KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has an effect on people: He makes them want to study in Japan.
Since returning to power last year after a stunning election victory, Mahathir has revived his "Look East" policy, a relic of his first long run as leader from 1981 to 2003. The idea is to glean development lessons from advanced Asian economies, mainly Japan, and the return of the policy appears to have sparked renewed interest in the world's No. 3 economy among young Malaysians.
In a classroom on the sprawling Kuala Lumpur campus of the University of Malaya, one of the country's top schools, 83 first-year students practice basic Japanese. "I like Arif," says one. "I'm sorry, I have a girlfriend," says another.
In May, the students enrolled in a course called Ambang Asuhan Jepun, or Gateway to Japan, a special preparatory program for entering Japanese universities. They came from all over the country, and for two years they will live in dorms, devoting themselves to the Japanese language. They are assigned homework even on holidays.
"Life here is like hell," said Kumiko Date, former head of AAJ Japanese language lectures. "They are given a mountain of homework every day and sleep for only four hours or so."
For most students, the intense program is their first exposure to Japanese instruction. Over the two years they drum about 5,500 words and 1,400 kanji characters into their heads -- crucial for surviving academic life in Japan. AAJ graduates go on to study at Japan's national universities, sponsored by the Malaysian government.
AAJ dates back to 1982, the year after Mahathir introduced Look East. The government decided a special program was needed to prepare students to go to Japan, in the hope that they would bring back advanced technology and knowledge. Many science-oriented students signed up.
The early entrants were not wealthy but were highly motivated, said Junichi Watanabe, who was sent to AAJ by the Japanese government and taught there for many years. "Many students dreamed of contributing to Malaysia and buying cars and homes for their parents," he said.
At its peak in 2005, two years after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister, AAJ sent 172 students to Japan. But interest soon waned and in 2018, Prime Minister Najib Razak's last year in power, enrollees numbered only 51.
The tide has turned again since the 94-year-old Mahathir's comeback. A source with knowledge of the matter said Mahathir made reinforcing relations with Japan a priority and expressed a desire to increase the number of AAJ students.
This year, the program attracted 83. Applications for a separate scholarship program provided by the Japanese government also increased significantly.
Students' motivations may be different this time around. Many grew up on Japanese anime and other cultural exports, piquing their interest in the country. Eleazar, a second-year AAJ student, said he wants to study robotics in Japan because he watched "Astro Boy," a Japanese animated series also known as "Mighty Atom." "I want to visit various places to eat ramen, sushi and other foods there," Eleazar added, showing none of the fervor early AAJ graduates had to "represent" Malaysia.
Even so, current students looking for inspiration can find numerous success stories among their predecessors.
Nearly 40 years after the AAJ began, the Alumni Look East Policy Society, which welcomes both program graduates and people who have studied in Japan separately, now has nearly 10,000 members. Upon returning to Malaysia, many have taken up positions in the government or companies, where they have played active roles in strengthening relations with Japan. Some rank high on Malaysia's personal wealth rankings, such as Goh Peng Ooi, founder of system developer Silverlake Axis.
Other former students have found their niches at Japanese companies. Among them is Chew Huat Seng, who joined Hitachi in 1993 after graduating from the Faculty of Commerce and Finance at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, and now heads Hitachi Asia (Malaysia) as managing director.
Chew recalls sharing a dorm room with Japanese students at the university, where he says he experienced the strict vertical hierarchy between seniors and juniors and learned the importance of working in a group. Malaysians, he said, tend to be "individualistic and lack the moral sense that they should not cause other people trouble," he said. "Thinking as a unit of society or team is a good point of Japanese culture."
Mahathir has expressed hope that students will absorb just such lessons. "The Look East Policy was not merely looking east toward economic and industrial redevelopment," he said in a video message in March, shown at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Alumni Look East Policy Society. "It was also about emulating the values and cultural habits of the people that enabled them to accelerate redevelopment of their country in such a short period of time."
For Japanese companies, graduates like Chew have become valuable assets. But while the AAJ program is attracting students again, a new problem has surfaced in recent years. Increasingly, returnees are joining non-Japanese foreign companies, according to Toshio Mizuno, a professor at AAJ.
Some returnees shun Japanese companies because they generally pay less than other foreign companies and usually appoint Japanese employees to head local subsidiaries.
Makio Miyagawa, Japan's ambassador to Malaysia, also suggested Japanese universities need to take in more undergraduates from overseas. Overall, they tend to accept more graduate students. But the ambassador argued that "foreign students who live in Japan in their late teens or early 20s can master the Japanese language faster and become more familiar with Japanese culture."
Mahathir's return has created a second chance for Malaysia and Japan to work together on developing talent. But the prime minister has vowed to transfer power to a successor within a few years. Considering how interest dropped after his last departure from office, it may be now or never.