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Zoom in Zoom out Print2007/01/31 08:00 KST

Malaysia emerging as destination for Korean students seeking global education

By Kim Hyun
KUALA LUMPUR/SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- When his overseas assignment as a senior accountant was completed and it was time to return home to Korea, Son Byeong-ho had second thoughts. His four children were picking up English at an international school in Sri Lanka, and he worried that all their international education could evaporate once they returned to largely homogeneous South Korea.

His concern culminated in one smart choice: Malaysia.

With its British legacy and moderate prices, Malaysia is emerging as a trendy destination for education-conscious Koreans. Middle-class parents who can't afford international schools in North America or Great Britain, but who still want their children to receive an education that meets high global standards, are largely drawn to Southeast Asia. These days, parents are especially drawn to Malaysia, where the threats of both terrorism and distracting nightlife are relatively low due to the country's moderate Islamic culture, parents and education guides say.

"Thinking of going back to Korea, I wasn't comfortable. Then, where to go? I checked Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and then came here. Education facilities were good, prices were good and the security was good," said Son, 52, who retired from Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. in 2005 and now runs a Korean restaurant in Ampang, a large Korean enclave in Kuala Lumpur.

For his four children's tuition and extracurricular activities, he spends no more than 6720 ringgits a month, or 1.8 million won (US$1,900), less than half the cost expected in the United States, he said.

Statistics from the Ministry of Education and Human Resources suggest that the formerly elite Korean practice of sending children abroad to study has expanded to the middle class, raising the number of primary to high school students overseas to 35,144 in 2005 from 26,676 in 2001. The increase was especially evident in Southeast Asia, where 4,011 Korean students headed, up from 712 over the period.

While the government data for Southeast Asia isn't yet broken down country-by-country, the majority--up to 90 percent--opts for Malaysia, said Kim Young-jun, representative of World Education Center in northern Seoul, which specializes in arranging education opportunities in Southeast Asia.

"Malaysia is cheaper than Singapore and more expensive than the Philippines. Between the two, it has a relatively good infrastructure. Parents prefer it because there's virtually no nightlife in the Muslim country," he said.

He says yearly study in Malaysia costs less than 20 million won, while studying in a U.S. boarding school costs 45 million won.

"The United States, Canada and Australia cost big, so they are for upper-class parents. Southeast Asia has conditions that are approachable for the middle class. And the distance is closer, so parents can visit easily.

On its part, Malaysia, which celebrates its 50 years of independence from the United Kingdom this year, has sweetened the deal for foreigners. Included as part of a package of policies, the country will issue 10-year visas for foreigners who buy houses worth 70 million won or more. Malaysian real estate advertisements often appear in Korean newspapers for investors weary of the shaky market at home.

"For young Korean parents who want to bring their children, the level of English in Malaysia is quite high compared to other Asian countries," Dato' Ir Donald Lim Siang Chai, vice tourism minister, said during the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 event in a Kuala Lumpur hotel last month.

"We know that recently there are a lot of Korean parents who have sent their children during summer and winter vacations. Children have classes to learn English, and they also have fun classes where they can learn to play golf," he said.

But that's not all: there's an unexpected social plus for Koreans in Malaysia. The popularity of Korean soap operas--part of the "K-Wave" that has in recent years spread Korean movies, pop music, and TV throughout Asia--has warmed Malaysians to anything Korean, Korean residents in Kuala Lumpur say. "Winter Sonata," a hit Korean soap opera series, scored high viewer ratings in Malaysia and was followed by another hit series, "Jewel in the Palace," translated as "Daejanggeum" in Korean.

Celebrities such as "Daejanggeum" heroine Lee Young-ae shine in big advertisements at downtown shopping malls, while soccer star Park Ji-sung, now a midfielder with the U.K. Manchester United, is featured on Malaysia's Air Asia jets, with his even more famous colleagues Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Alex Fergusson next to him.

Riding high on the popularity of the K-Wave, Heo Tae-gyeong, a Korean tour guide living in Kuala Lumpur, said, "I feel like a superstar."
"When I walk on street, people notice me and ask me if I'm Korean. Then, they just have me take a seat and give me drinks and snacks. There's one thing they always ask: What happens next?," he said, recalling the time in 2002 when "Winter Sonata" was broadcast prime time on a state-owned channel.

Son, the Korean restaurant owner, finds Malaysia's friendliness toward Koreans to be a double-edged sword. Schools are often overpopulated with Korean students.

"That's not a good thing. There are now too many Korean students. Some international schools even say they can't accept Korean students anymore," he said.

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