PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s five-day visit to China starting this Thursday underscores the importance that his administration is placing on ties between the two countries.
It is also to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China, initiated by the historic visit Tun Abdul Razak Hussein made when he was the country's prime minister back in 1974.
Earlier this year, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had said China-Malaysia ties were significant to him because of the key role his father had played in forging them.
The Deputy Prime Minister also said he would push for a closer and deeper relationship with China – not just out of personal reasons but also in line with Abdullah's foreign policy.
As such, the move to set up the Institute of China Studies (ICS) by Universiti Malaya (UM) is most timely.
In fact, Abdullah had already announced plans to establish the institute to enhance bilateral ties between Malaysia and China last September, on his return from a visit there as then deputy prime minister.
He had said such an institute was vital considering the emergence of China as a power to be reckoned with in the near future.
''China will one day become a superpower and it is only appropriate that we learn more about the country, its culture, politics and economic development.''
Abdullah also noted that China already had an institute of South-East Asian studies in Xiamen.
''I found out the institute has helped the Chinese Government considerably because China has vast interests in the region,'' he had said.
Perhaps ICS will play a similar role in helping the Malaysian Government shape its policies on China.
UM vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Dr Hashim Yaacob says ICS, as the only research institute in the country with a specific focus on China, will serve as a resource centre and policy adviser to the Government, corporate sector and diplomatic corps on issues related to business, political economy and strategic or bilateral relations.
The institute will also examine the economic, political and social developments involving ethnic Chinese communities, with a specific focus on those in Malaysia and the Asean countries.
He makes it clear that ICS will not serve as a teaching institution but will focus instead on research and the supervision of students working on post-graduate dissertations, with the aim of grooming a new breed of Malaysian scholars with expertise in related areas.
''ICS will primarily promote research in the disciplines of economics, business, politics, international relations, history and cultural studies.
''However, it will not replicate research presently undertaken by academics in UM's other faculties or departments such as the Faculties of Business and Economics, and the Departments of Chinese Studies and East Asian Studies.''
ICS will conduct policy-based research and academic-based research leading to the publication of books, articles and occasional papers as well as corporate sector research in relation to consultancy services on specific issues.
''The institute will focus on key policy directives issued by the Government and concentrate research in these areas to facilitate and assess the implementation of these policies.
''We will also host seminars, colloquiums, workshops and conferences in the field of China and Chinese studies to promote exchange of ideas as well as generate new research initiatives.''
Prof Hashim, who has been extremely involved in the setting up of ICS, has even taken on the role of director of the institute to get things off the ground quickly.
''Once everything is up and running, someone else will take over. The director – who will be assisted by a deputy and five heads of department – will then report to me as the vice-chancellor,” he explains, adding that the fledgling institute currently has a core staff of four.
According to him, work is already underway to convert a building located near the main UM campus in Petaling Jaya into interim premises for ICS.
''I am currently running everything from my office but once the renovation is complete, a librarian will move in to start cataloguing all the information we are gathering on China.''
The five departments in ICS will be economics, business, politics and international relations, history and philosophy, and cultural studies. Heads of department will be responsible for developing their own research projects and for grooming academics in their respective disciplines.
To facilitate research, Prof Hashim adds, they may also, in consultation with the director and vice-chancellor, appoint one or more fellows of different levels in their departments.
''For example, a professorial fellowship will mean a research appointment for senior academics, from local or foreign institutions, to develop and head research projects.
''ICS will invite prominent scholars to undertake research on China or the Chinese world which is of importance to the institute, and the tenure of a fellowship will be linked to the duration of the research project,'' he explains.
It is anticipated that ICS will serve as a resource centre for information on economic, political and social developments in China.
In addition, it will serve as a reference institute that will house a library of studies on China and the Chinese world as well as related periodicals, journals and business publications, with the collection in both English and Chinese.
“It will also compile data on investment patterns in China by Malaysian and other South-East Asian firms and track investments in Malaysia by companies from the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as other ethnic Chinese investors from elsewhere,” Prof Hashim adds.
He observes that while investments by Malaysian and other South-East Asian firms in China have grown over the last decade, there has been little research on the outcome of these investments.
''We will conduct a research project to review all investments in the mainland by Malaysian firms. Once completed, the study will serve as an important document on problems faced by Malaysian companies trying to develop their enterprises in China,'' he says.
The institute, he adds, will eventually begin publishing a bulletin called Chinese Worlds on a quarterly basis.
''The bulletin will record important economic, business and international events involving the Chinese world, with specific focus on current events in China and Malaysia.”
ICS will also serve as a centre for post-graduate research for doctoral fellows interested in pursuing research under the supervision of senior academics.
''We also want to sign memorandums of understanding with foreign universities, particularly with those based in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to carry out joint supervision of doctoral dissertations,'' he says.
Ultimately the institute will aim for the publication of books, articles, occasional papers and working papers.
''In the immediate short term, the institute will give specific focus to plans under the Government such as the development and promotion of small and medium-scale industries,'' Prof Hashim says.
Other research projects include one examining the trends and developments in various fields that have occurred in the context of Malaysia-China relations.
''It will explore the historical context of the links between Malaysia and China as well as present policies involving bilateral relations and future implications of these ties,'' he says.
Another project looks at the background of Sino-South-East Asian relations, particularly in the wake of globalisation and regional competition.
All in all, the development of ICS will be a true and worthwhile challenge.
Notes Prof Hashim: “The institute must succeed. Its success will be depend on how hard we put our energies and minds into this project.”
For more information on the Institute of China Studies, call 03-79673273.
Did you find this article insightful?