Necessary discourse on government policies should take place at higher institute of learning.
EVENTS at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) framed the week of June 20.
On Monday, the Senate Hall hosted a High-level Roundtable on Refugee Education co-organised with the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia (APPGM) on Refugee Policy supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Although the Chatham House Rule applied, I had rarely seen such a diverse group of politicians from across the spectrum – including a Cabinet minister – speak so consonantly on a public policy issue.
With interventions from activists representing decades of experience in fighting for refugee rights, I mentioned three key take-aways from the day’s proceedings in my closing remarks.
First, the arguments for educating refugees need to be made constantly. Emotional appeals are tremendously important – and the reminder that the Prophet Muhammad was himself a migrant certainly makes Muslims think about their attitude towards this issue.
Statistics grounded in sound research are also needed, though. Ideas’ 2019 paper ‘The Economic Impact of Granting Refugees in Malaysia the Right to Work’ remains much cited today for its estimate that refugees could contribute over RM3bil to GDP and increase tax revenues by RM50mil annually, and create 4,000 new jobs for Malaysians.
It also estimated that by granting refugees access to education on par with locals, their contribution to GDP would grow to over RM6.5bil annually, with tax contributions of over RM250mil. Citing other countries’ policies, like Turkey towards its Syrian refugees, puts Malaysia’s to shame.
On previous occasions I had mentioned the continued gratitude of a Vietnamese Australian I met who told me that Malaysia saved his life in the 1970s when he sought refuge on Pulau Bidong off the coast of Terengganu – despite a hostile policy encapsulated by the deputy prime minister at the time. But as I discovered in Sarajevo last month, this level of gratitude is multiplied many times over for entire cohorts of Bosnians who studied in Malaysian universities since the early 1990s, thanks to the policy of the (subsequently) prime minister to welcome them into Malaysia.
IIUM was the main destination, providing the most concrete experience of what would happen if the policy were to be repeated today, with profound personal recollections published by the university’s press in which the Rector, Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak wrote “this book hopes to further push the idea of ‘internationalisation’ as an effort to rebuild one’s own nation of origin, rather of the host nation, when the alumni decide and give back like the Bosnians have ably exemplified.” The diplomatic, business and trade benefits of such a legacy simply cannot be quantified.
Secondly, while waiting for the government to enact policy change, there are already many initiatives that can be expanded to educate refugee children in Malaysia. Yayasan Chow Kit has long provided homeschooling to all under our care, while Ideas Academy (established in partnership with Ideas but now operating independently) is just one example of how the private sector can work together with civil society to provide excellent quality education to people from all backgrounds.
Such initiatives provide ample precedent for government policy to follow: as speakers at the conference pointed out, there are many government schools with low enrolments (as a result of demographic shifts) and these would be ideal for pilot programmes involving refugee children.
Thirdly, the establishment of the APPGM on Refugee Policy, with a civil society secretariat in the Geutanyoë Foundation – has demonstrated that parliamentary reforms can lead to mature, productive and evidence-based policymaking, instead of politics being dominated by scandals all the time.
Just a few years ago it would have been impossible to imagine a cross-party group and a Cabinet minister speaking forcefully for reform. Incidentally, Ideas is secretariat for the APPGM on Political Financing, where progress is also being made by backbenchers who finally have a meaningful parliamentary role outside obeying their whip in votes. This vindicates the institutional reforms advocated by civil society and think tanks over the years.
On Friday, IIUM’s Kulliyyahs of Education and Engineering came out to support the charitable arm of Ideas, recognising and deepening a research project entitled “Emotion Regulated Training for Underprivileged Autistic Spectrum Disorder Children using Adaptive Robotics Platform” with the Ideas Autism Centre. This is an unprecedented collaboration that may improve the education of children with autism in Malaysia.
The next day, the IIUM Student Union was in the news with their “denouncing the government’s decision to remove subsidies and ceiling price for several household goods,” and threatening street protests.
I hope the university takes an equally mature attitude towards Malaysian student activists as they do towards refugee and autistic concerns. All are important aspects of education!
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.