Chinese Malaysian university students discover a world of opportunities venturing abroad, transcending affirmative action quotas at home


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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Charting a New Path to Ireland: Set Jin Lee

This June, eighty kilometers north of Dublin, Set Jin Lee was the only Malaysian student to graduate from Ireland’s Dundalk Institute of Technology (DKIT)—closing the chapter on a four-year adventure that also took her to Finland and the US for work and five other European countries on excursions. Four years earlier, at a fall college fair in Kuala Lumpur, Lee had bumped into a representative from DKIT, and by spring she was admitted with a generous deal including free accommodation and tuition averaging about 9000 Euros per year—roughly a third of the average for international students in the US or UK. Lee finished her studies at DKIT with zero debt, covering her living expenses with part-time jobs after classes. She was the first Malaysian ever to receive a degree from DKIT in Social Care, a broad field focusing on the social welfare of people who are marginalized, disadvantaged, or have special needs. Her classes explored everything from addiction, disability, residential care, and homelessness to immigration and refugee services.

Lee chose a college on the other side of the world from home, in a country where no one from her high school had ever studied, and a major no Asian student had ever chosen there. “There are hardly any Asian faces in social care in Ireland,” says Lee. “Maybe it’s because Asian parents often tell their kids to go into medicine, law, or IT, and that social work doesn’t bring in money. Or maybe it’s because social care systems are not as developed in Asia, so people don’t know about social work jobs. To convince my parents that Social Care was a good major, I had to explain what social work was, because they did not understand the job.”

Set Jin Lee’s less-traveled road to a college degree is one example of how Chinese Malaysians have long bypassed Malaysia’s race-based public university admissions system, often called “educational apartheid,” by studying abroad. Malaysia has a unique demographic mix of Malays (69%), who control the government, along with Chinese (23%) and Indians (7%). In 1971, Malaysia launched its highly controversial New Economic Policy (NEP), the first of a series of social engineering and affirmative action policies in jobs and public college admissions. Long criticized by the United Nations, what made this affirmative action unusual was that it was designed to favor not minorities but the ruling Islamic Malay majority. For decades, 90% of the seats at Malaysia’s public universities have been legally reserved for Malays under a quota system, leaving Chinese and Indian Malaysians to compete for a tiny number of seats or go elsewhere.

 

During her semester work placement at the Sarastus Clubhouse in Pori, Finland, Set Jin Lee roasts traditional sausage at a community event. She found the placement through ERASMUS+, the European Union’s student exchange program. Image: Sarastus Clubhouse

 

The silver lining, however, is that many Chinese Malaysians have gotten a better education overseas than they would have at public universities at home. With some 56,000 college and university students studying abroad each year, Malaysia today ranks eighth in the world—just behind the US, which has over ten times its population—and Chinese Malaysians are at the forefront of this study abroad exodus. Long experience has made Chinese Malaysians especially knowledgeable and adept at study abroad—and they come well-prepared by the network of Chinese Independent High Schools in Malaysia, funded almost entirely by donations from the Chinese community. And Chinese Malaysian students are especially suited to life overseas: they are typically trilingual if not quadrilingual—speaking Mandarin and/or Cantonese Chinese in addition to English and Malay—and they are accustomed to being in the minority, giving them a greater comfort level abroad than many mainland Chinese.

“My first few years in Ireland, I thought of myself as an international student from Asia, and the other Asian students I met only worked in restaurants or language jobs, as Chinese teachers or admin staff in language schools. So I thought it would be very hard to get a professional job in my field in Ireland. In fact, many of my Asian friends told me Irish employers rarely hire Asian students for professional jobs. But it turned out to be a myth—I actually got my first job in social work a year before I graduated. My field is in high demand here now. The number of social service users is increasing, since it links to rising problems like homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and broken families. And because I worked at so many practice placements, when I apply for jobs I can show I have a lot of experience.”

One of these work placements was in the remote subarctic town of Pori, Finland, where Lee spent the spring semester of 2018 working at the Sarastus Clubhouse for adults with mental health issues through the European Union’s ERASMUS+ student exchange program. Far from the sweltering streets and skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, “Pori is a small town, very clean and quiet,” says Lee. “In winter there is snow everywhere. Ireland is very green, and Finland is very white.”

During her semester in Finland, Lee made friends with other ERASMUS+ students from France, Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic, who were working in nursing and psychiatry at local hospitals. She also organized a group bus trip to Helsinki and ferry trips to Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia. And she took advantage of free Finnish language classes and monthly social events, like trips to local towns and traditional Finnish meals, organized by her host school, Satakunta University of Applied Sciences. “At the first event I tried the local salmiak liquorice and loved it. I was not as into the siskonmakkara soup, they squeeze raw sausage into the soup by hand.”

