Address to launch of 'Towards 2020' scholarship program

Kuala Lumpur

Speech, E&OE, proof only

17 February 2014

It is a pleasure to be here in in Kuala Lumpur in my capacity as Australia's Foreign Minister, and while it might be my first official visit here, it certainly is not my first visit to Malaysia. I became very good friends with a student when I studied at Harvard in 1996 completing an advanced education program. One of my live-in group members included a wonderful Malaysian man called Din Ibrahim. I was hoping that Din would be in Kuala Lumpur on this visit but he's not here, but it just goes to show that when you study overseas, you can make friendships that last a lifetime.

Your Prime Minister Najib said recently:

"It goes without saying that education is an essential part of anyone's personal development, but it is also a major contributor to the development of a nation's social and economic capital. It inspires creativity and fosters innovation; provides our youth with the necessary skills to be able to compete in the modern labour market; and is a key driver of growth in the economy."

I couldn't agree more and I am sure everybody in this room would agree with those words and it certainly sets the scene for the remarks I want to make today.

Education has been the essential key to the development of both Malaysia and Australia.

It is the foundation of the enduring relationship between our two nations and the foundation for our broader trade and investment ties and close cooperation across many areas of our strong bilateral relationship.

Over the last 50 years, Malaysian and Australian students have made friendships and connections that will last a life time.

Even, in some cases, generations.

Since coming to this role last September, I've made it clear that the focus of our foreign policy is what I call economic diplomacy – just as traditional diplomacy aims for peace, so economic diplomacy aims for prosperity – doing everything we can to support regional prosperity through stronger business ties and more resilient economies, emphasising "the power of economics and the economics of power" as Hilary Clinton once phrased it.

Education is central to that effort – because it underpins the productivity of our economies, and helps us find new and innovative ways to work together to promote our common interests.

I believe that to have a sense of our future, we need to reflect on the past, so today I will look back at the central history of our education links, and then forward – to the new ties we are building for today, and tomorrow.

Origins of the Australia – Malaysia Education Relationship

Let me take you to the first few weeks of January 1950. Commonwealth foreign ministers met in Colombo, the capital of today's Sri Lanka.

They saw a critical need to encourage economic growth and development across Asia.

What came out of that conference was the Colombo Plan.

Its focus was on infrastructure development, and reform in agriculture.

It encouraged sharing expertise between nations, and highlighted in particular, the critical importance of training and education.

From that time, Australia became a significant provider of education services to the region.

And from the start, Malaya was an important part of that scheme.

The Colombo Plan represented public policy at its very best – visionary in scope, practical in implementation, and generous in spirit.

Colombo Plan students, including thousands from Malaysia, played a major role in reshaping 20th Century Australia – exposing Australians to people, ideas, culture and cuisine that they had not encountered before.

All up, something like 40,000 students from across Asia came to Australia between the 1950s and the 1980s under the Colombo Plan.

The largest group from any country, were the 4,000 students from Malaysia.

You can trace a direct line from those critical early years to the highly successful, modern education partnership our two countries share today.

Many, many more Malaysians have studied in Australia since the Colombo Plan days – more than 300,000.

Indeed, as Australia's education sector opened up in the 1980s, Malaysia became a major source of privately funded students – a phenomenon that came to greatly outnumber those who came here under the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme.

Hard-working Malaysian parents – including some who had themselves studied in Australia made Australia a destination of choice for their children, choosing our country as a high-quality education destination.

And that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Today five Australian universities are ranked in the top 100 tertiary institutions in the world. Australian universities have produced an impressive number of Nobel laureates and every day over one million people around the world rely on Australian discoveries and innovations via our world-class scientists and researchers– including penicillin, ultrasounds, Wi-Fi – yes, Wi-Fi was an Australian invention, and Black Box Flight Recorders.

Australia now boasts one of the highest numbers of international students in the world.

In the last two decades, responding to the vision and foresight of Malaysia's policymakers, we have also seen the Malaysian education sector open up to the world.

Australian institutions like Monash, Curtin and Swinburne universities have established campuses in Malaysia.

And many twinning programs are also in place that enable Malaysian students to obtain Australian qualifications here in Malaysia, or by completing part of their programs in Australia.

And an important MOU was signed between our governments around education policy.

Today, around 21,000 Malaysian students study in Australia and another 20,000 students are working towards Australian qualifications delivered here in Malaysia.

Personal ties between Australia and Malaysia

The Colombo Plan and our education ties more broadly, have helped train some outstanding people from our region.

Leaders, thinkers, contributors to their communities, country and institutions.

Business people, politicians, teachers and researchers.

A hugely diverse group – represented by the alumni here today – who have helped connect our two countries.

Two prominent Colombo Plan scholars in Malaysia's Federal Parliament today include the Minister for Trade and Industry, Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, and the Minister for Green Technology, Energy and Water, Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili.

