Time remaining for ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to be introduced can be counted in days. Only in 4 months, AEC will officially be in effect, creating a region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and free flow of capital between ASEAN country members: Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

In the education sector, as well as other businesses, Vietnam has not paid attention well enough in preparing for regional integration (*). Last summer, the Department of Education of Ho Chi Minh City held a professional training program for administrators of the vocational schools, with focus on the challenges and oppoturnities for the vocational sector when Vietnam enters ASEAN labor market.

However, within its higher education system, Vietnam has not had a single movement toward preparing for the above context. In the meantime, other countries in the region have moved on with significant steps aimed at exploring opportunities AEC will bring, and preparing for responding to challenges.

Among these catching oppoturnities efforts it is Malaysia’s Global Reach Forum, held by National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN) and taken place in Penang, Malaysia, 01.09.2015. There were speakers from Indonesia, Vietnam and academics from several Malaysia’s universities and research institutes. The forum was aimed at discussing ideas and proposals that promote regional partnerships. Dr. Ly Pham, Director of Center for Higher Education Evaluation and Research, Nguyen Tat Thanh University, was among key presenters at the Forum.

Below is a review of the discussions at the Forum. I would like to express its gratitude to the IPPTN for financial sponsorship so that I can make  my attendance  possible. I am also grateful for the visit of IPPTN delegation last July to the Nguyen Tat Thanh University. This was an excellent opportunity for our faculty members to better understand Malaysia’ higher education.

Ly Pham

(*) According to a study by Institute of South East Asian Studies (Singapore) conducted in 2013, most of Vietnamese businesses had limited awareness of AEC: 76% of the respondents know nothing about AEC; 63% of the respondents said AEC has no impact or little influence on their businesses. This is the largest percentage recorded among ASEAN countries.

Reflections on “Malaysia’ Global Reach Forum” held by National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN) in Penang, Malaysia, 01.09.2015


Phạm Thị Ly (2015)

Among Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Malaysia belongs to ASEAN-6 that is a group of six more developed countries. In terms of GDP, Malaysia stands third out of ten, only behind Brunei and Singapore, least percentage of poverty rate, only 3.8% population living with under 1USD per day. Education expenditure accounts for 21.3% of the total state budget and 5.1% GDP. Compared to Vietnam, Malaysia posses the same geopgraphic area, one third of population. However, GNI per capita is five times greater. Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with GDP growing an average of 6.5 percent annually during last five decades. Malaysia’s economy in 2014–2015 was one of the most competitive in Asia, ranking 6th in Asia and 20th in the world – higher than countries like Australia, France and South Korea. The economy of Malaysia (GDP PPP) in 2014 was the third largest in ASEAN and the 28th largest in the world. Its economic development was based on natural resources but has been transferring into science, trading, tourism and healthcare.

Malaysian tertiary education system consists of 20 public and 37 private universities, 400 private colleges. Over 50 percent of students study in public sector. Most of public school uses Bahasa Malaysia as language of instruction while private school uses English instead. Vocational schools do not grant degrees. University degrees must comply the requirements set out by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), a state agency that is delegated the prohrams accreditation.

National Higher Education Research Institute (Institut Penyelidikan Pendidikan Tinggi Negara – IPPTN) is a think-tank affiliated with University Sains Malaysia (USM) that has the mission of research and consulting on the higher education policy development to the Malaysia Ministry of Education. During 20 years of establishment, IPPTN has contributed greatly in promoting policy studies and being a bridge for scholarly exchanges   between international and Malaysian academics.

Malaysia’ Global Reach Forum held by IPPTN in Penang, 01. 09. 2015, is an endeavour of IPPTN aimed at sharing knowledge and experiences, and looking into how university-community engagement can contribute in boosting the prosperity in our regions and the wider world. Focus is on the countries in the region, given the fact that ASEAN Economic Community will take effect at the end of this year. The forum’ participants include representatives of several universities and research institutes in Malaysia, two international speakers from Indonesia and Vietnam. Deputy Director General, Higher Education Department, Ministry of Education Malaysia, Datin Paduka IR DR Siti Hamisah Tapsir, did not only attend and give the opening speech but also actively joined the discussions during the event. Her participation expressed the commitment of Malaysia Ministry of Education in this endeavor.

Malaysia visions

In the opening remark, the Deputy Director General, Higher Education Department asserted that mutual sharing and exchanging of knowledge especially in higher education will facilitate countries involved to work effectively together in a tightly competitive global platform.

