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Malaysia in transition

Mahathir woos Japanese university to set up Malaysia campus

Ritsumeikan institution shows interest, Tokyo willing to back initiative

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, received an honorary doctorate from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan on Aug. 9. (Photo by CK Tan)

BEPPU, Japan -- The governments of Malaysia and Japan are in talks on setting up a Japanese university campus in Malaysia as part of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's long-standing Look East vision, according to sources close to the matter.

Although discussions are at a preliminary stage as both countries need to clear legal hurdles concerning the conferring of degrees and conduct a market survey, the privately-owned University of Ritsumeikan has expressed interest. The Japanese government is also willing to support the initiative.

Mahathir, on a four-day working visit to the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka, proposed the move to officials from the university and the Japanese government. If the deal goes through, Ritsumeikan will be the country's first university to venture outside Japan.

One source said Mahathir told Japanese officials that while universities from Australia, the U.S., U.K and even China had already set up campuses in Malaysia, none from Japan had done so.

Under Mahathir's Look East policy during his previous stint as prime minister for 1981 to 2003, Malaysia sent thousands of students to tertiary institutions in Japan, hoping that they would learn not only science and technology, but also the country's work ethic. Mahathir has said he admires Japanese teamwork and sense of responsibility.

Another source said the Japanese government had requested that Malaysia make a proper market study examining demand for Japanese university accredited degrees among students in Southeast Asia. Japanese will be the main teaching language at the university. On the Japanese side, the government needs to amend existing regulations so that Japanese university degrees can be conferred more easily abroad.

A spokesperson for Japan's Ministry of Education said education experts have been discussing this possibility ever since the government amended the law in 2005 to allow universities to establish campuses abroad. However, no university has yet done so, partly because of the conditions that need to met. These experts are part of a study group which is expected to present its findings -- including a call for further liberalization of the rules -- to the government in the fall.

Based in Kyoto city, Ritsumeikan is nearly a century old. It has produced many professionals and business people, including Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods, which gave the world the first instant noodles in cups.

The university also has a campus in the southern city of Beppu, named Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. A top official at the university told the Nikkei Asian Review said that Malaysia had approached Ritsumeikan for talks and the issue would be considered.

Separately, Mahathir, an honorary adviser of the university since 2001 has been conferred an honorary doctorate by Ritsumeikan APU for his contributions. Officials said that thanks to the "trustworthiness" of Mahathir, the campus had succeeded in attracting over 16,000 graduates since 2000.

When asked about the invitation, Malaysia's Minister for Education Maszlee Malik did not comment directly but said the country was "eager" to host any foreign university which would make Malaysia the regional hub for education.

"It will be good for the economy and the government does not need to spend so much to finance Malaysian scholars abroad," said Maszlee.

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