Address at the University of Malaya (Malaysia)
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, November 14, 2011
Thank you for extending to me such a warm welcome. I am delighted to have the chance to visit this historic institution, and to learn more about your vision for the future.
Allow me to begin with a few words on diplomacy. Canada was among the first nations in the world to recognize Malaysia’s independence in 1957, and since that time, the people of our two nations have developed close relations in many spheres.
One of our important areas of co-operation is in the realm of higher learning, and this is where I would like to focus today. For years, Malaysian and Canadian students have been enthusiastic participants in exchange and study-abroad programs, and we have a wonderful opportunity—an obligation, in fact—to strengthen and deepen these ties today.
And not just with each other, but with institutions and partners throughout the world—and in our own backyards.
We must practise the diplomacy of knowledge.
The diplomacy of knowledge works on many levels—local, regional, national and international—and when we achieve the right mixture of expertise, creativity, collaboration and communication, remarkable things can happen.
I have a deep love of learning, and I believe in the universal power of education to change lives for the better. In fact, prior to becoming governor general, I spent the bulk of my life in school, as a student, an educator and, most recently, as a university vice-chancellor for almost 27 years. Few people today would disagree that a highly educated nation is a civic and prosperous one, and in the interconnected world of the 21st century, where our social, economic and environmental ties are so important, there can be no true education in isolation.
Globalization, and the communications revolution brought about by the rise of the Internet, provides us with an opportunity to realize the promise of learning on a global scale.
Of course, each of us lives in an immediate community that sustains us and makes us unique, and I want to emphasize the importance of being aware of our local needs, goals and abilities—and of the great significance of cities in our rapidly changing world.
Cities are the hubs of knowledge and the drivers of creativity, and in this era of globalization, hundreds of millions of people are on the move from rural to urban areas. As Canadian journalist Doug Saunders has written, “The last time humans made such a dramatic migration, in Europe and the New World between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, the direct effect was a complete reinvention of human thought, governance, technology and welfare.”
And so, we must pay close attention to our cities—cities such as Kuala Lumpur—and to the critical role the university—this university—can play in building a smarter, more caring world.
As Canadian academic George Fallis pointed out, “The university has always belonged to the borderless world of ideas,” but the globalization of the 21st century allows universities to join this borderless world in unprecedented ways. As students, educators and leaders, we can play an important role in creating the world that is taking shape. It is a significant moment in human history, and, as with any shift of this magnitude, we are faced with new risks and new opportunities. Our success depends upon our ability to think and lead creatively in a rapidly changing global context. We must be strategic and we must work collaboratively in planning for the mid- and long-term.
Knowing this, how should we proceed, apart from providing the best possible education to students? As I have indicated, universities can and must be leaders in fostering collaboration at all levels. Our aim must be to differentiate ourselves by developing and building on local strengths and expertise, while constantly seeking new partnerships and opportunities further afield and internationally.
In Canada, a number of universities, businesses and communities have achieved remarkable success in this manner, simultaneously drawing from their roots and adopting a global outlook.
For example, let me tell you about the relatively small Canadian city of Waterloo, where I spent a number of years as president of the University of Waterloo. This community of several hundred thousand people is innovating in remarkable ways. It is home to the largest faculty of mathematics and computer science in the world, with over 6,000 students involved in co-operative education and industry partnerships. Waterloo also hosts the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing, which are poised to be 21st-century leaders in theoretical physics and quantum computing—the next, great frontier in information processing.
Over the past four decades, humankind has multiplied by a millionfold the information that can be stored on a semiconductor chip, but, as predicted by Moore’s Law, we now need a new platform to continue that remarkable progress. Quantum computing has the potential to do exactly that.
Another outstanding example is Newfoundland and Labrador’s College of the North Atlantic and its partnership with the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. The College, which is now Qatar’s leading comprehensive technical school, employs more than 600 Canadians on its campus in Doha and is home to 7,000 students from around the world. The College secured its place in Qatar’s remarkable “Education City” by making a strategic commitment to continuous innovation in research and education, and to exceptional collaboration with the State of Qatar and with local employers. Decision makers in Qatar were also impressed with the College’s flexibility, practical skills and willingness to collaborate, and with its ties to local communities.
