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Why One Obscure Malaysian University Gave Kim Jong Un an Honorary Doctorate

A broken clock, they say, is still right twice a day, and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea's premier English-language news site, does even better. Much of its domestic coverage is depressingly optimistic propaganda; I'm guessing, for example, that foreigners aren't flocking en masse to Pyongyang's new fitness center, as one Oct. 21 report suggests, though an Oct. 9 story, "Floral Baskets Placed before Statues of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il," is probably true. And while the news agency's international coverage lacks any sense of balance, it is sometimes, technically speaking, accurate. There is no reason to doubt, for instance, that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un likely congratulated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his birthday.

Every so often, in other words, the agency churns out stories that are, broadly speaking, news. Earlier this month, I encountered such an article: a KCNA report crowing that a Malaysian institution of higher learning, known as Help University, had awarded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un an honorary doctorate in economics -- in recognition of his "untiring efforts for the education of the country and the well-being of its people."

Help, it turns out, is a real university. Founded in 1986 to "provide affordable quality educational opportunities for Malaysians," the private, Kuala Lumpur-based college brands itself as the "university of achievers." (Help's website brims with happy reports, noting, for instance, that the "lower foyer of HELP University was the scene of jubilation today" because of a "Dramatic Increase in Straight A's" and that its Team Legacy "emerged Champion in the prestigious Cheerleading Association and Register of Malaysia (CHARM) Cheerleading Championship.")

Given that Kim's greatest economic achievement appears to be stewarding one of the world's most dysfunctional economies, I reached out to Help University to find out why the school would give him an honorary degree in economics. Not only did the college confirm that it granted Kim the degree, but it also sent over a statement from Dr. Paul Chan, the president and vice chancellor, explaining why the university chose to build "a bridge to reach the people" of North Korea. (Malaysia is one of North Korea's closest allies in Southeast Asia, and its citizens are reportedly among the very few allowed visa-free entry into North Korea.) 

Within six years, North Korea "will engage the world in many constructive ways," Chan predicts, in a statement that leaps from Socrates to Henry Kissinger to Malala Yousafzai. "When a world leader facilitates this, probably an American  President, there will be a rush to DPR Korea. Everyone will rush in to offer assistance and investment. I am just a bit ahead of them in that I feel no one at this moment has the courage to do this though their hearts tell them to do so."

"[L]et's start with offering education opportunities to the people of this country with the support of their President," adds Chan, who has an actual Ph.D. in economics. "Why deny them? Why punish them with sanctions? The people are hungry for education to change their lives. Give it to them."

"Can you help to send out this message and enlighten the world?" Chan asks. His statement, in full, is below. Consider yourself enlightened:

My wife and I started the HELP Education Group in 1986 (1st April). HELP means Higher Education Learning Philosophy. We had, and still have, the conviction that it is a moral duty to provide to disadvantaged people, regardless of race, religion and ideology, equal access to tertiary education. I left the University of Malaya (a public university located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) to start HELP with about US $5,000. We had 30 students and 5 staff members.

We are now listed on the stock exchange of Malaysia, with an enrollment of more than 10,000 students from over 60 plus countries plus partnerships in Asia. We offer our own degrees and we have numerous international partnerships to use different educational models to address the educational needs of Malaysia and Asia.

After more than 20 years I formalize my philosophy and principles of education in a simple mission statement: 'to help people succeed in life and to live a life of significance through education'. The first part about success means creating competencies for individuals to pursue a career or self-employment; the second part means learning to live a life of meaning and purpose: the cultivated man. This is the way of Socrates and Confucius.

We are guided by five values: Pride of Achievement, Sharing Success, the Courage to Be, to be Compassionate, and to be Significant. We try our best to practice and live such values. Ultimately, we have a VOW. That is, in what we do we must create values, opportunities, and wealth.  In Chinese wealth is pronounced as 'cai' which means intellectual knowledge and financial prosperity. Each year we donate the equivalent of about US$8 million in financial assistance and fee waiver to help many students to access quality education.

I am an economist and have my philosophical views about life and global matters. I am 70. It troubles me to see wars and destruction, whether in the Middle East, Africa or anywhere. Humans should not kill humans, regardless of ideological or religious differences. As a Christian, and knowing Confucian and Buddhist values, I find the use of wars and weapons to subjugate others totally unethical and unacceptable. A human being is a noble creature and we should help each other to ennoble ourselves. Education is ennobling: the means are noble and the ends are noble.

