Recently I had the privilege of visiting Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, and China with our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. I was curious to find out what the locals thought of our higher education system, and so I asked.
Starting with Abu Dhabi, UAE, we were greeted by a local ministry official who used to study in Universiti Malaya (UM). Greeting us with a boisterous "Assalamualaikum (May peace be upon you)! Selamat datang (welcome)!" he told us that Malaysia was an attractive higher education destination for Middle Easterners. On top of its affordability, Malaysia's attractiveness stemmed from her moderate Muslim approach which largely freed her of problems associated with extremism.
He told me that he felt "spiritually comfortable" in Malaysia. He remarked that although race relations were at times strenuous, this wasn't prevalent and it was common for him to join his fellow Malay, Chinese and Indian course mates at the local eatery. Favourite food? Nasi lemak ayam goreng, of course. Malaysians, he said, had a lot going for them.
Similar feelings were conveyed in Kazakhstan, the world's ninth largest country. With a population of about 18 million people of which 70 per cent are Muslims and 23.9 per cent Orthodox Christians, Kazakhstan shares many similarities with Malaysia. They have such admiration for us that their capital city Astana has been modelled and developed after our very own Putrajaya.
In Kazakhstan, I had a chat with an embassy official, a young lady with unique features (best described as Chinese-Russian-esque), who previously studied in Lim Kok Wing University.
She told me that she and her friends (some of whom studied at Universiti Putra Malaysia) felt welcome here because Malaysians were very accepting of other cultures. Malaysia's stability and moderate religious image (a recurring viewpoint), she said, makes Malaysia a very popular higher education destination especially for central Asian nations.
I believe there's a lot of truth to this - there are about 1,700 Kazakhstanis in public and private Malaysian higher education institutions. From central Asia alone, the number is around 2,500 students and these numbers are growing.
I also had the privilege of meeting the rector of a university in Kazakhstan who happened to be their former education minister. He said that he would be coming to Malaysia soon to learn English as Malaysia offered the best choices and was most relatable.
He was also impressed with the command of English of most Malaysian businessmen and public officials that he has met. I've extended an invitation and look forward to receiving him in the near future.
Finally, I was in China as part of Malaysia's delegation for the 40th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations.
During the visit, I met an Education Malaysia, Beijing officer named Xu Zhen, a Chinese national. A student of Kolej Damansara Utama, Penang campus, he has been working for Education Malaysia for more than 10 years.
He said that he had a positive higher education experience in Malaysia and enjoys working with Malaysians, and this motivated him to continue promoting Malaysian higher education in his homeland. The one complaint he had was that he gained 10kg while studying because Penang's "food paradise" reputation was unfriendly to his waistline.