Latecomer Xiamen U a big draw

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 17 Jan 2016

Impressive: An artist’s impression of the 60ha Xiamen University campus in Sepang.

With support from public and private sectors as well as the Malaysian Chinese community, the first Chinese university overseas campus approved by China’s government looks set to hit the heights.

XIAMEN University (XMU) Malaysia may be a Johnny-come-lately in the local tertiary education scene but it should thrive due to unwavering support from governments and the corporate sector, as well as the local Chinese community.

The support of the local Chinese community is almost assured. The standing of China’s Xiamen University (or Xia Da in short) and its highly respected founder Tan Kah Kee – with decades of Malayan connections – has generated immense interest.

Indeed, many Chinese-educated parents are looking forward to sending their children to this new university, which will welcome the first batch of students next month.

And on the back of the emergence of China as the world’s second ­largest economy, students in the region and other parts of the world may be lured to this new 60ha campus in Sepang, 45km southwest of Kuala Lumpur.

The new university, which will be using English as the medium of instruction (except in Chinese ­studies and Chinese traditional ­medicine courses), is the product of close bilateral ties between China and Malaysia.

The idea was mooted in 2011. After that, diplomatic work was set in motion. On Oct 4, 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping and Malaysia’s Prime Minster Datuk Seri Najib Razak witnessed the signing of an agreement for the construction of XMU Malaysia between Sunsuria Development Sdn Bhd and Xia Da.

“The establishment of XMU Malaysian Campus is very meaningful in terms of bilateral relations ... This is the first overseas campus approved by the Chinese government to be set up by a Chinese university,” wrote Najib on XMU Malaysia’s website.

Brand new: A close-up view of the Sepang campus.
Brand new: A close-up view of the Sepang campus.

The project, which requires a total investment of RM1.3bil, has also attracted support from the corporate world – the rich and famous, as well as smaller ­players.

Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s ­richest man who has extensive investments in China, led the charge by contributing RMB200mil (RM135mil), while chairman of China Garden and Forest Group Corporation You Yuhan – who has mega property projects in Iskandar Malaysia – donated RMB50mil (RM34mil).

IOI Group’s executive chairman Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng – he gave an inspiring speech about his success story in Xia Da in April 2014 that highlighted his one regret in life was the denial of a university education due to poverty – donated RMB30mil (RM20mil) to XMU.

Indeed, the name Xia Da is not unknown to local Chinese. This is because its Fujian-born founder Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961) was a prominent and revered rubber planter, rice trader, and industrialist in Malaya (which at the time included Singapore), during the first half of the last century.

Tan came to British Malaya in the early 1900s to buy up rubber estates in Malacca and ­prospered from the great rubber boom of 1909-1912. From there, he expanded his business ­interests into shipping, rice and sugar trading, pineapple canning and shoe manufacturing.

Having managed only nine years of formal education in China, Tan used his wealth later in life to support education and culture. He set up schools in his home village and in 1921, he founded Xia Da.

Locally, Singapore’s Raffles College and Universiti Malaya benefited from his generosity. In 1923, he set up Nanyang Siang Pau to promote Chinese ­language and culture.

Generous: Tan was a prominent businessman in Malaya in the early 1900s who donated millions to support education.
Generous: Tan was a prominent businessman in Malaya in the early 1900s who donated millions to support education.

Then the best-known tycoon and philanthropist, he also led his fellow immigrant Chinese in South-East Asia to raise funds for disasters and the anti-Japanese movement in China.

Tan returned to China in 1950 and died there in 1961. Before his death, he sold all his ­businesses and bequeathed all his wealth and assets to Xia Da and other schools. China built a memorial for this “legendary overseas Chinese” in Fujian, which has since become a tourist attraction.

In China, Tan is honoured as “a patriot, an educator, a social reformer, far-sighted entrepreneur, and model emigrant”. In Malaysia, local Chinese have set up a Tan Kah Kee Foundation to remember his spirit and all the good deeds he did.

According to Tan’s grandson, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Tan had ­repatriated all the profits made in his companies in Malaya to China to support education and other causes from 1925.

“It was difficult to repatriate money to China at that time, but my grandfather would employ all kinds of methods and tricks to send money to his motherland,” says Poh, a Singaporean who has made Kuala Lumpur his second home.

