From Singapore to Saudi Arabia with an eye on Malaysia

One of the interesting aspects of running a blog is seeing what entries generate relatively high hit levels, and what search engines generate links to GlobalHigherEd. One issue that is receiving significant attention is anything written on Malaysia. Interest is clearly being spurred on by problems and policy shifts being debated about with respect to this Southeast Asian country’s higher education system. A case in point are four popular entries (including a very simple graphic feed entry):

shihkaust.jpgI raise the issue in part because the debate about where Malaysia stands, and where it should go, is being stirred up this week by higher ed news in two countries that matter a lot for Malaysia, albeit in very different ways: Saudi Arabia and Singapore. The topic of discussion in the informative Education in Malaysia blog is the announcement that Professor Shih Choon Fong (pictured above, third from the left), President of the National University of Singapore (NUS), will become Founding President of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, near Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. We briefly profiled KAUST, a university with a $10 billion endowment before opening its gates in 2009, in an entry on 26 October. As Tony Pua of Education in Malaysia puts it, Shih’s appointment raises issues about the politics of how senior leaders of Malaysian universities are appointed. It is his view that:

Malaysian universities, to achieve any form of “greatness” has to first start by recognising that we need world-class leaders (as opposed to jaguh kampungs labelled as “world-class”).

I’ve called not only for local vice-chancellor position to be “opened” up to competition from non-bumiputeras, but also to widen our search for talent globally. Only then, can our academia take their blinkers off, increase competitiveness and see the chasm separating our local institutions from top-notch colleges….

Hence the million dollar question is whether the Ministry of Higher Education in Malaysia can summon the necessary political courage to do the same for the local higher education system or will it choose to ignore international academic leadership which can bring real positive changes in place of a parochial race and nationality pride.

KAUST’s approach, then, is turned back on Malaysia, and used to shed light on the factors shaping critically important appointment procedures for leaders of national/public institutions. The fact that this is happening in Saudi Arabia, and Singapore (including at Singapore’s fast expanding Singapore Management University), leads some to ask why not in Malaysia too, especially given that Malaysia has very similar higher education goals to both of these countries. As someone who worked in Singapore (1997-2001), and continues to conduct research on the global city-state, I am aware of the dangers of elevating the foreigner (and the overvalorization of people with PhDs from elite American universities) as someone with intrinsic higher ed leadership qualities. This said, the argument in Education in Malaysia is clearly worth thinking about. This news item also reminds us that the denationalization of faculty and university leadership labour markets is continuing apace, though the mix of experience/identity/pedigree/salary politics in hiring procedures is a complex one, and it also varies across space and time.

Kris Olds

kaustflyover.jpgps: check out this video flyover of the design for the KAUST campus

3 thoughts on “From Singapore to Saudi Arabia with an eye on Malaysia

  1. Pingback: Foreign university campuses and linkage schemes: opportunities and challenges in early 2008 « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Cisco, KAUST, and Microsoft: hybrid offerings for global higher ed « GlobalHigherEd

  3. I have had very well intentioned and involved interactions with KAUST, including their Global Research Partnerships and the fellowships. I now have no doubt that this is yet another waste of huge financial resources that the population of this developing country badly needs. Saudi Arabia’s GDP is $20,000. This is not a rich country, they have an illiteracy problem, human rights problems, no freedom of religion, no freedom of speech, a huge economical chasim between the rich and the severely poor. They are better off building their economy from the bottom up, i.e. better educating their population at the elementary, secondary, and college level. Such developments will naturally lead to well earned freedoms that will enable world class Graduate research institutions. This is a mislead and out of touch effort by elite ARAMCO officials and intellectuals. This maybe salvaged by adding a few Economists to their team, preferrably economists from developing countries such as India, Turkey, Malaysia and Singapore.

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