ASEAN, as a region, has many potentials to grow and yet Malaysian’s often look beyond this region to find resources and inspirations. To do so, there are six clusters in Malaysia’s Global Reach Programmes: My Expert (specialist/experts exchange), MySkill (initiating several programs that reflect Malaysia’ commitment to third world development through technology transfer and skills exchange), MyAlumni (cultivating closer tie between foreign students and their local peers, thereby promoting collaborations between individuals as well as institutions in the global arena), MyFellow (encouraging networking by facilitating the conduct of extension programs and the exchange of alumni as ambassadors), MyOdyssey (boosting international trade and attracting investment to Malaysia by showcasing Malaysian higher education programs on the global stage, hightlighting Malaysia’s tertiary institutions’ expertises) and MyCommunity (engaging communities everywhere via the dissemination of knowledge, skills and expertises).

The success of these programs shows that adopting “soft power” as an approach is a constructive decision, the Deputy Director General said. Those frameworks are important initiatives to provide complementing strategies in positioning Malaysian higher education on the global map.

Focus of the forum, as the Director of IPPTN, Professor Ahmad Nurulazam Md. Zain said, is the concept of community engagement: “Community engagement presents an opportunity for a country not only to serve the community needs at national level, but also to extend its community outreach regionally and globally. Through this, the country will be able to build an expanding partnership with the global community through global reach, and at the same time to create mutually beneficial relationships between parties and communities involved”. The establishment of the ‘ASEAN Economic Community’ will create a shared vision for the Southeast Asian nations to enhance people-to-people relations and expand existing markets in this region. There is no doubt higher education sector will play a critical role in this process.

Evaluating the six clusters above, the Director of IPPTN argued that this program has enabled Malaysia to play a key role in global engagement in higher education whereby the soft power approach is utilized to develop the trust and confidence of partner countries towards the capability of Malaysian higher education system. The program is facilitated through several internationalization activities, such as mobility programs, service learning, and collaboration in education and training involving several partner countries, including Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Policy research plays a vital role in sustaining higher education system. Therefore, with support of Malaysia Ministry of Education, IPPTN is committed to undertake relevant policy research with the main aim to accelerate the development of public and private higher education institutions towards global centre for higher education. Professor Ahmad Nurulazam Md. Zain also highlighted that the institution has worked on many research related to issues of both national and international importance, such as governance of public universities, higher education and community engagement, comparative international education, economics of education, and curriculum development. IPPTN also has been conducting policy research analysis on CLMV countries since 1997 in which these engagement activities focus on the exchange of knowledge, experience, and information on higher education in order to explore opportunities for research collaborations in developing ties between Malaysia and CLMV countries.

It is obvious that ASEAN comprises multi-lingual communities from different countries with diverse first languages; there are indeed many challenges to build a sustainable platform for regional community engagement. Therefore we will need an effective mechanism for building an extensive and strategic long-term partnership between ASEAN countries to serve the socio-economic growth of the region. This can be obtained via increasing discussion and exchange ideas that occurred at the forum.

Projects that are connecting countries in the region in domain of higher education to community

Professor Azirah Hashim (University of Malaya) presented an on-going proposal on CLMV funded by the World Bank. CLMV consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, however the activities to date have been taken place in Cambodia and Laos only.

Following is a list of example programs:

  • Ministry of Education Malaysia’s CLMV initiative to network and collaborate with the Cambodian counterparts in research areas (basic and tertiary education development to IT infrastructure, woman sexual health, energy and sustainable development, and the role of government-linked companies in the post-crisis global economy.
  • In Cambodia, UM in collaboration with the University of Southeast Asia (USEA), Siem Reap secured a World Bank grant to develop a curriculum for the tourism and hospitality program that corresponds to the demands of the industry through employer survey and graduate feedback. This also involved other university partners from Thailand (Ubon Ratchathani University and Dhurakit Pundit University) and China (Liaoning Technical University), as well as Sokha Angkor Hotel in Cambodia and the Siem Reap Department of Tourism. Among this program, two intensive workshops on curriculum development and teaching methodologies were conducted with the help of UM experts and tourism consultants.
  • Training of the Trainers Programme for Cambodia and Laos aimed at capacity building, via research knowledge and skills development, a grassroots approach which empowers potential academics to cultivate a healthy research culture and leadership at the local context;

In Indonesia, Malaysia’s community engagement is presented through a case study: the evaluation of the 2004 Tsunami aid, impact and its gab remains in Aceh, Indonesia, by Chairui Fahmi (The Aceh Institute, Indonesia). Tsunami 2004 was a natural disaster in which there were 150,000 deaths approximately; about 60,000 people were homeless. The study has shown the activities that were taken and their impacts to the Aceh community long after the disaster.

The scale of the damages to the local economy, infrastructure and people were unprecedented. Malaysia’s aid was not just over 6 millions USD but emergency aid (just one day after the tsunami) and supporting the rebuilding Aceh after that. The Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation helped more than 10,000 orphans, and Malaysia government provided jobs for more than 40,000 Acehnese to work in Malaysia. The agencies still keep contacts with the beneficiaries to sustain the assistance. 

