Address at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (University of Science Malaysia)
Penang, Malaysia, Wednesday, November 16, 2011
I was very moved by the message of knowledge and learning.
Thank you for warmly welcoming me to your campus. I am delighted to have the chance to visit this impressive institution of higher learning, and to learn more about your vision for the future.
I was last here 30 years ago. I am seeing such wonderful changes.
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 spheres of co-operation is in the realm of higher learning, and I would like to focus today on this important theme of collaboration and education.
For years, Malaysian and Canadian students have been enthusiastic participants in study-abroad programs—for example, through the successful exchange program you operate with the University of Lethbridge. And we have a wonderful opportunity—an obligation, in fact—to strengthen and deepen our 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, 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 Penang—and to the critical role the university—this university—can play in building a smarter, more caring world.
Knowing this, how should we proceed, apart from providing the best possible education to students? 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.
The common element is communication, and that includes but is not restricted to the use of new communications technologies. After all, there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue when trying to build trust and common cause.
In other words, we must talk to each other!
In Canada, a number of universities, businesses and communities have achieved remarkable success in this way, simultaneously drawing from their roots and adopting a global outlook. The RIM/Flextronic Factory here in Penang is evidence of the success that the small city of Waterloo, Ontario, has had in building a world-class cluster of innovation, just as it is an example of your success in reaching out to Canada.
I recently returned to visit Waterloo, where I served as president of the University of Waterloo for many years, to attend the opening of the new Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Like RIM itself, this institute arose in an environment of close collaboration between universities, governments and the high-tech sector, which exploits and feeds the process.
Through the continual exchange of ideas, research, needs and information among local universities, research institutes, governments and the high-tech sector, Waterloo is poised to be a 21st-century leader in theoretical physics and quantum computing—the next, great frontier in information processing.
I recount this story not to focus unduly on achievements in Canada but rather to share with you a recent experience at the intersection of globalization and education. What it demonstrates 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 relationships between local businesses, community groups and learning institutions. In short, universities 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 than ever. The best way to enhance knowledge is to share it widely, which is why the development of creative clusters and constant communication is so important.
Finally, universities must reinvigorate 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.
I also know that Universiti Sains Malaysia has a particular interest in the relationship between the arts and science, and I want to speak for a moment about this very intriguing subject, which is frequently overlooked.
Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance genius who constantly fused art and science in his drawings and discoveries, once wrote:
“The eye is the chief means by which the mind can most completely and magnificently comprehend the infinite works of nature.”
Da Vinci was ahead of his time in his ability and desire to truly see and to communicate that which he saw—for example, he is credited with the first accurate drawing of a spine in human history, a result of his intense curiosity and extraordinary artistic skill. In his example, we see the mutually reinforcing roles that art and science can play in discovery. And I think it is no coincidence that the city of Florence where Da Vinci lived was a thriving hub of artistic and scientific achievement.
There really is no line between the arts and the sciences—both seek to reveal and interpret truth.
Your focus on the arts also reminds me of something I recently read in an obituary for Apple founder Steve Jobs, himself an innovator who married the arts and humanities to technology.
He said: “As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’, not with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market that.’ I think that’s the right path to take.”
Quite apart from the good business advice that is, I think institutions of higher learning can reformulate Jobs’ creative question, and ask: What benefits can our knowledge bring to the citizen? Where can we take our society? The value of knowledge must always be viewed in light of its ability to help others, and the arts are vital in helping us to interpret and better understand our vision for humanity in a changing world.
I strongly believe in the universal power of education to improve lives and build a fairer, more just 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.
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.
Malaysia has a rich history of higher education, and you have such wonderful teachers. This country has made great and exciting strides in learning and in fostering diversity and multiculturalism, which 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. With this in mind, let us continue to work together to build the smarter, more caring world of which we dream.