So, I extend our mission to create the platform: 'Education for Peace and Prosperity'. All of us, regardless of our station in life, and wherever we come from, should use our talents and time to build human capacity and capability using educational means. This is the only acceptable way to change societies to help them become open minded, fair minded, and have high self-esteem to pursue a life of meaning -- whether it is about life, liberty and happiness or equality.

I hope to build the Education for Peace and Prosperity platform into a global movement. I have spoken about this to many friends in US, UK and Australia, besides others. They agree that this is the way forward. Now too much time, attention, talents and resources are devoted to conflicts and wars and weaponry. This creates ill will and hatred amongst men, not good will and the pursuit of the good life.

I hope that you also subscribe to my philosophy that educating is ennobling: that Education for Peace and Prosperity is a powerful platform. And we can use this platform to liberalize closed societies. I hope that you pass this message forward and onward so that people have a clear understanding why education is so essential and critical in helping societies to be more progressive and liberal in their thinking. We should use education to help the people of DPR Korea to have a better life by having a higher standard of living. Above all, let's help them to integrate faster into the global network of open societies.

To me, the conferment of an Honorary Doctorate to His Excellency President Kim Jong Un is building a bridge to reach the people. It is good that he has accepted it. We had a simple ceremony in the DPR Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We just had a simple citation about the President and we explained the Education for Peace and Prosperity concept to the DPR Korean Ambassador and about 35 people who were invited to attend. I hope that using this 'soft constructive' approach we can help them and North Asia and the world to be a better place for mankind.

I understand this conferment was reported by the DPR Korean News Agency.

I anticipate that it is a matter of time, within the next 6 years or so, that DPR Korea will engage the world in many constructive ways. When a world leader facilitates this, probably an American  President, there will be a rush to DPR Korea. Everyone will rush in to offer assistance and investment. I am just a bit ahead of them in that I feel no one at this moment has the courage to do this though their hearts tell them to do so. DPR Korea is the last society in Asia to open up. Myanmar has already done it. Every leader visits Myanmar. But no one dared to do so a few decades ago for fear of being misunderstood, that is, people will say you are supporting an authoritarian regime. Now world leaders meet the Myanmar leaders in making deals.

I recall the secret missions of Kissinger to China. What happened? No one said it was bad. The world became safer and richer when China was facilitated to become a member of the global system of trade and politics. It is learning to be a responsible global player in world issues. Did anyone dare visit China before President Nixon went to China? Now, China is engaged and consulted.

Soon, it will be the turn of the DPR Korea. But let's start with offering education opportunities to the people of this country with the support of their President. Why deny them? Why punish them with sanctions? The people are hungry for education to change their lives. Give it to them.

It is the same with many authoritarian regimes in Africa. Why just trade and do commerce and sell arms? Why not use Education for Peace and Prosperity? The US had the Peace Corp which changed the lives of many. Where are such noble causes now? Education for Peace and Prosperity can be such a universal platform. But to make it influential and efficacious we should have a lot support in small and big ways from all quarters. I start Education for Peace and Prosperity using our limited financial assistance for individuals. Now I want to help at the country level. I sincerely hope more powerful individuals and organizations would join this cause.

In Asia, we have close to 3 billion people. Before the industrial revolution Asia contributed about 54 percent of the world's output. After the Industrial Revolution, it was reduced to about 15 percent during the 1950s. Now it is about 25 percent or thereabouts. The goal is to contribute around 55 percent by 2050. The Asian Millennium aims to enhance the standards of living to the present level of Western societies by 2050. There is no way they can do it without a sound education system that provides thinking skills and creative innovation.

Small institutions like us want to have a meaningful role in this journey.

I watched Malala conversing with  Christiane Amanpour on CNN. I told myself that we should have more Malalas in closed societies. As educationists, my wife and I believe that it is our role and responsibility to nurture more Malalas.

To help DPR Korea in the way we do it is a road untraveled, but we hope our first small crucial step will contribute to peace and prosperity for all.

Can you help to send out this message and enlighten the world?

Would you support this cause: to help the world, especially closed societies, to be enlightened and enriched using Education for Peace and Prosperity?

Sincerely,

Datuk Dr Paul Chan
Vice Chancellor and President
HELP University
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia

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