New oppoturnities for Vietnam

Vietnam Malaysia relations date to at least the 15th century. Significant landmarks in recent development of the partnership are: (i) an agreement between the ambassadors of Malaysia and Vietnam obtained in 1975, then in the following year, Malaysia first opened its embassy in Hanoi, while Vietnam also opened its embassy in Kuala Lumpur; (ii) In 2015, Malaysia and Vietnam signed a joint statement on strategic partnership in economic as well a memorandum of understanding on other cooperation. Just few weeks ago, the two Prime Ministers signed an agreement to design an action program for the next 3 years to implement contents of the strategic partnership.

Economic cooperation slowly resumed from 1988. A joint commission meeting between the countries in 1996 allowed Malaysian skilled and semi-skilled workers to enter Vietnam. Since 2002, Vietnamese workers have entered Malaysia labor market to provide labor for expanding Malaysian manufacturing sector. By 2011, the number of Vietnamese work permit holders in Malaysia was almost 100,000. They work in construction, housekeeping, agriculture and the service sector.

The two countries have the same area, but Vietnam population is 3 times greater and GDP is 5 times less than that of Malaysia. The implication is that, there is much room to grow for Vietnam. And when AEC was introduced at the end of this year, the free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and freer flow of capital will create great business opportunities for both sides in improving such a situation in Vietnam.

Malaysia has 498 projects with 11 billions USD investment. Vietnam has 11 projects in Malaysia with total investment of 820 million USD. Two-way trade revenue was approximately 8.1 billions USD in 2014. With such a scale of working projects, Malaysia currently is the eighth largest investor in Vietnam. The importance is that, the investment has been increasing year by year, and is very encouraging.

In education, the total number of Vietnamese students studying in Malaysia was 500, as seen as very humble comparing with 117,000 international students studying in Malaysia at the present. The total number of partnership programs with Malaysia, which approved by the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training taken place in Vietnamese HEIs was xxx, xxx percentage of 400 international partnership programs throughout Vietnam by June 2015.

These above evidences show a great room for both sides to explore for mutual benefits.

What does Vietnam need?  

In the domain of education, there are two urgent needs: to improve labor productivity, and innovation/research capacity.

According to International Labor Organisation, Vietnam’s labor productivity measured in PPP (purchasing power parity) for 2012 was lower by a factor of 18 than Singapore, 11 than South Korea, 3.2 than China, and 1.8 than Indonesia and the Philippines. It requests fundamental reforms in education and training to improve the situation.

A study conducted by Manpowergroup in 2011 pointed out that there are gaps in foreign language, computer and financial proficiency, innovation and the ability to motivate others. As they highlighted, these areas have been increasingly important to success because they enable companies to solve problems and create new products and services faster than the competition.

Vietnam’s literacy rate is high, at 93 percent, and primary net enrollment rate is also up to 98 per cent. PISA scored of the Vietnamese 15-year-old students was higher than the OECD average in mathematics and science. Therefore, Vietnam is well placed to meet the demand for low-skilled workers in the coming decades, but more needs to be done to prepare their workers for medium-skill employment.

Another study conducted by the World Bank in 2014 found that Vietnam has plenty of workers who can perform simple tasks, but lacking personnel in a number of areas where more education is necessary. These skills may be instrumental to a company’s success. The country will need more technical workers to operate sophisticated machinery.

About one in four respondents said that Vietnam workers lacked knowledge of materials, production, products and services. About one in five said that workers lacked knowledge of safety or an ability to adapt to new technology.

The chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City said that a shortage of skilled workers was one of the reasons some Korean companies had not been able to upgrade their factories in Vietnam. He said, “We planned to move advanced machinery to Vietnam but we could not find enough technical workers to operate the machines. We need skilled labor but the skilled labor is not enough. Vietnam needs more schools to provide training to workers, even basic skill training.”

ASEAN Economic Community introduced at the end of 2015, will also drive demand for different skills level, with medium-skill employment to increase the most, the International Labor Organization said in a new report. According to this report, between 2010 and 2025, demand for medium-skill employment will increase by 28 percent, compared to 23 percent in low-skill employment and 13 per cent in high-skill jobs, in Vietnam.

The ManpowerGroup/TNS survey found that high shortage of technical expertise was present in the healthcare, construction, transportation and logistics, and chemicals industries. This is not to underestimate serious skills gaps at the management level. These include foreign language proficiency, general management and motivational skills, ability to develop and manage resources, delegating responsibilities and dealing with problems.

The situation suggested that cooperations in TVET and improving learning outcomes of the university degrees would be very important especially in free movement of labor market between ASEAN after 2015.

The Vietnam TVET system has invested one hundred million USD a year, but the outcomes are still limited due to (i) lack of appropriate structure that allows the two options of academic and professional oriented in general education system; (ii) lack of international integration and systematic; (iii) lack of engagement with industries therefore the learning outcomes and employment prospects are not sustainable.

