17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers

Address by Tan Sri Lim, at the 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre
15 June 2009


I have been reminded by my children that to get the attention of my audience quickly, I must say something that my audience will agree to quickly.

Here is something I think you will agree on; that next to parenting a child, educating our young must be the most important responsibility in the world.

That translates to mean that you are all extremely important people!

Many of you here have come from different parts of the world.

In this room, I know are some of the best brains in the world for the development of education, and that of the new generation.

Over the next few days, I have no doubt that the best ideas will be shared, the best processes will be discussed, the best recommendations will be adopted and many new connections will be made.

So at this early stage of the conference, I think my time may be best served if I attempt to paint some broader strokes of an overall scenario of where we are today, and if it is time for review and reinvent, as we go forward.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Unequal World

First of all, may I thank the organizers for this opportunity. Most if not all of you here are from the education and human resource sector, I know you will agree that next to parenting a child, educating our young must be the most important work in the world.

Let me begin by sharing with you some of my concerns to put in perspective the present global environment.

Although the Commonwealth scenario is not exactly the same, the overall picture is not that different.

This world is a very unequal place.

On the planet are 6.7 billion people but only about 900 million live in the 57 countries termed as developed or industralised. In other words, these 900 million live in the richer part of the world.

In contrast, about five billion people live in the developing world.

The developing world is made up of more than 120 low and middle income countries in which people generally have a much lower standard of living. They have less access to education and healthcare facilities than people in high income countries.

The World Bank informs us that, in the developing world, more than 1.2 billion people currently live below the poverty line, earning less than US one dollar per day.

That paltry sum means they are unable to get adequate and nutritious food for themselves and their families.

That reduces their capacity to fight their way out of poverty – even if they are offered the opportunity, which, for most of them, is also hard to come by.

One billion people in the world are illiterate. Unable to read or write even their own names.

Less than 40 percent of children of school going age in developing countries are enrolled in schools. And of those who get enrolled, 50% drop out after just 6 years of primary education.

The Gross Domestic Product of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries with a combined population of 567 million people is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest persons combined.

The world's low income countries which account for 2.4 billion people account for just 2.4% of world exports.

Less than 1% of what the world spent on weapons annually could have put every child in school by the year 2000, but of course, it did not happen.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Wealth Divide

This wealth divide will grow wider since populations in developing countries are growing much faster than populations in developed countries.

Advanced nations are pulling away to new levels while the developing world struggles to keep pace.

Unless we find ways to bridge this divide between the rich and poor nations, and do it quickly, a new form of apartheid may spread across the world.

Here, I am merely stating facts. In fact, some of the figures I have quoted are already out of date. In some areas, the situation has worsened.

Most importantly, half of the planet’s population - 3 billion people – are under the age of 25.

They are the biggest youth generation in the history of mankind.

If we take into account the figures I just mentioned, we then know that most of these 3 billion people live in ways most of us cannot even imagine.

Take the numbers, take the anger, sense of hopelessness and frustrations that most of the 3 billion people feel – and we can see that we are looking at a world that is not very happy, certainly not very healthy.

These are not just statistics. These are facts that we need to look at and deal with sooner or later, one way or another.

The reality is that we are largely focusing our capacity to maximize human resource of only 20% of the world, when 80% or nearly 4 billion people live in a very different world. It is easy to see, and it does not matter where you stand, that we cannot just focus on transformation and wealth creation without first looking at poverty eradication.

I have shared with you some hard-to-believe facts and figures, not to be a prophet of doom and gloom; but rather to show that the need, therefore the opportunity, for education and human resource development is far, far greater than what is commonly discussed.

As well, are we not contributing to this divide between rich and poor by focusing our efforts and energy largely on developed and fast developing economies?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Brain Drain

The rise of innovation to the top of the agenda of many countries today has resulted in a profound shift in the nature of global competition.

Economic advantage no longer depends on natural resources, raw materials, trade of goods and services, and giant factories.

Instead, innovative human resource is the force now driving the new economy and regenerating the old economy.

At the cutting edge of this shift is the creative sector of the economy - science and technology, software engineering and web-publishing, digital media and design innovation, culture and entertainment, and the knowledge-based professions.

Because these industries rely heavily on talent, advanced economies around the world have stepped up their efforts to attract the best thinkers and doers, the brightest scholars and entrepreneurs.

Since the best brains would go to where they could do their best work, it is natural for the advanced nations with their better facilities and higher incomes to attract the best talents.

Many of the brightest brains from the poorest countries who are sent to the advanced countries to further their education do not return home, and are lost to the rich countries.

