on to pioneer Malaysia’s private education sector not only to cater for Malaysian students but also those from overseas. It is through this book that I found out Dr Chia Song Koon of QL Group is also among the founders of INTI.     

In my current capacity as Deputy Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, my work further overlaps with one of Yew Sing’s life’s work, i.e. the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce (MCCC). With his decades of insights on China through business and travels, he has many good ideas about how to strengthen bilateral ties and trade between Malaysia and China.

Yew Sing’s daughter E Hun is the Executive Director of Research for Social Advancement (REFSA), a think tank of which I chair; her husband and Yew Sing’s son-in-law Frederik Paulus was a REFSA economist and, with his continental European experience which is vastly different from the Anglo-Saxon perspectives that Malaysians are familiar with, influenced me substantially on how I see the way forward for the Malaysian economy.

Dr Aki Chong explained that Yew Sing saw the legacies of Mr Tan Kah Kee as a way to build bridges and to connect with other Chinese dıaspora societies. The more I read about Tan Kah Kee, the more I am amazed that Yew Sing chose to spend time on highlighting Tan Kah Kee’s legacies: he was among a very select few Southeast Asian leaders who had a major impact on China, ran the largest domestic Malayan manufacturing establishment a century ago, hired more than 6,000 people directly and at least 15,000 people through the supply chain, and exported 3 million pairs of shoes to China in 1929 alone.

Yew Sing established very deep personal friendships with major Chinese community leaders of the past, and through their closeness, he advised them on strategies. He has also personally introduced me to Tan Sri Ngah Ching Wen, Tan Sri Lim Gait Tong and Mr Tan Kai Hee by Yew Sing. I could see how much they trusted his analysis and judgements. He was also close to Mr Lim Fong Seng, another visionary giant.

Being a true Malaysian, he pushes the Huatuan organisations to engage with Muslim organisations through Gerakan Bertindak Malaysia. He also builds close camaraderie with IKRAM’s Zaid Kamaruddin and many others.

While studying in the UK, Yew Sing established lifelong friendships with activists such as Singapore’s Tan Wah Piow. His group of UK graduates who remain concerned citizens styled themselves as “the Monsoon group”, of which I had the privilege to be invited to speak to privately just before the general elections of 2013, 2018, and 2022, respectively.

Through INTI, Yew Sing the Chinese school leaver with a UK education was connected to the English educated academic community such as Dr Lee Fah Onn and Dr Lian Teck Jin, as well as major Malay thinkers of the past such as Tun Arshad Ayub, Tan Sri Majid Ismail and Dato’ Dr M Zawawi Ismail.

Over the years, he has built many bridges between the past and the present, between the Chinese- and English-educated, between ethnic Chinese and Malay intellectuals and thinkers, and between Malaysia and China.

If we were to search for a word to describe Yew Sing’s role in Malaysia over the past forty years, I would say the man Yew Sing is the “bridge builder”. And in building bridges, higher education plays a very important role in our country. In the coming decades, the purpose of higher education is in transition and we should find ways for it to stay relevant and keep up with social changes.

First, bridging the public and private education in Malaysia. In the 1970s, it was assumed that only 5 percent of an age cohort would eventually graduate. The world has changed and through both public and private institutions in Malaysia, there has been a democratisation of tertiary education opportunities.

While there is a dualism between publicly funded universities and private profit making institutions, both mainly focus on generating many students with first degrees. This is no longer sufficient. The nation needs research and development (R&D), a lot more and speedy development of courses in new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, data scientists, design engineers, etc.

The public and private tertiary education sectors need to go beyond producing graduates. Higher education – whether public or private – needs to do more research. As a nation, we must find ways to fund more research by both public and private institutions, and the funding can be from public purse or corporations, especially those from the new and emerging industries.

The boundaries between public and private institutions should be reduced to encourage more collaborations, and that research capabilities and facilities are just as important as teaching for both public and private institutions.

Second, the idea that higher education should be “user pays” is also increasingly outdated. As demography shrinks and societies age, the number of people going to universities will reduce in the years to come, yet with so many transitions happening at once, a more highly skilled and highly educated workforce are needed by all societies. The world is dealing with green transition, a stronger and more resilient supply chain, and the need to navigate geopolitics.

For the economy to continue to grow and for the society to thrive, young people will have to be persuaded to pursue more education, thus some forms of incentives, whether from the public purse or from corporations that want to hire them, be made available. In other words, the future of higher education funding around the world will be very different from the past forty years under the influence of “user pays” neoliberal economic ideas.

More “work-based learning” would help persuade more corporations to shoulder a higher proportion of costs to fund young people to acquire skills and education.

Dr Peter Ng of UCSI made an excellent point that there needs to be a new legal and regulatory framework for the existing profit-seeking private universities and institutions to graduate into some forms of endowments so that they could choose not to be purely profit-seeking. As endowments, the institutions could then diversify its sources of income beyond sole dependence on tuition fees to include charitable donations and other funding possibilities. 

Third, higher education is one of Malaysia’s sources of soft power. Malaysian universities – both public and private – have trained and continue to train tens of thousands if not more foreign students. The Prime Minister of Somalia, HE Hamza Abdi Barre, and many of the country’s key decision makers, were graduates of Malaysian universities. Many students from the Global South look up to Malaysian institutions. There was a time in the 1990s that Malaysia was confident of herself and ambitious in showcasing her soft power.

In today’s more complicated world, especially in higher education, more bridges need to be built, including by people like Yew Sing and others. This can help us to rebuild Malaysia’s soft power in the Global South, and there are no other better channels than through the higher education institutions.

Speech by Liew Chin Tong, Deputy Minister of MITI, at the launch of Datuk Tan Yew Sing’s biography “Trail of Lights, Journey of Tan Yew Sing”

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