An Interview with Dr Mahathir
Access to information equals opportunities. With the Internet today, such access is almost limitless but only those who seize the opportunities will get ahead, says Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
IN a recent interview with Open University Malaysia (OUM), former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad shares his views on the challenges that educational institutions face and the direction they should take. He adds that immigration policies should be reviewed, as they stop the brains from coming in, but allow the uneducated to work here instead.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Dr Mahathir believes that a lifelong learning habit begins with a love for reading.
Q: In some countries, going back to school is regarded as the norm. What are Tun’s views on lifelong learning? What does it take to encourage more Malaysians to participate in lifelong learning?
A: We gain knowledge through many sources, among which is, of course, reading. To participate in lifelong learning, one must first love learning and to love learning, one must first love reading.
Of course, we can also acquire knowledge through television but we cannot gain an education just by watching television alone. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Sometimes when you look at a picture, you see not just one but many thousands of words. However, understanding still may not come and so you do not produce.
Reading is different. It stays in your mind longer. You learn when you read. You learn not only the knowledge contained in the book but also the language, the way the book is written.
So, reading improves communication. A person who watches television cannot learn to communicate; a person who reads books can. And communication is one of the weaknesses in human society. The ability to convey your thinking to another person is a communication skill.
Through reading, the process of lifelong learning begins. Once you start reading, you cannot stop reading. Of course, the person who starts watching television also may not be able to stop watching it, but what he learns from television may not be good for him. But when he reads, even if it is only a story book, he will, at least, acquire the skill of communication.
Reading also improves your perception of things and trains you to analyse and understand complex matters. The more you read, the more you acquire the experience of others albeit through the eyes of a skilful observer. Even if you are reading a story book, your ability to solve problems increases because you have, at least, read about it.
I started reading when I was young. Books tell me what people will do in 10 years’ time, they tell me how people think, they predict trends… If you don’t read, you will be left behind.
To encourage lifelong learning, you must instil a reading culture. Lifelong learning starts with reading, and can become a habit, just like reading.
Q: The world is increasingly becoming a global village and more of our young people are working overseas. How can we turn this increased mobility of youth and talent to our nation’s advantage?
A: Globalisation is the trend today. But it aggravates the brain drain in Malaysia. To understand this, we need to look at our immigration policies, which were formulated in the 1950s when people could not travel easily.
We did not want people coming into the country then, so our policies stopped people coming in. We believed our people would not want to go out, so our policies did not stop them going out.
But today, the world has changed. It is now very easy to travel; it only takes about 20 hours to fly to the other side of the world. With this ease in travel, physical borders can no longer stop people from entering or leaving a country. So people go out, especially those with knowledge and skills. Other countries offer them high wages and we do not stop them, so they leave and we lose our best people.
At the same time, we have a policy which actually stops brains from coming in. But we also need workers, so we allow uneducated people to come in.
So, what we get is no inflow of brain but inflow of the brainless.
All this is because we are using an outdated immigration policy. We must remember that in future, all countries will have a multi-racial population. There won’t be a single-ethnic nation anymore. Five million of the people in France today are Algerians. England has many Indian restaurants. People will be moving around, either legally or illegally, and settling down where they like.
The only country that may not change is China, with its 1.3 billion people. People who go to China become Chinese. Kublai Khan conquered China and became Chinese. The Manchus conquered China and became Chinese. There are so many Chinese; you get diluted, the Chinese don’t.
To attract youth and talent, we need to change our policy to consider the mobility of youth and talent.
Q: What is the greatest challenge that higher education faces in the next decade? What opportunities should we look out for?
A: You cannot recognise challenges and opportunities unless you understand what is happening around you. That is where learning comes in — learning helps you to comprehend, analyse and tackle problems.
Globalisation is clearly a challenge. With globalisation, your knowledge widens and you learn to deal with things you may not otherwise be able to.
Take a person born in the kampung, for example. His knowledge of things is limited to what he sees there. Once he moves to the city, he sees and learns so much more. Everywhere in the world, people in rural areas are regarded as less capable, less savvy, less sophisticated. But with globalisation, the kampung boy can cross new frontiers, embrace new values, see new ways of doing things. Globalisation gives the kampung boy a new world to comprehend, new skills to develop, new relationships to handle. Those are tremendous challenges.
Opportunities are different. Opportunities are affected by our ability to access and classify information. In the past, when we did not have much access to information, our opportunities were limited. Today, with the Internet, we have access to information and plenty of facts, but we need to know how to classify and use these facts.
So today, we have the capacity but the problem is, how do we use this capacity? The people who are able to use this capacity will see the opportunities – Google, Yahoo... In the end, seeing opportunities and seizing them, it is all up to you.
Q: Technology is said to have liberalised and democratised education and we must compete on a global platform. How successful have our local public universities been in this respect?
A: Well, they are not too bad, but they are not too good either. University authorities need to reassess their roles. It’s not just a question of giving sufficient knowledge to students so that they can pass their exams.
Knowledge must be viewed in a wider context. In the hands of some people, knowledge can bring about harm. What I notice about our public universities is that not enough attention is given to human character development and nurturing value systems which can help students become useful people in society.
Without the right values, knowledge can even make someone a criminal. But if you are shaped by the education system to become someone useful in society, then education would have fulfilled the greater need. There is a need for universities to strike a balance between producing skilled knowledge workers and people with good moral values.
Q: What is Tun’s perception of world university rankings and the role of universities?
A: Our universities today are much more aware that they are not just institutions for imparting knowledge but also institutions for researching new knowledge. Unfortunately, some still don’t have that mindset. Universities need to understand that their function is not just to transfer knowledge but also to create new knowledge through research, and to write about it, through producing papers. That is a crucial role.
Rankings should be based on the type of universities. Of course, you cannot compare an open university with conventional universities. You will get different results because the criteria are not the same. That, I think, is not important. What is important for an open university is whether it can provide education for people who have missed the boat, and for as many people as possible without compromising on quality.
When I was a small boy, my teacher only passed Standard Four. Later, a teacher had to have secondary school qualifications. Today, even that is not enough. Entry qualifications keep getting higher. Later, we will need more people with doctorates. The progress of society is such that, over time, the level of knowledge increases. So there is always a need to upgrade skills and qualifications, and OUM has a clear role to play.
Q: What is your secret for staying so young?
A: Oh, I do my usual physical exercises and I enjoy horse riding. But I also read. It is something I have enjoyed since young. My father was very strict about reading. Everyday, when he got home from work, he would cough in front of the house and I’d rush to get a book to read so as not to get scolded. Besides, I can do other things when I am reading. That is good because I don’t like to waste time (smiles).