[Part4]MALAYSIA: Growth expected from being stopover for international students

Taofigat, center, is studying at a graduate school in Malaysia. As she walks the campus, Taofigat encounters many people from her own home province. (Tomoko Yamashita)

On the advice of his parents, Isasc Hamza left his country known for famine and civil war six years ago. Now, the 25-year-old from the Somali capital of Mogadishu cannot hide his enthusiasm for attending classes in Malaysia.

“It’s very comfortable!” Hamza says. “The cost of living here is not so high, and the level of research is not low.”

Hamza, who is studying information technology at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, is part of the recent flow of students from Africa and the Middle East to the Southeast Asian country.

Malaysia, an Islamic country in Asia where English is used on a daily basis, is working to attract foreign students from Africa and the Middle East to its universities.

Hamza’s parents recommended he study in Malaysia because of the religious similarity to Somalia, cheap prices and the wide use of English because it had been a British colony.

Nodding his head in agreement, Hamza’s friend from Guinea, Balle, 29, says: “I wanted to study in Europe, but the high cost of living there made me give up. Now, I want to take a chance in Malaysia.”

According to the Malaysian government, African countries account for five of the top 20 national origins of overseas students.

Many of the foreign students aim to get degrees and continue their overseas education in English-speaking countries.

“Now I want to go to a university in Australia and study,” Hamza says.

Sophia University professor Miki Sugimura, 51, who is well-versed in Malaysian higher education, describes the country’s position as a “transit point for international students.”

However, even if it is just a way station, the students still spend money. The number of students who say, “Malaysia is a good place to be” and decide to continue their studies there is also increasing.

For many years, Malaysia was a source of foreign students, but two major turning points altered that situation. One was the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. With a weakened currency, the country was soon overflowing with students who concluded their overseas studies midterm or gave up their plans of studying abroad before they got started.

As a result, the government moved to expand and enhance higher education within Malaysia.

The other turning point was the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, which resulted in a tightening of visa regulations in Western countries. This caused students from Islamic countries to turn their eyes toward Malaysia.

Looking back, Morshidi Sirat, 58, director-general in charge of higher education policy in the Ministry of Higher Education, says, “The idea of getting students from the Middle East and Africa (to come to Malaysia) was not in our thoughts at the beginning.”

Nigerian Taofigat, 23, has been studying information technology at a graduate school near a Malaysian airport since September 2012.

She lives with 12 other people from her home province in a detached house about a 10-minute walk from campus. She enjoys her life in Malaysia and says her dream is to become a scholar upon her return home.

“Malaysia and our country have Islamic culture and the warm weather in common,” she says. “There are no power failures, and I can devote myself to my studies in Malaysia.”

While taking in students from Africa and the Middle East, the Malaysian government is also thinking to strengthen ties with those regions.

The Malaysian Trade and Development Corporation has positioned “education as an industry” and is selling it aggressively.

With higher education as the starting point, Sirat paints the following picture: “A Malaysia-based network will be born and it will cover the Middle East, Africa and Asia. We will become the bridge connecting Africa and Asia. The international status of Malaysia will improve. So we can expect to see the advancement of Malaysian companies through the network.”

Irene Tan, a 52-year-old professor at INTI International University & Colleges in Malaysia, supports such a scenario.

“Education is an industry and competition. The competition improves the quality. Considering education as an industry in never a bad idea,” Tan says.

By TOMOKO YAMASHITA/ The Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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