The result is widening disparity in technology and creativity driven capital and resources between the poorest and the richest countries.

Malaysia too is a victim of the migration of talents offshore.

About 30,000 Malaysians with tertiary education are currently working in Europe.

Tens of thousands of other Malaysians are contributing their skills and knowledge in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Singapore.

There are reportedly more African scientists and engineers working in the United States than in the entire African continent.

The result of this brain drain is widening disparity between the developing and the developed countries in talents essential to develop economies and expand industries.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

ICT: Deepening the Divide

The new buzzword in the field of training and education today is ICT. Wherever we go, we see ICT being held up as the solution to power up the economy, upgrade human capital and eradicate poverty.

Bring ICT in and a country will become prosperous, so they claim.

So in many parts of the developing world, the focus of Governments over the last 10 years has been to equip people with ICT skills because many saw it as the ‘magic bullet’ that would catapult them into the Information Age.

Unfortunately, most people in poor and developing countries live in very under-developed rural areas where they are usually the last to have any form of infrastructure, never mind access to the Internet. ICT has not been the salvation as many had predicted.

When many poor countries, including several Commonwealth countries have an Internet penetration rate of only 1 or 2 or 3%, ICT has instead deepened the divide between the rich and the poor even within countries, let alone the huge divide between developed countries and countries struggling to develop.

To break out of the trap, they will need money to acquire the knowledge, skills and sophisticated tools, and that is something they do not have.

They will need electric power and the technologies to run the modern tools, and again these means are lacking because their countries do not have the money to provide them.

The technologies of the Internet, which have enabled the rich economies to create amazing new wealth, remain a dream to the vast majority of people in the developing world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Jobs Creation and the Changing Role of Education

Since education in the poorer countries is not well developed and not universally available, empowerment programmes must be based on a strategy that will get as many people as possible into work that generates an income, and they must be based on knowledge and skills that are indigenous to the rural population, which comprises the bulk of the poor in developing countries.

It must be so if we are to get moving quickly. We must be able to hit the ground running, and not spend years putting up buildings!

The rural economy runs on know-ledge and skills that are thousands of years old. Adding new knowledge and new skills of the modern era will, undoubtedly, transform the sector to perform more vibrantly.

There must be a focus on development of human capital to rejuvenate the agricultural sector and expand the craft industry.

By introducing modern techniques and technology and skill training, the craft sector can very quickly begin to generate more job opportunities.

There are no limits to the upside potential of these sectors – in creating jobs, enhancing productivity and cultivating high value-add activities.

The local people should be trained to do what they have been doing for ages and to do them better.

To train them to do something totally new to them will require costly investment in new technologies and new infrastructure.

For many developing countries, this would inevitably mean borrowing funds and falling deeper into the poverty trap.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

New Vision of Education

For some time now, I have believed that we should redefine what it means to be educated, who gets to be educated and how young people are educated to meet the needs of a fast changing world.

And I have always felt that bridges in education must be built between the East and the West. I see them as the two sides of the same coin.

I have always felt that it is important to create a two-way traffic in education between Asia and the world. Not one way, with the students heading west but two-way with students heading east too.

I believe it is important to reverse the flow because an education with a Western bias is no longer sufficient in today’s globalised world.

With powerful economies rising in the East, a strictly Western-centric education is no longer sufficient even for people living in the West.

If you know only one side of the world but not the other, you will spend your lives knowing only half the story, seeing only half the picture and missing out on half the opportunities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

British Education System

Many governments of the Commonwealth adopted the British system of education wholesale even after independence because the systems and methodologies were already in place.

It was a one-size-fits-all solution that worked at that time. The British system, as good as it was, is not applicable to many Commonwealth countries that are struggling to develop.

What was common, was really not common at all.

It did not take into account the differing socio-economic development stages of the countries.

It did not take into account that other than a colonial past, most of these countries had little in common in terms of heritage and traditions with the West. What we have in common is our history, our bonds to Great Britain and the legacy of the English Language.

It did not take into account that in many parts of the Commonwealth, a Western-style education was accessible only to the wealthy and the privileged - in a nutshell, the elite.

This reinforced and strengthened the divide between rich and poor people within a country and between communities.

Where some countries have gone wrong, I believe, is that when it became increasingly clear that this did not address their peculiar circumstances, the common reaction was to throw more money after the ‘problem’ in the hope that it would either go away, or be solved.

But problems don’t go away, they fester and become bigger problems.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Time to Reinvent?

By their very nature, governments are old school, orthodox and reluctant to change.