DKIT requires Social Care majors to complete two 300-hour work placements, and for the other Lee worked at the ABACAS school for children with autism in Drogheda, 35 km south of DKIT. There she worked one-on-one with autistic students teaching math, English, and social skills. Based on her experiences at the ABACAS school, Lee later wrote her final research project on the challenges of sustainable living and wastefulness in children’s residential care centers.

Lee says working at residential care facilities in both Ireland and Finland revealed important differences in approaches to social care. “In Ireland, most service centers I’ve worked in want you to read a service user’s file before you meet or work with them, which gives me an impression before I even start interacting with the person,” says Lee. “So you tend to skip a lot of processes in getting to know them. But in Finland, they purposely didn’t tell me any background on service users until the end of my work placement, so I would just treat them as regular people. And in fact, if I had never read their files, I would never have thought the people I worked with were very different or had a mental health problem. Only at the end did I find out their specific issues, like schizophrenia, depression, and autism. I understand the reasons behind both approaches, but I prefer the Finnish approach because you focus on the person, not the disease or background.”

DKIT professors gave Lee the tools to evaluate social care programs comprehensively and compare them across countries and cultures, she says. “I learned how social care systems work together in a holistic way, how programs for working with children, families, immigrants and other groups are interconnected. Malaysia does not have complete and well-organized social care systems like in Ireland. For example, Malaysia doesn’t have laws distinguishing between refugees and undocumented migrants. Malaysia also has much lower government funding for social services: in Ireland there could be four staff taking care of three children in a residential care home, whereas in Malaysia it would be more like five staff taking care of twenty children. And the residential care homes in Malaysia are funded largely by donations, whereas in Ireland they get 5000 Euros per week for each child—and the care company is given the autonomy to manage the money as it sees fit. I got to understand how social welfare works in developed countries.”

International graduates of Irish colleges are eligible for a renewable one-year work permit, and Lee plans to work in Ireland three or four years. She is now working at her first full time job there, at a children’s residential care home, and has bought a car. Looking back to when she first applied to DKIT, Lee says “I never thought I would be able to have all these jobs and experiences—or work and support myself in Ireland. But gradually, I discovered there were professional job opportunities, and I found out about programs like ERASMUS+. And whenever I saw the opportunities, I would go for it.”

Mandarin and Microchips: Shi Yi Lee

For Set Jin Lee and tens of thousands of other Malaysian Chinese students, studying abroad in Western countries means full immersion in a foreign language and culture—stepping out of their comfort zone. But for tens of thousands more who choose Chinese-speaking colleges in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, going abroad often means stepping into a new comfort zone. Malay and English—not Chinese—are Malaysia’s official languages, even as the percentage of Chinese speakers is as high as 39% in the wealthy state of Penang. So for many Malaysian Chinese students, studying abroad in a Chinese-speaking culture is a ticket to a new life in a country where they can finally feel like part of the mainstream.

“Taiwan is the biggest comfort zone for Malaysian Chinese—everything is in Chinese,” says Shi Yi Lee, Set Jin’s cousin, who will graduate this year from National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Tainan, Taiwan’s former capital and oldest city. NCKU ranks fourth among Taiwan’s 163 universities in the QS World University Rankings and has a highly-respected program in Electrical Engineering, Lee’s major. Stretching along Taiwan’s southwestern coast overlooking the South China Sea, Tainan is known for its colorful Taoist and Buddhist festivals, historic architecture, and traditional street food. “In fact, many Malaysian Chinese college students in Taiwan plan to stay after graduation,” says Lee. “They won’t return to Malaysia.”

But Chinese language and culture was not the reason Lee decided to study abroad in Taiwan. Like many multilingual Chinese Malaysian students, he could have chosen a Mandarin- or English-speaking college. “I got accepted at English-speaking schools in Australia and Hong Kong,” he says, “but Taiwan had the lowest tuition and NCKU’s program in electrical engineering was recommended by some of my teachers. Most semesters I only had to pay tuition, all my other living expenses were free because I got scholarships from the Taiwanese government, faculty, and even Malaysian alumni. In some semesters, the scholarships were even enough to pay tuition as well.”

Casting its net around the globe, hefty scholarships like Lee’s are among the strategies Taiwan has used to transform itself into a major destination for international students over the past decade. Faced with massive brain drain as well as declining enrollment due to years of low birthrates, in 2011 Taiwan began accepting large numbers of mainland Chinese international students for the first time in sixty years. Then in 2016, Taiwan launched its New Southbound Policy, aimed at strengthening ties with South and Southeast Asia—including enrolling up to 60,000 international students from ASEAN countries like Malaysia by 2019. Meanwhile, many Taiwanese universities also began offering full-English degree programs, such as the Global MBA at National Taiwan University and NCKU’s Master’s in Medical Device Innovation. With these broad changes, Taiwan’s international student enrollment nearly tripled from 43,957 in 2012 to 126,997 in 2018, of which Malaysia sent 13%, the second-largest source after China.