I recount these stories not to focus unduly on achievements in Canada but rather to share with you some recent experiences at the intersection of globalization and education. What these examples demonstrate is that, in today’s world, leading educational institutions are at the forefront of several key frontiers:
As I indicated earlier, universities must strive to build ties between local businesses, community groups and learning institutions. In short, they must practise the diplomacy of knowledge at the local and regional levels to identify and broadly share specific needs and goals.
To do this effectively, universities must understand the dynamics of the 21st-century knowledge economy, where education, research and innovation are more valued and intersect more closely than ever. The best way to enhance knowledge is to share it widely, which is why the development of creative clusters is so important. I often like to illustrate this by pointing to the crest of the coat of arms I was granted upon becoming governor general, which features the image of a burning candle. In Thomas Jefferson’s wonderful phrasing, the flame symbolizes not only enlightenment, but also the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. By learning and by sharing what we know, we collectively strengthen and enlighten our communities and our country.
Finally, universities must rededicate themselves to their role in transmitting the civilization of the past to that of the future, in order to ensure that the traditions and cultures that constitute our unique contribution to the world are understood and respected. And within the university itself, we must never lose sight of our commitment to democracy, academic freedom and learning for its own sake.
At this point we may ask ourselves: what is the common thread that unites these various learning frontiers into a single horizon? The answer, I believe, is communication.
The revolution in global communications introduces new possibilities for dialogue and makes knowledge accessible as never before. Remember, it took three centuries for the printing press in Western Europe to reach a majority of its population, whereas the Internet needed only a decade from 1995 to reach a majority of the world’s population.
This means that we need not be in the physical, financial or population centres to succeed. It does, however, make it imperative for us to redouble our efforts to reach out and communicate, both with our neighbours and partners at home, and internationally.
Our experience in Canada has also taught us that communications can be a powerful tool in uniting people of differing backgrounds across vast distances, and a similar effect can be observed today across international borders. Communications is the vehicle for our diplomacy of knowledge, and those who are adept at exploiting and enhancing our ability to communicate will be leaders in the 21st century.
What other practical steps can we take to position ourselves at the leading edge of post-secondary education today? One is to promote international exchanges and study-abroad programs for students, and to invite those from abroad into our classrooms. Such experiences expose both student and host alike to new and stimulating ideas and perspectives, while fostering ties between nations and institutions. And the demand for international study is on the rise: according to UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, nearly 3 million students now spend more than one year studying outside their home countries; the number increased by 57 percent between 1999 and 2009.
I can draw on my own experience in this regard, having had the good fortune to study abroad in the United States and the United Kingdom during my student days. Those experiences of living in another country have served me well, as have the experiences of my five daughters—all five of whom began exchanges at age 12. They are proud Canadians, but they are also citizens of the world. These experiences have helped them become more tolerant and respectful of diversity and difference, and better critical thinkers in the best sense.
As John Kao points out in his book Innovation Nation, schools must support students in developing “cultural intelligence” through multilingualism, international experience and respect for and appreciation of diversity. I believe that enhanced study abroad and exchange programs are one of the best hopes for our future, because it is these students who will practise the diplomacy of knowledge and spur the social and technological innovations to come.
A final, practical suggestion is to renew our focus on the teaching of critical thinking, problem solving and creative skills. Such abilities are vital in preparing students to adapt and respond intelligently to our unpredictable but undoubtedly complex future.
One more thing: if you take nothing else away from my remarks today, please remember the importance of teaching and of teachers to our societies. We must cherish our teachers, for it is they who take it upon themselves to coach, guide and instruct us and our children.
Here in Malaysia, you have such wonderful teachers, as well as a rich history of higher education. I was delighted to learn about the great and exciting strides you have made in recent times in learning and in fostering diversity and multiculturalism. These are some of the key ingredients to success in today’s world. I applaud your hard work and dedication.
I close by emphasizing the notion of the diplomacy of knowledge and its importance to our collective future. Our civic well-being and prosperity in the 21st century will depend on our ability to learn and to innovate.
I would like to conclude with my favourite lines from George Bernard Shaw:
“Some people see things as they are and wonder ‘Why?’
We dream of things that ought to be and ask, ‘Why not?’”