TO the surprise of many, France has been playing a substantial role in the development of education in Malaysia for more than two centuries.
Indeed, French Catholic missionaries started establishing schools here from the early 19th century, leaving behind an extraordinary heritage of dozens of education institutions, still thriving today around the country. St Xavier’s Institution or Convent Light Street in Penang, Convent Bukit Nanas in Kuala Lumpur, St Michael in Ipoh and many, many others all share these little-known “French roots”.
Fast forward to the present, cooperation between France and Malaysia in education must be central to our relations. Our two countries need more than ever to train new generations of discerning citizens, able to defend their democratic values and to deal comfortably with the requirements of a globalised and technologically-driven world. We can help each other to reach this goal.
Student exchanges started in the 1950s with French scholarships. In a remarkable illustration, Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is currently exhibiting until June the paintings of Chia Yu Chian, the first Malaysian recipient of a French government grant to study at the Paris School of Fine Arts. The movement accelerated in the 1980s with jointly financed programmes targeted for prestigious engineering institutions. Since 1995, the Malaysia-France Institute (MFI) in UniKL has prepared Malaysian government grantees to take engineering, business and political science studies in France. In 2006, the two countries established a one-of-a-kind joint agency - the Malaysia France University Centre (MFUC) – which promotes cooperation and mobility both ways.
The growth in actual exchanges has been spectacular. Today, in addition to these programmes, more than 70 French universities have student mobility agreements with more than 20 Malaysian institutions, generating flows both ways, including a new, dynamic trend of French students coming to Malaysia – more than 200 in 2018, while about 1,000 Malaysians were studying in France. Malaysian alumni coming back from France contribute to the economy and society in all fields – from star designer Datuk Bernard Chandran to Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, economic advisor to the Prime Minister, and from Prof Datuk Dr Mazliham Mohd Su’ud, president of UniKL to Noor Afifah Abdul Razak, deputy secretary-general (Energy and Green Technology) of the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry (Mestecc).
Double degree programmes now cover 11 domains, from hospitality management, where cooperation between Taylor’s and Toulouse Universities has provided a French degree to more than 4,000 Malaysian students in 25 years, to the most recent dual masters with Malaysia’s National Defence University (UPNM) on marine technology and on cybersecurity, and between UniKL and La Rochelle University on data science, launched in February.
French higher education institutions have also set-up campus in Malaysia: top culinary school Le Cordon Bleu operates within Sunway University; fashion expert ESMOD with The One Academy; and tourism management leader Vatel within City University College of Science and Technology.
The newest addition to this growing ecosystem, a joint centre by Mara and Groupe Institut de Soudure for the training of technicians in aerospace composite material will be officially launched in Langkawi during the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (Lima) exhibition. Vocational training is indeed also a crucial part of our education undertaking.
Teaching French language of course serves as an essential basis for future cooperation, and opens a lot of opportunities for young Malaysians in the growing French-speaking world on all continents. The Alliance Française in Kuala Lumpur (AFKL) and its sister-centre in Penang have been offering classes to the general public for many decades – AFKL’s campus at Lorong Gurney was inaugurated in 1975 by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then Education Minister, who delivered his speech entirely in French! The number of learners in Malaysian secondary schools has grown exponentially since 2011 from 5,000 to 15,000 today, as French is now taught in more than 100 national schools nationwide.
In this context, 14 embassies from French-speaking countries have decided this year to rise to the challenge and organise in March the first-ever “FrancoTour” - a day of French language activities for each state of Malaysia, benefitting more than 1,600 pupils and 85 teachers!
Finally, the French School (Lycée Français) in KL, operating since 1962, is also expanding to become an even more prominent actor of our education cooperation. This coming September, the Lycée Français will welcome elementary school pupils in a brand new building with advanced facilities and it will also increasingly open its doors to Malaysian students, therefore contributing even more to the development of Malaysia.
A new agreement on higher education cooperation between France and Malaysia, now in its final stage of preparation, will be signed in the coming weeks. With so much shared ambitions and so much concrete progress, France and Malaysia have already by now become true schoolmates!
Ambassador of France to Malaysia