Taiwan has played a central role in Chinese Malaysians’ rich collective experience of study abroad, which dates back to the Cold War. In the 1950s, the US gave grants to ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asian countries to study in Taiwan, “Free China.” After the US grants ended, Taiwan continued with grants of its own, launching its “Overseas Chinese Education Policy.” Today over 70,000 Malaysians have attended college or university in Taiwan, and many have stayed and made a new life there.

Shi Yi Lee is now back in Malaysia hunting for jobs, with the help of NCKU’s alumni association, which has its largest branch there. He says while 80% of his classes at NCKU focused on microchips and electronics—no surprise as Taiwan is the world’s biggest chipmaker—he’s looking to try something new, maybe the business side of engineering. “I want to do something that has an impact on the world, like solar energy. It has a great potential for the future.” Lee has his sights set on +Solar, an award-winning Malaysian startup that develops customized large-scale solar farms, including web apps that allow clients to design their own solar energy systems.

While he enjoyed Taiwan, Lee says he’ll be leaving after graduation. “For me, Taiwanese society is too competitive and stressful.” It’s a familiar refrain among Taiwan’s graduates, both international and domestic. Some 30% of all bachelor’s degrees earned in Taiwan are in engineering, and this has flooded its job market. As a result, engineering salaries are low and vast numbers of new graduates continue directly into Master’s or PhD programs in hopes of making themselves more competitive—and sometimes even this is not enough. As NCKU education professor Chia-Ming Hsueh wrote in a 2018 Inside Higher Ed article:

“Taiwanese higher education has gone through the ‘elite” and ‘mass’ stages, reaching universal enrollment within only few decades. It produced highly-educated citizens for society and valuable human resources for the development of the country, but it also created an oversupply. Employers face difficulties in determining which applicants are the most competent because of the increased number of degree holders, particularly with master’s and doctoral degrees.”

Facing intense competition and low salaries at home, many of Taiwan’s new engineering graduates are heading abroad—especially to China, where booming technology companies can often double or triple the salary of Taiwanese engineers.

Shi Yi Lee says making friends from new parts of the world has been among the best aspects of his time in Taiwan. His friends from wealthy Macau—which has the world’s second-highest per capita GDP—are backed by generous financial assistance from their government, and so tend to live a life of luxury compared to most of their classmates. “The guys from Macau like to hang out and have fun,” says Lee. “They travel around every weekend and are more friendly towards people from other countries. They have a laid-back style, unlike the typical fierce competition here for grades.” At times Lee’s multicultural Malaysian background has helped bridge gaps on campus: “We had an exchange student from the United Arab Emirates who wouldn’t eat anything, and a Taiwanese student was offering him food. I explained in Mandarin that he was fasting and that it was Ramadan, a Muslim religious tradition.” Lee volunteered several times for NCKU’s Buddy-Buddy Program, which helps international students who don’t speak Chinese with adjusting to a new environment. As a buddy, he helped students from the Czech Republic, Indonesia, and Vietnam in their first month on campus with everything from registration and getting settled in dorms to buying pillows and ordering at restaurants.

For students seeking to study abroad, the Asia Pacific region abounds with respected universities, from Singapore to Hong Kong to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The problem is, tuition for international students can be prohibitive—often three to five times domestic rates. For example, at the University of Melbourne, Australia, international engineering undergrads pay about $30,000 USD per year in tuition while domestic students pay only $6,600 USD. At the National University of Singapore, international engineering undergrads pay $12,900 USD tuition—plus $28,000 USD in fees unless they agree to work in Singapore for three years after graduation—while citizens pay only $8200. By contrast, combined tuition and fees for international engineering undergrads at NCKU is just $2000 USD per year, and at National Taiwan University (NTU), Taiwan’s top-ranked school, just under $4000 USD. Add generous government scholarships to international students for both tuition and room and board, and education in Taiwan is often nearly free.

Outside the classroom, Taiwan’s universities offer the chance to experience the country’s multi-layered culture and landscapes, including rustic mountain towns, tropical beaches, and high-tech cities. It’s capital Taipei is a global air hub with cheap connections all over Asia, allowing students to explore the region. With a rare combination of low costs, a high standard of living, and increasing full-English degree offerings, Taiwan’s respected universities are attracting students from an ever-increasing number of countries around the world.