They find comfort in time-tested practices and rely on strict compliance to keep the status quo.

Breaking the norm is not to be encouraged.

Many times, the very people who are in education, don’t want to be 'educated'.

I am sure, however, that this does not describe any of you in this room. But perhaps you know someone for whom the shoe fits.

Some may say don’t fix what isn’t broken.

What then do we call education systems that are at odds with the reality of life for most of the world?

Experts tell us that every healthy child is born with 100 billion active brain cells. We know that the first six years of a child’s life are the most important, a time when their brain and nervous system development are being hard-wired.

Against the backdrop of the earlier data that I shared with you, we also know that many children are only in school for six years of their lives.

If that is the reality, and we stick to standardized one-size-for-all systems, are we not ignoring the needs of many?

Should we not instead devise a system where if a person only goes to school for six years, then he or she must at the very least gain the ability to read, write and learn one skill so as to become employable?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Commonwealth turned 60 years old in April this year.

The theme for the anniversary is "Serving A New Generation" - in reference to the 1 billion people under the age of 25 in Commonwealth countries.

A billion is a big number, so allow me if you will to put a more human face on this and some other statistics to contextualize the theme for this part of the conference.

The Commonwealth as we know, is a family of 53 countries from all major continents of the world – some rich, some poor, some big, some small.

Within it, 18 members are from Africa, eight from Asia and the rest made up of countries in Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands.

The Commonwealth has a quarter of the world’s countries; a third of its population; a fifth of its trade and a billion young people.

Of that number, it is common knowledge that five countries – UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are the richest in the Commonwealth.

In preparing for this paper, we tried getting some statistics about the GDP, education and poverty levels but unfortunately that information is not available on the Commonwealth website.

So, we did some data mining of our own to attempt to extrapolate some numbers that give us a snapshot of life for most people in the Commonwealth, using world statistics by agencies like the UN and the World Bank:

If we have one-third of the world’s population, then:

3 billion people living on less than US$1 a day, means 1 billion people live in abject poverty in the Commonwealth

1 billion illiterate in the world, means there are 330 million illiterate people in the Commonwealth

Within the Commonwealth, 12 countries are on UN's list of 49 Least Developed Countries.

From this data, we can clearly see a picture that's telling us there is much to be done.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Uncommon Commonwealth

Wealth is certainly not common among Commonwealth countries.

In many Commonwealth countries, millions have commonly never stepped into a classroom.

In the poorer Commonwealth countries, enrollment and completion ratios of education are among the lowest in the world.

What is very clear is that very few get started and ever fewer make it to the finishing line.

The question we must ask ourselves is - after 60 years of presumably working for the Common-Wealth of our nations - why is the prevailing 'commonality' that of poverty and inequality?

Why is the gap widening, and why are the divides deepening?

The question we need to ask ourselves must be: In education, are we doing enough? And it’s not just about whether we are spending enough.

What are we not doing or need to stop doing to make education meaningful or relevant in the poorest countries where most people live in rural areas and have no access to the Internet? The fact is many have never ever heard a telephone dial tone.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A New Commonwealth Model

I have pointed out some rather uncommon truths about the Commonwealth.

Let me now run past you some truths that are truly common.

What is common is that every young person in the world - whether he or she is in Maseru or London wants the same opportunities to have a good quality of life.

What is common is that they have the same dreams and the same hopes.

What is common is that they want to be recognized for their unique gifts and talents, and be respected for their heritage and their traditions.

Precisely because of this, education must lie at the heart of change so that the trajectory of our common futures is one of common prosperity and mutual respect.

Good intentions alone are not good enough.

What we need to do, I feel, is to review, revamp and re-invent the development and delivery of education, allowing for greater flexibility and creativity.

I believe it is time for a new Commonwealth model to be considered.

One that effectively accommodates the different needs of different countries; one that builds first the people and then the economy.

This reinvention must happen if there is to be transformation so that every young person is purposefully educated, and has a part to play and a stake in moving their country forward.

This I see as an urgent mission.

Urgent because holding on to irrelevant systems and models will continue to serve only a tiny fraction of the populations of the Commonwealth – further stirring dissent, frustrations and hopelessness – all key ingredients for anger and conflict.

Urgent because only by unleashing the massive talents of 1 billion young people and opening up opportunities to them, can we truly say we have achieved the Common - Wealth which literally means our "common well-being."

That was the founding principle of this organization.

It should be our common mission going forward if we are to stay true to the spirit of that word – Commonwealth.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank you for the opportunity.