The inspiring story of this legend has touched the hearts and minds of many.

“Mr Tan Kah Kee is a noble man whose name deserves to go down in the history of Xiamen University forever,” says the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to China Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting, who is helping to ensure that XMU Malaysia is a success.

Experienced: Prof Wang has the experience of managing privately-run Tan Kah Kee College. -- ROHAIZAT MD DARUS/The Star
We want to position ourselves as a quality global university that will only take in good students. We will not take dropouts from China. - Prof Dr Wang Ruifang

XMU Malaysia pledges to uphold Tan’s spirit and to be a ­not-for-profit institution.

“Not a sen will be repatriated to China and any surplus funds will be channelled back into research and scholarships for students of XMU Malaysia Campus,” the new university declares on its website.

Prof Dr Wang Ruifang, the president of XMU Malaysia, says the new institution aims to be a quality university like Xia Da in China.

Xia Da has long been considered as a “diplomatic cradle” where many children of Chinese and ­foreign dignitaries go for their ­tertiary education, due possibly to the presence of many foreign ­professors. Some wealthy Hong Kong families also seem to like Xia Da.

Xia Da’s highly rated courses are economics and management, fine arts, law, chemistry, journalism, communications, and mathematics.

The state-run Xia Da has trained over 200,000 undergraduates and graduates since 1921. With an enrolment of over 40,000 students now, it is placed 11th among 2,000 institutions of higher learning in China. In Asia, it is ranked 37th. Globally, it is ranked 275th.

The prestige of Xia Da aside, strong leadership is of supreme importance in any new set-up. Xia Da has found this in Prof Wang, an alumni who possesses the ­experience of running a private college and wide exposure outside China.

Prof Wang, 58, a survivor of the infamous Cultural Revolution, was among the first batch of graduates from Xia Da in 1982, after Deng Xiao-ping came into power.

After obtaining his Masters degree there, he was sent to London’s University of Strathclyde to further his studies. In 1994, he obtained his doctorate in ­economics.

In an interview, Prof Wang says the recruitment drive for XMU has been successful: “Response from students for undergraduate courses in February is better than expected. For next month’s intake, our target is 100, but we have already received 200 applications (as at Jan 12).”

Although the intake for foundation courses will only begin in April, there are already 100 applications from Form Five school­leavers now. And there have been incessant telephone calls from ­parents in China about undergraduate courses in September 2016.

For its first intake, XMU Malaysia might have unexpectedly gained from the disappointing developments in local Chinese education. With New Era College and Southern University embroiled in internal feuds and their quality being debated, Chinese high school students could have opted for XMU Malaysia.

Prof Wang, who was a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore for nine years, sees the main sources of students coming from Malaysia and other South-East Asian nations, as well as China.

XMU Malaysia can only take in 500 to 600 students this year as only part one of Phase One of the campus is ready. When all parts of Phase One are completed, the university will be able to accommodate 5,000 students – the target within 10 years. The second phase of development, once completed, will allow the campus to cater to 10,000 students.

Prof Wang says the university will only accept students with good grades as it aims to be a quality university.

“We aspire to become a world-class university with a global ­outlook, featuring first-class ­teaching and research, while embracing cultural diversity,” Prof Wang says, adding that 80% of the ­university’s academics must ­possess a doctorate degree.

In a recent two-hour interview with Sunday Star, Prof Wang talks about the foundation he will lay for the new university to gain inter­national recognition, as well as some issues of public concern.

Below are excerpts:

Why is English, and not Mandarin, the medium of ­instruction for XMU Malaysia?

Using English as the medium of instruction is stipulated by the Malaysian Government, as Malaysia aims to be an education hub.

But we have convinced the Government to allow the use of Mandarin in Chinese studies and Chinese traditional medicine ­courses, for effective teaching and communication.

How is the response to your recruitment?

Response to our February intake is better than expected. Since early January, we have received 200 applications. They are mainly from UEC (Unified Examinations Certificate) holders from Chinese high schools. But we will only take in 100 for this intake.

The other intakes this year will be in April and September. Our target for this year is 500. Classes will be small.