International Education at Home Opens Doors Abroad: Hui Ling Thung

While Malaysian university students head overseas in droves, a growing number of foreign universities have set up campuses in Malaysia. Taking advantage of the country’s multilingual population, modern capital, and geographic location as a global air and tourism hub, ten foreign universities from China, Australia, the UK, and Ireland have set up campuses in Malaysia since 1998. Officially termed Foreign University Branch Campuses or FUBCs, these are universities that have been invited by Malaysia’s government to establish an overseas campus there. The FUBCs offer a wide array of undergraduate programs such as Surgery at Newcastle University (UK), New Energy Science and Traditional Chinese Medicine at Xiamen University (China), International Relations at the University of Nottingham (UK), and Petroleum Engineering at Curtin University (Australia)—which is located in the remote oil-rich state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

For many Malaysian students, attending an FUBC at home is the next best thing to studying abroad. But ironically, for Hui Ling Thung, attending the FUBC of Australia-based Monash University in her home town of Kuala Lumpur became a springboard to studying and working abroad. Since starting at Monash-Malaysia in 2015, Thung has traveled far and wide teaching and learning about her major, computer science. With the help of grants and scholarships, she spent six weeks teaching in Cambodia, four weeks attending summer school at the University of Liverpool in England, and a semester as an exchange student at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

 

With her younger students, Hui Ling Thung takes a break from her volunteer job teaching computer science in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image: Hui Ling Thung

 

“Overseas I met the people who don’t want to stay in their comfort zone. I know the world is big, but I didn’t expect it to be so huge and interesting.”

As a volunteer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thung taught computer science and English to kids and adults over the 2015-16 winter break. She found the position through AIESEC, a global youth-run non-profit aimed at developing youth leadership potential, which has a booth on campus at Monash Malaysia. “Cambodians are very kind, and I made friends with many of the locals,” says Thung. To her surprise, the school was in a townhouse—and her housing was an upstairs room above the classrooms, without a bed or mattress. Undeterred, Thung made a bed from towels and blankets and used her backpack as a pillow. “The school had the old big computers that you see in the 90s. Cambodia is pretty remote, but people do have access to the internet—they have iPhones better than mine. However, they seldom take advantage of resources online, which I think is important for learning new things and looking for new opportunities,” says Thung, who first learned to program in Visual Basic—and taught herself basic Japanese—by using the internet.

Thung spent the summer of 2018 at the University of Liverpool in England, taking classes in linguistics, psychology, and international business. Tuition was free, as she was one of only five Malaysian students sponsored to study in Liverpool by the main Monash campus in Australia.

In the fall of 2018, Thung studied computer science as an exchange student at the University of Waterloo in Canada, a school famous for its innovative co-operative education program, the largest in the world. She joined Hack the North, the university’s hackathon, as a volunteer. Held over thirty-six hours each September, Hack the North is the biggest Hackathon in Canada, attracting over one thousand students from around the world. For Thung, it was valuable exposure to projects in the Internet of things, blockchain, machine learning, and other cutting-edge fields.

While studying in Canada, Thung received a grant to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women and Computing in Houston. She was the first scholar from a Malaysian college to attend the conference, organized by AnitaB.org and the Association for Computing Machinery. “I feel like there aren’t many women studying computing where I’m from in Southeast Asia, so when I saw twenty thousand women all into computing in the same place, I felt a strong sense of belonging when I was there. It made me want to be part of this world even more.”

Thung did find going to college in English—her fourth language—a challenge at first after a lifetime of schooling primarily in Mandarin. “I was considered good in English classes in high school, but college was difficult when I started. But I joined activities and did project presentations that forced me to speak, and now I can speak fluently.”

After graduating from Monash-Malaysia this June, Thung is now interviewing with firms from Beijing, Barcelona, and Singapore for software engineering jobs in Kuala Lumpur. In July, she attended the week-long Southeast Asia Machine Learning School in Jakarta, Indonesia, co-organized by members of Google Brain (US) and DeepMind (UK). “I didn’t expect to travel this much,” she says. “But I’m glad the old me did it—chose to go to college in English, to go to Cambodia alone, to fill out all those scholarship applications, to volunteer, to take the risks. If I hadn’t done it, the current me would not exist. Now, I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”

Before setting out for college four years ago, Set Jin Lee, her cousin Shi Yi Lee, and her high school friend Hui Ling Thung had not traveled much. Like hundreds of thousands of Chinese Malaysians over the past seven decades, they took the risk of studying overseas. But today the geography of international higher education is far more vast and complex than ever before. Embracing opportunities that they discovered along the way, now the three together have attended colleges in six countries and traveled to twelve. As they enter the globalized workforce and the next chapter begins, they take with them not only valuable skills in their majors but a deep knowledge of foreign cultures that will last a lifetime.

“The Chinese in Malaysia, we have a saying,” says Hui Ling Thung. “If anything is to be sacrificed, it’s not education.”