The argument over whether or not we should send Malaysians overseas for education under government scholarship is currently raging. As revealed yesterday, Azalina Othman Said pointed out that the government managed to save RM240 million this year by opting out of sending 744 students overseas.
Instead, these students will be educated locally in both private and public universities.
Granted, learning locally is an option for many Malaysians, and sending students overseas is expensive. At the same time, there are also multiple privately managed scholarship plans for students to further their studies.
Similarly, there are also scholarship opportunities for those who wish to further their education on a postgraduate level, such as the British Chevening Scholarship programme.
However, what is being denied here is more than just the ability to access a classroom or lecture hall somewhere in the US and the United Kingdom.
It is denying young Malaysians to learn more in the form of culture, sociology and even urban planning.
Personally, I was never given this chance. My overseas trips have always been for work and also as a tourist on my own dime.
But seeing it through the eyes of students would allow them a longer period to think of how and what other nations - mostly developed nations - are doing for the betterment of society as a whole which can be implemented here in Malaysia.
There are multiple concepts that are currently being marketed overseas that are not applicable in Malaysia. For one thing, how student discounts work wholesale in societies such as London and how different this is in Malaysia.
At the same time, it allows students to take a look at multiple issues from public transport to how foreign nations look at long-term welfare plans such as universal healthcare or even food stamps.
This is a huge student welfare issue, especially here when we recently saw the ‘Mahasiswa Lapar’ take place. From books to food to public transport to even theatre, students are given multiple discounts.
There is also the valuation of culture and how much it is marketed, maintained and even made accessible to their own population as well as foreigners.
It is also the ability for students to gauge sociological interactions and how cities are constantly trying to keep up in balancing work and life, as well as nature and development - something you can even see in Vancouver or London.
Heck, it even allows our future generation to consider issues regarding economics, and how governments balance out costs of maintaining a welfare state in which goods are expensive, taxes are high, and yet you have a happy population - as is the case with Denmark, France and even the United Kingdom.
They will also be able to take a peek at how a proper work-life balance system works and how much it is appreciated in these countries - something Malaysia should begin to emulate even now with the increasing issues of mental health cropping up.
Also about experiencing a life that is alien
Thus, learning overseas is not just about ‘learning overseas’.
It is about experiencing a way of life that is alien. It is stepping out of our comfort zones to the point that even escalators seem to be moving faster, but at the same time appreciating different cultures and embracing such a huge diversity of these that it expands your worldly horizons.
It is a chance to learn new languages which is in fact beneficial for mental prowess.
Heck, it’s about learning that there is a need for a scarf and warm jackets other than to complete a hipster look, at the very least.
But more than all this, it allows Malaysians to bond internationally with people from all over the world. True, there will be Malaysians that will just be chummy with only other Malaysians, but you will also find others who will be curious enough to mingle with others and partake in long conversations and friendships that last a lifetime.
And we know that this matters. And we know that Azalina at least knows this much considering how she furthered her studies at the London School of Economics and is even a listed donor in their magazine last year.
And we all know that this has historically benefited Malaysians because we have multiple high-ranking officials in government departments and agencies, and the private sector who were beneficiaries of these scholarships in the past, some of them even becoming current ministers in the government.
So why are we denying future generations the same experience?
If it purely an issue of costs, there are multiple overruns in the Prime Minister’s Department itself. For example, what use is the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) and Jabatan Perpaduan Negara, and why is this not part of the Communications and Multimedia Ministry’s portfolio?
Our government should reconsider that in times of austerity, for our future’s sake, they should keep their hands off the education and health budgets at all times.
The fact that these two were the first to be cut - with the scholarships removed and even a hospital in Perlis being axed - raises the question of whether this truly is a people-centric government or one that is caring for the economy regardless of everything else.