Degree programmes include ­journalism, international business, software engineering, new energy science and engineering.

It is likely that many students entering XMU Malaysia are Chinese educated locally or from China. Will they be able to cope with lectures in English?

It may be difficult for them in the first year but after that there should be no problem.

When I was a lecturer in Singapore’s NTU, I observed students from China becoming high ­performers after struggling with English in the first academic year.

Over here, we will try to help the students by giving them intensive English classes so that they can adapt fast. In fact, parents in China welcome this as they see the ­importance of learning English. Now their telephone calls to enquire about our September intake have been non-stop.

Will some of your academics from Xia Da find it difficult to ­lecture in the English language?

They should not have problem adjusting to teaching in English as most of them obtained PhDs from Western universities.

XMU Malaysia is a latecomer to the local education scene. How do you make it stand out among the established ones here?

This is a question we have been thinking about for some time. We reckon competing is not easy in this saturated market.

We want to position ourselves as a quality global university that will only take in good students. We will not take dropouts from China. We will keep our standards high.

For students, we will target three groups: locals who want to stay in Malaysia for further studies, South-East Asians who wish to understand more about China and build their network of contacts, and students from China who want to learn more about the region.

Each group will form one-third of our intake. In fact, the prestige of Xia Da and our China factor will help lure students.

Since your university is a ­product of bilateral relations between Malaysia and China, what will happen to XMU Malaysia if relations cool down or become antagonistic?

It is unlikely relations will break down. China-Malaysia relations will stay close. Beijing officials told me China is enjoying the best ties with Malaysia now. It is indeed everybody’s wish to see close bilateral ties.

In the foreseeable future, I am not at all worried because bilateral ties seem to be getting closer and the Chinese government has ranked Malaysia as “very important”, and “the closest ally in South-East Asia”.

But as a university, we would like to keep our distance from politics and business. Academics should focus on their work and the university will focus on education.

However, if some professors are asked for their expert views on social issues, they will have the ­academic freedom to comment. But they must follow local laws and rules.

Within the campus, we want to create a global, multicultural ­environment, and we want students to respect one another.

XMU Malaysia is seen as a ­competitor to local Chinese ­colleges such as New Era and Southern University. Any ­comment?

We try not to have a head-on ­competition with them, although it is inevitable at the moment. We are targeting students who intend to go to Singapore and Taiwan for further studies.

But Xiamen University Malaysia will gradually shift its focus to postgraduate courses. Once we move up the ladder, there will be opportunities for cooperation with local Chinese colleges and universities.

I have said before that XMU will not be just a teaching university but a teaching and research institution.

Having said all this, I think competition is good for parents, students and society. It is something unavoidable as society progresses.

But for academic staff, I will not take lecturers directly from local Chinese universities. One-third of our staff will be seconded from Xia Da. The rest will be recruited globally. We will not depend on the local market, as at least 80% of our teaching staff must have a PhD degree.

Since this is an investment from China’s state university, I assume there is no pressure to break even. But still, when can XMU Malaysia expect its operations to break even?

It will take at least 15 to 20 years to break even.

The investment of RM1.3bil is huge. The sports centre facilities (which include an Olympic-sized swimming pool) are costly and high maintenance. Hiring qualified ­academics and the right people to manage the university is also ­challenging. But we have to ensure our standard is high.

In terms of student satisfaction rating, Xia Da ranks fifth in China. Its campus is one of the 14th most beautiful in the world. We hope to achieve this as well.

Can you talk about your ­background and experience?

I experienced the Cultural Revolution when I was a child. I was sent for re-education and hard labour. But I became the first batch of graduates from Xia Da in 1982. I obtained an economics degree and later a Masters.

I personally benefited from the good deed of Mr Tan Kah Kee, the founder of Xia Da. I became a ­lecturer at Xia Da for four years before I was sent to study at the University of Strathclyde in London. There I obtained a PhD in economics in 1994. After that, I went to Singapore to be an economics ­lecturer at NTU for nine years.

In 2003, I went back to Xiamen to help set up Tan Kah Kee College for Xia Da. It is run as a private branch of Xia Da. I guess this is why they have selected me to come here to head and organise Xiamen University Malaysia.

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