Dato Mustapa – an alumnus of Melbourne University – is a long-time advocate of the value and benefits of education and has played a significant role in furthering close bilateral ties between our two countries.

He has promoted education, including in his own community in Kelantan, and has been instrumental in advocating to others the benefits of studying in Australia.

Others include Tan Sri Ananda Krishnan, one of Malaysia's leading businessmen, also a Colombo Plan scholar and graduate of the University of Melbourne.

Dato' Mohamed Zain, former Chairman of the Malaysian-Australian Business Council, and Managing Director of Confoil, which has operations in Australia is another Colombo Plan scholar, who studied at the University of Western Australia. And Dato', when I met you this morning, we spoke warmly of the friends that you had made in Perth at that time, Nick and Danielle Blaina, who you still maintain contact with and coincidentally are very dear friends of mine, and live in my electorate. So we have much to discuss.

And the incoming Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, who was named on 12 February as Sarawak's fifth Chief Minister, has a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Adelaide – and so do I.

But outside of business and government, there are also people like Ramli Ibrahim, who studied engineering in Western Australia before taking a very different path and joining the Australian Ballet.

On his return to Malaysia, he has perfected his art and founded his own dance company.

Over many years, Ramli has contributed to cross-cultural artistic cooperation between our two countries, working with leading Australian and Malaysian performers.

Our alumni represent a major asset that will help sustain ties between our two countries for decades ahead.

Malaysia and New Colombo Plan

As Australia's Foreign Minister, I want to build on this significant legacy, to inject new energy into our education relationship – through a scheme that we're calling the New Colombo Plan.

In a reversal of the original scheme, the New Colombo Plan will send Australia's best and brightest students to study in educational institutions across a number of countries in Asia.

Given the dramatic transformation in our region, and the high-quality education institutions in countries including Malaysia, the New Colombo Plan would reverse the direction of its predecessor to give young Australians an experience that will transform their lives.

We want our students to study here in your country, to immerse themselves in your communities, in your culture, to make friends and thereby build stronger and deeper networks between our two countries for generations to come.

The pilot phase of the New Colombo Plan is underway, which will see Australians studying and undertaking internships in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore this year.

Following the pilot phase, the Plan will be rolled out more widely across the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific from 2015.

Last week we announced the first tranche of more than 300 students from 24 Australian universities who will be setting off to complete part of their studies in the pilot locations this year of 2014.

And one of the key features of this program will be internships with businesses, or mentorships, or practical work experience arrangements.

And I think this is integral to the success of the New Colombo Plan, with the aim of ensuring that our students have not only studied here but have professional connections in the region.

So they can link their study experience directly to career opportunities, either with businesses or organisations and entities from Australia operating in the host country, or from organisations within the host country.

I am delighted to be able to meet with my Malaysian counterparts, as well as representatives of the Malaysian education and business sectors, to discuss how Malaysia can be part of the New Colombo Plan from 2015.

Malaysia is emerging as a major regional hub of higher education and is attracting more international students to study in its universities, building partnerships in research, science, medicine and business that will be the foundation of our knowledge-based societies and economies in the 21st Century.

Increasingly, we are seeing more Australian high-school and university students visiting Malaysia for internships, volunteer stints and short term study.

I want more young Australians to experience this, to enrich their lives and their understanding of Asia by spending time living, studying and working in Malaysia.

I hope that through the New Colombo Plan, studying in our region will become a rite of passage for young Australian students.

Towards 2020 Scholarships

At the same time, we would continue the tradition of encouraging Malaysian students to come to Australia, both to help broaden their education, and to help raise their understanding of, and intimacy with, Australia across the region.

So today I am pleased to announce the inaugural recipients of the 'Australia- Malaysia Towards 2020 Scholarships' Undergraduate and Executive awards. This initiative was announced at the signing of the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement to support Malaysia's economic reform agenda.

There will be up to 16 scholarships offered in three core areas. The first provides funding for undergraduate degree study at Australian University campuses based in Malaysia, with an option of completing part of their studies in Australia. Secondly, Research Fellowships are being provided for Malaysian Government officials for post-graduate study in Australia

Finally, Executive Awards are available for Malaysian Government officials wishing to expand their skills and qualifications through a range of work placements, professional conferences or peer-to-peer learning opportunities, also in Australia.

Future of the bilateral relationship

I want to ensure that education is an enduring element of the Australia-Malaysia relationship. More students reaching across our two cultures, more universities working together, creating institutional links, and more innovation, and greater cooperation on research and development across our tertiary and private sectors. And as we discussed at a business meeting this morning, more vocational and trade qualifications for our young people.

Education to me is the foundation of our broader economic and strategic ties.

Education is the key to building peace and prosperity, stability and security in our region.

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