Cooperation with Malaysia’ institutions can help to deal with these shortcomings, especially technical support in training vocational teachers and building connections with Malaysian industries/projects located in Vietnam, to improve the quality of trainning blue-colar workers.

In research, Malaysia is located in a much higher position than Vietnam. Analysis of research productivity in last two decades, Tuan Nguyen and Ly Pham (2011) showed that ASEAN countries make up three distinction clusters: Singapore stays alone on top; the next cluster is Malaysia and Thailand; the third group includes Vietnam, Indonesia, and Philippines; and the bottom group consists of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (Figure 1). The gaps are quite remarkable between clusters. However, Malaysia and Thailand have just emerged impressively since 2000, before then the gap between them and Vietnam is insignificant. It means Malaysia goes beyond Vietnam not quite far and it has experienced all challenges that Vietnam is facing in building research capacity. This would be an advantage when working together in the projects that are of interests of both sides.

Figure 1. Number of publications 1990-2010 of the six ASEAN countries

(Tuan Nguyen, Ly Pham, Scientometrics 2011)

Forms of cooperations

Student exchanges, short-term training, professional development courses, English for special purposes, traditional partnerships programs 2+2; 3+1, etc. are those in need and can be done per requested.

Internship in mutual countries, credit transfer and non-credit transfer, recognition of qualification system require more preparation. At present, ASEAN countries allow labor in only 8 fields of expertise (auditing, architecture, engineering, dentists, medical doctors, nursing, inspectors, and tourist guide) that skilled labors can move freely for employment in the region right after AEC introduced based on agreements on mutual recognition of skills and expertises. This list will certainly be expanded. In the long run, in order to have Vietnamese qualifications recognized, it is necessary to develop skill requirements for each level in a way that consistent with regional practices. To date, ASEAN 4, that is CMLV, are those have not had national skills and qualifications framework. Among them, Vietnam is most challenged due to the lack of preparation and the complexity of the system. Vietnamese qualifications system is seen as the most complicated in the world. Its training curriculum is theorical focused, lack of practicing and experiencing, lack of skills development and engaging with industries. Those are barriers for recognition equivalent qualifications, let alone the practice of fraudulent such as “buying scores”, “impersonation learning” (học hộ), “surrogate test taking”(thi thuê)[1] etc. which undermines society’s trust onto the value of the degrees and causing troubles to regional integration.

Mutual recognition of the qualifications based on competency requirements and standards. However to obtain such an output, many other factors are required: qualified curriculum, teaching methodologies, learning environment, and infrastructure. To ensure these conditions, it must have adequate resources and good governance. Therefore, to be able to integrate into the global arena, education sector must be transformed. Technical assistance of Malaysia can help promoting this process by learning from each other.

Other influences – oppoturnities and challenges

AEC puts extensive pressure for higher education reform in Vietnam. Studying in Malaysia has several advantages: English speaking environment, affordable living expenses, easy travel between two countries, global recognition qualifications and employment prospect regionally with better income are those attract more and more students, especially when tuition fees increasing in domestic institutions.

One concern is that AEC will bring more threats than oppoturnities, as Vietnamese competitiveness is still poor. This is partly true. However risks and oppoturnities are just two sides of a coin. Every oppoturnity might contain its risks, and risks might open a new door for positive thinking people.

In the context of globalization, cooperation is the best way to avoid lagging behind. For Vietnam, regional integration is an irreversible process. No one can be standing alone in this global world. The risks noted above put pressure on reforming higher education and vocational training system to meet the needs of free movement in labor market. This will create motivations for the learners, when skills equipped are seen as providing better employment and income oppturnities. Total individual movement will create a driving force to a system. However, we will also need to create conditions for transforming a degree-oriented system into flexible and practical system in which learners want to obtain skills and knowledge not just merely a degree.


Malaysia has obtained impressive achievements in socio-economic development thanks to its vision and soon realizing the importance of global engagement. Given AEC coming at the end of 2015, Malaysia actively explores the oppoturnities. The six clusters of Malaysia’ Global Reach Programme (MyExpert, MySkill, MyAlumni, MyFellow, MyOdyssey, MyCommunity) reflect Malaysia’s endeavors in global outreach, which based on cooperation across institutions, disciplines, and nations, aimed at expansion borders of knowledge and meeting the needs of the third world. Slogan of these programs is “ Touching lives and Transforming Futures”.

Being a strategic partner of Malaysia, Vietnam can take advantage of these opportunities in promoting students exchanges, capacity-building programs, doing comparative researches, and many other initiatives for benefit of both sides.

Penang, Sept 2, 2015.








[1] “Học hộ”, “thi thuê” are common fraud recently emerged in Vietnam, in which someone pay for someone else to go to school or to take the test using the name of the payer, so that this person will have the degrees without learning and passing tests.