It seemed that most of my Whitsun break was spent either waiting for flights at an airport or on board some variety of jetplane travelling between London and Malaysia.
Not that I am complaining! My globetrotting was courtesy of the London School of Commerce on whose advisory committee I have served for the past eighteen months. I spent two days in Dhaka, Bangladesh attending the opening ceremony of the School of Commerce’s Dhaka centre before darting off to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to inaugurate a similar college foundation. I must confess I was also able to tag on three days holiday in Penang before embarking on a twenty-two hour, three flight marathon journey back to the UK in advance of the parliamentary term resuming.
I had never been to Bangladesh before. I probably have the largest number of Bangladeshi constituents of any Conservative MP with the greatest number living in Pimlico, Victoria and in one estate at the eastern edge of the City of London. Unfortunately, as I was only in that country for two days I was unable to visit Sylet, the traditional home of most British Bangladeshis. Nevertheless, in Dhaka there was plenty to see.
Bangladesh has a population of 140 million and as a nation which gained its independence thirty-five years ago it is a country which is young in every sense of the word. More than half its population is under the age of twenty-five. However, in the midst of some grinding poverty it is clear that it is a country with its eye firmly on the future. It was humbling to speak to so many young Bangladeshis who realise that education is the only route towards future success. Although the country currently has only a 15% functional literacy rate (indeed only four in ten of its adults can even write their name), there is equally a fast growing middle class of entrepreneurs and professionally qualified people who are building a brighter future for their homeland.
The London School of Commerce set up its sister college in Dhaka nine months ago and it currently houses eighteen students a number set to rise to some two hundred within the next couple of years. Many are keen to come and live and study in London for at least one year in the future and we should give them every encouragement to do so. There are already fifty-six private universities in Bangladesh ? some of variable quality but some others providing first class educational opportunities to a new young generation of Bangladeshis who are hungry to learn the English language and play their part in the expansion of the global economy.
The next leg of my trip, to Malaysia, was in very sharp contrast. It was impossible not to be impressed by Kuala Lumpur on arriving at that city. Its airport, a wonderful, modern construction puts the shambolic, grimy, graffiti-ridden Heathrow and Gatwick to eternal shame. Since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1957 Malaysia has had a number of lucky breaks, in particular the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves between its mainland peninsula and the parts of Borneo it retained at the time of independence. However, unlike many other countries with significant mineral wealth in the developing world Malaysia has used this inbuilt economic advantage to tremendous effect. They have developed a phenomenal infrastructure in the built environment. They have also invested significant sums in education which has benefited both the instinctive entrepreneurial Chinese population and the less wealthy Indian and Malay ethnic groups. The vibrancy in the entire country is evident and even in Penang, which was hit by the Tsunami only eighteen months ago, there is a real sense of confidence and a “can do” attitude in everything that is said and done.
Once again, education lies at the heart of the future prosperity. Its significance is understood by political and business leaders alike. The college at which I was giving the inaugural speech was opened over twelve months ago and already has two hundred students, dozens of whom will attend a couple of semesters in London next year learning practical skills in business studies, information technology and management spheres. Time and again I was told by Malaysian nationals whom I met that the best legacy left by the British during the colonial days was the all-important English language, which has given this region such a tremendous advantage in the sphere of international commerce and business.
I flew away from Malaysia with a great sense of confidence about its future. The tremendous wealth that has poured into the national coffers as a result of oil and gas reserves is being used to improve the public realm and the benefits continue to trickle down to all Malaysians.
Having visited India twice over the past three years and China back in 2004, I am ever more convinced that the history of the twenty-first century will see much power and influence move from Europe to the countries of South East Asia with an important lesson to learn in this country ? we should be opening our arms to young entrepreneurs from these countries wishing to study and work in the UK. Their vibrancy will benefit our own economy while at the same time we can confidently anticipate many young Malaysians, Chinese and Indians spending time here in England to become positive ambassadors for our country in the decades ahead.