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EDUCATION-RELIGION: Malaysia Boasts a ‘Harvard of the East’

Kalinga Seneviratne

PATALING JAYA, Jun 2 1996 (IPS) - The faces of South-east Asia, Africa, former Yugoslavia and Central Asia are all familiar ones in Pataling Jaya, a sprawling satellite city 10 kms south of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

They are students and lecturers at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) which is being projected by staff as the ‘Harvard of the East’ — the emphasis on academic excellence with a distinctly Islamic touch.

“This is not to say that we are Westerning Islamic education,” says IIUM’s Rector, Dr Abdul Hamid AbuSulayman of Saudi Arabia.

He explained that the term ‘Harvard of the East’ was in reference to the high quality of education provided by the U.S. university. However, he stressed that the university is specially geared to “provide the intellectual and cultural dimensions” of its multi-race Islamic student body.

In this endeavour, the IIUM is strongly supported by the Kuala Lumpur government which is keen to promote Malaysia as a centre for educational excellence in South-east Asia, where a strong economic performance is expected to translate into more Asians being able to travel overseas to complete their studies.

As such, deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is the President of the university. Also, the government has given the IIUM 500 million dollars and land to construct a modern new campus on a 288 hectare site at Gombak, just outside Kuala Lumpur.

Dr AduSullayman adds that plans are in the pipeline for a hi- tech communications faculty to train students for the modern communication age.

The IIUM currently has four main faculties offering under and post-graduate courses in law, economics and management, Islamic studies and engineering. A medical faculty is under construction.

University staff often trumpet the quality of the teaching the IUM aims to provide with its international staff line-up. Of course, it does come with Islamic trappings — not only in the classroom, but in dress and manner.

“Our objective is to produce top class professionals who are imbued with Islamic influenced paradigms. We are first a professional training institute and Islamic is complementary to them,” says Dr Nik Norzrul Thani, Dean of Student Affairs and Development Division at IIUM.

He added that many people who visited the IIUM were surprised to find that it is a “normal” university — despite its Islamic tag.

“They think that we are missionary type of university, which we are not. Islamic atmosphere is one of the characteristics, but we are not producing graduates who would become imams or priests in a missionary sense” Dr Thani told IPS.

All female students — whether Muslim or not — are required to cover their legs and arms, and wear a veil within campus grounds. Most facilities, including the dining halls are segregated, though lecture rooms are mixed.

The IIUM is after all an Islamic university says Faizah Bazid, manager of the women’s affairs secretariat at the university. And so the staff and students “will abide by the Islamic ruling of the dress code”.

Also, students at the IIUM must complete courses in Islamic studies and law to receive a degree. AbuSulayman argues that “since Islamic laws represents depth and another way of thinking”, by teaching both disciplines, it should create a “type of dialogue in the minds of the students”.

Unlike many universities in Islamic states however, the IIUM has more female than male students in its 7,000 strong student body.

“It is not something peculiar to us,” says Bazid. “There are more women (than men) in other universities (in Malaysia) as well. That’s because we choose on merit.”

Bazid was also at pains to emphasise that the university does not encourage the women to pursue any particular type of career. “We leave it purely to the individuals to pursue any career they would like, after they have graduated,” she said.

The university has come a long way since it first opened in doors in 1983. In its first year, it enrolled just 180 students, mainly Malaysian. Today, more than 1,350 of the students from several nationalities are enrolled at the IIUM. It also boasts qualified lecturers from 40 countries.

“We have here about eighty nationalities which are the cream of the Third World. And our Malaysian students are some of the best in this country,” proclaims AbuSulayman.

“Additionally, and to make it even better, we pay special attention to the cultural aspects. Because one of the problems in Asia and Africa is the ability to be original (and) be able to motivate your people, understand their mentality and make them serious about their life and seek achievements.”

He links these “shortcomings” to the fact that the cultural aspects of education have been neglected for too long in the South, so that graduates in developing countries often leave universities without a sense of national pride.

He argues that making students more serious about their cultural background would motivate them to have a better sense of mission and achievement, and not simply look to the West for answers.

Though the IIUM is a private institution run by a board of bovernors, the Malaysian government has funded a number of scholarships to assist overseas students to study here.

The university’s own scholarship fund — which receives contributions from many governments of Islamic countries — is a major source of funding for most of the other students who come from near and far.

The largest contingent of 203 students comes from neighbouring Indonesia, and then there are more than 100 from Bosnia- Hercegovina, taken in during the war in former Yugoslavia.

“Malaysia is one of the countries which offer great support to Bosnia. One of the illustrations of that is that we have around 110 students from Bosnia here. This stance of Malaysia is a good example of brotherhood and understanding,” said Spahic Omer, a Bosnian student, who is in charge of the IIUM’s International Unit.

But there is also strong representation from Bangladesh, Chad, Thailand and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

To promote better understanding between Malaysians and other nationalities, the IIUM has introduced a system whereby students spend the Ramadan vacation, and even sometimes weekends, with Malaysian families.

The university also helps foreign graduates to find employment with Malaysian multi-national companies in their own home countries.

Dr Thani says that with the Malaysian government encouraging its companies to invest overseas, IIUM has become a good recruiting base for those companies setting up subsidiaries in countries from where many of their foreign students come.

He says that with Malaysian companies looking to expand into the Central Asian republics, IIUM would be able to provide them with qualified economists, lawyers and engineers.

“We offer our multinational companies the services of our potential graduates in countries where they intend to set up business…they know Malaysia well, they can also speak in Malay and of course, they know their own country better,” says Thani.

 
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